Drivers Are Invited
by Glenn Herz
The great charm of the stick shift 530i is that it not only invites but also rewards driver participation and skill. Never common in sedans, this trait is fast disappearing in sports cars as well.
With Rover in the net, BMW becomes almost twice the size of Mercedes-Benz. It was also the only German maker so show a profit in 1993. SCML recently sampled this success by driving their larges manual shift sedan, the new 3-liter V8 530i. This model is bracketed by the 6-cylinder 525i and an also new 4-liter V8, the 540.
No Blobs Allowed
The car is as impressive as you could expect $45,000+ machine to be. Fit and finish are flawless and the styling retains character at a time when most cars are low Cd pretending blobs. It is awash with fine details including an afterthought locking system that closes the windows and sunroof. A driver's door handle that, held beyond the normal time, actuates a deicer for that door's key-actuated lock. All of the power and memory stuff now common to this price class is also included.
Primary instrumentation is simple: speedometer, tachometer, water temperature and fuel with all other critical functions monitored by warning lights and sounds. As a confirmed gauge freak I once had trouble with this approach, but in a 100,000 mile experience with a similar system I found that it was hard to ignore a buzzer and light and easy to miss a wavering needle on a gauge.
Who Cares about the MPG
A curios inclusion in the instrument cluster is an instantaneous miles-per-gallon gauge. In normal driving (or at least mine, anyway) it bobbed around between 8 and 50 mpg and seemed an unnecessary flagellation in a car that has little to do with economy. The climate and sound controls are convenient and simple, the computer the usual maze. The cruise control functions well but it awkwardly positioned below the steering wheel.
A good owner's manual explains everything and is backed up by a cassette so that the frantic or illiterate can get much of the same information as they drive. It is probably to no avail - the 60% of the general population that cannot program their VCRs will still push buttons and slide levers across the dashboard until something they want happens.
Square headlights make only marginally better sense than square wheels, so it was satisfying to find round ones on the 530i. The low beams are very good considering DOT limitations, and the highs are excellent. The German tradition of making the dash high-beam indicator as bright as the lights persists - I found that a Band-Aid provided just the right amount of dimming. The glove compartment is immense but there is little other storage in the cabin.
Space utilization as in most rear-wheel-drive sedans is only fair. Driver and front seat passenger are treated well enough, but the rear is snug and the man in the middle is not going to go the distance. This is a four-passenger sports sedan.
Watch Out for Side Winds
The car is rock solid on the road, with no rattling or flexing anywhere. On very good and very bad surfaces the ride is impressive, on slightly rough ones, a bit jiggly.
Handling is a bit schizoid. Although the cars leans, it is easy and fun to drive through tight bends up to about 50 mph, with non of the reverse whip that haunted BMWs of yore. It was less good in the 60-80 mph range on a two-lane mountain pass in gusty cross winds. However, on the freeway the autobahn heritage shows. From 70 mph up, the car gets better and better. The factory-promised 140 mph should present no surprises.
Sand in the Trunk?
Most rear-drive performance sedans can be a challenge in the rain and slick. To cool down the rear end the 530i was equipped with Automatic Stability Control plus Traction (ASC+T). This drops engine power when the ABS brake sensors detect a difference in rear wheel speeds that suggest incipient wheel spin. While undoubtedly a good idea for the unwary in the set, in the dry it prevents a practice I have long enjoyed, keeping the power on as the rear starts to crawl. Fortunately the thing can be switched off.
The owner's manual has much to say about winter driving, including adding 10 pounds of ballast to the trunk when the car is otherwise unladen. In other words, when you are winter-loading your Toyota pickup with sand, buy a bag for you Bimmer.
Keep the Revs Up
The five-speed transmission is as nice as they get with the right splits and a shift feel probably immoral. The engine's high 4500 rpm torque peak with modest spread combines with long autobahn gearing to make this 530i very much a driver's car. There is not much oomph below 3500 rpm, so highway passing is strictly a third and fourth gear matter. Fifth is a fine cruise gear and was made for that purpose. Drivers that want a car that jumps in fifth, and this seems to include most road testers, will find the 5-speed automatic a better bet.
If you want to wrap yourself in Teutonic luxury, without forgoing the opportunity to row through the gears, the 530i is the only game in town.