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The BMW 540I and the L.A. to Las Vegas Road Test

21 October 1998

New Car Review

by Bill Maloney

Some vehicles that we review go through the usual 'round-town-to-the-store stab it and steer it' road test, which of course simulates life with your daily driver. Once in a while, however, we'll get our hands on a machine that just screams, ''head for the'll love the open road and rocket ride.'' Such was the case with the BMW 5401, a V8 powered performance sedan replete with plush creature comforts and six speed trans that just has got to be let out of the corral to run with the wind.

When an opportunity arises that allows us to test a real road car, we immediately start scanning road maps, motorsports schedules and our Visa card balance 'cause we're goin' to hit the road. The road in the case of the 540I was the four-hour trip to Las Vegas for the final IRL race of the season at the new Las Vegas Motor Speedway--a 107,000 seat palace of speed.

Let's look at what's new about this 5 series four-door. The 540I has a 4.4 liter V8 with aluminum block and heads, four cams, and 32 valves. With the Getrag six-speed manual gear box 0-60 can be achieved in 5.8 secs, which isn't bad for a 3,500 pound sedan. Standard equipment on the top of the 5 series line includes: all season traction control, Dynamic stability control, Park distance (mirror) control, airbags, moonroof, leather upholstery, on-board computer, 17" sport wheels, burl walnut wood trim, and a $1,300 gas guzzler tax. According to BMW, a company with a PR department that runs slightly behind drag racing star Kenny Bernstein for the prolific issuance of product news, the REAL newness about the 540I can actually be felt because of enhanced performance; better ride, handling and braking; improved aerodynamics; luxury; and convenience.

The L.A. to Vegas run takes about four hours and allows the driver/car to experience a variety of road and outside temperature conditions. Outside of Riverside, California you start a series of winding upgrades that take you through the San Bernardino mountains and require a series of 5th gear, sixth gear changes, which in this road-ready Bimmer is an effortless situation. At 85 mph in sixth gear, the four cam is hardly straining as it turns a tad under 3000 rpm. Although we were too chicken to try it (honest officer), the listed top speed for the sleek 540I is 128mph. That's with an electronically limiting control on the revs, without which it would be capable of 155 mph. Either way, that makes for a short jaunt to Sin City.

After the mountain area it's a straight, boring, cruise-control-ride into Barstow, where you realize you are heading for the California desert and steamy temperatures. Barstow can be a pit stop, and tourists will find that something new has been added on the outskirts of town--a huge factory outlet complex of 57 brand name stores most with very attractive prices--we purchased a Brooks Brothers blazer marked down from $300 to $125.

The AC in the Bimmer got up to speed immediately. We were now looking forward to breaking the monotony of the trip by looking for ``partners'' to draft with as we headed for Baker, CA, an hours drive. This burg advertises that it has the world's tallest thermometer, and is also home to the Mad Greek's restaurant, world famous Bun Boy eatery and an Exxon gas station featuring the highest petrol prices in the U.S. A. The big thermometer told us it was 115 degrees outside so we took a pass on stopping at Baker. We were averaging about 23 mpg, and it looked like a stright shot to the state line and into Vegas would get us to the hostelry with just about check-in time, and gambling time before the cocktail hour. Of course, in Vegas, the city that never sleeps, cocktail hour is any time. There is no day or night in Vegas.

Besides precise handling, which almost conveys an attitude of overconfidence (e.g., ``I can take anyone, anything on the road with this sports sedan''), you come to the conclusion after several hours of motoring that the big four-wheel disc brakes on this vehicle are just about the best stoppers that we've experienced in any test car this year. At any speed they get the job done quick. Here again, almost making you overconfident as to the capabilities of the car and then finally realizing that it is definitely up to the driver to tame this sporty compact.

What feels like a legal speed is much higher than one would expect, and though you realize you're driving a fairly heavy car, it's misleading in the way it gets up to the century mark. One thing we highly recommend if you are considering this flavor Bimmer is to get yourself a vehicle indoctrination course and peruse the owners manual thoroughly. It's no fun leafing through the manual at 100 mph trying to figure out the audio and cruise control symbols on the steering wheel.

Though we knew the road to Vegas practically blindfolded, it would have been nice to have had the opportunity to mess with the BMW $2,500 on-board navigation system, especially since the valet parking kid at the Showboat Hotel pointed us in the wrong direction to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. We found ourselves heading for Idaho. Dumb. The 540I is the right car for a road trip of this sort, and though we hated the reverse gear selector and refused to even tinker with the electronic security system, the experience was a blast . . . we looked good in the car and car parkers gave us the requisite respect befitting a $55,000 luxo sedan. The race we were covering--the final event of the IRL season--was pretty much a dud. It was a sneak meet . . . they put on a car race and nobody came. That made driving the 540I worth the 600 mile trek.