Wednesday

2008 BMW 550i review

For several years now I’ve been concerned about BMW. I’ve been concerned that they don’t ‘get it’ anymore. I’ve watched in dismay as they have made their cars heavier, more strange looking, and deleted items that everyone takes for granted. Things, for example, like a temperature gauge and an oil dipstick. While maybe not the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen, that still ranks high on the retardo-meter. In place of the deleted items, they’ve put things in like iDrive. No one asked for it, and no one likes it. It’s sad. Their maintenance intervals regularly run a shockingly 10,000 miles or more; a move, in my opinion, to make it so they don’t have to pay out as often now that they throw in the first four years or 50k miles of maintenance free.

While I have always followed BMW with great interest, over the past couple of years my interest has waned. A number of times I’ve been offered the opportunity to test some of their newer models. More times than in the past I’ve been greatly disappointed. Watch the BMW category on this site as
I get more reviews up and you’ll see what I mean. (BMW category link) I had resigned myself to the fact that they just don’t build ‘em like they used to. And maybe, just maybe, they never would again.

Last year, Car and Driver did a comparison test of midsize, luxury sedans where the 550i was dethroned by the Infiniti M45. You can see my review here of the M45. I thought to myself that if the M45 is that bad and it won, the 550i must just be HORRID. Recently I had the opportunity to test the 550i for myself. I didn’t really want to. I wasn’t even excited about it. In fact, I was so uninterested that I almost blew off my chance to do so.

And that would have been a mistake of grave proportions.

It has taken me a long time to accept the Banglized 5-series. I’ve just not been a fan at all. Sitting in them at the auto show does nothing to get me excited about the car. It’s ok; the inside doesn't reflect what the price tag suggests should be there. The feel is definitely German, and screams that the designers had other priorities than making a truly nice interior.

The one I sampled was a 550i Sport package car. It had an aggressive look. Sitting in the interior raised the same question marks over my head that sitting in it every other time had done. As I adjusted the seat to fit me, I began to realize just how extraordinary the seats were. They hug your body in all the right places. They cradle you perfectly. The sport seats in this one suggest that you will need them, similar to the feel you get when getting into a fast roller coaster. All the controls were in easy reach. The shifter (auto trans in this example) had changed shapes since my last visit. You pushed it different ways than normal to call up reverse or drive. All I cared about was pulling it to the left and ordering up sport mode, thereby changing gear selection to manual control using paddles on the steering wheel.

Get it out on the road, crack open the throttle, and the 550i tears away from the line like an angry bulldog. The V8 roars and builds urgency as it climbs to the redline. Pull the paddle shifter towards you to upshift, and the shift happens as close to instantly as can be measured. The tach instantly snaps back a few thousand RPM. I couldn’t believe it. Could an automatic be this responsive? So I downshifted it. This time the tach instantly shot up a few thousand RPM. Downshifting included a throttle blip for an almost seamless gear change. I started chuckling, not believing what I was seeing. I shifted back and forth, up and down all six gears, just completely mesmerized at how well BMW’s transmission responded to inputs. It literally is the BEST automatic transmission I have EVER used. It is so good in fact, this is the transmission I would buy for this car – and I’m saying this as a firm believer that the only good transmission is the one you shift for yourself.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

I took it towards a road I know to be a fantastic test for handling. The 550i aced through this road and had reserves of potential. It feels like it will never misstep. Even when I dived into a low speed corner hard enough to attract the attention of the ever-watchful stability system, it allowed a little bit of shenanigans before intervening.
Power is effortless and a flick of your right foot away. Start carving curves and you can modulate everything in perfect proportion to ever-changing road conditions. Gas, steering, braking - every control is so smooth and so linear, you can dial in the appropriate amount of input at all times. Note that this car had the regular steering setup, not the active one that is said to reduce feel.

Amazingly too it does all of this without beating you up at all. The ride is calm and compliant. Exterior noise is kept to a minimum. Just enough gets in to tell you what is happening outside the car. Everything the 5 Series does is done to give you tactile information so you know how to proceed. When you’re not hotrodding the engine and transmission, it’s just as docile as a goldfish. It doesn’t egg you on to explore its limits, but it will happily play if YOU choose to. If you haul a family or use your car for business, you can still impress them with the badge and the comfort level. No one else has to know what lurks in the soul of this car unless you want them to.

Yes, the interior isn’t the flashiest, but it has the toys you need. Yes, other makes and models offer more gadgets. Yes, the cupholders look like an afterthought, similar to what you could get in 1993. Yes, iDrive still sucks, but if it’s entertainment you’re looking for in your ride just use the 550i’s mechanical components to entertain yourself. Room for all is adequate. Not spacious, but adequate. Same story with the trunk.

When taken as a whole, this car is a game-changer. No doubt about it. It is the perfect embodiment of what a sports sedan should be. Comfortable enough to be useful, playful enough to induce grins, fun enough to potentially lose your license. It is the perfect combination of everything. Is it expensive? Heck yea it’s expensive! Do you know why? For the same reason filet mignon costs more than a McDonald’s cheeseburger. Because it’s worth it. Because it’s what all sport sedans should aspire to. It’s at the top of its game, the king of the hill. Yes, it is THAT GOOD. It shows what happens when instead of saying a product is “good enough”, the engineers put just a little bit more into development and make it the absolute best that it can be.

When Pontiac released their G8 GT (review here), Bob Lutz stood up in front of God and the world and called it a 5-Series at $20k cheaper. I laughed before I drove the 550i. Now I roll on the floor in heaving convulsions everytime I think about it. He claims to be a "car guy". Has he DRIVEN this car? He couldn’t possibly have. The sad thing is, he’s doing a true disservice to the G8 by even mentioning the 5 Series in the same breath. Then what’s with Car and Driver saying the M45 beats the 550i? I just can’t see it. I truly can’t. I don’t know what they were smoking - these cars are not even from the same planet. The M45 is more of a joke to the 550i than the G8 is. Come on, no one really believes that the G8 is going to go head-to-head with the 550i, unless you’re the one trying to convince your friends that your G8 purchase was a smart financial decision because you got it with employee pricing. The M45 is a direct competitor, and a sorry one at that. Drive them all, and you’ll know why too. I’ve driven faster cars, I’ve driven cars that handle better, I’ve driven more luxurious cars, but I have NEVER driven one that got the balance perfect in any and all circumstances. Paper specs are meaningless for cars. You can armchair-jockey stacks of reviews and test reports all day long, but you’ll never really know until you’re behind the wheel. That’s a fact.

The 550i Sport must be infused with alien DNA. That’s the only possible explanation for the goodness of this car. It is a machine sent back through time to dominate the sport sedan category as we now know it. Whether you are commuting, conducting business, tearing up the road, or using it for illegal activities, this car performs admirably in any and all situations. Don’t believe me? Try one on for yourself.

Photos property of BMW

16 comments:

Adrian said...

I wholeheartedly endorse this review. While the interior is infuriatingly inadequate for a car of this caliber (and price), all sins are forgiven when you spin the tach. Meanwhile the M45 feels like tofu when you put your foot in it. As for C&D, I guess "old man" drivers pick old man driver's cars. The 550 is definitely not an old man's kind of car.

dtravers said...

I will agree with you in terms of driving experience and performance, the 550i is worthy of its 5-series lineage and is a sublime performer.

I do not agree however, that because of that fact, we should look the other way on this vehicle's styling and interior. I'm sorry but past generations have delivered unprecedented driving mechanics while maintaining a handsome exterior and stately interior, why should this latest incarnation of the 5-series be any different? I'm not saying the styling, both inside and out, are utter crap, I am saying they are markedly NOT fitting for a BMW 5er.

I own a 1998 BMW 540i Sport 6spd, and have driven both the newer 545i and 550i. The 550i 's power makes me want to upgrade, badly, but I cannot justify the pricetag when my 1998 540 is superior in many other ways. I am hoping that the NEXT generation 5-series restores it to the ultimate driving machine.

ps - 100% agreed the Pontiac and Infiniti do not deserve to be mentioned in the same category as the 5ser.

If you are buying a new sport sedan now and don't own a pervious gen 5er, the 550i is a solid choice, but if you coming from the e39 it is a TOUGH sell.

Chris said...

Hi dtravers,

Thanks for the comments, especially coming from a BMW owner who can speak from experience. It's been too long since I've been in a E39 to fully remember for comparison sake, although I will admit I don't remember making excuses for the interior.

I bet the 6-speed manual in your car is just killer.

Appreciate the feedback.

brad.westcott said...

I enjoyed your review and found it to be accurate on most every count. I have never owned a BMW but have always wanted a German engineered sedan. Well, I finally decided it was time and I made the 550i the first car to test drive in my quest for a new luxury car. I truly enjoyed the experience. It is as everyone has said, it is a driver' car. Its handling was impeccable for such a heavy car and its acceleration is right up there with some very fast, full blown sports cars. But, I did not buy it. I too was dissappointed in its interior and exterior appearance. Not ugly. Just not what you would expect from a car that costs US$70K. I enjoyed the seating from a performance stand point but it began to wear on me as I spent more time in the saddle. Maybe my age is showing but I found the E550 from Mercedes to be just as quick, if not quicker. Its seating was the most comfortable of all the cars I test drove. The interior is far more attractive. And, I could not get past the ho hum exterior appearance of the 550i. I would agree that the BMW handled better than the stock E550, but with the AMG package, it was nearly as capable with a far smoother ride in normal driving. Who knows, in five years I may be looking again and the BMW may just be the car to trump my new ride. But, it did not make the cut this time and that is a shame because I have always wanted a BMW and I am not getting any younger.

Chris said...

Hi Brad,

Welcome to Melted Rubber and thank you for the comments. Nice choice in cars. I haven't (yet) had the opportunity to sample a current E series, but after hearing your thoughts I'll have to see if I can swing one into my rotation.

Sounds like you have a fantastic car. Congratulations on getting a German car like you've always wanted. Enjoy the drive.

Chris Horner

Anonymous said...

Hello, i just bought a bmw 550i and this is a worst car ever just had it for two weeks and last Saturday it just overheated and i was so ashamed.. just paid 82grand for a piece of junk... thanks bimmer now i know why they offer free maintenance.

Chris said...

You paid $82k in this economy????

Anonymous said...

I test drived one today, and it is like the more you put your foot down the more it goes and you wonder where does it end if you had the unpoliced highway. The car fits the driver like glove. You DRIVE this beast. I agree interior is not the flashest but bmw has always been a minimalist in that area. If you want to feel like you are sitting in an upmarket executive's buroe sure go ahead and buy a mercedes e500 or s class. But 550 is absulateley felt like begging to be driven when you turn her on...

Chris said...

^ I agree 100%. The 550i is a serious tool for drivers.

JCW3rd said...

I too, was not thrilled at test driving a 2008 550, but my family's need for a 4-door, my first in 20 years, I wanted to do a thorough and complete evaluation of them all. I drove Hondas to VWs, Acuras to Lexus, all the 4-doors. The feel of the 550 was strikingly different. I noticed it as soon as we drove off the lot. None of the other had the feel, M45, Mercedes, I would rather have an Accord for the price. I've driven Italian sports cars most of my life and this 550 was worth the price for a 4-door that is truly dun to drive. I searched until I found one with every option available, under 20k miles and paid less than half the $85k sticker. The car was a game-changer for me, worth the price and I love driving it. A 4-door!

Chris said...

Congrats on the find JCW. You have a sweet car.

It's interesting since I wrote this review I've been watching the pre-owned prices come down and down and down. As a few years have gone by, the price of a preowned 550i and 535i of the same years are priced quite similarly, even though there are far more 535's available than 550's. Cruising the usual BMW forums doesn't show anything glaringly wrong, although like any other car you'll find a few horror stories scattered around. Even to this day the only other sedan I'd rather have is the Maserati QP, but that car is in a whole other ball game.

I have had the chance to sample the new gen 550i. To make a long story short, it's long on power (who can argue with a twin turbo 400hp V8??), seems to be more refined, but I don't like the look as much (to be honest though I didn't care about the last gen look until the sport package body came out in '08) and like all modern BMW's seems to have added some flab on the scale. It's still a thrilling car for all the right reasons, but I still find myself drawn more to BMW's of yesteryear. Maybe the 2012 M5 will change my mind......

Anonymous said...

Just purchased a 2008 550i, certified with the sports package. I have owned Alpha Romeo, SAAB 900 Turbo, Volvo T5 and Audi (A6 with turbo 6 and most recently A6 4.2)....and a 67 and 70GTO.

After living with the car for a while now I have say the BMW is by far the best car I have ever owned.

The only concern is that I live in PA and the winter is coming....I think I may regret losing the utility of Audis 4-wheel drive.

Could have bought the X drive 535xi, but you just can't beat the torque and pull of a V8.

I don't understand all of teh gripping over the BMW interior.
I personnally don't want too many gadgets...but I would liek to see a basic gage package. Always a goos idea to monitor engine temperature and oil pressure.

Chris said...

Congrats on your ride! It really is second to none. Other Bimmer owners in Michigan (other models, not a 550i though) have claimed that with true snow tires the winters have gone ok.

Sounds like you've had some cool machines in the past. Thanks for the feedback on the 550i.

Anonymous said...

I purchased a 2008 BMW 550i Sport last January for $40K with 23500 on the clock. Best purchase I ever made. This car changes everything about the way you approach driving. I've owned a Vette and got fed up with the poor build quality. This Bimmer is the other end of the spectrum. It is built like a fine Swiss watch. I prefer the styling of this series over the new generation. Few people driving by have any idea what a monster this car actually is. It handles like nothing else I've ever driven and still gets 27mpg with the auto. The maintenance costs are reasonable for a $73K car but expect to shell out for rear tires every 15,000 miles and that's without writing any "11's". I agree that the interior is a little drab but the workmanship is exceptional. It's as close to a $100K M5 as you can get for the money. You will find excuses to go out and drive if you own this car.

David said...

I too agree completely with your review. I've test driven nearly every make/model in pursuit of the perfect balance of sport/comfort/luxury and the 550 is the closest I've found.

My love for BMW began with my first glimpse of an E46 M3. I couldn't afford one at the time so I bought a 328i - what a great car. I finally upgraded to the M3 and loved every mile in it. My only complaint was the comfort - it just wasn't. While a true rocket, as a daily driver it became harsh; so I sold it and began my extensive list of test drives (including all Audi, Infiniti, Lexus, Cadillac, etc options). Of course if you're looking for raw power, you have to stick with the Audi S, BMW M, Cadillac V, Mercedes AMG lines and be willing to swallow the related high maintenance costs and low MPGs. I couldn't convince my wife to love the M5 and its V10, so I had to settle for the 550.

I had a few warranty issues pop up at 88k miles (costing the company over $6k), so that freaked me out a little, but I haven't had any issues since and I can't shake the fact that this is THE sport sedan to own.

The Ultimate Driving Machine is a bit cliche, but there's a reason it's applicable here. I hope to put hundreds of thousands of miles on this car - just praying nothing else major decides to break on it. The V8 growl and aggressive appearance from my MSport package keep me looking for excuses to show it off - an average of 2k miles per month around town is evidence of that!

Nate Frz said...

Randomly found your review on google and really enjoyed it. I recently bought a '08 550i M-sport MT and couldn't be more happy. Coming from an older M3 I was scared about joining the mundane world of practical car ownership, but I should have sprung for one of these much sooner! I agree with your remarks on this being the best 'balance' of different driving worlds. The car is low-stress and comfy when in traffic and yet rewarding when I need a quick thrill. A great example of what the BMW name means to me and why I don't seem to bat an eye at any other brands. This is power and control wrapped up in class.

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