BMW 5 Series (E34) - Rewind Wednesday

We travel back to a time when shoulder pads and big barnets became oversized denim shirts and the World Wide Web. Oh, and the E34 BMW 5 Series was our Executive Car of The Year...

BMW 5 Series (E34) - Rewind Wednesday

Do you remember when executive cars were driven by properly executive people? Blokes in baggy suits with large ties holding leathery briefcases. Women in skirt-suits with shoulder pads and perms. All driving up and down the country selling carpets and printer ink. Those were good times, weren't they? Of course, with the internet and mobile phones there's much less of that sort of thing these days.

Interestingly, the focus of today's rewind Wednesday was our favourite executive car when the downfall of these motorway-warriors was just beginning. Indeed, the E34 BMW 5 Series was What Car?'s preferred executive car in both 1989 and 1990. The same time Tim Berners-Lee was busy programming the first ever web browser over in Switzerland.

And, by chance, Tim Berners-Lee and the 5 Series you see before you have something in common. Yes, really. You see, Tim's from my home town in Dorset, while the E34 pictured was my very own car. So, although I was lying on my back in a crib making gurgling noises in 1989, I can tell you what it's like to own an E34 today.

BMW 5 Series (E34) - Rewind Wednesday

Where it all started

BMW's third-generation 5 Series was a real leap forward from the previous E28 model. It looked far more modern and butch for starters and there was a huge amount of choice on offer for buyers: four, six or eight-cylinder engines were up for grabs in petrol and diesel forms and with manual and automatic gearboxes. This was the first 5 to feature all-wheel drive with the 525iX model (the rest were rear-drive) and a bigger-booted BMW 5 Series Touring estate model followed the saloon.

And although they never made their way to the UK, the E34 was also offered as a natural gas model in Germany, called the 518g, while the 518iev was a hybrid car version which combined a four-cylinder petrol engine and battery packs. OK, so the latter never made it past the prototype stage, but this was some seriously forward-thinking stuff for the mid-90s.

At the other end of the scale was the E34 BMW M5 which was first powered by a 311bhp 3.6-litre straight-six petrol engine, but was later upgraded to a 335bhp 3.8-litre, when it could sprint to 62mph in 5.9sec and was electronically held back at 155mph. Unlike the M5s of today, this range-topping E34 was available in both saloon and estate bodystyles.

BMW 5 Series (E34) - Rewind Wednesday

Our 1989 and 1990 Executive Car of the Year

But there was only one version that was good enough for our Executive Car of The Year in 1989 and 1990, and that was the 525i SE. Like the E34 M5 it also had a straight-six petrol engine, but one which produced a more sedate 169bhp. In fact, we said "despite some impressive weight saving on the bodywork, the smooth 2.5-litre straight-six engine has to be worked pretty hard in order to extract the best performance."

However, there was plenty that was positive, including the car's advanced electronics for the time, including "an on-board computer (which) not only controls engine management and a host of other running functions, but also monitors and records faults that it 'confesses' to the main dealer computer when it goes in for a service."

SE trim was good enough for us, although we thought "a Special Equipment package, that has proved so popular in the UK" was worth adding, as it "lifts the car up into contention with Jaguar and the bigger Mercedes models."

It was all good enough for the E34 to see off some of the biggest names in executive motoring at the time, including the Alfa Romeo 164 Lusso, Rover 827 SLi, Honda Legend, Mercedes 260 E, Saab 9000i, Vauxhall Senator 2.5i and Ford Granada 2.4i Ghia. What a fantastic list of retro motorway barges that is.

BMW 5 Series (E34) - Rewind Wednesday

But what’s it like today?

Confession time. The car we tried was actually a 520i, but in our defence that isn't too far from the 525i model we gave our awards to. It still has the same basic straight-six petrol engine, albeit with a slightly smaller capacity. However, ours was a later 1994 520i model which got slightly more power than the first 520i cars at 148bhp, so it wasn't too far off the punch of the 525i. Still with us?

Just know it's amazing how the E34 manages to feel quite so modern, even after driving the executive saloons of today. OK, so our observation back in 1989 that the engine needs to be worked hard in the 525i also rings true with the 520i, but it's a fantastically linear, super-smooth power delivery. The engine loves to be revved and you won't mind doing so, because the muscular rasp it emits is addictive.

The E34's ride and handling feels distinctly modern, too. Sure, there's slightly more body roll than in modern executives, but its steering is nicely weighted and precise and it feels stoutly comfortable changing direction at speed. It feels tidy to drive in 2018, so it must've felt downright agile back in the day. And that doesn't come at the expense of ride quality, because in town there's good control, while at motorway speeds it still shows superb stability.

Of course, inside things are lagging behind on the space, practicality and quality front. The driver doesn't get much seat and wheel movement, rear adult passengers will find their knees shoved into the front seatbacks and the plastics on show are dull and pretty low rent. But that's all by the standards of today, and there's no arguing with the solid build quality - our 24-year-old BMW 5 Series didn't have a single rattle or squeak.

BMW 5 Series (E34) - Rewind Wednesday

How much do they cost now?

Not too long ago there was a decent choice of 5 Series E34s in the classifieds, with numerous serviceable cars available for less than £1000. These days, though, the cars at that price are looking decidedly tired and usually have four-cylinders and a 518i badge on the back.

You might be lucky and grab a 520i, or preferably our favoured (and the best-selling) 525i for a little more than £1000, but nicer examples are now fetching anywhere between £1500 and £5000. Of course, with tiny mileages, zero rust to worry about and full service history files you can expect to pay anywhere up to £8000 for a perfect example with these engines.

If you're feeling flush, the really sought-after models such as the straight-six 530i and 535i, as well as the V8-powered 540i start higher up and continue past £10,000 for the best examples.

And, not surprisingly, the E34 BMW M5 is the priciest of the bunch. It was built in low numbers and has the badge that is guaranteed to cost you money on its bootlid: the hallowed M badge. We've seen the best examples priced at more than £30,000, although that's cheap compared with other M-cars of a similar vintage.

Read our new BMW 5 Series review or find used BMW cars for sale >>

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