The BMW 5 Series is an executive car that has been in production by BMW since 1972. During this time, it has sold more than 5 million models worldwide, proving to be an enduringly popular model from the trusted German manufacturer.
The models in the 5 series are differentiated from one another by their unique chassis numbers (E or F) and a three-digit number: a 5 to represent the series and two further digits to represent the size of the engine in decilitres. Other digits or letters are used on some models to denote the fuel type, engine, transmission, or body style. There have been six generations of the 5 series to date, beginning with the E12 series and including the highly popular E34 with its clean lines, perfect proportions, and just-about-affordable-if-you-were-doing-well-for-yourself price tag.
The 5 Series represents some of BMWs most innovative vehicle engineering and is seen very much the flagship “luxury” model of the brand.
The first-generation 5 Series was the BMW E12, followed by the E28 in 1981, of which the most notable models were probably the M5 and the 535i, with its 12-valve, 6-cylinder engine. It was the E34, however, that really made Australia sit up and take notice of the 5 Series and acknowledge BMW as a major player in the high-performance car market. The E34 was introduced in the late 1980s and was a perfect mesh of traditional BMW layout combined with a stiffer, more streamlined body that took performance to another level. The E34 quickly developed a reputation for being one of the most reliable cars available on the luxury market, and its safety rating was second to none.
A typical 540i E34 model boasts a 4.0L 8-cylinder engine with 6-speed manual gearbox powering the car via its rear wheels with 210kW of power. The self-levelling suspension ensures a smooth ride, whether at speed on the open highway or powering off the lights in town.
The E39 followed the E34 in 1996 and built on the success of its predecessor, with BMW’s signature 6-cylinder engine in a range of sizes. The base model, starting with the 523i, came complete with a 2.5L double overhead camshaft engine, giving 125kw and 245nm of torque, with an alternative option of a 2.8L, which offered a bit more power at 142kw and 280nm. The V8 models topped the pile with a choice of 3.5L double overhead camshaft bent eight, 180kw, or a 4.4-litre giving a whopping 240kw. Layouts ranged between standard Sedan, Touring, Executive and Sport. Expect this generation to use around 11.0L/100km with a 6-cylinder, and nearer 13L/100km with a V8.
Further generations brought about evolutions in body styling and mechanics, ensuring that the 5 Series remained at the top of its game. New injection technology has maintained and improved engine performance while at the same time increasing fuel economy at all levels of the spectrum, from base model through to the top of the range.
The E34 has withstood the test of time both aesthetically and under the bonnet. The trim and finish is typical BMW, clean and unfussy, yet unmistakeably classy. Look for alloy wheels, leather finished steering wheel, and walnut finishes to the dash. As you would expect from a car of this calibre, earlier models have, on the whole, been well taken care of and many updated and upgraded with higher-spec alloy wheels, high-quality sound systems, and many mechanical extras.
Safety-wise, it was one of the safest cars on the road during its production years, boasting airbags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, and superb rigidity to the body structure which minimised injuries to driver and passengers in the event of a collision. Later E34s also feature ASC (Automatic Stability Control) and Traction Control on some of the higher specification models.
The BMW 5 Series has been at the top of its game for more than 40 years and has seen its fair share of competition. If you are in the market for a first generation model, you will be considering it alongside a vastly different range of cars than if you are looking for something just a year or two out of the showroom. That said, quality speaks for itself, and there are few to rival this best-in-class offering from BMW.
BMW’s own 3 Series is an alternative offering, which still oozes plenty of class and is slightly kinder on the purse strings. You could also consider an M5 for something at the very top of the range. Other competition comes from the upper echelons of the Mercedes-Benz offerings, as well as Lexus and the VB Commodore for earlier models.