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2012 BMW 528i xDrive Sedan Review and Road Test

by Adam Allen on December 20, 2011 · 11 comments

Four goes into Five.

 

2012 BMW 528i xDrive left side

Equipped with xDrive, the 5 Series is surefooted in any weather situation. Enthusiasts take heart; It’s tuned more for rear wheel drive behavior in the dry (all photos by Adam Allen)

2012 BMW 528i xDrive fender badgeIf you wanted to find a four-cylinder engine under the hood of a Canadian BMW 5 Series, you would have to go all the way back to the E12 generation (1972-‘81). It was a widespread era of chocked performance and anemic outputs and most cars still had these funny things called ‘carburetors’ delivering fuel to engines of the time. Since those dark ages much has changed and the automotive collective has come to expect inline-sixes under the hoods of most BMW products, especially the midsize 5 Series. In an act of history repeating itself, BMW has resorted to installing the inline-four in that very model range. This could be a questionable call because back then, four cylinders weren’t known as benchmarks of refinement, and although modern engineering has vastly improved them, they’re still not great.

It’s not that automakers are lazy and take a halfhearted approach to engine noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). It’s that the inherent layout of a four-banger causes coarse secondary vibrations and other associated nastiness. Powertrain engineers have to employ all manner of solutions to quell this uncouthness–this adds weight, cost and complexity. Despite those tricks they don’t have the natural balance of say, an inline-six, an engine architecture BMW has become quite good at producing throughout its history.

2012 BMW 528i xDrive Hofmeister kink

A Hofmeister sunset

So when the boys in Munich announced they were installing an inline four again in some of their smaller products (debuted in the X1/Z4, will follow shortly in the 3 Series.) Some folks weren’t crazy about the shift to smaller engines but acknowledged and accepted their reemergence as a sign of the times. But put that engine in a 5 Series? This we had to see for ourselves, so we bring you this insight into BMW embracing this architecture. Like many “new” ideas, this one requires delving into the past.

It’s an impressive history that includes some formidable engines- my favorite would have to be the 1.5-litre turbo that powered Nelson Piquet to the Formula 1 world championship in 1983. The little scamp was nothing to laugh at–it maxed out the dynamometers at BMW’s factory, and it provided readings up to 1400 horsepower. Oh, and who can forget the first generation M3 with its rip snorting four-banger? At all points along the company’s timeline, BMW has been constantly raising the bar on engine development. All that experience coupled to modern staples like direct injection and turbocharging have allowed BMW to build what I believe to be the most well executed four-cylinder engine to date.

2012 BMW 528i xDrive rear

All 528s have their dual exhausts together on the left side of the car unlike the 535/550

Except for a louder than expected tick-tick-tick at idle from the high pressure fuel injectors, the engine (known internally at BMW as N20) will go about its business largely unnoticed. Its polished demeanor allows zero undue NVH to enter the passenger compartment, neither through the steering wheel, pedals or trim bits. Its power curve is better described as a plateau, not the on/off nature you might expect of a small displacement forced induction mill, and its thrust tapers off only in the far upper reaches of the tach. Incidentally, it’s only those last thousand revs or so that threaten to lift the velvet curtain BMW has shrouded its four-banger in. I suspect that it’s not out of the question for this engine will make it into the engine bay of the larger 7 Series in some markets.

Other benefits of the 528i other than refinement? With less mass at the front of the car, it becomes sharper in its willingness to change direction. Improved fuel economy is an obvious benefit as well. At this time BMW hasn’t announced official fuel consumption numbers, but I achieved an observed 11.2 litres per 100 kilometers in combined driving- not bad at all.

When we last drove the 5 Series, it was powered by the turbo inline-six. Other that what was under the hood and drivetrain configuration (our 528i had xDrive all-wheel drive) everything was exactly the same this time around. I’d be hard pressed to find a better car to digest huge amounts of kilometers in serene comfort. Our tester was even more pleasing to the eye with its meticulous stitching across the dash and console, and the baseball glove leather/dark birch wood combination were a welcome indulgence.

2012 BMW 528i xDrive interior centre stack2012 BMW 528i xDrive interior rear

Our tester had a whole score of electronic driver aids including lane departure warning and blind spot monitoring. You know what? I didn’t use ‘em. Call me a curmudgeon, but I’m still not sure about all those technologies that keep tabs on things you should be paying attention to as a driver in the first place. Not only that, but I felt like they acted almost like electronic buffer over the organic feel of the 5 Series.

That organic feel has suffered somewhat since the days of the E39, still widely regarded as the best 5 Series ever. Part of that is owed to BMW’s shift to electronic power steering. It still lacks the hard wired sense of control the company’s hydraulic systems impart, but I get the sense BMW engineers have been working hard at this, and the payoff is much better feel than I remember.

2012 BMW 528i xDrive engine bay

It may command a tiny bit of real estate, but the 2.0 turbo is set low and behind the shock towers for better weight distribution and transient response

If what you’ve just read doesn’t convince you that the world hasn’t gone mad because of the existence of a four-cylinder powered 5 Series, I don’t blame you. I wasn’t convinced that engine configuration would ever feel right under the hood of the 5. That was before I spent a week with it. The future of the four-banger suddenly looks brighter.

2012 BMW 528i- Specifications

Price as tested: $70,250

Body Type: 4-door, 5-passenger sedan

Powertrain Layout: Front engine/all-wheel drive

Engine:  2.0-litre inline-4 turbo, DOHC, 16 valves

Horsepower: 240 @ 5,000-6,500 rpm

Torque (lb-ft): 258 @ 1,250-4,800 rpm

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Curb weight: 1,815 kg (4,001 lbs)

Observed combined fuel consumption: 11.2L/100 km (21 US mpg)

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Liusong February 7, 2012 at 8:38 am

I want buy a bmw 528i XDrive.is it 2.0 liter Turbo?
Thank you

Reply

Nick February 7, 2012 at 9:57 am

Oddly, the BMW.ca car specs and car configurator both show the 2012 model of the 528i shipping with the 3L inline-6 still… My guess is that their website is woefully incorrect. Shame on BMW. Having said that, certainly when buying a car they will tell you which engine it has. (and its quite obvious looking under the hood)

Skip the xDrive however, that plague is forced upon the higher models now unfortunately, but the 528i can still be ordered (in Canada at least) without it. Ruins the car, which is already plenty safe and easy to drive (with good winter tires) in Canadian winters.

Reply

Adam February 7, 2012 at 11:06 am

You got it!

Reply

Glen December 23, 2011 at 7:52 pm

Hey Adam, you are a curmudgeon.

Seriously I have no objections to a four banger except for the sound.

Reply

Nick February 7, 2012 at 10:06 am

Well there are a couple real draw backs to this turbo four, as I see it.

1) Even as good as the BMW turbos are, they won’t have that free revving playfulness that the naturally aspirated 6s do. The outgoing 3L ’28i engine was no gem in the BMW lineup, but it was still fairly enjoyable.

2) BMW turbos are of questionable reliability. The 6s and the v8s have proven to be less than perfect so far. I partially blame our crumby North American (emphasis on the American) gas.

3) Smaller engines, working harder for the same output, tend to not last as long. Likely cool in a tiny sports car, but a 528i is a meat and potatoes luxo-hauller, the thing needs to do 300,000km without catastrophic repairs (and in the case of most BMW repairs, they’re all catastrophic). Though in this world where nobody keeps cars more than 3 years, that may be the furthest thing on BMWs mind. Screw the third owner :)

Reply

Adam February 7, 2012 at 11:10 am

Refreshing perspective Nick!

1) I am not a lover of Xdrive; make my Bimmer RWD anytime. Having said that, Xdrive’s shining trait is that it never feels as cumbersome or dim-witted as some other AWD systems out there.

2) Make my BMW engine naturally aspirated any day. Still, the days of free revving and playful feeling engines appear to be behind us so we might as well embrace the new status quo. Don’t forget Nick, BMW has done turbocharging for quite a while; perhaps some of your durability concerns are unfounded.

Always great to hear from you!

Reply

Nick February 7, 2012 at 11:24 am

Well, the 2002 turbo era was a different beast :) They haven’t done petrol turbos in any major capacity until the N54. I’ve actually known people with limping N54s, not just internet musings :)

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Nick February 7, 2012 at 11:26 am

No need for those days to be behind us. e46 M3s are zaney cheap, so are e39 M5s :) There will always be a supply of wonderful pre-direct-injection pre-turbo high-revving beauties for those willing to care for them!

(Likely hangin’ onto my e86 M Coupe forever)

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Sean March 1, 2012 at 6:05 am

Well lets see…

4 cyl = more hp, more ft.lbs, faster 0-100, much better fuel economy.

6 cyl = ……..?

Oh and skip the x-drive? really? You’ve obviously never driven a 4×4 or awd vehicle before. The x-drive is golden in the canadian snow. I know this as I had last years 6 cyl and now this years 4 cyl and let me say, you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Reply

Adam March 2, 2012 at 8:40 am

Hi Sean,

Thanks for the comment.

While you are correct that xDrive is “golden in the Canadian snow” perhaps you misconstrued what I was on about. From a pure driving fulfilment perspective, RWD will trump AWD every time- and xDrive is among the best AWD systems out there. Still, front wheels can do their thing much better when they aren’t asked to drive AND turn as well. Perhaps you might want to attend a track day at a racetrack so you can safely see what I mean.

As for the 6 versus 4 cylinder debate, I won’t disagree that the N20 is superior to the inline 6 it replaces. Despite the improvements BMW is the king of silken inline engines, and the way they respond/fee/sound is,certainly in my opinion, much better than the 4 banger.

As a former owner of an inline 6 powered 5 series, you already knew that, right?

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N December 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm

“If what you’ve just read doesn’t convince you that the world hasn’t gone mad because of the existence of a four-cylinder powered 5 Series”

Tell that to the tens of thousands of 520i owners over the last decade in… the rest of the world.

Also xDrive is killing the joy that once was BMW. The cancer per-say.

Reply

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