2021 BMW 540i xDrive Review: Benchmark in Balance

Chris Davies - May 11, 2021, 1:27pm CDT
2021 BMW 540i xDrive Review: Benchmark in Balance
Editors' Rating: 8/10
Pros
  • Six-cylinder mild-hybrid engine is smooth and refined
  • Styling escapes some of BMW's more controversial flourishes
  • Luxurious cabin pairs comfort and tech
Cons
  • Carries that BMW price premium
  • Aggressive rivals promise lower prices and head-turning style
  • When does

It feels strange saying it about a $72,000 luxury car, but it’s oddly easy to overlook this 2021 BMW 540i xDrive. On the one hand, it’s not an M5, or even an almost-M5 like the M550i; at the same time, neither is it a clever plug-in hybrid like the 545e. Instead it’s about as close to a “standard” BMW 5 Series as you can get these days.

Even then, this is “standard” by degrees. A sprinkling of M-badged parts from BMW’s tuning division suggest whoever spec’d out this particular car couldn’t quite resist the lure of some customization, though the Alpine White result is still on the sober side.

It’s a handsome sedan, and fairly restrained by BMW standards. No vast grille, or exaggerated creases; it’s about as understated as the automaker’s line-up gets. Park it next to some of the luxury upstarts aiming to take a bite out of BMW’s market share and you’d be forgiven for having your head turned by the Genesis G80 or Cadillac CT5.

The 540i is, in contrast, quietly confident in its own prestige, and you can’t really begrudge it that. BMW’s recipe here is straightforward, though like the best cooking it relies on premium ingredients for a pleasing end-result. A 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6 gas engine taps a little 48v mild-hybrid action for some sparkle, with 335 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque proving to be ample if not eyebrow-razing.

An eight-speed transmission is standard too, and BMW says you’ll see 0-60 mph in 4.6 seconds. That’s properly quick, and really it’s only the even-quicker existence of the M550i and raucous M5 that make the 540i seem a little more mainstream.

The same goes for driving dynamics. In Comfort or Adaptive mode, the 540i wafts and glides like German royalty. The standard AWD car starts at $61,750 (plus destination) but $3,200 gets you adaptive dampers and active roll bars, and the result is a supple ride that luxe newbies could still learn from. There’s no wallow or marshmallow squishiness to it, just a compliance that reminds you how adept the 5 Series always has been as a long-distance cruiser.

Where Sport mode on an M5 then threatens to immolate your underwear, though, on the 540i it’s a little more tempered. What sensibly dialed-in roll remained in the corners is squashed; the suspension stiffens, though still not to teeth-shaking levels. Focused but not frenetic, even if you notch the shifter over to S mode and have the gearbox hold its ratios a little longer.

It all suits the 5 Series nicely, even if we all know that the sedan can handle plenty more if your wallet is so accommodating. The mild hybrid system lends its 11 horses to fill in any lingering gaps during gearshifts or while the turbo is spooling up, and then allows the 540i to shut off the gas engine preemptively as you slow. Usually I’m no fan of start/stop systems, but then usually they’re jerky, agricultural things; BMW’s, in contrast, is beautifully surreptitious.

The same could be said for the cabin. Saved, by price and positioning, from the typical lashings of carbon fiber and spangles, the 540i plays it safe with more mainstream luxury. The leather seats are fulsome thrones, you get a 12.3-inch digital cluster and a matching 12.3-inch center touchscreen, and BMW doesn’t stint on buttons for whose who prefer to reach out and toggle their settings that way.

The infotainment system is crisp, swift, and generally pleasing; it’s only when you need to dip into the deeper menus for things like mobile device setup that it starts to get a little confusing. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, along with a 4G LTE modem with WiFi hotspot. The $1,850 Premium Package adds a head-up display and wireless phone charging.

Somewhere the 540i doesn’t deviate from every other BMW is in the array of options – and the way they help inflate your sticker price. With nicer Nappa leather, the M Sport design package, and all the various other extras, my review car was sliding past $72k.

For safety, forward collision warnings, blind spot alerts, automatic emergency braking, and auto high-beams are standard. Throw in the $1,700 Driving Assistance Plus package, meanwhile, and you get adaptive cruise control with lane-keeping assistance along with Extended Traffic Jam Assist. That lets the 540i handle low-speed congestion without your hands on the wheel, using a driver-attention monitor built into the gauges to make sure you’re still watching the road. It’s neat, but since it only works when you’re crawling along in traffic it’s not as useful as, say, GM’s Super Cruise.

As for those in the back, there’s decent space there for adults, while the 14 cu-ft trunk is also practical. The EPA says you’ll see 23 mpg in the city, 31 mpg on the highway, and 26 mpg combined, and they’re easily achieved.

2021 BMW 540i xDrive Verdict

The cynic might suggest that BMW has, if not forgotten about the 5 Series – and, more specifically, the 540i – then been distracted recently with SUVs and its upcoming all-electric models. Certainly, whether it’s from a styling perspective or a matter of dynamics, the 2021 540i xDrive feels a little more “old school” BMW than the automaker’s other recent cars.

I can’t say that’s a bad thing. Indeed if I had to sum the 540i up in a word, it’d have to be “ample”: enough power, enough design, enough comfort, and enough tech. Sure, you can chase BMW up through the echelons of the wilder 5 Series variants if you so desire, but just recognize that comes from a desire for excess.

The 2021 BMW 540i xDrive is, in contrast, an adequate sufficiency of luxury car. Not too sporty, not too plush, and not too ostentatious. That there are some compelling alternatives in the category is undeniable, but somehow all they do is highlight just how nicely dialed-in this “standard” 5 Series actually is.


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