The BMW 5 Series saloon of 2010-17 offers an almost unbeatable combination of performance, economy and build quality in the executive car class – especially in tax-busting 520d SE trim. In some areas, such as its styling (a little bland) and suspension (the optional adaptive system is a big improvement), it falls slightly short, but viewed in the round, it’s a used car you won’t regret buying.
The 520d SE, which was the least powerful diesel in the 2010 launch line-up, dominates supply and, given its primary role as a long-distance mobile office, mileages can be high. For example, as this was written, there were almost 230 520ds with more than 100,000 miles on one popular sales site, ranging in price from £4000 for a 2011-reg with 170,000 miles to £10,000 for a 2015- reg with 100,000.
The diesels are, in the main, a great choice and range from the later 518d launched in 2014 (it’s rare, less powerful and no more economical than the 520d, so avoid it unless it’s cheap) to the thundering, twin-turbocharged 535d that produces 309bhp and an even more impressive 465lb ft of torque for 0-62mph in 5.3sec. Prices for the 535d start from £7500 for a 2001-reg with 130,000 miles. In between is the slightly more common 530d, with 354bhp and 398lb ft. The opening prices for this are around £5000. If big mileage easily dispatched is your goal, this or the 535d will do nicely.
The petrols were never going to compete with the tax-busting diesels, which is a pity because BMW made them more efficient from 2011. Out went some of the old six-pot 3.0-litre motors, badged 523i and 528i, to be replaced by new four-cylinder turbocharged units, badged 520i and, confusingly, 528i. A 2012-reg 520i SE with 50,000 miles costs around £10,500 but, for power with decent economy, go for the 528i.
If you want the classic BMW six-pot experience, with the bills to match, you’ve got those early 3.0-litre cars we mentioned plus another, the 535i. Beyond these, there’s the 550i, with its 4.4-litre V8, and finally the mighty M5. Nearly forgot: there’s also the 535i ActiveHybrid, but then with economy in the mid-20s, so did new car buyers.
On the trims front, BMW kept things simple. There are just three: SE, Luxury and M Sport. SE has most bases covered, with dual-zone climate control, a 6.5in touchscreen iDrive system with sat-nav and digital radio, front and rear parking sensors, and automatic headlights and wipers. SE is our choice but, if you want more comfort and technology, go for Luxury, and if you want M5-lite looks without that car’s bills, choose M Sport.
The reliability survey of our sibling title What Car? places this generation of 5 Series a little way below the same-gen Mercedes-Benz E-Class and Audi A6 but above the Jaguar XF. Serious faults concern the exhaust system and engines, with a quarter of cars affected unable to be driven.
Top spec pick
M Sport: M Sport gives you a touch of the M5, thanks to its bodykit, M Sport alloy wheels, sports suspension and dark chrome exhaust tailpipes, plus powered front sports seats inside.
Engine Older (before 2014) N47 four-cylinder diesel engines can suffer problems with their camshaft tensioners and chains, often heralded by a 'ringing' noise. The turbo wastegate can remain open, increasing fuel consumption by around 30%, too. Older cars can suffer deterioration of some hoses including the vacuum hose supplying the EGR cooler, leading to a major boost leak and possibly also an engine fire. Beware low-mileage diesels; they can suffer fuel dilution of the engine oil caused by too-frequent regeneration of the diesel particulate filter. If it's a petrol car, a sudden engine warning light on the test drive may indicate a problem with the high-pressure fuel pump, a known issue.
Steering On early models, check the steering wheel is not being pulled in either direction and that, as you turn it, it makes no strange noises.
Suspension and brakes If it has air suspension, check that it sits level (the rear suspension can fail before 60,000 miles). Examine the brakes for excessive wear. If Variable Damper Control is fitted, be sure you can detect a difference between Sport and Comfort modes.
Electrical Check everything works because issues here are common.
Interior Check the air con works because the condenser is exposed and vulnerable to heavy stone chipping. Its welds can also rupture. Examine chrome parts for tarnishing and dashboard buttons for wear. Be sure the iDrive system works faultlessly and that where fitted, the reversing camera does, too. Check the front footwells for damp (water can enter through the front bulkhead).
Need to know
Look out for cars with optional Variable Damper Control. It takes the model’s handling and ride comfort to a new level. Small surface imperfections are better dealt with and the body rolls less. If you can’t find a car with it, at least avoid wheels larger than 18in.
In 2013, all 5 Series diesels became Euro 6-compliant, a standard that was not made compulsory until September 2015. Depending on the model, they have either a NOx storage catalyst or an SCR catalytic converter with urea injection.
Since 2014, eight-speed automatic models have featured Proactive Drive, a technology that works with the satellite navigation system to produce gearchanges that correspond to the road conditions. It works regardless of whether the sat-nav is on or off.
BMW 520d SE: Post-2013, facelifted and Euro 6-compliant versions of the top-value and plentiful 520d are the ones to look out for. SE trim has most of the things you need.
BMW 550i M Sport: A rung below the M5 but still with a 4.4-litre V8 making 402bhp for 0-62mph in 5.0sec. Cheaper than the M5 (prices from £12,000 compared with £19,000) and rarer, too.
Ones we found
2011 520d SE, 176,000 miles, £4500
2013 525d SE auto, 100,000 miles, £7999
2015 528i M Sport auto, 79,000 miles, £13,950
2016 530d M Sport, 59,000 miles, £17,300