Quick Drive – BMW 550i Gran Turismo

The Good: Supernatural power and handling for its size, more comfortable than most living rooms.

The Bad: Seriously dense, not as pretty as the 5-series sedan.

The Verdict: The penultimate car for the all-American road trip.

At first glance, BMW’s 5-series Gran Turismo seems anachronistic. It’s bigger than a station wagon outside, but offers a smaller place for gear. The higher seating position of an SUV without any implication of off-road prowess or obvious badassery. A very large car with room for only four. It doesn’t seem to make sense.

Until you drive it.

Because BMW has a way of making the illogical seem surprisingly sensible. Hop in the GT, jump on the highway and crank the tunes, and it all seems to make sense. Bimmer’s longtime slogan, “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” is too vague; this is the Ultimate Road Tripping Machine.

With 4,938 pounds (not including gasoline or the average American’s Cinnabon-scarfing ass) squeezing the tires to the road (almost 600 pounds more than the 550i sedan), the 550i GT doesn’t leap and scramble through the curves like a Miata – the driver is always aware how much the car weighs – but it cuts them apart just fine anyway. Like a defensive lineman who can double as a runningback in a pinch, the GT is more than capable of running circles around smaller, lighter cars not prepared for the turns. Likewise, the company’s trademark heavy steering (at least at low velocities) is exacerbated by the car’s size in parking lots, but once the 550i is moving along, the wheels slide wherever you want them to go as if on greased rails.

But it’s the straightaways and the slow sweeping turns where the GT is most at home. The 4.4 liter twin turbo V8 makes all and more of its claimed 400 horses, and the eight-speed automatic doesn’t trip over its own feet, kicking down four or more gears in an instant when the throttle is pinned. The car feels just as responsive from 60 to 80 as it does between 20 and 40.

Inside, the driver lords over the road from the Goldilocks height for a 1000 mile drive – not road-huggingly low, not Freightliner high. Several generations of evolution have refined the infamous iDrive into a control system that’s surprisingly easy to understand. The seats (power-adjustable in a ridiculous number of ways) ensconsce all four inhabitants like La-Z-Boys, sacrificing some lateral support for unidirectional comfort. Backseat passengers aren’t forced to suffer, either; their thrones make the most of the GT’s 7-series-spawned lengthy wheelbase, and rear occupants can recline to a perfect position for napping. The dual-opening hatch sacrifices some storage space for the sake of the car’s swoopy lines, but there’s still enough room for four or five duffel bags.¬†As for those looks – well, the 5-series GT certainly looks better in person than in photos (much like its fellow luxo-hatch, the Porsche Panamera), it suffers when placed next to the leaner, muscularly cut 2011 5-series sedan.

Which could be said about many aspects of the Gran Turismo. The lighter, lower sedan would probably fulfill the needs of most 5-series GT buyers, while performing even more impressively. But for those occasions when three or four people need to take a long road trip – be it a tall family looking at colleges, buddies fulfilling a Kerouacian fantasy or a fellowship of travelers driving to a volcano to throw a ring into its caldera – the 5-series GT is as good as it gets.

Base Price/Estimated Price As Tested*: $65,775/$75,975

0-60: 5.2 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

Fuel Economy: 15 city/21 highway (EPA estimate)

Key Competitors: Porsche Panamera S, Audi A6 Avant, Mercedes-Benz R350

*Actual price of tested vehicle not available; estimation made by approximating features on car using BMW USA’s online configurator. Which is always a fun way to pass the time.

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