6 Months in: my first BMW experience

[Full disclosure: BMW gives absolutely zero fucks about me owning this car. None whatsoever.

All exterior photos are mine, but the interior shots are both mine and the google's]

6 Months in: my first BMW experience

So last year I became a dad. Which meant that I needed a grown-up car. An MR2 simply will not baby. So after 8 1/2 years of driving this:

6 Months in: my first BMW experience

I had to saddle up and find something that would accommodate the baby seat and accompanying accoutrement. My criteria were pretty simple: RWD, manual preferred, doesn't make me feel like I've completely given up. Did not want AWD, nor turbo anything. Also, having designed cars, finding one I like the looks of is waaaaay harder than it should be. I found a few interesting cars, but made the mistake of driving a 5-series pretty early on in my search, and quickly came to the conclusion that, thanks to the depreciation hit that others who'd come before me had already taken, I'd narrow my search to 528s. Found a couple. One that I drove home, and quickly discovered was leaking from the fuel tank. Another that ticked the right boxes: black, black interior, good warranty... and the same price as this 550 that had the same miles, cleaner inside and out, more toys, and a whole lot more power. Done. So I went from one much-derided design to possibly the most-derided. Let the haters hate.

This 2007 BMW 550i had 89,000 miles on it when I bought it in November. I'm the third owner, and I've put almost 4,000 miles on it since. After the MR2, it's like going from the F-18 to driving the goddamn aircraft carrier.

6 Months in: my first BMW experience

Exterior 8/10

6 Months in: my first BMW experience


6 Months in: my first BMW experience

Yeah, yeah, yeah. We've all heard the same bullshit about the E60's exterior design. And you know what? They're wrong. Sure, on the wrong wheels and suspension (lookin at you, 528...) it's a little too light on its feet, like a hippo wearing ballet slippers. But the 550, with bigger wheels, meaner rubber, and sport suspension, it looks extremely purposeful, powerful, and grounded to the ground. Everyone shat on the E60 when it debuted, and, yeah, it was pretty shocking. I was still in design school when it dropped, and the only thing I could really say about it then was that it had the most beautiful bodyside section of any production car. And I still stand by that. The drape from the break of the concave shoulder to the fillet at the bottom of the doors is gorgeous. In 2003, it looked bloated, too tall compared to the E39, and I didn't understand the headlights. Now, with the benefit of experience and the intervening years, BMW's design team was prescient, weren't they? They were designing ahead of regulations and requirements that would similarly influence all production cars in the coming years. Today, it looks almost restrained compared to the convoluted, tortured sheetmetal coming out of companies like Nissan and Hyundai. I could go on at some length about what I like about the exterior. It looks best in darker metallics, I think, but the silver's grown on me. The 2008 LCI (BMW-speak for refresh) brought cooler taillights, nicer wheels, and some other stuff, but the basic shape stayed the same. I don't love-love it, but I respect the hell out of it. I'm not the only one.

Interior 7/10

6 Months in: my first BMW experience

6 Months in: my first BMW experience

(not my photo)

The interior looks best at night, and unfortunately I haven't taken any pictures of that. The subtle ambient lighting is wonderful. The orange instrument lights are a richer, deeper orange than that in the MR2. With the sport package come the 20-way power/memory seats, which I have to say are the most comfortable seats of any type, automotive or not, that I have ever sat in. Seriously. They are insanely comfortable. And the bolsters inflate and hug you when you start the car. The only thing they're missing is ventilation, which would definitely be welcome in central Texas. I'm sure the new ones have that. The heat distribution is adjustable. The controls are all right where you want them to be, and feel solid and appropriately-weighted. The steering wheel is fat and grippy. You can program the steering wheel's buttons. The leather, although not as nice as the black or saddle colors, is primo, the stitching perfect. The back seat feels like a business jet. It's huge, and that middle seatback folds down for a big armrest/console/cupholder/card table combo. I've been in airplanes that weren't as nicely put together. After 8+ years in a mid-engined convertible, it's crazy quiet, hugely spacious, and feels like an armored car.

2007 was the last year for the dildo shifter, as 2008 brought in the now-BMW-ubiquitous lozenge shifter, as well as updates to the iDrive system. Having driven both, I much prefer the more conventional, earlier shifter when shifting in manual mode. It feels great, and is perfectly sized and positioned.

What knocks the interior is the dash and door trim; I think aluminum was an option, and that would have been much nicer than some shitty hydrographic faux-wood. That stuff sucks, especially on the grab handles on the door. Easily the biggest letdown of the interior. The cupholders are standard-issue pop-out-of-the-dash BMW fare, which means that they're likely to break. There's no pass-through to the trunk, which will really suck when the battery dies and you're locked out. There's also an inexplicable hinged compartment within the console compartment, and it's not like you could fit anything bigger than a couple of Bics (pens or lighters, but probably not both) beneath it. Which makes no sense. Cue the yo dawg.

But any shortcomings are, in my book, more than made up for by the insanely great seats, and the fact that you just feel fucking boss sitting behind the wheel.

Acceleration 8/10

6 Months in: my first BMW experience


(not my photo)

The N62 engine is a 4.8l Jekyll-and-Hyde monster. Below 2000 RPM, it's like, Be cool. I got this. Between 2-3K, it kind of groans, like it's asking you if you're really sure you want to do this. At about 3500, it goes full-on Hulk Mode, and absolutely rips up to the redline. It's rated at 360 HP and 360 lb/ft, which seem like conveniently round numbers. Whatever it is, it's a lot. Which all comes at the expense of fuel economy. It doesn't sound like much inside the car, but the noise changes from a technical-sounding drone at low revs up to quite a roar when it hits 3500 or so.

Braking 9/10

6 Months in: my first BMW experience

A car this big and heavy needs some serious stopping power, and this most certainly has it. The discs are bigger than the MR2's wheels. The pedal feels great, but that last little bit before you come to a complete stop can sometimes be a catch, because the amount of torque the idling engine's still pushing out fights you to the end. I haven't yet had to engage ABS, but I'm sure it works. Apparently for 2007 BMW added a bunch of additional things to go wrong, including:

  • Brake Fade Compensation. Brake fade occurs as the brakes heat up under hard use; a given degree of deceleration requires more pressure on the brake pedal. As brake temperature rises, this function automatically compensates by increasing the hydraulic pressure relative to pedal force.
  • Brake Standby. When the driver lifts off the accelerator pedal abruptly, DSC recognizes that sharp braking may be about to occur and applies just enough pressure in the brake system to snug up the pads against the rotors. Thus by the time the driver's foot reaches the brake pedal, the lag time normally resulting from bringing the pad to the rotor is eliminated, reducing stopping or deceleration distance.
  • Brake Drying. Acting on input from the rain sensor (an element of the standard rain-sensing windshield wipers), the pads are periodically brought up to the rotors – just enough to eliminate any film of water between pads and rotors, but not enough to cause a brake application.
  • Start-off Assistant. Briefly holds the vehicle when the brakes are released while stopped facing uphill. The driver can then start up without doing a ballet with the clutch, brake and accelerator (manual transmission) or rolling backward on a steep hill (automatic transmission).
  • Modulated ABS function. "Analogized" control of the DSC brake valves makes the anti-lockup function (ABS) smoother. Instead of simply being fully on or off, application and release of these valves are now modulated.

Seriously. Brake drying?

Ride 9/10

6 Months in: my first BMW experience

The suspension is front strut and rear multi-link, with DSC and active roll-control. It's very firm, very tight, but never seems to be upset by anything. It corners as flat as you'd expect. Compliant over rough roads, never harsh or crashy. Compared to, say, a mid-engined car that weighs half as much, it's really weird to me how quickly this car comes back down when going over quick crests or humps. There's no float-time.

Solid. Solid, solid, solid. There's no other word for it.

Handling 8/10

Again, for a car this big and heavy, it can really move. Compared to the 528s I drove before it, it's way more planted (thanks to the sport package), the steering is more direct, and the turn radius is surprisingly small thanks to the variable-ratio steering. Thanks to the active roll control, I think it shows less body roll on long sweeping turns than the MR2, which kinda blows my mind, considering how much taller and heavier it is. I know I keep qualifying everything with "for a car this big..." but, really, it's totally surprising to me. Not a small car. Drives like a much smaller car.

Gearbox 6/10

6 Months in: my first BMW experience

Yep, that's an automatic. You can pretend to shift it. Sometimes it still thinks it knows better than you, and shifts itself even when you're in "manual" mode. It's my first automatic in 20 years of driving, and it still weirds me out. That said, though, automatics have come a very long way since the 4-speed in my dad's Suburban. Did I want a real manual? Of course I did. Could I find one? Of course not.

The big thing about it, though? If you buy one, have someone reset the transmission's adaptive learning (and the engine's, while they're at it). Mine would shift super-abruptly from 2-3, but after the reset it was perfect, and forgot the PO's bad habits.

Audio 9/10

Hell's bells, does this thing have an insanely good audio system. Satellite radio, aux input, weather band (!), and 7-disc CD (one in dash, 6-disc magazine in the glove box). The only knock is that the older Bluetooth won't stream from my phone, but it has the aux jack, so who cares?

As far as the car's noises, the exhaust burbles like a Mustang at idle, and crackles on the overrun. Really can't ask for more than that.

6 Months in: my first BMW experience


Toys 8/10

This 550 has all the options except the radar cruise control and the IR head-up display. And, yes, the iDrive. Honestly, I think the people who bitched about it must have just been crotchety old farts, because I just don't think it's that bad. It's not quite as quick as I would like, and BMW's since fiddled with it, upgraded it, and added more physical buttons, but the depth of customization and control you have with it is just insane to me. The nav system uses real-time traffic info. You can adjust how the climate control distributes its efforts. Self-leveling lights. How long do you want the lights under the mirrors to stay on, sir? Comfort Access is BMW-talk for your car knowing that you're opening the door, so it'll unlock it for you, no wasting time pressing buttons like the proles. Coming from totally bare-bones cars, it's waaaaay more than I'm used to, and now I just sort of expect it.

Funny how that happens.

Value 4/10

6 Months in: my first BMW experience

This is the tough part. This car cost about 70 grand when new. I bought it for a whole lot less than that. Then I dropped a ton of money (and my warranty company hates me) replacing every single piece of plastic and rubber under the hood, two engine mounts, the AC drive belt, the spark plugs (twice), the thermostat, the tire pressure monitor brain, all 32 valve stem seals, valve covers and gaskets, lifters, coils, valley channel coolant pan gasket, and a bunch of shit I'm not remembering. Which took a long time. And cost a lot of money. Like, more than I paid for it in the first place. On a car that was only 6 years old. If I hadn't bought the warranty, I'd have been SOL.

But cosmetically it's like new, inside and out. After all the fixes, it's better than any car has any business being. So, there's that. It feels like it was milled, not welded. It has a ton of airbags, and I feel safe driving my daughter in it, which was, after all, the point. It goes like the space shuttle. And it looks like this at night:

6 Months in: my first BMW experience


Total: 76/100

Engine: 4.8l, 32v V-8 Power: 360 HP at 6,500 RPM/ 360 LB-FT at 3,400 RPM Transmission: Six Speed Manual or Six Speed Automatic (sadly the one that I got) 0-60 Time: 5.5 seconds Top Speed: 155 MPH, allegedly Drivetrain: Rear-Wheel Drive Curb Weight: roughly an aircraft carrier Seating: 5 people MPG: 15/23 EPA reported; I'm averaging 19.1 overall

MSRP: $17,000 as bought... About $70,000 when new.