BMW 535d xDrive proves diesels can be sport drivers

British petrolheads hold that gasoline-fueled cars are for fun, and diesels for economy. BMW turns this notion on its head with the 2014 535d xDrive. This diesel engine 5 Series displayed all of the “ultimate driving machine” fun of a BMW, yet attained a fuel economy average of around 30 mpg.

Slinging it around corner after corner, I was gratified by the ready power delivery, balanced handling, and complete lack of understeer. On city streets the engine whirred along like clockwork, so that I barely heard the rough cough of diesel combustion. After many hours of hard driving, the fuel gauge showed I was only down a quarter of the 18.5-gallon tank’s full capacity.

Modern style meets high mpgs in BMW 535d xDrive (pictures)
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2015 BMW 535d xDrive

2015 BMW 535d xDrive

2015 BMW 535d xDrive

2015 BMW 535d xDrive

Built on the latest 5 Series platform launched in 2010, designated F10 by BMW, the 535d xDrive sedan shows typically conservative BMW styling. The example I drove was fitted with adaptive LED headlights and the M Sport Line, giving it 19-inch alloys and an aerodynamic body kit. That LED headlights illuminated the road ahead with a well-defined and bright light pattern, and incidentally drew significantly less electricity than standard lamps.

With this generation 5 Series, bodywork sets headlights and traditional kidney grill apart, while a strong contour line runs straight down the side to the rear. The roofline rolls back into a much-emulated strong rake into the trunk lid.

2014 BMW 535d xDrive
The BMW 535d delivers high diesel fuel economy and excellent driving characteristics.
Wayne Cunningham/CNET

At just over 16 feet long, the 535d xDrive felt easily maneuverable in the city, despite a turning radius that required some backing and filling, with a comfortable and roomy cabin. And while it was nice to find the navigation system, shown on a wide 16.1-inch screen (a standard feature), making a simple rearview camera a $400 option seems a little cheap. The high trunk lid had me creeping ever so slowly backward whenever I had to parallel park the 535d xDrive, trying to get into a space without tapping the car behind. Say what you want about rearview cameras, but they certainly make parallel parking faster for the experienced driver.

And that highlights my main complaint about the 535d xDrive, and BMW’s recent product strategy in general. There are an amazing amount of excellent high-tech features, but just about all come as options. From the rear-view camera to adaptive cruise control to the two available premium audio systems, each feature adds significant money to the overall price.

Less painful, the diesel engine 535d xDrive only commands a $1,500 premium over its equivalent on the gasoline side, the 535i xDrive. Drop the xDrive part of the name, BMW’s all-wheel-drive system, and shave another $2,500 off the price.

BMW’s diesel engine looks remarkably like its gasoline engine on the surface. Both use an inline six-cylinder block with 3 liters of displacement and a twin-scroll turbo. An eight-speed automatic transmission comes as the only gearbox available on both the 535d and 535i.

2014 BMW 535d xDrive
19-inch alloy wheels come as part of the M Sport Line.
Wayne Cunningham/CNET

However, diesels operate a bit differently than gasoline engines, which plays out with lower engine speeds and high torque numbers. In the 535d xDrive, the engine produces 255 horsepower and 413 pound-feet of torque. The engine hits redline at 5,400 rpm. BMW does an excellent job of masking the high torque, making the 535d xDrive easily drivable, preventing tire smoking burn-outs when you tap the accelerator a little too hard.

Unlike so many other cars on the road, the 535d xDrive feels deliberate. When I first put it in drive, the car would not move until I actually pushed the accelerator. The power-steering program keeps a lot of heft at the wheel, requiring actual effort to turn it. The 4,255 pound curb weight comes through in the handling, giving the 535d xDrive a planted, solid feeling.

Plus and Pro

As with other recent BMW models, the 535d xDrive includes a rocker switch on the console taking the car through four different drive modes: Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus. In my driving, I found little use for the middle two, so let’s talk about the extremes.

Sport Plus builds on the throttle sensitivity program of the Sport mode by adding BMW’s Dynamic Traction Control program. Whenever I was faced with a set of tight turns, Sport Plus gave the 535d xDrive the kind of tail-hanging handling I’ve known and loved in past BMWs.

2014 BMW 535d xDrive
BMW offers the 5 Series with its 3-liter diesel engine and all-wheel drive for the 2014 model year.
Wayne Cunningham/CNET

When really pushed through a turn, I could feel the rear coming out in highly predictable fashion, adding rotation that I could use to get around the apex faster. Adding to this cornering excellence was the near 50:50 weight balance between front and rear axles, giving the 535d xDrive the neutral handling for which past BMWs were known. Given the weight of the car, I was surprised to feel no understeer. The car went where I pointed it. Standard Sport mode, which doesn’t engage Dynamic Traction Control, merely kept the car tidy and boring in the turns.

With the driver selector pulled into its Sport position, the car’s engine maintained a power sweet spot. It was ready to pull out of a turn as soon as I had the next straight in sight. The eight-speed automatic transmission, the Sport Automatic offered by BMW, shifted well on its own in Sport mode, but also offered manual shifting. Gear changes snapped off quickly when I hit the steering wheel-mounted paddles.

However, this being a diesel with a lower redline than a gasoline engine, I did not have that much rev room to work with for manual shifts. No matter, though, as third gear maintained power through a wide range of speeds, only requiring me to drop down to second for the tighter turns.

With its fixed suspension, the 535d xDrive settled a good amount of load on the outside wheels in a turn. Even with the M Sport suspension, part of the M Sport Line, it didn’t stay flat in the turns. As an option, BMW offers its $3,500 Dynamic Handling Package, giving the car an adaptive suspension more suited to cornering antics.

2014 BMW 535d xDrive
Buried amongst the various cabin tech options are these virtual performance gauges.
Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Eco Pro, the opposite number to Sport Plus, combines the diesel engine’s already strong fuel economy with a multitude of fuel saving technologies. While some drivers may cringe at the idle-stop feature, I found it worked as smoothly as any I have used in a BMW. At stoplights, the engine shut down, coming back to life relatively quietly when I lifted off the brake. Although not a great feature in stop-and-go traffic, for long stoplights it is a boon to fuel economy.

Along with detuning the throttle for less fuel use under acceleration, BMW implements engine decoupling. When I lifted off the accelerator for a downhill run on the freeway, the tach needle settled down to 650 rpm as the transmission disengaged completely, letting the 535d xDrive freewheel. It was amazing how well the car would hold or even gain speed when running free. A tap on the brakes or accelerator instantly reengaged the driveline.

Regenerative braking, a technology used in a hybrid cars, finds its way into the 535d xDrive. BMW uses it to keep the batteries well-charged so the alternator does not need to load the engine as much. That technology is especially useful when the air conditioning continues running while idle-stop is on.

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