Mercedes-Benz SLK 350
Mercedes has shifted an incredible 308,000 SLKs in the seven-and-a-half years since its rapturous 1996…
There is considerable irony in the fact that the sensitivity of your natural posterior cushioning to ride comfort will determine not only what you feel about the new 5-series Touring, but how you feel about it, too. Because in most respects this is a superb car, in a few areas it is merely excellent, and only one aspect of its performance is sub-standard.
That’s right, the run-flat tyre revolution continues apace in Munich, and the Five wagon is the latest BMW to sacrifice great chunks of ride comfort for some get-me-home benefit in the event of a puncture. Which, I was recently told, happens once every 10 years to the average motorist.
The company is doing its rivals a real service pursuing the run-flat method, because I’m certain that with improved ride comfort, the 530d would be the perfect exec estate. It is certainly a far more desirable car than the Five saloon, not simply because it offers so much more practicality and versatility, but because it also looks good.
Gone is the saloon car’s pinched-buttock rear end, and a boot-lid shut-line that sits like a paving stone from the side. In its place comes a fifth-door conversion of notable success. Somehow the front now bonds with the back and the flanks seem less fussy. The Touring has cohesion where the saloon doesn’t.
And this is the version to choose. At £33,890 the 530d offers so broad a spectrum of talents that (ride aside) it’s difficult to think how BMW might offer more ability for the money. Its 2993cc common-rail diesel engine touts 218bhp at 4000rpm and 368lb ft of torque from 2000rpm through to 2750rpm.
Fitted with a world-class six-speed ZF auto ’box it will sprint to 62mph in 7.4sec, whisper its way to 149mph and, even when using most of its performance, it will average something close to the claimed combined fuel consumption of 35.3mpg. And it weighs 50kg less than its predecessor. Only the forthcoming 535d is likely to impress more.
But the joy of the exec estate has always resided in its dual-purpose role, and this is why it’s difficult not to think that BMW’s prediction of Tourings accounting for 25 per cent of total UK Five sales is somewhat pessimistic. Factor in the wagon’s more appealing looks, the promise of stronger residuals and BMW might just be left with a few too many four-doors to shift and a sizeable overs market for this car.Be careful with the specification, though: there are certain options that add far more to the bottom line than they do in everyday driving.
The test car had more toys than Hamleys, most of which were pleasant fripperies. But the Active Steering and Dynamic Drive options that radically alter the way the car feels from the driver’s seat sadly detracted from the driving experience – even on German asphalt that made the Lords outfield seem a little bumpy. Of course, the choice comes down to the individual, but for me the variable rack is disconcertingly fast at low speed and is fooled by constant radius bends that require a change in speed. Back off and the ratio alters, effectively quickening the rack and sending you off-line. It also offers zero feedback. My one concession is the reduced arm-twirling it allows in town, and if your Five wagon will be a city type, the clever steering is certainly worth a try.
You probably already know our thoughts on Dynamic Drive: too little ride comfort on UK roads, supposedly offset by the limited advantage of no body roll. To be honest the Five is a more complete package without it fitted, and satisfies its intended all-rounder purpose to greater effect. But even then the ride from the Bridgestone RE 050 tyres is simply too firm. A squirt in a Merc E320 CDi estate will reveal a 20 per cent more comfortable ride and, at this end of the market, that’s quite an advantage.
The BM is certainly a more driver-focused car though and whereas you’re constantly aware of just how big the Merc is and how the steering kicks back alarmingly under heavy loads, the BMW just shrink-wraps itself around you. Ultimately it’s possible to pick small differences between it and the saloon, but the difference is nothing like as large as in the previous E39 version. The saloon and estate share the same front end, but the latter has self-levelling air-springs and relocated struts in the rear to leave the luggage area flat. Even so, wheel travel remains the same. It will take big speed and a very testing road for the Touring to feel markedly different to the saloon.
The front cabin is carried over unchanged, but this was also the first outing for the company’s head-up display. It’s projected onto the bottom of the screen and is such a breakthrough in control interfaces it deserves a launch all of its own. It also diminishes the iDrive irritation factor by giving sat-nav information you don’t have to look down for. I’ve now driven plenty of Fives and have become entirely comfortable with this simplified version of BMW’s one-stop functionality. It works. And the hi-fi is powerful enough to deafen even any smelly hounds you might carry in the back.
BMW Tourings have never been wardrobe warriors and the Five still defers to the Benz for antique-dealer appeal, but it’s still plenty big enough. The load bay is perfectly flat, the seats fold 60:40 and the load height is remarkably low. The underfloor bins are a bit tight, but the opening rear screen is a useful touch. In short, if you really need more space and versatility, the next step is a Renault Espace.
Collectively, it makes for a compelling car: one whose any-event appeal eventually outweighs the choppy ride for me, but some will find it too harsh. People often ask me what car I would want to live with every day as my daily drive. The answer came from a list of one: Benz 320 CDi wagon, every time. With the introduction of this car, that list has just doubled.