Past Mas­ter

BMW’S 5 Se­ries (E34) reap­praised

Auto Car (UK) - - THIS WEEK - TESTED 23.7.17, BUCK­ING­HAMSHIRE ON SALE 1988-1996 PRICE £4000-£6000

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

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