BMW 5-Series (2017) review: The car you can drive with no one inside

We review the 2017 BMW 5-Series, a technological tour de force that does the driving and parking for you.

The new 2017 5-Series takes much of the flagship 7-Series' tech and makes it betterBMW

On the face of it, a new BMW 5-Series might not be the most exciting car to grace our tech-centric motoring section. But if you skip past the sombre exterior, tick plenty of boxes on the options list and step inside, you are greeted by one of the most high-tech vehicles on the market today.

We're all aware of new technology trickling down from each manufacturer's flagship, but in what feels like no time since we were invited to a sneak-peak of the tech-laden new 7-Series in 2015, BMW has already taken all that was good, improved it and slotted it into the cheaper, smaller 5-Series.

The star of the show is Remote Control Parking, which lets you drive the car backwards and forwards using a touch screen on the key fob – while not being in the vehicle.

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The idea is that buyers with narrow garages, or who regularly use car parks with tight bays, can point the car at the space, get out, then drive forward using the key. The car steers itself and will automatically stop before you crash it into anything.

Retrieving the car from a space made smaller by inconsiderate drivers to your left and right works in the same way.

The need to drive a car by remote control might not pop up every day, but when it does you can't help but feel like James Bond. The touch screen key can also be used to check the car's fuel level and estimated range, and remotely set the climate control to switch on at a set time.

BMW 5-Series Remote Control ParkingIBTimes UK

Also, to debunk a recent social media myth, the key doesn't need to be recharged via its microUSB port, as the most convenient place to put it in the interior has an embedded wireless charging plate. Put the key here and it will be fully recharged during every journey. The same plate can charge compatible smartphones too, like the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S7.

Among the improved 7-Series tech sits a range of gesture controls. We dismissed these as an impractical and unresponsive gimmick when we drove the 7-Series in late 2015, but since then BMW has worked some magic to make them more useful.

Twirling your left index finger in front of the dashboard raises and lowers music volume, and jabbing your second and third finger forwards is a gesture that can be customised to perform one of several tasks, like muting the stereo or setting the sat-nav for home. It might seem daft to prefer a twirl of your finger to a twist of the volume knob, or even a press of a button on the steering wheel, but it's surprisingly satisfying and even feels natural once you get the hang of it.

The touchscreen key fob can lock the car, set the air-con and even remotely drive it into a parking spaceIBTimes UK

Gesture control also comes in handy when parking. Firstly, external cameras create a live, 360-degree image of the car and its surroundings. The vehicle is computer-generated and looks like it has been lifted from a video game, but everything else shown on the dashboard touchscreen is real.

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You can pan around to check the car from every angle by swiping at the display, or by moving a pinched thumb and index finger to the right or left in front of the screen.

This 360-degree image can be seen on the dashboard display, but also via the BMW ConnectedDrive smartphone app from anywhere in the world – useful for checking in on your car (and next door's parking) while at work or on holiday. The app can also be used to check the fuel level, if the doors are locked, and send driving routes to the car's satellite navigation system, ready for when you get in.

The car uses outward-facing cameras to create an augmented, 360-degree view of itself and the environment around itIBTimes UK

Head onto the open road and the 5-Series' technology continues to impress. Radar-guided cruise control and active steering work together to produce an experience similar to Tesla's Autopilot.

On a motorway with clear lane markings the BMW can effectively drive itself with the £2,250 Driving Assistant Plus package, staying in-lane around corners and maintaining a safe distance to the car ahead. The system even works well in stop-start traffic, driving us along a congested section of the M4 motorway one Sunday evening with no inputs from us whatsoever.

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But while we felt confident leaving the car to it in slow traffic (with a finger resting on the steering wheel to let it know we weren't asleep), at motorway cruising speed it struggled to stay in lane. The 5-Series often drove closer to the left side of the lane than we felt comfortable with, and on a handful of occasions even set off its own lane-departure warning, vibrating the steering wheel in panic at its own driving.

Handsome-but-plain exterior hides a cabin of high-tech, high-end luxuryIBTimes UK

This could be a camera calibration issue, but it was enough to make us think twice before switching the system back on at 70mph. Which is a shame, because when it works we felt the technology really took the effort out of long motorway drives. It isn't perfect, but shows great improvement over the 7-Series we tested 18 months ago.

Moving away from the car's technological trickery, the new 5-Series is exactly what you would expect from a large BMW saloon car. The ride is comfortable, compliant and predictable; the eight-speed automatic gearbox is smooth and rarely confused about which ratio to pick; Sport mode adds a pleasing degree of firmness to the ride and weight to the steering, and the cabin offers almost Rolls-Royce levels of quietness.

High-end cabin looks and feels as luxurious as you'd hope for a car costing £66,000 with optional extrasBMW

The interior's sense of refinement extends to every surface, switch and button you touch. There is a pleasing lack of hard, scratchy plastic and instead everything you interact with as a driver or passenger looks and feels top-notch. The foot well, mood lighting and integrated perfume dispenser might feel like gimmicks (the latter certainly is), but the rest of the interior is just lovely.

BMW 5-Series (2017) 530d xDrive M Sport9 stars

Being a BMW, you get the feeling the car enjoys both sedate motorway cruises and spirited drives across country backroads. It feels sporty and alert, but not quite as sharp as the similarly-sized Jaguar XF. Our review car had the £2,000 xDrive option, giving it permanent four-wheel-drive, and an extra £995 would have included Integral Active Steering – BMW-talk for four-wheel-steering, which would make the car feel shorter and more agile in the bends.

But that isn't really the point. This isn't a sports car and nor should it try too hard to be. It's a big luxury barge with plenty enough power for gliding up and down motorways; a car packed full of toys and technology to keep you and your passengers entertained and comfortable.

Here, on the long-distance cruise with its semi-autonomy, massage seats, premium stereo and whisper-quiet cabin, the 5-Series is one of the best, at its very best.

The BMW 5-Series saloon starts at £36,410. This 530d version with xDrive all-wheel-drive and M Sport styling starts at £49,130, and the car reviewed here is priced at £66,150 after optional extras.

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