However, the new 5-series range is far from complete, with new engines and Touring versions due later this year, so more time is needed to discover whether the controversial new Five can fill the shoes of its illustrious predecessor.
The new car is controversial because it displays some of the quirks that have made BMW's chief designer Chris Bangle one of the most famous car stylists in the world. It's a long time since BMW's trademark 'kidney' grille actually looked like a kidney, but on the new 5-series it looks more like a liver, while the headlamps are strangely pancreas-shaped.
But it seems to give the front end much more dynamism than the previous model – it looks like it's moving when it's standing still – and the rear three-quarters of the car gives it more presence than its predecessor ever had.
A true test of how well a new car performs is to test a model at the bottom end of the range, with few of the bells and whistles found on the more desirable models.
The 5-series range kicks off with this 520i SE, which is priced at just under £26,000, and comes within range of the entry level E-class, and the 2.5-litre Jaguar S-type. The 520i SE is surprisingly well-equipped for an entry-level car and most drivers won't miss what isn't fitted as standard.
There are eight airbags, a puncture warning system, automatic headlamps, a six-speed manual transmission, cruise control and a CD player.
It is roomy and the seats are supremely comfortable with a wide range of positions, with electric height and backrest adjustment. Rear seat passengers also have plenty of space while the boot is huge.
The 520i's long-distance credentials were tested with a 440-mile round trip, mostly on motorways.
The engine was almost silent on the motorway and thanks to some steady driving completed the whole trip on a single tank of fuel – an average of 35.3mpg according to the trip computer.
This is well above the claimed figure and proof that the engine is happy covering motorway miles.
Performance isn't too bad considering this is the least powerful 5-series. Although badged 520, the engine is 2.2-litres and has 170bhp on offer, with the six-speed gearbox making the most of the available torque.
While the Five is fun in most incarnations, I got the impression that this was probably the least fun of the range, with 16-inch alloy wheels helping reduce road noise compared with larger optional ones and contributing to its supremely smooth ride.
For the driving enthusiast, there probably isn't much to choose between the standard 5-series, the Jaguar S-type and the E-class, all of which have rear-wheel drive and sporty inclinations. Throw in optional sports suspension and active steering on the BMW and it would be a different matter.
The manual transmission works well, but upchanges are often marred by a tricky clutch biting point. The forthcoming BMW 525d might be a better bet for running costs, but the 520i is a great premium saloon and first step on the 5-series ladder.
BMW 520i SE
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £25,652
CO2 emissions (g/km): 219
BIK % of P11D in 2004/05: 29%
Graduated VED rate: £160
Insurance group: 15
Combined mpg: 31.4
CAP Monitor residual value: £11,150/43%
Depreciation (20.29 pence per mile x 60,000): £14,502
Maintenance (2.16 pence per mile x 60,000): £2,520
Fuel (5.90 pence per mile x 60,000): £7,296
Wholelife cost (28.35 pence per mile x 60,000): £24,318
Typical contract hire rate: £483 per month
Three rivals to consider
THE days when entry-level premium cars were bereft of essentials like electric rear windows and alloy wheels seem long gone in the case of the 5-series. The SE model has automatic air conditioning, rain-sensing windscreen wipers, part-electric seats and cruise control to name just a few highlights. Many of these can also be found in the E200 Kompressor in Classic trim. However, all are outdone by the run-out A6, which includes leather seats, a CD autochanger and sports suspension.
A few eyebrows were raised after these cars were put through our number cruncher and resulted in the Mercedes-Benz showing a £500-plus saving in SMR costs compared to the 5-series, when Merc is not renowned for inexpensive servicing.
However, selecting BMW's Service Inclusive package is estimated to save about £1,250 over 60,000 miles, so although this would have a negative impact on depreciation as a £750 option there is a saving of 2.08ppm on SMR (not shown in our figures).
THE 520i comes second to the E200 Kompressor when converting the official combined fuel consumption figures to pence per mile costs. The extra refinement of six cylinders seemingly carries a penalty. The difference between the two over 60,000 miles works out at £480, although combined fuel consumption figures are only a benchmark. A 400-mile run in the 520i had the trip computer showing 35.3mpg – considerably higher than the E200's 32.8mpg. Different drivers will incur varying costs.
IT'S a tight contest between the BMW and Mercedes for depreciation as both have identical residual value predictions from CAP Monitor of 43% over three years/60,000 miles. The difference in pence per mile terms results in an actual cash difference of £126 in favour of the Mercedes. The Jaguar is out of touch at £942 more expensive than the 5-series, while the bill for the A6 – which is about to be replaced – is £1,920 more than the BMW.
UNFORTUNATELY for BMW the 5-series can't quite knock the E-class off its perch for running costs, proving about £1,100 less expensive over three years/60,000 miles than the 520i SE. However, the 520i closes the gap if you choose the Service Inclusive pack.
The estimated 0.91ppm it adds to depreciation, is balanced by the 2.08ppm saving in SMR. It means the gap between the E200 Kompressor and the 520i is £400 instead of £1,100.
Emissions and BIK tax rates
MOST sensible company car drivers would be casting their eyes towards diesel versions of these cars, but for die-hard petrolheads these offer the lowest benefit-in-kind tax liability. For a 40% taxpayer the 520i SE would cost £248 a month from April, compared with £226 a month for the E200 Kompressor. The Jaguar works out the next most expensive at £262 a month, while the aged A6 works out at £287 per month.
CALL me a snob, but in my book where there is such a small difference in running costs between a four-cylinder car and six-cylinder car in the same class, the six-pack would get my vote each time. Taking into account the optional fixed-price servicing pack for a difference of £400 over the Mercedes, I would have the 520i.