The launch of a new 5 Series isn’t only a big deal to BMW; it’s a momentous occasion to car buyers around the world that ‘get’ the 5 Series concept and are keen to know what the next generation will bring.
At the international launch of the G30 model in Lisbon last November, BMW Car was fortunate enough to be allowed in an example of every one of the previous six generations, from the lithe E12 right up to the still modern-looking F10.
It offered a unique perspective on the evolution of the genius and will certainly be to blame for increased late-night activity scouring the classifieds for well-looked-after examples.
BMW E12 528 automatic – 1975
The 5 Series came to life in 1972 with the E12, replacing the ‘New Class’ that comprised the 1500, 1800 and 2000. First up were the 520 and 520i, powered by four-cylinder engines of, as the names suggested, 2.0-litre capacity. The 525 arrived a year later with a six-cylinder engine and 145hp. Some 700,000 examples of the E12 were sold.
Having spent the best part of two days in the brand-new G30 BMW 5 Series, it’s a bit of a shock to the system to begin our journey through the model’s history at the very start, in this exquisite yellow/green E12, a 528 automatic. It was launched in 1975 as the range-topper, with a carburettor atop the straight-six 2.8-litre petrol engine. Sounds like a recipe for fun, but the maximum power output of 165hp seems puny these days, and so it proves on the test-drive, despite the relatively low 1385kg weight of this car.
A closer look at the tech specs reveal that the peak power is produced at 5800rpm, which seems cruel to do to such a beautifully maintained classic as this. Saying that, this engine clearly thrives on revs. What’s more surprising is how unrefined, loud and, well, raspy it is. This is not a cultured and quiet six-cylinder experience. Further aging the car is an awful three-speed automatic transmission with a clunky and spindly shifter. Indeed, there’s nothing in the cabin to link the E12 with the new car – BMW logo aide. We even had difficulty trying to work out how to do simple things like turn on the rear window demister, as the few controls there were labelled in German.
However, thanks to slender roof pillars, large expanses of glass and high-set seating, this 528 feels very spacious and airy. The chairs are comfy, squidgy and wide, while the skinny-rimmed steering wheel has a laughably large diameter. The rim is firm and unyielding and it’s attached to a power steering system that’s slow and not exactly pleasantly weighted. Nonetheless, on greasy wet roads there’s decent feedback from the high-profile tyres and through the rim to your hands, telling you that there’s mild initial understeer if you take a corner too quickly.
This does give way to a little rear-end slip but it’s nothing to worry about despite the lack of traction control. It’s only because the weather was so bad that we got to experience loss of grip at all, as most wouldn’t drive a classic such as this fast enough in the dry. It’s a car to enjoy for its originality and that it marks the start of the 5 Series story in the sand.
We see an even more interesting example of the E12 hanging around the launch venue – the ultra-rare M535i with its front and rear spoilers and BMW Motorsport stripes. BMW Motorsport GmbH was created in 1972 and it produced the very special 218hp M535i in 1980, just before the second generation of the 5 Series was unveiled. Sadly, we were not allowed test this one, no matter how much we begged.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE BMW E12 528
ENGINE: Straight-six, 12-valve
MAX POWER: 165hp @ 5800rpm
MAX TORQUE: 176lb ft @ 4000rpm
0-62MPH: 9.5 seconds
TOP SPEED: 123mph
WEIGHT (DIN): 1385kg
HOW MANY (528): 37,501
HOW MANY (ALL E12s): 700,000
It’s a car to enjoy for its originality… it marks the start of the 5 Series story.
BMW E28 524td
BMW knew it was on to a winning formula so stuck to it for the second generation and, at a glance, there’s little other than cosmetic tweaks to separate the E28 from its predecessor. It was all change under the skin, though, where BMW introduced more modern electronics including anti-lock brakes and electronic fuel injection. The suspension was all-new, too, with a double-joint front axle and semi-trailing arm rear axle.
Eclipsing the M535i was the very first M5, revealed in 1984 with 218hp from its BMW M1-derived straight-six with six throttle butterflies. We’re gutted there’s not one of them present to try but there is an example of the E28 generation here that is far more appropriate, the 524td, the first diesel 5 Series. This lovely red specimen has nearly 50,000 kilometres on the clock and although it’s clearly a diesel, the fact that it’s a straight-six engine (codenamed the M21) brings some smoothness to proceedings. Unlike the high-performance six-cylinder diesels we’re now accustomed to, the 524td had to make do with 115hp and 155lb ft of torque, the peak power produced as high as 4800rpm, a level we really don’t want to take this classic engine to today. And apparently you’d need every one of those horses to repeat the glacial 0-62mph time of 12.9 seconds, in spite of a pretty trim 1355kg weight. There was an even slower version of this engine offered without turbocharging, which doesn’t sound very ‘BMW’ to us.
In 1987, a year after the example we have here was produced, mechanical injection was replaced by electronic control, allowing the fitment of a smaller, more responsive turbocharger to give a higher torque output of 162lb ft.
The interior is not drastically different to its predecessor’s, with its large glazing and slim pillars for an excellent view out, but the detailing is clearly more modern, as is the switchgear – even I can operate the heating controls. Though all black, it’s somehow less austere and minimal inside. The seats are virtually unchanged in structure though, even if the colour scheme is more subdued, so it’s a comfortable cabin. The major difference is the presence of an awkward looking five-speed manual gear lever.
BMW shifted about 722,000 examples of the E28 before it was replaced – nearly 75,000 of them accounted for by the diesel variant.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE BMW E28 524td
ENGINE: Straight-six, 12-valve
CAPACITY: 2443cc / M21D24
MAX POWER: 115hp @ 4800rpm
MAX TORQUE: 155lb ft @ 2400rpm
0-62MPH: 12.9 seconds
TOP SPEED: 112mph
WEIGHT (DIN): 1355kg
HOW MANY (524td): 74,602
HOW MANY (ALL E28s): 722,000
BMW introduced more modern electronics including anti-lock brakes and electronic fuel injection.
BMW E34 540i
This third generation car, the 1994 E34 540i, was my favourite steer of the day. Hardly surprising when it’s powered by a naturally aspirated 4.0-litre V8 petrol engine. BMW quotes 286hp at 5800rpm for this freerevving unit and though it doesn’t feel as frisky as that might suggest, it’s still a lot of fun. Crucially, it’s very usable power that’s easy to mete out – even in verging-on-torrential conditions we experienced. With such power on tap, it should be no surprise that it’s easy to break traction in this car, but it’s wonderfully controllable thanks to a more manageable steering wheel size and longer wheelbase. In fact, the traction control system is impressively quick-thinking, too.
Because of its well-judged driving controls, this car genuinely shrinks around you, making it feel more compact than its predecessors. The stats say otherwise, as the E34 is considerably larger – it’s about 100mm longer and 50mm wider than the E12 and E28, and, in this specification, a whopping 350kg heavier. Although it’s usefully bigger on the outside, it doesn’t feel larger inside due to the more modern cosseting wraparound design of the dashboard and doorcards. It’s positively festooned with buttons too, from the clunky electric window switches in the centre console to the tiny switchgear for the trip computer and period radio/cassette player. It’s more obviously luxurious in comparison to the older cars here too thanks to ruched leather, horrid shiny ‘wood’ panelling and even individual temperature controls for driver and front seat passenger. The shifter for the five-speed automatic transmission is not all that dissimilar to that fitted to the E12 I tried earlier, but the gearbox itself is on a different level in terms of smoothness. Even so, I must admit to using it to stick in second and third gears the whole time on a twisty section of mountain road to make the most of the engine’s output.
This V8 model wasn’t introduced until 1992, four years after the E34 was launched. In 1988, all variants came with a catalytic converter and electronic fuel injection as standard and all had six-cylinder engines (including the 520i, 525i, 530i, 535i and 524td). The M5, with 315hp, also made its debut in 1988. An entry-level model, the four-cylinder 518i, arrived in 1989, while the six-cylinder engines were upgraded with four valves per cylinder and Vanos variable camshaft control.
More firsts for BMW and the 5 Series came in the form of optional electronically controlled dampers, Servotronic speed-sensitive power steering, ASC stability control, four-wheel drive (in some markets) and the Touring estate model, introduced in 1991. That alone accounted for 125,000 sales, while the E34 found an incredible 1.3 million homes. My favourite, the 540i, was sold to over 24,000 buyers.
It’s wonderfully controllable thanks to a more manageable steering wheel size and longer wheelbase.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE BMW E34 540i
ENGINE: V8, 32-valve
MAX POWER: 286hp @ 5800rpm
MAX TORQUE: 295lb ft @ 4500rpm
0-62MPH: 6.8 seconds
TOP SPEED: 155mph
WEIGHT (DIN): 1650kg
HOW MANY (540i): 24,025
HOW MANY (ALL E34s): 1,300,000
BMW E39 528i
After the V8 fireworks of the E34 540i, this modestly powered E39, of 1998 vintage, was initially a bit of a let down, but it soon wormed its way into my affections. Its straight-six 2.8-litre petrol engine is creamy smooth and sounds fantastic, much better than the E12’s and though it ‘only’ produces 193hp, it makes very good use of it. In fact, one major advance of the E39 over the E34 is widespread use of aluminium, meaning, for instance, that this 528i, at 1515kg, is usefully lighter than the E34 540i. That’s in spite of another dimensional increase – the E39 is 55mm longer, 49mm wider and 24mm higher than its predecessor. It doesn’t look it, though. While the weight reduction doesn’t necessarily manifest itself in a straight line speed comparison between the two, the 528i certainly is more composed on the road. Indeed, this example is as tight as a drum, giving it a notably more modern feel than the cars it succeeded.
There’s not a rattle or hum out of place and noise suppression is top notch. Some brand-new cars are not as refined as this 528i. Indeed, BMW made a big noise about the E39’s increased torsional stiffness when it was unveiled, so perhaps this tightness is a welcome result of that.
The interior design gives the game away of course, but it’s clearly from a more recent era than the E34. Saying that, there’s still shiny wood on display… Take a closer look at the pictures and you’ll also find satellite navigation, an integrated car phone (yes, that thing between the seats that looks as big as an armrest) and even a television. Oh, and check out all those buttons on the steering wheel – something we take for granted now.
BMW launched the E39 at the 1995 Frankfurt Motor Show and its most obvious distinguishing feature was the glass covers for the traditional double round headlights. These would evolve to include the distinctive Corona Rings daytime running lamp graphic in 2000; a look that continues today. In 1998, the brilliant 400hp M5 was launched, with electronically controlled individual throttle butterflies. The E39 notched up 1.47 million sales before it went out of production in 2004, an outstanding 261,000 or so of them being the middle-of-the-range 528i.
This example is as tight as a drum, giving it a notably more modern feel than the cars it succeeded.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE BMW E39 528i
ENGINE: Straight-six, 24-valve / M52
MAX POWER: 193hp @ 5300rpm
MAX TORQUE: 206lb ft @ 3950rpm
0-62MPH: 7.5 seconds
TOP SPEED: 147mph
WEIGHT (DIN): 1515kg
HOW MANY (528i): 261,119
HOW MANY (ALL E39s): 1,470,000
BMW E60 545i
You’d be forgiven for thinking that we’ve missed out a generation, so radical looking and tech-laden did the E60 become. It was very much a Chris Bangle car, the American designer that is loved and hated in equal measure by BMW enthusiasts the world over overseeing the style of the 2003 model. That didn’t seem to affect demand, however, as well over 1.4 million versions of the E60 5 Series were sold – counting the four-door saloon and the Touring estate.
Here we have a 2004 545i in very modest looking specification – it’s even de-badged. Yet under the subtle exterior (it may have looked radical in 2003, but 14 years later, we’re all familiar with the lines) lies a 4.4-litre V8 petrol engine putting out a healthy 333hp. Nonetheless, the E60, due to lots of new equipment and yet another dimension increase, was heavier than its predecessor, so this car is more of a luxury model than an outright sports saloon. That was left to the madcap V10-engined M5, which is a story for another day. The E60 did mark the introduction of an aluminium integral rear axle, Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), variable ratio power steering (Active Steering) and Adaptive Drive with electronic damper adjustment and anti-roll stability management. Naturally not all of this was ever standard.
However, inside, BMW’s initially controversial iDrive controller was fitted to all variants of the E60 5 Series. This provided the interface to its myriad infotainment systems through an inset dashboard mounted screen, which itself formed part of the flat dashboard for the first time (i.e not angled toward the driver). Journalists at the time were highly critical of the system and the latest iterations are a million times better, but BMW did update it in 2007 during the LCI update.
At the same time, ‘EfficientDynamics’ was introduced to the world, touting to increase the efficiency of the 5 Series while also enhancing its dynamics. The timing was perfect as it coincided with a move to taxation based on CO2 emissions for many countries and BMW stole a clear march on its rivals. The 520d went on to be a huge sales success, initially mixing 55.4mpg economy with 177hp. It was never as smooth to drive as this 545i, alas.
Under the subtle exterior lies a 4.4-litre V8 petrol engine putting out a healthy 333hp.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE BMW E60 545i
ENGINE: V8, 32-valve
MAX POWER: 333hp @ 6100rpm
MAX TORQUE: 332lb ft @ 3600rpm
0-62MPH: 5.8 seconds
TOP SPEED: 155mph
WEIGHT (DIN): 1705kg
HOW MANY (545i): 25,909
HOW MANY (ALL E60/1s): 1,400,000
BMW F10 535i
While the E60 was the first 5 Series to feature a turbocharged petrol engine, the 2009 F10 made it its own, more so after the 2012 LCI update, when fourcylinder 2.0-litre petrol engines using twin-scroll turbocharging were introduced. The 2011 M5 was powered by a twin-turbocharged 4.4-litre V8, while the six-cylinder petrol variant was the 535i featured here, putting out 306hp and 295lb ft. It’s a lovely engine, smooth in its delivery and too quiet to be sporting, but fast enough for anyone all the same. The performance is disguised by the flat torque curve, but even so, this is a hugely satisfying car to drive.
The interior of the F10 is still modern but next to the G30’s cabin it looks old-fashioned already. Its quality makes up for that, and there’s little difference between the two when it comes to accommodation. An admission here: BMW didn’t allow us drive the F10 on display in Lisbon. However, cast your mind back to the October issue where we tested the preproduction G30 in Wales accompanied by BMW’s chassis engineers. To get to the test location, we used an F10-generation 520d M Sport on ‘comfort’ suspension and drove it over the same test route later in the day to get a sense of the differences. They were notable; the old car wallowing about on its springs more and exhibiting more vagueness when turning into a corner. Nonetheless, the F10 was the 5 Series that BMW focused on comfort in and thousands of owners’ backs will thank them for that.
As much as we love the 535i, the F10 cemented the importance of diesel to the 5 Series story and it was offered in no less than six different models from the 143hp 518d (upgraded to 150hp in 2014) at one end of the scale to the left-hand drive only M550d xDrive with 381hp at the other. Unsurprisingly, the F10 will go down in history as the most successful 5 Series to date. That will have been helped, no doubt, by its more restrained and less opinion-dividing appearance, which looks more like a natural evolution from the E39 than the E60.
Unsurprisingly, the F10 will go down in history as the most successful 5 Series to date.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE BMW F10 535i
LENGTH/WIDTH/HEIGHT: 4907x1860x1464 mm
ENGINE: straight-six, 24-valve, turbocharged
MAX POWER: 306hp @ 5800-6000rpm
MAX TORQUE: 295lb ft @ 1200-5000rpm
0-62MPH: 5.8 seconds
TOP SPEED: 155mph
WEIGHT (DIN): 1675kg
HOW MANY (ALL F10/F11s): 2,200,000 and counting
BMW G30 540i
Evolution is a word bandied about for the G30 5 Series, and that certainly applies to the new car’s design. However, park it up next to its predecessor and you can’t help but think that the F10 looks rather dumpy and bulbous next to the lithe, tight lines of the new car. That’s emphasised by the 7 Series inspired design, where the wider kidney grilles, high-tech new headlights and the lower, smoother, simpler bonnet all come together in one join line. Meanwhile, the Air Breathers behind the front wheels, while not to all tastes, certainly visually break up the bodywork and drag the height of the car down – as far as your eyes and brain are concerned.
Less obvious, but highly effective, is the joining of the Hofmeister kink at the rear of the side glass with the swage line along the doors. The rear is less new looking, though slimmer LED lights feature, as do asymmetric exhaust outlets.
The interior is a world apart from the F10’s, using the best of the 7 Series such as a slender dashboard design and high-tech widescreen touchscreen infotainment. There’s a massive head-up display on the options list, gesture control and, more than that, the material selection and fit and finish warrant more comparison with the current 7 G11/G12 than they do the F10. The climate control switchgear is a real treat, for example, as is the design of the new instruments.
Big news here is the new suite of driver assistance technologies, meaning the 5 Series can steer, accelerate and brake for you in certain restricted circumstances. It’s all very clever and smooth. Nothing radical has happened under the bonnet as yet, with the familiar diesel and petrol options, many tweaked for more power and less fuel consumption, but the core platform has been lightened by 100kg and it’s all much stiffer too, to the benefit of refinement and dynamics. And the G30 really moves the game on in those measures, being far quieter and smoother than before, just as comfortable and yet, somehow, a little more agile. It remains to be seen if the basic 520d M Sport retains all that without the launch cars’ myriad driving options, but we have high hopes.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE BMW G30 540i 2017
ENGINE: straight-six, 24-valve, turbocharged
MAX POWER: 340hp @ 5500-6500rpm
MAX TORQUE: 332lb ft @ 1380-5200rpm
0-62MPH: 5.1 seconds
TOP SPEED: 155mph
WEIGHT (DIN): 1705kg
So where does the mighty 5 Series go from here? It’s established as one of the most important models in the line-up, if not in sales terms, in how BMW defines itself. In some respects it will shadow the 7 Series, but it’s also as likely to be the vehicle BMW launches its next generation technologies in. Expect lots more autonomous driving technology soon, for a start, but aside from that the 5 Series will spread its remit wider than ever.
On that score, we’ll soon have a plug-in hybrid iPerformance model, the left-hand drive only M550i xDrive, ultra-efficient 520d EfficientDynamics model and, of course, the 5 Series Touring and brand-new M5, probably with xDrive four-wheel drive and nigh on 600hp.