Want a late-model Euro with V8 grunt? Well, check out the BMW
The BMW 540i was an instant hit when it arrived in Australiain
1993. Replacing the existing top-line 5-series (the 535i, see Pre-Owned Performance),
the E34 540i swallowed the same 4.0 litre V8 fitted to the big 740i.
The all-alloy M60 4.0 litre V8 employs chain-driven double overhead
camshafts, 4-valves-per-cylinder, a lightweight plastic intake manifold and
Bosch DME 3.3 management with knock sensing. The bottom-end features
fracture-split sintered conrods and a then-considered-high 10.0:1 compression
Peak power from the 4.0 litre BMW bent-eight is 210kW at 5800 rpm while
there’s 400Nm of torque at 4500 rpm. The rev limiter is set at over 6500 rpm –
testament to the engine’s free-revving nature.
Driving through a standard 5 speed automatic transmission, the 540i
accelerates from standstill to 100 km/h in the high 7/low 8 second bracket. It’s
not lightening-quick, but its more than brisk enough to catch out other drivers. Fuel consumption (depending on your right boot) is in the vicinity
of 13 litres per 100km.
Interestingly, by BMW’s own admission, the 4.0 litre V8 is not as quiet as a
contemporary Mercedes-Benz or Lexus V8. It is said that the V8 engines were
built to have a sporty sound.
The 540i scores unique damper and spring rates for its MacPherson strut front
and multi-link semi-trailing arm rear suspension as well as upsized 225/60 tyres
on 15 inch alloys. Electronic stability control and traction control (which
operates the throttle and brakes individual rear wheels) maintains vehicle
composure, but the BMW does exhibit mild understeer. It also lacks steering feel and
weight. However, in terms of brakes, the 540i is very impressive. The 540i
employs larger ventilated discs, ABS and front cooling ducts to deliver powerful
and fade-resistant stopping power.
Inside, the E34 540i is the same as any other contemporary 5 series except it
comes with standard leather and timber trim, a driver’s airbag, electric front
seats and a sunroof. Power windows and climate control fall into the ‘of course’
category. Space utilisation is not a strong point in today’s context.
One of the common criticisms of the 540i was its lack of differentiation from
other models. A 7 series style grille, coloured rear garnish, alloys and a boot
lid badge are the only give-aways – along with the unmistakable V8 throb when
the owner puts their right foot down...
Retailing new for around AUD$143,000, the 540i was one of the most expensive
mid-size sedans on the market. Despite this, high-paid executive tyres snapped
them up in a frenzy and you’ll have no problem finding one second-hand.
Depending on kilometres, service history and overall condition, an E34 540i
starts from around AUD$19,000.
We spoke to an Adelaide BMW service specialist – Michael McMichael – and were
told it’s important to keep the age of the E34 in mind when buying. In addition
to normal servicing items, you should keep an eye out for oil pump problems,
broken head studs and oil leaks in the ‘valley’ between the cylinder heads.
Troublesome vacuum leaks can also occur in this area. There are no major
problems with the automatic transmission.
Note that, in
America, the M60
V8 was known to suffer cylinder bore damage which was exacerbated by excessive
amounts of sulphur once found in US-grade fuel. This occurs only in E34 540is
with Nikasil cylinder blocks. Later models employ Alusil blocks which, together
with a revised fuel brew, avoid bore problems.
In short, it pays to have a comprehensive mechanical inspection on the aging
E34 and, wherever possible, go for one with low kilometres.
The ‘Baby V8’ 5 Series
When the 540i was released in
1993 a smaller capacity version – the 3.0 litre 530i – also appeared.
The 530i brings the same M60 V8 smoothness and aural qualities, but with only
160kW and 260Nm it is not considered a performance vehicle; its acceleration is
apparently similar to a contemporary V6 Holden Commodore...
Everything we’ve ever read about the V8-powered 530i says to go the extra
mile and buy a 540i.
In late 1996 the E34 540i was replaced by the E39 version.
The E39 is almost a clean-sheet redesign of the 5 series, however it looks so
similar to the E34 many people regard it as a mere facelift. The E39 is slightly
wider, longer and taller than its predecessor and is said to boast a massive 80
percent improvement in torsional stiffness. But, most importantly, the V8 engine
in the 540i is stretched to 4.4 litres (and sends BMW’s model identification
system out the window!).
The E39’s M62 V8 uses a larger bore and stroke Alusil block with reduced
friction pistons, 10.0:1 compression and revised engine management. Curiously,
peak power remains unchanged at 210kW, although this is now reached 100 rpm
earlier in the rev rage (at 5700 rpm). On the upside, peak torque is up to 420Nm
at just 3900 rpm.
Note that, from 1998, BMW’s single VANOS system (variable inlet cam timing)
was introduced. This brought an extra 20Nm for a total of 440Nm.
The E39 rides on a wishbone front-end and multi-link IRS chassis arrangement
similar to that used in the E34. The rear also incorporates BMW’s
‘elasto-kinematic’ passive rear-wheel-steering, which is induced by lateral
force. Sixteen inch wheels and dynamic brake control (brake assist) were also
The sequential Steptronic automatic transmission appeared in the E39 540i
along with Servotronic steering. Note that the V8 is the only member of the E39
line-up to come with recirculating ball steering instead of rack and pinion.
This is due to the E39 V8’s limited under-bonnet space. Interestingly,
speed-sensitive steering assistance was available as an option to the basic
Onboard, the E39 is similarly styled to the E34 but it incorporates a vast
array of modern features. The leather front seats, steering wheel and mirrors
have memory settings, there’s a boot-mounted CD stacker, cruise control, digital
climate control, sunroof, parking sensors and four airbags as standard.
From there is a bewildering list of options. A satellite navigation/TV,
phone, heated seats, Xenon headlights with washers, rear blind, adaptive
damping, extra airbags, 17 inch wheels and many other extra-cost fitments were
available. These blew the base price of the E39 540i out of the water so it’s no
surprise most were sold with relatively few options.
Weighing around 1750kg, the E39 540i has a wide spread of test acceleration times
to its name – 6.8 to 7.4 seconds. It appears that later-model versions with
VANOS are marginally quicker than earlier models and the V8 donk is sensitive to
When new, the E39 540i could be bought from a base price of around
AUD$150,000 – plus options. Today, the cheapest E39 540i you’ll find is around
AUD$40,000 ranging up to AUD$65,000. Note that the E39 540i continued production
until 2003 so late-model examples are yet to depreciate a substantial
The E39 540i is still a relatively new car and, as a result, there are no
common problems to be aware of. The cylinder bore issues of the old E34 are well
and truly in the past.
Whichever model you chose - so long as it is a low-kilometre example with a
strong service history - you should be served well by these bent-8 Beemers.
A Short Test
We were graciously provided with a 1999 BMW 540i for a short test drive and
came away with some interesting observations.
First - the engine...
The single VANOS 4.4 litre V8 is a sweet sounding engine that’s eager to rev
and particularly punchy through the mid-range and toward the redline. However,
to extract the best throttle response and overall performance, you need to shift
the transmission manually. Driven in this way, the 540i feels every bit as quick
as claimed - but we did notice occasional detonation when running on normal
Longitudinal and lateral pitching is noticeable when hustling through corners
and the steering lacks the feel we expected. It’s unclear whether this
particular car has rpm or road speed sensitive power steering.
The cabin is extremely comfortable but, depending on interior colours, it
does have a rather sombre feel. Rear passenger legroom is also marginal. All
controls are well laid out and the build standard is high.
Michael McMichael Motors
+61 8 8362 4788
Thanks to Andrew Pade for making his E39 BMW 540i available for photography
and a test drive.