Quick Drive: BMW E34 520i

By James Wong

BMW. Three letters that evoke strong imagery, perhaps not all pleasant, of sporty rear-wheel drive cars and young cocky drivers. How far back does this fascination of the automobile from Munich stretch? Very far it seems, as we review the E34 5 Series from the 1990s. While the 3 Series has always been the favourite of young people awash with money, the 5 Series carried slightly more maturity about itself, appealing more towards the middle-aged man who thinks he still has a little lead in his pencils.

The E34, in my opinion, always had a bit of a mafia vibe from its looks, which is no bad thing for a BMW. Particularly for the one on test, which carries a 2.0-litre inline-6 engine that hardly tops the charts for any headline figures. Aside from its modest engine, the rest of the car is convincingly BMW, from its soft leather seats to its clear high-contrast instrumentation. It also helps that this is a lovingly restored example, which when I say lovingly, I mean obsessively. The cleanliness of the engine bay puts many modern cars to shame with its spotless internals and well-oiled appearance. You can also never tell the car’s age from the interior, which received a major revamp. The only thing amiss was the stagnant odometer; apart from that, every switch and knob works perfectly. An M steering wheel has been fitted, which looks a little out of place from the largely standard spec interior. It is, however, a nice wheel to hold and steer with. The paintwork looks brand new and the boot even has the obligatory Automobile Association basket. A spot-the-fault test also returned no findings; the car is a stunning example of its kind, and well-prepared for a road test.

Turning the car off the minor roads and on to the motorway, what first surprises is how quiet and refined the car is. Given that the engine has done its work getting the car up to speed, the car cruises like any modern German saloon – it is confident and settled, with little road and wind noise to intrude its progress. You can feel the engine has also been tuned to overtake at speed – you don’t really feel yourself lacking in power as long as you plan ahead for your lane changes, despite its sluggish performance from a standstill. I can really see myself driving this car for hundreds of miles on end without ever stopping. This is also thanks to great visibility, which is something that has diminished with modern cars. The pillars are thin and the cabin is airy, allowing the driver to really place the car where he wants to without taking a double-take on the blind spot. It is incredibly easy to drive the E34, a stress-free experience that must have been a revelation back in the 1990s.

If you can sustain the momentum, the way the car handles is deeply satisfying. Unlike the crashy rides of modern BMWs on runflats, the E34 wafts serenely and yet also gives the car just that right bit of lean to allow it to corner sweetly. Keeping the power coming to sustain the car throughout the corner is a bit of a problem, though. Often you find yourself having fun but at the same time the excitement ebbing away with the disappointing power delivery. It is a smooth engine, no doubt; it even sounds great and revs with a zest that belies its size. But it definitely feels torque-light and quite insufficient to haul this E34 around.

But wait – take a step back. It is a 20 year old car after all. It is a restored car that shouldn’t be driven aggressively. What made me want to drive like that in the first place? I reckon it is the great fundamentals for a true driver’s car that made me crave for more power, because everything else points to a car that could really throw up surprises for the driver. But as you would learn, savouring the seat in the BMW is reward enough for ownership. It is a fine machine, a well-engineered car that still runs like clockwork even after two decades. There are no weird noises, there are no creaks and there are no dodgy warning lights. This is a car that commands respect, a car which shows that age is no barrier when it comes to delivering driver satisfaction. Give it that, and you might just find yourself driving the car for many years to come.

Author: James Wong

The only writer to be based in Asia, James provides a refreshingly different perspective to the automotive industry with his unique experience of living in the Far East. He is a prolific journalist who has written for several leading automotive publications in Singapore, including Torque Singapore and REV Magazine Singapore. He believes in the thrill of driving and champions for an appreciation of driving pleasure above the horsepower race. In September 2010, James relocated to the United Kingdom, London, bringing him to a whole new environment from which to start a new chapter in automotive journalism.

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  1. Nice trip down memory lane! I had an E34 for 4 – 5 years in the nineties, and it was a sweet ride. Mine had the then-new 24 valve engine, so it was a bit more lively than the old mill you had in your tester. However, after many years and many miles on the next models, E39 and E60, I think we can say the world has moved on, particularly in terms of component realiability. After about 150 K miles, my E34 suffered massive organ failure; starter, alternator, radiator, heater core, clutch, engine control module, instruments, rear muffler, you name it!

  2. Thanks for sharing Tore. I myself am looking at a E39 5er, particularly a diesel for a long-distance tourer. Good to hear the reliability has much improved since the E34.


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