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In a class of its own - BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo

Hatchback? Estate? SUV? BMW's latest 5 Series Gran Turismo may be a technical tour de force, but a day behind the wheel leaves our correspondent Anthony ffrench-Constant a little bit puzzled...

Allegedly combining the interior space and luxury of a 7 series with the load space and practicality aspirations of a 5 Series Touring, BMW says the new 5 Series Gran Turismo was created from the inside out. Queasy memories of the horrible mess which ensued when Jeff Goldblum's animal rights activist-stalked scientist teleported his hapless dog inside out in David Cronenberg's visceral remake of The Fly would appear to bear this out. For this body-in-white elephant is a dog's breakfast indeed.

The only vaguely recognisable 5 Series element to the whole gently frantic farrago is the familiar, stepped bonnet and front wing detailing reminiscent of a clinker-built boat. In profile, a car only a whisker shorter than the 7 series is denied SUV status only by a deliberate lowering of the ride height - the whole is taller than a 7 series but lower than an X5 - and the sawing off of the luggage compartment at a jaunty angle guaranteed to award your Labrador a massive headache should you be foolish enough to contemplate walkies further afield. From behind, the GT is little short of a lumpen catastrophe - a pressed-metal BLT sandwich marred by the fat lip of a wantonly botoxed boot lid.

Of the rich soup of hey I've had another great idea fired at the GT with the aid of a blindfold and blunderbuss, by far the most incomprehensible is the dual tailgate. Weighing so much that its hydraulic struts would pass muster in the front suspension, the tailgate splits into two. Sadly, the lower half doesn't fold down, Range Rover-style, to provide an agreeable gin terrace or picnic hamper platform. That would be far too SUV practical. It actually opens upwards to reveal an upright opening not quite large enough to allow for even the simple loading of supermarket shopping bags without knuckle clunking.

A further penalty of this gently pointless design is that at least an entire third of the rear window glazing is actually blacked out to disguise those monster lifting struts,making the view out astern so mean that anyone buying a GT without rear parking sensors had better simultaneously open an account with the local bodyshop.

For a car designed from the inside out, the interior packaging is better, but still not half as clever as it thinks it is. Its fundamental premise is that, unlike an estate or SUV, the GT offers a proper, compartmentalised loadspace with acoustic separation from the cabin, combined with loadspace flexibility on a par with the former. Almost true…

Available in two or three seat format, the 60:40 split rear seats slide to and fro by 100mm, affording undeniably copious legroom in the rearmost position, with adequate headroom provided by the removal of sizable divots from the remarkably deep roof lining. Slide them fully forwards, however, and the front seat design refuses comfortable access to your feet beneath them.

Moreover, the only way to make use of the extra 150 litres of luggage space then on offer is to release and fold forward the bottom hinged loadspace partition, thus destroying that much vaunted acoustic seal to the luggage compartment. Fold the rear seats fully forward, and the GT verges on estate car loadspace practicality. But the floor isn't fully flat, and the slope of the roof precludes the storage of truly substantial Antiques Roadshow fare.

Up front, meanwhile, the only thing which differentiates the entirely comfortable front seat accommodation from a common or garden 7 Series is the modest hike in ride height, affording drivers what BMW calls a 'Semi-Command' driving position. I'm not entirely sure what a 'semi-command' might be, but if Sergeant Wilson from Dad's Army were to require a dog to sit, the result might not be unadjacent: 'I wonder, if it isn't too much trouble and the grass isn't too damp or cold, whether you might be kind enough to sit down now…? Thanks awfully.'

Predictably, however, all is forgiven once you climb behind the wheel. And it's further testament to the enduring abilities of BMW's chassis engineers that they can make something which looks like a box of frogs and weighs two tonnes handle with remarkable alacrity. But then this, since the inception of the Bangle bauble design era, has so often been the case.

With a range priced from £40,810 to £53,490, UK versions of the GT may be armed with a choice of a 3.0 litre turbo diesel, or straight-six 3.0 litre and V8 4.4 litre petrol power plants, all married to an eight speed automatic transmission.

This is a new iteration of BMW's wholesome, 3.0 litre straight-six petrol unit, combining twin turbochargers, direct injection and variable valve timing to deliver 306bhp. It sounds terrific when bullied and provides appropriate urgency, summoning 62mph from a standstill in a quoted 6.3 seconds and the usual, governed, 155mph.

However, perhaps dithering a tad too long over which of the myriad gears on offer to choose from, it is sometimes a little slow to wake up to loud pedal inputs, the resultant perception of being caught mid-bend on a trailing throttle somewhat disconcerting in a car this massive.

Despite this, endless electronic trickery - available in a bewildering combination of options including switchable sharpening to throttle, steering, adaptive dampers and anti-roll bars - keeps the car flatter than a Lancashire vowel through the corners. Grip levels are reassuringly high, and both steering and brakes combine a pleasing weight and accuracy with the occasional pertinent reminder that, hatchback albeit, we are actually chucking about two tonnes of car here.

Less successful is something optional called Integral Active Steering, which combines four-wheel steering with a variable ratio and weight helm. Right up there with the tailgate in the largely pointless stakes, this system so thoroughly meddles with the steering process that you're frequently left feeling somewhat less than entirely in charge. Semi-Command Steering, as it were.

So, then, why? Evidently signed off in rosier times, BMW says the 5 Series Gran Turismo is 'A brand new concept. The kind of car you've never seen before'. Er, isn't that simply because it has never occurred to any of us that we'd ever actually have need of a gigantic, gently schizophrenic, high-riding hatchback? And, albeit lacking the gun turret it so clearly craves, doesn't the vast X6 already fulfil this role for BMW?

And why Gran Turismo? Surely, painting a chequered flag on the shell of a tortoise isn't going to alter its packaging and performance characteristics all that dramatically?

Obviously, the idea here is to create yet another suitably disguised SUV for people who cannot be seen to be associated with such a politically incorrect acronym, but wouldn't be seen dead in anything but a BMW. Given its size, this leviathan really should belong to the 7 Series stable. But with UK 7 Series sales slumping along at less than 1500 units for each of the last two years whilst the 5 Series has posted figures closer to 20,000, BMW clearly knows on which side its bread is buttered.

And that's more than could be said for the GT. If cars could talk, this one's relatively modest purchase price would become rapidly inconsequential in the face of mountainous psychiatric bills.

Overall, then, you could say it's a technological tour de force with schizophrenia and a skin complaint.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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