The E39 540i will probably go down as one of the great from the company; combining good looks, potent performance, a luxurious cabin, and acceptable – but not too advanced – technology into a clean package. Dynamically, they’re great to drive, they make really good noises, and yet they still manage to fly under the radar more than an M5 does. They’re certainly one of the few have-your-cake-type cars out there. And despite being all of these things, they generally manage to be a lot cheaper than you might expect for a decent example; that is, outside of the 2003 M-Sport models. However, if you’re willing to step back just a year and get ever so slightly less M DNA in your E39, you can still find good examples of the breed for reasonable rates. Today I ran across a very nice 2002 to consider:
Are you a ‘want your cake and eat it too’ kind of person? If so, you probably appreciate performance wagons. And why not? They offer practicality, are (generally) much more affordable than sports cars, and can literally fly under the radar. With their numbers dwindling in the open market, it’s always a great time to look at one from our past. Enter the E39 Touring.
There were several configurations that the 5-series Touring was available in over the years, but the ‘big stick’ was the 540i with its 286 horsepower M62. Sure, the N54-equipped E61 was faster and available as a manual. But if you wanted a really classic BMW setup, the 540iT was about as good as it got for US-bound BMW wagons. As a result, many have been turned up by their owners and drafted into M5 clones. Such is the case here, with this Sienna Red Metallic E39 sporting a host of Dinan bits, E39 M5 bits, and a 6-speed manual swap for good measure.
Although the letter “M” attached to a BMW has generally represented the pinnacle of performance for the brand, the reality is the term “M-Sport” has not always denoted the same characteristics. Take the E82 135i, for example. The M-Sport package for that car consisted of slightly different 18″ wheels than the standard 18″ wheels and a black headliner. That’s it.
But zoom back in time to the beginnings of the title “M-Sport” and it meant a bit more. If you wanted a fast, executive super saloon in 1995, your options were dwindling. 1995 was the last year of the Audi S6, and one year after both the V8 Quattro and 500E were taken away. 1995 would also be the last year of the iconic M5, and hints were that it might be a long time before weíd see another. Why? Well, the reality was that with the 6 speed 540i the performance gap between the ďsuperĒ M5 and the ďnormalĒ V8 engined 540 was so close it just didnít make a lot of sense to have the premium model anymore. The S38 was by now a quite old motor and was getting harder to pass increasingly strict emissions standards; indeed, shrinking sales and high price had resulted in the M5 being pulled from the U.S. in 1993.
As a result, BMW offered a hint at what it could do with the V8 in the form of the M540i in Canada and the 540i M-Sport in the U.S. market. The Canadian model was quite close in spec to the European M5, except that in place of the venerable S38 it ran the M60 V8 out of the normal 540i. If that sounds like a letdown, it wasnít Ė mated to the Getrag 6-speed transmission it was a great driver, and with the M5 adjustable suspension, brakes and cosmetic details it was 95% plus of the M5 for most drivers. The 540i M-Sport that the U.S. received differed a bit in not having the trick floating rotors of the M540i, but with nearly everything else out of the M bag of tricks these are cool cars, great drivers, and even more rare than the M5:
Back in November of 2017, I looked at an early special-order 540i Sport Package. It ticked many of the right boxes; while the later cars gained the shouty M5 exterior bits, the early cars are understated in a nice way, yet still potent. I’ve especially always been a fan of the Style 19 BBS wheels on the early Sport cars, but the follow up wasn’t bad, either. The turbine Style 32s mimicked Alpina’s signature style, but looked right at home and as if they were always intended for the E39.
But this car has some other items going for it that the first didn’t. While both are M62/TU 6-speeds and carried the M-Sport suspension, this one also has the M-Sport steering wheel and sport seats. The downside?
Update 5/28/18 – further price reduction from $14,950 to $12,995.
Update 3/23/18 – The asking price of this 540i has dropped from $15,995 in November to $14,950.
By the early 1990s, even though the S38 was an incredible engine there was no denying that it was from another era. BMW’s new lineup of V8s – all-aluminum, quad-cam units were cheaper and easier to build, run and nearly as powerful – especially so in everyday use. As a result, BMW phased the S38 M5 out of production for the North American market. Yet there were still cadres of M-devotees who wanted to fly the 5-series flag here. The result was two special models for Canada and the U.S..
The more rare of the two was the Canadian market M540i. For all intents and purposes, it was a European-specification M5 without the inline-6 – they even moved production of them from Dingolfing to M’s home base of Garching. In total, they built 32 of them – making them one of the least-frequently seen M products out there. It’s no surprise that it’s been quite a while since we last saw one for sale.
The U.S. market got a slightly de-tuned version of the M540i. Known as the 540i M-Sport, unlike the M540i it was available as either a manual or automatic and didn’t carry quite as much M-content as the Canadian car. But you did get M5 looks, M5 suspension and M5 wheels – in this case, the M-system II “Throwing Stars” found on later U.S. production cars opposed to the M-Parallels found on the M540i. They were also not finished at Garching, but alongside normal E34 production. A reported total of 205 were produced for the U.S. market and we last saw one about a year ago.
So when today’s car popped into my recent searches, I was immediately pretty excited as it appeared at first glance to be one of the elusive examples of the M-Sport. And it was certainly priced like one, as asks are usually in M5-territory. But was it love at first sight?
Following on the lineup of 540is I’ve featured recently, I ran across this early production 540i Sport package car. It’s interesting for a few reasons. First, I’ve always really liked the clean look of the early sport package cars with either the turbine Style 32 wheels or the multi-piece BBS Style 19s as shown on this example. Something really worked for me about this wheel on this body style. An early 540i Sport, it’s missing some of the later additions I covered last time around, but still carries the aforementioned 17″ wheels and M-Sport suspension. However, this car is a bit different than the usual one that you’ll come across.
Having covered only 65,500 miles in its life, the seller claims the car was special ordered for European delivery. It also doesn’t have the standard sport seats that would have accompanied the sport package. It was ordered in fetching Canyon Red Metallic (343), too. And, of course, it’s got the all-important 6-speed manual transmission. Here, the pre-facelift orange directionals and less fussy taillight design work in harmony with the lack of body kit and beautiful exterior hue. Is it a winning combination?
Sport, M-Sport, Sport, M-Sport, Sport, M-Sport. Choose your title! More research and some comments from our astute readership seems to confirm that the official title of this car is 540i Sport in the USA, though it includes items labeled as M-Sport within that package. Thanks to everyone for their commentary and following!
Starting in late 1999 for the 2000 model year, BMW replaced the “Sport” package on the E39 with the newly recycled “M-Sport” moniker. Of course, the M-Sport had been seen on the E34 before and carried M-bits over to the normal 540i model. This was much the same for the E39; moving forward, the M-Sport models not only got the upgraded suspension and larger wheels associated with the sport package, but also gained a M-Sport steering wheel, shift knob and door sills. However, it wouldn’t be until the 2003 model year that the M-Sport reached its full potential when BMW slotted the M-Technic bumper covers on to create a ‘M5 light’ once again.
In between, there were minor changes mostly notable for different wheel designs. In 2001, for example, the Style 66 wheels were used. Staggered at 17×8 in front and 17×9 in the rear, the wheels mimicked the design of the Style 65 18″ M5 wheels minus the second set of split-5 spokes inset. These wheels were also coincidentally the optional winter wheel package for the M5. But without the bigger bumpers and M-Parallel wheels associated with the 2003, the 2000-2002 models were much more understated in their approach and to most aren’t quite as desirable as the M-Tech’d models.
Of course, when you find a showroom fresh one with only 1,890 miles, maybe that doesn’t matter?
My recent M5 v. Alpina B10 post took a look at two exotic versions of the E34. Of course, BMW offered their own alternative to the M5 late in the production cycle, as the introduction of the M60 V8-powered 540i produced nearly as much usable power as the more expensive M variant. Such was the success of the 540i that BMW initially judged the M5 dead in this market; it was removed from the U.S. in 1993 after slow sales and wouldn’t return until the new millennium.
As a result, the 540i flew the 5-series performance flag for two generations and still is very popular today. Especially in Sport versions, the E34 and E39 540is offered power, refinement and outstanding chassis dynamics in a package that was attainable for more people. So which is the better buy today – the first or second generation?
I’m not really sure where the “wagons are cool” craze comes from. Back in Europe, estates tend to be regarded as a bit boring. But the longer I’ve lived in America, the more I can relate.¬†Camping trips, afternoons spent chasing¬†down furniture on Craigslist, and weekends spent helping friends move apartments in the city have all led¬†me to appreciate the¬†appeal of a good wagon.The highly competent 540i sedan is already well loved, combining a¬†well-balanced chassis with a torquey 4.4 liter V8 that puts out about 290 hp. The¬†Touring version offers all of this plus¬†a¬†load space nearly on par with that of a small pickup, once the seats are folded down. What’s even better than a 540i Touring? A 540i Touring M-Sport, which adds more aggressively styled, M5-like bumpers, firmer sport suspension, sport seats and shadowline trim (sedans also received M-Parallel wheels, although Tourings did not).
Yesterday Paul wrote up a 530i Sport noting that for many, the styling of the E39¬†5-series¬†is¬†vastly¬†preferable to the E60 that came afterward, burdened as it is¬†with¬†awkward creases and controversial styling courtesy of BMW design guru Chris Bangle.¬†I tend to agree,¬†although¬†I also think the E60, especially in sport specification, will probably become better appreciated as it ages.¬†While yesterday’s¬†530i with an autobox represents, as Paul put it, the “bread and butter” of the range,¬†this particular car is a bit more special. The standard 540i, powered by a¬†torquey 4.4 liter¬†V8 making nearly 300 hp, is already a very capable sport sedan in its own right. The¬†M-sport package however, which adds¬†M-sport exterior styling, suspension and wheels, brings the car within firing range of the¬†M5.