Review and road test of the BMW 5 Series (1988 - 1996)
BY JONATHAN CROUCH
The 5 Series that BMW launched in 1988 was something of a revolution for the Munich-based company. The Bavarian firm had always lived in the shadow of its rival, Mercedes-Benz, even though BMWs had often been better drivers' cars than those offered by the Stuttgart firm. In mid-1988, the company launched a car that rode, steered and gripped better than all its rivals in its class. The '5' really could now be called an 'Ultimate Driving Machine' - one instance where the advertising copy almost justified the reality.
The post-1988 5 Series was a huge success for BMW and there were many versions over the long lifetime of the model. Engines ranged from a 1.8-litre four-cylinder through to a four-litre V8 for the last of the top-models. The Touring estates gave the company a competitor to the hitherto unchallenged Mercedes-Benz E-Class, as well as establishing the '5' as full model range, not just a series of sporty luxury saloons.
The fourth generation 5 Series, launched as a saloon in 1996 and as a Touring estate in 1997, was an even better car. Not only was it sharper to drive than an equivalent Mercedes E-class but, crucially, it was also more comfortable to ride in. The tide had turned Bavaria's way.
Third generation 5 Series - (Saloon: 1988-1996 / Touring: 1992- 1997): (518i (four-cylinder) Saloon and Touring / 520i Saloon and Touring / 525i Saloon and Touring / 525i SEiX Touring (4wd) /525td turbo diesel Saloon / 525tds turbo diesel with intercooler Saloon and Touring / 530i Saloon and Touring / 530i (V8) Saloon and Touring / 535i Saloon and Touring / 535i 'Sport' Saloon / 540i (V8) Saloon and Touring / M5 3.5-litre Saloon / M5 3.8-litre Saloon)
NB- (Estates known as 'Touring'; trim levels are either 'base' or 'SE'; cars have six-cylinder engines unless noted otherwise in brackets)
The post-1988 third generation 5 Series range replaced a line-up already well established in the executive sector. Well established, yes, but not yet regarded on the same level as Mercedes-Benz, Bavaria's arch-rivals. The third generation car changed all that and paved the way for the final nail in the coffin of the Three-Pointed Star's dominance of the executive sector; this arrived in Spring 1996 in the form of the fourth generation 5 Series.
Back to June 1988; that month saw the introduction of the first of the third generation 5 Series saloons. First models off the boats were the 520i, 525i, 530i and 535i variants. They were all six-cylinder cars and BMW promoted them as such. The engines were smooth running, performance was excellent and the cars gained rave reviews from the motoring press.
First changes to the range came in January 1990, when the four-cylinder 518i Saloon arrived. A month later, the range was expanded at the top-end, when the fire-breathing M5 saloon was (almost-literally) released onto the road. This model was designed and built by BMW Motorsport and was a very fast, yet very safe four-door supercar. There are very few of these cars about, so if you find one, you'll be looking at something very special.
A new range of 24-valve engines appeared in September 1990. Both the 520i and 525i kept their badges, but their engines were all new. There were no further changes until January 1992, when the same engines appeared in two new estate models, the 520i Touring and 525i Touring. They featured a full-size tailgate but the back window could be opened separately to load small objects, as with the split tailgates of many off-roaders.
A new version of the M5 replaced the existing 3.5-litre car in April 1992. Its engine was now a 3.8-litre six-cylinder and remained unique to this car. A month later, a four-wheel drive version of the 525i Touring arrived, called 525 SEiX.
In January 1993, a new range of V8 engines replaced the old 3.0 and 3.5-litre six-cylinder motors. The 530i kept its name, as the smaller V8 had the same capacity as the old 'six'. The 540i name was a new one, however and, as the name suggests, this model had a 4.0-litre V8. Touring versions were launched at the same time.
A new 2.5-litre turbo diesel (with and without intercooler) engine appeared in July 1993 in three new models. The 525td saloon had the standard engine but the 525tds saloon and estates featured a more powerful 'intercooled' motor. A driver's airbag became standard across the range in September 1993.
The last revision of the third generation range was a version of the Touring that appeared in May 1994 with the 1.8-litre engine. It was only available with SE trim as the 518i SE. At the same time, all cars received a wider grille and new alloy wheels.
What You Get
A beautifully built, great looking, fast and safe executive express. Even the Touring is set-up to drive like a sports estate, rather than a softly sprung load-lugger. The bonus is that the Tourings have a competitively-sized load bay, so they make a lot of sense, whatever you want an estate-car for.
The '5' was never the most spacious of cars in its class, particularly for rear seat legroom, but space is certainly adequate for four adults. If you really need lots of lounging room, you want to look at the bigger 7 Series.
What to Look For
BMWs are, in the main, mechanically very strong cars, as their engines are all very refined and understressed. The 5 Series was certainly no exception and there are no known major problem areas with these vehicles.
The interiors can get a bit rough around the edges if your car is a former motorway-cruiser. The driver's seat may be a bit saggy and frayed if it has the cloth trim. Check all the electrical features like sunroof, windows, mirrors and central locking, as some cars have been a little problematic.
(Based on a 1995 525i) Servicing costs are either approximately £320, £160 or £90 depending on the level needed. A new clutch will be around £130 and brake pads front and rear are nearly £50 for each pair. An alternator will set you back about £200 and a starter motor just under £120. A headlight is nearly £165 and a replacement radiator in the region of £300.
On the Road
This is where the '5' really shines. Even all these years after the first cars were launched, the mid-size BMW still out-handles many so-called executive cars on sale today. The chassis engineers did a superb job by giving the car safe but inspired handling and roadholding, with a terrific ride as part of the bargain - something very few rivals of the time went anywhere near to matching. These, remember, included the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Audi 100, Rover 800 and Alfa Romeo 164.
Munich's mauler? When it comes to checking out the alternatives for your used executive car pound, the 5 Series takes some beating. It has the looks, badge, resale value, handling and performance that give it the nod for best all-round buy.
BMW 5 Series (1988 - 1996) review by JONATHAN CROUCH