BMW’S 5 Series (E34) reappraised
This car strides along motorways as though it is sitting on a cushion of air
If you saw a Pirelli P7 tyre from the early 1990s unmounted and out of context – perhaps resting up against a wall in somebody’s living room – you wouldn’t know if you should take it to your local fitter or slip it around your waist and leap into the nearest swimming pool.
The tyre’s 135mm sidewall is so doughy and voluptuous that, by today’s ultra-low-profile standards, the P7 looks less like a car tyre and more like something you’d kick out of the way as you walked back from the hotel bar to your sun lounger.
You just don’t see tyres like this on modern cars, let alone executive saloons. The current BMW 5 Series would look pretty terrible on 15in wheels with such pudgy rubber, but I’d be willing to bet the car would ride a whole lot better. In fact, it’s that squishy sidewall that makes this 1991 525i such a pleasure to drive.
The E34 generation came third in the 5 Series dynasty, first introduced in 1988, and the 525i was the most common of the range. Despite that, the car we’re testing here is quite an unusual find. A recent import from Japan, it’s a limited-edition model made to commemorate 10 years of BMW in Japan. The script on the door sills says as much and a plaque behind the gear selector says the car was ‘designed by BMW Motorsport’.
Rather than hacking up and down the expressway between Tokyo and Kyoto throughout its 26 years, this car seems to have spent most of its life tucked up in climate-controlled storage. It has covered only 31,000 miles and its condition today is scarcely any different from how it would have been when first loaded onto the boat all those years ago.
The cabin also feels fresh and the two-tone leather trim, which denotes this as an anniversary edition, shows hardly any signs of wear. The driver’s seat drops right down to the floor and the chunky bolsters offer plenty of support. With such pronounced body roll in cornering, having the seats wrap around your torso is a big bonus.
Aside from that exaggerated roll, the 525i actually feels quite keen when you start to push on a little. It has a decently responsive front end and a sweet natural balance, so rather than just ploughing on in hopeless understeer when you stick it into a bend, it feels reasonably perky.
But that’s really not what a 1990s 5 Series is all about. This car is built for comfort, and out on a flowing A-road or on the motorway, it strides along as though it’s sitting on a cushion of air. The smaller lumps and bumps that can make many modern cars feel constantly busy just don’t work their way into the cabin. That’s what a squishy tyre sidewall can do for you. What marks this out as an older car, though, is the way bigger potholes and the like do crash through the body. The bodyshell simply doesn’t have the strength or integrity of a modern car.
The six-cylinder engine isn’t particularly muscular, so you do have to work it fairly hard to get the car shifting along at any meaningful speed. It’s a good job the six-pot is as smooth and as keen to rev out as it is, then, otherwise that might become tiresome. The automatic gearbox, meanwhile, is every bit as creamy as the engine and the gearshifts aren’t quite as ponderous as you might imagine.
Today’s mid-range 5 Series is much faster than this and more agile, too. On its rubber-band tyres, though, the new upstart will never be as soothing as an old 525i on big fat Pirellis.
Good driving position is backed by sound ergonomics
Comfort bias means plenty of body roll