Sometimes a car that does its intended job very well surprises you by being just as good at doing something completely different. To the list of effective multi-purpose cars I would happily add the BMW 540i xDrive M Sport.
The fact that I’m writing a review of it is incidental to the purpose of borrowing it. It was supplied by BMW to compete in a hillclimb at Shelsley Walsh in August, and since I’ve already written about that here I won’t go over the same ground now.
The thing is, though, I didn’t just drive the car in competition. A friend allowed me to use his home in Portishead as both a delivery and collection point and my base for the weekend, and since Shelsley is no small distance from Portishead I had plenty of opportunity to put in some road miles.
Even at first acquaintance, pottering round a housing estate at 20mph, the 540i won my heart. It’s as quiet and smooth and comfortable as you could hope. Further research showed that, with its 335bhp three-litre turbo petrol engine, eight-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel drive, it accelerates like a cat on whose tail you have inadvertently trod.
0-62mph takes just 4.8 seconds, which is shifting for a moderately but not staggeringly powerful premium saloon with a kerbweight of nearly a tonne and three quarters.
(Motorsport fans might like to note that at Shelsley it covered the first 64 feet from a standing start up a very steep incline in 2.17 seconds. None of the Porsche 911s present got within a tenth of that.)
The 540i has several driving modes, and the one I chose for runs up and down the M5 was Comfort. It was lovely. I’ve driven a few Rolls-Royces in the past year and none of them was significantly nicer, at least in terms of ride quality. If I had had to continue to Aberdeen rather than turning off near Worcester, that would have been just fine.
On the back roads I switched to Sport Plus mode and realised just how broad a range of abilities the 540i has. Like all big cars whose manufacturers have got the suspension set-up spot on, it seemed to shrink round me, to the point where I wondered if I’d actually been given a 3-Series and hadn’t noticed. And even though it felt like it could just about keep up with a well-driven hot hatch it was still amazingly comfortable, if a little less so than before.
If you’ve read the Shelsley report you’ll know that the 540i performed splendidly there too. Although it gained on some parts of the hill and lost out on others, it set very similar times to one of the 911s, and could have beaten it if its driver hadn’t done a better job than I did.
There was only one major irritation. My Portishead friend and I went out to dinner on the Saturday evening, and my attempts to reverse into a parking space were shambolic. I blame this entirely on the reversing camera, which makes gaps seem far narrower than they actually are.
It gave the impression that I was going to scrape into two nearby cars at the same time, even though when I got out to have a look it was clear that the 540i would easily fit between them with a good couple of feet to spare.
BMW might want to have a look into that, but otherwise there isn’t much it needs to do to the 540i. As a combined long-distance cruiser, sporting car and racer it exceeded my expectations to an almost unbelievable degree.
Engine size 2998cc
Top speed 155mph
0-62mph 4.8 seconds
Fuel economy 39.2mpg combined
CO2 emissions 164g/km
Towing capacity 2000kg (braked)
Euro NCAP not tested
Information correct at publication date