Like most people, I use all of my limbs on a regular basis. And even if I didn’t, I would still like the option. I can’t justify swapping an arm and a leg for a brand new, top of the range BMW 5 series. However as a used car, the idea makes a lot more sense.
The vehicle in question is this midnight blue 2001 E39 540i sedan.
Aside from the rare and iconic M5, the 540i was the most expensive and the baddest 5 series of its day.
The overall look is one of subtle substance. The car knows it’s good, but doesn’t make a huge fuss about it. I like that. The key feels good, the door is the right weight, and the interior is rich and warm. Turning the key (there were no fancy start buttons in 2001!) brings the engine to life. It roars for a second as all eight cylinders present for duty, and then settles into a smooth hum.
The numbers are none too flash in today’s world. 210 killer wasps, and 440 Sir Isaac’s. Zero – 100 in 6.5s. Still good enough to drag off your missus’ Mazda 3, but the bogan in his SS might get away.
Living in the burbs, this 540i sees mostly stop start commuting, and it’s hard to fault in this role. There is good noise isolation from the rat races outside, the sound system is more than adequate, and the controls and driving position feel like everything is in the right place.
The 2001 540i is modern enough so that it has all the important comfort and safety features as standard. What it doesn’t have is all the dumb new features that marketing departments now need, since all the useful things have been invented already. This 540i doesn’t have a seatbelt chime, lane departure warning, blind spot monitor, auto braking, auto parking, or anything else that a regular human, with two eyes and a brain doesn’t need.
I miss the old days, when we didn’t need machines to think for us. But that is a different topic. Sir… please move away from the soapbox!
On the open road when pushing on, is where the 540i really shows its talents. The engine and transmission become great mates, as rpms and speed increase. With 5 gears, the tranny is one short for highway cruising, but the effortless urge from the motor at anything above 3,000 rpm is a thing of joy.
On the one or two occasions where I have let it off the leash, the acceleration feels just as urgent between 100 – 200, as it does from zero – 100. Maybe not on the stopwatch, but there is certainly more theatre in the 2nd hundred! The valves open wide, petrol and air meet up and party, and the exhaust note is like Barry White drinking Redbull! Brilliant.
Having owned the 540i for 4 years I can say that, in this case at least, the horror stories about maintenance costs on a BMW are a myth. If you have a good indie mechanic, or better still a can-do attitude and Youtube, the upkeep on these is no more than a Toyota.
So overall the 540i is the goods, but what are the negatives? Well, father time waits for no one, and this is an old looking car. I never bought into the Bangle bashing of the mid naughties, but if nothing else his designs certainly dated the E39 overnight.
Another age related drawback is that a lot of the tech features are now obsolete. The ye quaint phone handset that sits in the middle armrest is purely ornamental, and since analogue TV is now gone, the idiot box doesn’t work either. Although this feature was never more than something cool to show your mates. I never actually settled in for my weekly fix of Game of Thrones in the car!
Finally, like most sports mode autos, this one doesn’t have the same shift speed or control as a true manual transmission. The option to change gears manually is there because it has to be, but it’s not the same. Sadly the E39 540i never made it to our shores with a clutch.
These are minor gripes though. The 540i is a velvet sledgehammer. A powerful and classy machine. And best of all, cheap! If you can deal with the old school looks, you can own one of the best sports sedans of recent times, while still hanging onto all of your limbs.