There is a long tradition of eight-cylinder engines at BMW. And of combining powerful machines with compact body variants. One such unit hailing from the BMW 7 Series ensured the 540i was a truly exceptional representative of the 5 Series clan. And the Touring version also offered practicality in spades.
Playing around with possibilities is always enjoyable, particularly when considering whether an engine would also fit into another (preferably smaller) body. This is because, almost by default, reduced weight improves performance. Obviously this will also have an effect on driver satisfaction, sending it on an upward trajectory. The legendary BMW 2002 is probably the best example of this. So why not try the beefy eight-cylinder engine from the 740i in the smaller 5 Series? Would it even fit?
Yes, it would. And what a result. In 1992 it slipped so neatly into the skin of the E34 5 Series (1987 – 96) that the broader kidney grille so reminiscent of the 7 Series was scarcely required. Although this modification served to differentiate the model from its more modestly powered siblings – and even the brutish M5 – at first, from 1994 the agreeably appealing face of the 540i was to adorn every 5 Series.
The 540i kept its riches hidden, no doubt about that; for anyone with naked ambition wanting to show off their status to the world in the most ostentatious style possible, it was completely unsuitable. If you placed greater emphasis on driving and enjoying the experience, however, it was just the ticket, offering superior performance headlined by 286 hp and a full 400 Nm (295 lb-ft) of torque.
Initially, the 540i was only available in sedan form. It did, though, sport a smooth-shifting, five-speed automatic transmission developed specifically for the new model variant. The 540i was an effortless operator and equally suited to gliding through city-centre traffic and enjoying a clear run on the motorway. The Touring version appeared in 1993, and with it a six-speed manual gearbox (as an alternative to the auto), which provided the lightness of touch and precision customers had come to expect from BMW.
Praise without reproach.
Klaus Westrup, editor of auto motor und sport, expressed his enthusiasm for the latest model in the 23/1992 issue of the German car magazine. Although he was testing the sedan, this played no part in his assessment. “BMW has brought the pinnacle of the automotive engineering art to a mid-sized model line with the introduction of the 540i. That is what makes this car so appealing – and also an experiment.” He concluded by lauding the 540i as one of the best cars in the world to drive.
High powered, high priced?
Like all top-of-the-range models, the 540i Touring carried a confident price tag: 89,500 marks, before options. The more widely affordable 520i, by contrast, could be had for 54,300 marks (in 1993). But the 540i Touring was designed to demonstrate the very best that could be achieved and in this respect it was a case of “job done”. If your budget didn’t stretch, there were still ample four and six-cylinder diesel and petrol variants to choose from; the 5 Series was positioned to appeal to a broad customer base, which partly explained its huge success. As well as the objective arguments in its favour, the 5 Series encouraged customers to “dare to dream”. And an eight-cylinder engine was certainly the stuff of fantasy.
The German Federal Motor Transport Authority (KBA) had 304 examples of the E34 BMW 540i Touring on its books in 2015, so seek and yea shall find. The car’s practicality remains a constant, but its value to aficionados has changed – and very much for the good. Having said that, more important than the financial returns within reach is the joy that its unique engine brings. Be warned, though: it is pretty addictive, too.