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April 17, 1996

BMW 5 Series

Rating 3 out of 5

VERDICT: Once somewhat overpriced, but now good value. Character, that famous badge and a most appealing engine (528i) offset the few disadvantages.

GOOD: Great long distance cruiser, comfortable, beautifully made, superb engine (528i), still has a certain cachet.

BAD: Lack of low speed power (especially in automatic), looks dated, BMW servicing expensive.

Front end - Should be checked carefully for shoddy repairs and possible crossmember cracking.
Boot - Can leak water.
Wheels/tyres - Watch for Michelin TRX and alloy wheel combination.

By John Wright

It was "the ultimate driving machine" in 1981. In 1996, the second generation BMW 5 Series is at best pleasant and competent.

BMW stylists took great pains to design a totally new body for the second generation of the mid-range 5 Series model. Indicating conservatism was the new BMW order, the new 1981 car was quite difficult to distinguish from the 1973 original.

Beneath the unadventurous styling lurked a much superior car, and what was once a most prestigious new car is now an affordable but still very practical and desirable used one - a great alternative to a somewhat newer Fal-con or Commodore.

The 528i came in standard or Exec- utive trim. In typical BMW fashion of the time, items such as electric windows, air-conditioning and alloy wheels were expensive extras on the standard car. The Executive, with an elaborate trip computer, alloy wheels, leather trim and other sybaritic items, also commanded a premium price.

The majority of buyers opted for the three-speed automatic transmission over the five-speed manual. Here the disappointments started. Despite producing a marvellous 135 kW of power from just 2.8 litres worth of sophisticated six-cylinder engine, the 528i automatic felt s-l-o-w around town.

A very tall first ratio in the automatic gearbox and an engine that needed lots of revs to give its best made for tardy acceleration from rest. At highway speeds the 528i automatic worked well but any old Commodore or Sigma could beat it across an intersection.

The car was designed to deliver its strongest performance on the autobahn. For the brawling real world of Australian traffic, a manual car makes much more sense.

Things improved significantly with the four-speed automatic introduced in 1984. By this stage there was a cheaper 5 Series with one of BMW's lovely six-cylinder engines: the 520i, introduced in 1983. All the above comments also apply, only in spades - avoid an automatic unless you never feel the need to accelerate safely across an intersection from a standing start or to grab a hole in the traffic.

Cars like the 520i automatic helped BMW acquired a reputation for being overrated during the mid-'80s, but now it's time for a reappraisal. Prices reflect a decade's depreciation; the cars have stood the test of time extremely well.

BMW parts and servicing have always been dear, but the 5 Series has proven more reliable than earlier models. For those willing to choose aftermarket repairers, the price of ownership need not be punitive although there can be inconveniences.

One example is in the neat little service and oil change indicator lights set into the dashboard. BMW devised a computerised system to measure the usage the car received and to indicate the optimum service intervals. The catch is that, without a special BMW tool, the service indicator lights cannot be switched off! One fault that afflicts a significant proportion of pre-loved 5 Series is that the lights are permanently illuminated or don't work at all as a consequence of fiddling hands trying to circumvent the clever BMW system.

Don't worry about the lights. Work out for yourself when the car needs servicing - start with every 5,000 km.

The 5 Series gives the lie to the view that older BMWs break down and give expensive trouble. Probably the most common mechanical problem is engine pinging induced by a combination of poor fuel and carbon build-up inside the engine. The remedy (cylinder head off for a decoke) can be costly. If you test drive a 528i that pings under acceleration or when climbing a hill, find another example.

These cars were beautifully built and set a new standard of safety for medium-sized sedans.

Rust is rare and the austere but very high quality cloth trim stands up well.

There is a tendency for the top of the dashboard to crack, and repairs aren't cheap.

The drivetrain and suspension are extremely durable. There are isolated cases of cracked crossmembers in cars that have had second-rate repairs done to the steering. If you are thinking of buying a 5 Series, get a steering specialist to check the front end first.

A special Michelin TRX and alloy wheel combination was an option on these 5 Series. Then considered state of the art, the TRX tyres are hard riding, not very durable and have almost no grip in the rain.

But there is an even bigger problem. If you buy a BMW thus equipped, you will not be able to fit any other kind of tyre - and the TRX is prohibitively expensive. Buy a car fitted with standard steel wheels or the 14-inch BMW factory alloys.

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The Sydney Morning Herald, 1996. This material is subject to copyright and any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.

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