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Review: The 2021 BMW 540i delivers exactly what you want

This Ultimate Driving Machine is a luxurious sports sedan

For decades, the BMW 5 Series has been the pinnacle of the Ultimate Driving Machine family.

Sure, the 7 Series is the big boy flagship, and the 3 Series is the zippy fun one, but the 5 is the just-right-goldilocks executive sedan for the driving enthusiast.

I've written many times that sedans are dead, and that's true at lower price points, but up in the luxury world, they're anything but. BMW is indeed shoveling truckloads of South Carolina-made X-whatever SUVs out the dealership door as fast as they can build them — but BMW still sold almost 27,000 5 Series cars last year, and it's for one simple reason: They're excellent.

The new 5 Series takes a tried and true formula and doesn’t mess with it too much.BMW

My BMW 540i xDrive test unit came in a beautiful Alpine White with a Mocha Nappa Leather interior and stickered for $77,935. That's a lot of cheese, and, as always, whether it's worth it depends on whether you have $77,935 and want a BMW 5 Series.

“That's a lot of cheese.”

There were some options fitted that were definitely worth it. For example, the $1,850 Premium Package includes a power tailgate, heated front seats (how are these not standard?), a head-up display, and a wildly silly gesture control system that allows you to wave or point at the stereo to change the volume or a few other things.

I talk with my hands, gesturing wildly, and more than once, I moved my hand in just the right gesticulating manner to crank the volume up unnecessarily loud. If I had this car, I'd need to disable the gesture control or stop waving about while talking.

It doesn’t have the enormous front kidney grille like the new 4 Series. It’s much more subtle.BMW

The options list goes on.

There's the $3,200 Dynamic Handling Package that includes active roll stabilization (presumably without this, the car flips over at the slightest provocation) and dynamic damper control. Actually, both of these improve handling and make the ultimate driving machine even more ultimate and sporty.

The same is true of the $3,300 M Sport Package that includes variable sport steering and some other stuff. So basically, if you want your car to drive better, faster, sportier, BMW has a (very profitable) package for you and will happily take your money.

“The car screams luxury.”

But even still, the car screams luxury. Open the door, and you immediately know you're not in some mid-tier sedan. The ($2,500) leather is soft and cosseting. It's obviously not Rolls-Royce caliber (which BMW owns, by the way), but it's some of the nicest you'll find on this side of $100 grand.

You know what you’re going to get with the 5 Series. Sporty, refined luxury.BMW

Add in wireless CarPlay (Android Auto is supported too), a terrific steering wheel (great wheels are underrated), and a 48-volt mild hybrid system that keeps fuel economy at a rather excellent 26 mpg combined (23/31 city/highway), and you have a pretty well equipped luxury automobile.

And now we can get to the engine. It’s the cherry on top of this Alpine White sundae. BMW has fitted a peach of a 3-liter twin-turbo inline-6, mated to a buttery-smooth 8-speed transmission that shoves all the power through a rear-biased all-wheel-drive system.

“It's far faster than you'd ever need.”

If all that is meaningless to you, never fear: it means it's far faster than you'd ever need. It's also theoretically capable of dealing with whatever icky weather comes your way (particularly if you stick some winter tires on there, depending on your local climate).

The BMW steering wheel is lovely to hold, as always. The gearshift remains needlessly complex, though you’ll have it figured out within a week.BMW

The engine makes 335 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque (from just 1,500 rpm) which means it has plenty of get-up-and-go, and it can run right up to its 155 mph speed limiter without an issue. This car was built to be an Autobahn cruiser, after all.

Of course, you'd never go that fast in it — in fact, the 540i is far more likely to be a country club cruiser than to be headed for the nearest Ausfahrt sign.

And if you do buy it to get to and from your high-powered law office or investment firm, you should make sure to pick up the $1,700 Driving Assistance Plus package. It includes several advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) that help keep you safe while making life easier in traffic.

The drive mode buttons are at the top left, but my favorite is the “Auto H” button at the bottom right. Press that and the car will automatically hold position when you come to a stop at a red light.BMW

It combines adaptive cruise control with active lane-centering to help with steering when on the highway. In other words, you can momentarily take your hands off the wheel, and the car will help you steer. It's similar to other systems from Volvo or Mercedes, and it's best used in stop-and-go traffic.

“BMW drivers are BMW drivers for a reason.”

I doubt that anyone buying this car needs to read a review to decide if they like it or not. BMW drivers are BMW drivers for a reason: they want the history, they like the performance, and they like what driving one says about them.

I'm not sure if the BMW 540i is the best sports sedan on the market, though it's definitely a solid competitor. But I know that anyone slipping behind the wheel will very much enjoy their time with the Ultimate Driving Machine.

One Cool Detail: CarPlay in the HUD

Jordan Golson / Inverse

The new BMW can put turn-by-turn directions from Apple Maps in CarPlay right in the instrument cluster and the head-up display.

That means you don’t need to choose between using Apple Maps on your phone and having turn-by-turn directions in your HUD.

Why doesn’t every car have this?

Subscribe to PRNDL, Jordan Golson’s car reviews newsletter, free on Substack. This review is also published in the North State Journal.

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