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1997 BMW 540iA Review

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by Carey Russ

SEE ALSO: BMW Specs, Reviews, Comparisons and Prices - BMW Buyer's Guide 1997-Current Models

SEE ALSO: Twenty Years Of BMW Reviews (2014-1994)

The mid-sized sedans from BMW have long combined performance and luxury. Since their introduction in the early Seventies, the BMW 5-Series cars have been benchmarks at the high end of the sports-luxury class. The fourth generation of the 5-Series, introduced as 1997 models in mid-1996, is no exception. With new styling, new engines, and new engineering, the 1997 5-Series improves on its already-able ancestors in all areas.

Two models of the newest 5-Series are available, both with larger, torquier engines. The 528i has a 2.8-liter inline 6-cylinder engine, up from 2.5 liters. The 540i's V8 has grown from 4.0 to 4.4 liters. Unusually for the luxury segment, but fully in keeping with the BMW commitment to performance, both are offered with a choice of automatic or manual transmissions.

There are some differences between the manual and automatic 540s. Because the manual gearbox will appeal to performance enthusiasts, the 6-speed car rides lower on a sports-tuned suspension. This does not mean that the 540 models equipped with the 5-speed automatic transmission are lacking in sporting character, however, as I discovered during a week with a 1997 BMW 540i with the automatic. The 540i automatic is a comfortable luxury car with seriously capable performance capabilities.

APPEARANCE: BMW is a company with its own concept of style, and the new 5-Series exemplifies that style. The 4th-generation 5- Series is similar to the previous version in size and proportion, a little more rounded in the manner of the current 3-Series, and distinctively BMW in appearance. The rounded masses of the car are offset by crisp character lines in the hood and side panels. The front is the most changed area, with a large bulge in the hood descending to the bumper and containing the trademark twin-kidney grille. Real BMWs still have round headlights, now behind aerodynamic fairings. An arched roofline with darkened B-pillars and large windows is very graceful. A relatively long hood and short rear deck give the 1997 540i a sporting look; discreet chrome trim around the grille, bumpers, side strip, and windows highlights its luxury side.

COMFORT: Inside, the 1997 540i is tastefully elegant, spacious, and perfectly comfortable for 5 adults. Leather seats and door trim, and walnut panelling on the doors, console, and instrument panel show the luxurious nature of the middle Bimmer. The power-multi-adjustable front seats are firm and supportive in the best German sports sedan manner. The rear seat is first-class accommodation, and can optionally fold down with a 60/40 split. Front and rear cupholders and a remote trunk release are features to please the American customer. Instruments, messages, and warning lights are in a hooded binnacle and easy to see. Controls are logically placed and easy to use. The premium AM/FM/weather band/cassette/CD audio system, hidden behind a wood trim panel, is complex to operate but rewards with great sound quality. The automatic climate control system has separate controls for each side of the car and is not complicated. The windows, mirrors, and door locks are power-operated, of course. All four windows go down or up with a quick touch of the appropriate switch, not just the driver's side window. The steering wheel is adjustable for reach and tilt and has controls for cruise control, telephone, audio, and climate systems. The standard remote keyless entry fob includes a trunk release.

SAFETY: All 5-Series BMWs have standard safety equipment including frontal and side air bags, antilock disc brakes, and traction control. The chassis is designed for maximum occupant protection in a crash.

ROADABILITY: The 1997 BMW 540 is every bit a German sports sedan, even with an automatic transmission. A more rigid chassis provides an excellent platform for the refined suspension, which is made with many aluminum parts for less unsprung weight and better handling response. It balances luxury ride comfort and sporting ability extremely well. The 540i is quiet on the road. The faster it goes, the better it feels. As is the case with most German cars, the 540iA is designed to cruise the Autobahn at speeds that are still verboten on this side of the Atlantic, and also works very well on twisty secondary roads.

PERFORMANCE: Displacement of the dual overhead cam, 32-valve aluminum V8 used in the 540i has increased slightly, and many of its internal parts have been redesigned. Maximum horsepower hasn't increased, but torque has. The greater torque is most noticed, and appreciated, at the engine speeds most commonly used in everyday driving. The 5-speed electronically-controlled automatic transmission works perfectly well with the new engine, and shifts quickly, quietly, and smoothly under most conditions.

CONCLUSIONS: No baroque angel, the 1997 BMW 540i combines the sporting feel of the smaller 3-Series with the luxury features of the larger 7-Series.

1997 BMW 540iA 

Base Price               $ 49,900
Price As Tested          $ 52,545
Engine Type              V8, dual overhead cams, 32 valves
Engine Size              4.4 liters, 268 cu. in.
Horsepower               282 @ 5700
Torque (lb-ft)           310 @ 3900
Transmission             5-speed electronically-controlled automatic
Wheelbase / Length       111.4 in. / 188.0 in.
Curb Weight              3803 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower    13.5
Fuel Capacity            18.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement         unleaded premium
Tires                    225/55 R16 95H Continental Touring Contact
Brakes, front/rear       vented disc / vented disc
Suspension, front/rear   independent double-pivot strut /
                          independent multilink
Drivetrain               front engine, rear-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      18/24/20
0 to 60 mph                        6.6 sec
1/4 mile (E.T.)                    14.7 sec
Coefficient of Drag (cd)           0.31