The cars we loved.

1989-1995 BMW 5 Series (E34):Lonely At the Top

1990 BMW M5

1990 BMW M5

BMW’s 5 Series is an executive class midsized car that has something for everyone.  Its position as BMW’s middle sedan put in the heart of the sedan market and as a consequence it was the moving target that many tried to hit. After coming off the blocky upright E28 design before it, the new E34 car could easily be considered the best looking BMW until the arrival of the E36 3 Series in 1991. Its position in the middle of the BMW range placed the 5 Series as possibly the best balanced BMW literally and figuratively. With the ride qualities of the larger 7, and the finesse of the smaller 3 Series, the 5 had the best of what BMW had to offer. Widely considered one of the best handling sport sedans in the world, the 5 Series became the target for anyone trying to sell a “Euro Fighter”.

525 Interior

525 Interior

By the end of the 80’s few could equal BMW’s attention to detail where fit and finish was concerned. The 5 Series was a benchmark for the performance sedan market, staying a step or two ahead of the pack.  At best, competitors could match BMW’s horsepower (usually with larger engines), but not the combination of ride and handling which seemed to come with any car wearing the propeller badge, regardless of the numbers on the decklid. In Europe there were no less than 15 different engines available with displacements as small as 1.8 liters (115hp!). Such small engines would never make it in America where BMW was carefully crafting an image of performance via “The Ultimate Driving Machine” tagline. The thinking in Europe seemed to be that Americans drove in mostly straight lines and were obsessed with stoplight jaunts and off ramps as opposed to twisty back roads. The smaller range of inline 6 choices available to the American market insured some level of straight line performance.  All 5 Series cars came with a roomy comfortable interior with electronic systems check technology that informed the driver of miles to empty, engine status and even routine when service was needed.

E34 Touring

E34 Touring

The 5 Series came in sedan and handsome touring body styles. There were five engines over the course of the
E34’s lifecycle in America, ranging from a 2.5 L 6 to 4.0 L 8 cylinders. In typical BMW fashion a few 3 and 5 Series engines options overlapped. The big difference of course was the V8 in the upper range 540 and powerful  6 in the M5 could not be found under a 3 Series  hood. The 525i used the same inline 6 from the smaller 325. With only 168hp, the entry-level car may have seemed underpowered, but was every bit an executive BMW from a handling and comfort standpoint. On the other end of the spectrum there was the mighty M5.

93 525i

1993 BMW 525i

There was a lag in availability between the European and American editions, but the wait was  worth it for enthusiasts.  Offered in sedan and touring versions,  it featured a 3.6 L 24 valve DOHC inline 6 making 310hp. Power would go up with an upgrade to 3.8 in Europe. When first introduced in 1991 in the North American market, it was difficult to tell it apart from a standard 540. Oddly available in black at first, the M5 came with controversial wheels that looked more at home on a mid-level Buick. The odd rim/finned design thankfully did not last long and gave way to the now iconic “throwing star” design that became synonymous with later M cars. The gripes ended there.

The M5 was considered one of the best handling cars at any price and with a 5-speed manual could scoot to 60mph in 6.3 seconds and reach an electronically limited top speed of 155mph. European cars were faster to 60, needing only 5.9 seconds. Not all that great by today’s standards, but remember this was 1991. The six second barrio was usually broken by two door cars with less than half the practicality of the M5.

91 Alpina B10 Biturbo

91 Alpina B10 Biturbo

Like practically any modern BMW, the E34 was not without its robust tuner community. One of the largest with factory blessing was Alpina.  Their highly modified versions of both 6 and 8 cylinder cars were equal to the M5 in many respects and in some cases surpassed it. There was even a twin turbocharged version of the 3.4 L in the B10 Biturbo. The factory too would get in on the special edition game in very rare occasions. In 1995 BMW offered a special edition of the 540i called the M-sport. It came with a 6-speed manual transmission, 18in wheels and other M5 parts. Only 204 were built. Other variations of the car were produced in limited numbers for Canada and Australia.

Just as racing was said to improve the breed, the M cars did the same for the rest of the line. The versatility of the model range made the 5 Series well suited to many tasks from carrying groceries to catching speeders on the Autobahn. In Europe the E34 5 Series was a popular Police pursuit car because it had the ability to navigate the tight twisting roads of Europe with a level of speed and agility not usually associated with midsized cars.
By the end of the E34’s run, the Japanese were making inroads with their luxury brands on the fit and finish front. One of the BMW’s traditional hallmarks of combining driver input, road feel and responsiveness had still alluded Lexus and Acura by the start of the 90’s.  My the middle of the decade it was clear that the segment that the 5 Series almost started was becoming crowded with competitors who were beginning to get the formula right. A new 5 Series in 1997 would give the competition a new target.
Today the  E34 5 Series  still looks attractive, especially in M5 guise. The classic modern lines of the period still have the
angular qualities associated with BMW, while offering just enough concessions to aerodynamics to look sleek. Because of the bullet proof build quality, many of these old Bimmers can still be found on the second-hand market. The high
cost of standard service and the complex nature of BMWs in general oftens means cars that if they were not properly serviced they could end up as expensive wallet drainers later. A quick survey of the used car market would suggest that there were more poor examples floating around vs. the 3 Series. How else could you explain that the 3 Series retains much more of its value than the 5?  A good and well cared for example can still return driving thrills on par with just about any modern car in its class. Shop with care.
1990 BMW M5

1990 BMW M5


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This entry was posted on March 27, 2011 by in 80's Cars, 90's cars, BMW and tagged , , .
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