I somehow squeezed two road bikes and luggage for two in BMW’s 540i xDrive for a 700-ish-mile round trip from Washington, D.C., to Ithaca, New York. Any excuse to get out of the capitol city this time of year is a good one—the swampy weather will make you wonder why you relocated to the East Coast to begin with. Ithaca, meanwhile, is as pretty as… well… Northern California is year round. Lots of sunny days and a crisp breeze that makes for ideal biking weather. Theoretically, I’ve got the ideal car for the haul—the 540i has all of the M Sport’s best equipment for driving enjoyment, and when I’ve hit the wall on the bike, it’s also loaded with all of the BMW’s latest in driver aids and semi-autonomous systems. It should all but drive itself up to New York, and the long drive will give the systems a chance to shine—or not.
We’re living in a time when innovation is on an exponential curve, and we’re in the process of sorting which innovations are useful and which are bogus. And we’re pretty obviously innovating faster than we are sorting. But as long as computerization has taken over for road feel, we may as well be. Like a few manufacturers, BMW has been dabbling in gesture control. There’s the ability to sweep your foot under the rear bumper to open and close the trunk, sure, but in the cockpit there’s more. Here, gesture control can be used within a virtual 1.5-foot-or-so cube of airspace to control the volume, mute the stereo, answer/hang up the phone, change camera angles, and a few other things. You point and twirl your finger in the air to raise or lower the volume, and you zap at the unit with two fingers to quickly mute and unmute. Note: If you should find yourself twirling alone in the car at a traffic light, you will be looked upon strangely.
It’s worth noting that about 2 inches farther up from the virtual box is the volume knob, which can be used to do the same things—as can the volume buttons on the physical right (logical wrong) side of the steering wheel, also upon which your hand would theoretically have already been resting. So think of the new gesture control as a novelty item that you can use to show your passengers that you’re just that little bit better than they are—like backlit doorsills, which should really just light the price of the car (instead of “BMW,” maybe just say “$82,360,”), but that’s really getting outside our scope. And, besides, this car doesn’t have them. There are LEDs backlighting the interior of each forward tweeter and midrange Bowers and Wilkins speaker, but while my instinct is to pfash?? at this, too, they somehow work. The machined aluminum overlays are beautiful, and the lighting is an appropriate way to highlight the fact in the dark.
There’s no good way to get out of D.C. if you’re going north. No matter what, you’re on surface streets for a solid half hour, trying to predict the spontaneous moves of legendarily bad Maryland drivers as you wait for the highway to appear. I meet the interstate just in time for rush hour traffic. Through the duration of the trip, there’s at least a laugh and at most a frustration with many of the state-of-the-art systems, but one shines bright enough that I’m getting excited typing about it now: the “Stop & Go” and “Traffic Jam Assistant” functions of the adaptive cruise control. This usage of the existing onboard radar and camera systems is nothing short of glorious—a triumphant achievement in the usefulness of car technology, truly. Normally I’d find my blood pressure reaching vein breakage zone in this sort of traffic—here, I push a button, ignore it, and focus on the conversation.
The brief interstate stint dissolves effortlessly, and from here the route is mostly highway, but small highway—spotted with antique stores, fireworks outlets, Corvette convertible drivers, and adult novelty emporiums. Every 50 miles or so, the speed is relegated to 30 miles an hour through XYZ main street. Each new boulevard could be the last one, dotted with historic houses featuring five or six small American flags instead of the one giant one, and white painted front porches festooned with pristine rocking chairs. The route even takes me right through Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A park ranger will give you a truly excellent guided tour—for free, but this time I’ve got about an hour to remember one of the most significant events in American history before continuing up the Appalachians.
Leave each town and the entertainment options quickly become sparse—for lease billboards with faded paint barely covering an ad and a phone number from the ’90s and the occasional promise of a “real” lumberjack breakfast just ahead. But the roads are good enough to make you wonder why you ever take the interstate. Not just for the Americana you take in, but for the roads themselves—Pennsylvania’s Route 15 could easily be an autobahn in your favorite European country as it snakes through the Appalachian Mountains into New York. The road meanders steadily upward in wide arcs; you’re pushing five or ten degrees into the steering wheel more often than you’re holding it straight. The Bimmer is an utterly willing companion, even without the perfectly weighted steering of past 540i that came before it in the 1990s. Holding a steady speed between the occasional clumps of traffic is effortless, and when slowdowns do appear, the cruise control reacts accordingly, matching the speed of the car in front.
Except, like most cars I’ve driven with similar systems, the adaptive cruise control won’t “close the gaps,” as I keep saying to my co-pilot; even on its tightest setting, the car leaves just enough room for things to get dangerous. It goes something like this: long, two-lane highway, very common in the East Coast. Left lane gets congested due to lack of lane discipline up ahead. It can stay that way for some time until everyone is able to dart around the daydreamer, using the right lane. Until you can, though, you want to hold your position in the left lane, as there are always opportunists from farther down the line who will try and zoom up the right lane and cut left at the last minute, often dangerously, always infuriatingly. Here, the adaptive cruise control leaves just enough space for that driver to do so, causing the BMW to jam on the brakes when they do. As an alert driver, I know what that person’s plan is and can close the gap or back off the gas in advance, allowing them space to get in without potentially causing a pileup. In any case, my copilot is quick to point out that what I’m calling “closing the gap” is in fact a racing term. On the road, it’s just called “tailgating.” Adjusting the cruise control to allow for a bigger gap, the problem is minimized. My blood pressure soars, though, as every self-involved jackhole (and I’m the one in the $80,000 Bimmer) behind quickly takes the opportunity to jump in front of me. I suspect this system works a lot better in Germany…
The shining panorama is vast; giant arched concrete bridges span gaps in the range and the road laces steadily up as far as the eye can see, trucks are visible as one-pixel reflectors tractoring up the long grade far ahead. In the 540, you’re hard pressed to remember you’re on a grade at all. It’s pretty clear why BMW likes to use this engine so extensively in its portfolio—there’s never, ever, the wish for more torque. Acceleration is effortless across the rev range no matter the incline, with peak torque of 332 ft-lb available at 1,380 rpm. This thing will get to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds, and for all of my complaining, there’s just no denying the effortlessness of it all on a trip like this.
As the afternoon reaches its late peak, the sun beats down. When automatic temperature control first came out, it simplified things. You set the desired temperature and the car, more-or-less, maintained it—no more hassling with the dials yourself. But now you can set the intensity with which your automatic climate control maintains your desired temperature. You can change the temperature and the flow of what air goes where, and in addition to having dual zones, there’s a “no, but seriously, though” setting deep in the menu that changes the relative temperature to be sure you’re getting that cold air when your passenger doesn’t want it—and vice versa. Do you think you want mostly body air? Maybe a little more on the feet, typically? Try as I might, I just can’t seem to get all of the settings to equate to a comfortable temperature for the drive. You’ll kill me for saying it, but I think I want the three simple dials from the $6,000 used Honda Fit I used for the trip last year.
Same thing with the wipers—they’re automatic, of course, but you’ll just need to find the right speed of automatic you want. Isn’t that what I was doing before automatic wipers? And even if it’s technically different, isn’t it exactly the same amount of effort? And you know what worked a lot better than a super-smart car that loves to second-guess my every throttle input? Yes, a cable attaching my foot to the throttle body. But I digress, because as I complain, I cruise in a giant 2-ton luxury sedan with all-wheel drive and 335 hp—and I’m getting 27 mpg. The march of progress is undeniable, even if a few eggs have to be broken in the process. And besides, none of these Luddite gripes are BMW-specific.
For the most part, the Active Lane Keeping Assistant is great to use—the occasional touch of the steering wheel ensures an almost autonomous cruise down the highway. The occasional exit or unexpected lane seems to throw it off, though, causing disconcerting heading changes toward offramps and—sometimes—into gaps in medians. It’s a double-edged sword whose benefit is greater than its cost for most drivers. It’ll stop you from doing idiotic things—if you’re yelling at the kids in the back seat, it will keep you in lane and tell you when you’re straying. But it’s best to pay attention because 15 percent of the time, it likes to half-take exits, even when it can “see” both sides of the road.
Ithaca and the surrounding areas are incredibly picturesque—if you’ve been, you’re thinking “duh” as you read. Thick swaths of greenery fill either side of the road and a water crossing of some sort happens often, by an intimate old covered bridge or by trussed and cabled modernity. Even in June, the water below hurries to smooth the bed, crashing around the myriad rock outcroppings that still hold ground against the season’s spillage. When it’s time to park and dip a foot in, I have to concede to the cool factor of a couple more systems.
You know that cars can park themselves, but were you aware that cars with electronic gear selectors (that is, when you move the stick, there’s not a physical connection to the transmission) can do the shifting from drive to reverse, too? Here, you just push the park button, wait for the car to find a spot, stop the car, and hold the button. In seconds, you’re parked. Though this may seem like a very small step from the previous industry standard that included manual shifting, in practice, it’s a big leap forward—not necessarily for convenience, but it helps the whole system make sense. This car even comes with a remote control that you can use to start ‘er up and pull forward or backward into spaces. Perhaps this is another one that’s more useful to the driver in Europe’s tight metropolitan confines, but it may make a heck of a lot of sense for valets operating out of tight parking garages in Manhattan. Either way, it sure is a great way to show your friends you’re better than them.
Maybe you consider some of these features to be gimmicky, but there’s no denying the usefulness of others. When equipped with the $1,800 Driving Assistance Package, the $1,400 Driver Assistance Plus, $750 Remote Control Parking, $190 Gesture Control, and the $1,700 Driver Assistance Plus II, The 2017 BMW 540i xDrive makes a compelling case for technological dominance, and all-wheel drive just means you can automate through the winter season, too. But I think I’d spend the money on another road bike.