It's no secret that the technology that BMW uses in its range-topping M cars trickles down into its less hoontastic models. But the secret BMW didn't want you to know is that when it came to the E39 5-series, the near-beer model was a step above its M counterpart in nearly every conceivable way.
The saying goes "Fast, Reliable, Cheap - pick any two". I'm here to say that the phrase - most likely dreamt up by greasy mechanics in the '50s suffering from early stages of petroleum poisoning because no man worth his salt wore gloves to work - is bullshit.
The BMW 540i, especially in six-speed manual trim with the M-Sport package, is an absolute powerhouse with nearly 300 horsepower on tap from its insanely torquey 4.4 liter V8. It's also one of the most reliable German late model cars available, with average mileage being well into six-figure territory. It's also one of the best, if not the best used car value under a five figure price tag. You can now buy one of your very own executive hoon machines for the price of a less-than-modest down payment on a base model Nissan Versa. Seriously, you can find them for a few grand on eBay all day long - see what you can find here.
I'm of the mindset that no V8 engine can ever sound bad unless it's broken - and even then it's a toss-up. This engine takes that idea to another level. I urge any readers to think of a time when they heard an E39 540i drive by that made them cringe. Coming up blank? Hell, I dare anyone to find a Youtube video that has a even remotely bad-sounding 540i.
What sound does a well-sorted 540i make, for the uninitiated reader? Prepare your ear drums and make sure your door is locked - you may need a few personal minutes afterwards.
The sound coming from the back of the car conveys a sense of purpose, like it's telling everyone "get out of the way, poor person, I need to do my thing", little does the know the would-be-plebeian is sitting behind the wheel.
The E39 M5 is one of the best cars ever made. I should know - I owned the roughest one in existence. But having said that, it does fall flat in a few key practical areas, where not coincidentally, the 540i absolutely shines. Here are a few examples:
The BMW M5 has notorious tolerance issues with its VANOS (variable valve timing) system, forcing some expensive repairs later in life, and having the car's idle normally sound like a diesel tractor. The 540i has none of these expensive repairs, and its idle sounds perfectly fine.
The BMW M5, in order to make room for its dual exhaust, doesn't have a spare tire. Instead, BMW has fitted a battery-powered air compressor that pumps useless magic sludge to fill your tire, which does nothing for a blowout or any other realistic case of a tire losing pressure. The 540i has a regular sized spare tire and a single-exit exhaust.
The M5, with its larger five liter V8 tuned for performance, can get around 25 miles per gallon on the highway, if pushed. The 540i, with its less thirsty 4.4 liter V8 and the same 6-speed gearbox as the M5, can get upwards of 30 miles per gallon.
The M5 requires specially ordered synthetic Castrol TWS 10W60 oil only - which can be more than $15 per quart, plus shipping. The 540i uses regular 10W30 that you can find at any auto parts store for around $5 a quart - not to mention the V8 engine is also used in nearly every other BMW of the era, so parts are beyond plentiful and reasonably priced.
It's nearly as fast in a straight line as an M5, handles identically, makes the same insanely satisfying sounds, and doesn't have expensive maintenance and repairs to worry about. It also gets phenomenal fuel economy and it's infinitely more practical to drive every day because you don't have to have a tow truck on call in case you run over anything harder than the coagulated tears of the less fortunate. It's the automotive definition of win-win.
Many late model cars don't age well at all. The extremely angular lines of contemporary designs are more concerned with being modern than timeless, a quality that was absent in the '90s, when the E39 was designed. The car doesn't look new by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a pleasing shape from any angle, especially in M-Tech trim. It's quintessentially purposeful, with an understated flair as illustrated by its wide-mouth front opening and trademark halo headlights. It's a upscale ride without beating you over the head with flared arches or the excessive use of hood and fender vents. It only gets better if you add some tasteful wheel and suspension modifications and do some off-the-shelf upgrades, like LED rear taillights if you have an older version that didn't include the CCFL tails that the '03+ models had as standard.
It's a car you can (and should) drive every day as it blends in remarkably well with any and all crowds, but has enough street cred with enthusiasts to always get a thumbs up from anyone in the know. It has one of the best chassis designs ever made by BMW, and it's the pinnacle of the mostly analog "Ultimate Driving Machine" experience in 4-door form. It's quite possibly the perfect saloon.
Tavarish is the founder of APiDA Online and writes about buying and selling cool cars on the internet. He owns the world's cheapest Mercedes S-Class, a graffiti-bombed Lexus, and he's the only Jalopnik author that has never driven a Miata. He also has a real name that he didn't feel was journalist-y enough so he used a pen name and this was the best he could do.