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Bent-Eight Beemer

We check out the affordable V8-powered BMW - the 540i.

Words by Michael Knowling, Pix by Julian Edgar

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At a glance...

  • The BMW 540i
  • 4.0 and 4.4 litres of BMW V8 grunt
  • Image and quality
  • High level of safety
  • Now available at a reasonable price
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Want a late-model Euro with V8 grunt? Well, check out the BMW 540i.

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 ratio.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Australia during 1993 a smaller capacity version – the 3.0 litre 530i – also appeared.

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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.

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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!).

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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 introduced.

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 rpm-sensitive arrangement.

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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.

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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 fuel octane.

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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 amount.

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 Drive

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 unleaded fuel.

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.

Contact/Thankyou:

Michael McMichael Motors                     +61 8 8362 4788

Thanks to Andrew Pade for making his E39 BMW 540i available for photography and a test drive.

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