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Used car review BMW 535i 1988-1993

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    The BMW 535i was released in the late 1980s and remained on sale until 1993 (1992 model pictured).

Graham 'Smithy' Smith reviews the used BMW 535i 1988-1993: its fine points, its flaws and what to watch for when buying it.

The reality of life is that few of us have the bucks to buy the luxury 'Benz, BMW or Jaguar we might aspire to own, they're simply too expensive for the regular Joe in the street. But step back in time to an older model and owning a once unattainable car from one of these great companies can be a real possibility.

One such car in question is the BMW 535i that was released in the late 1980s and remained on sale until 1993.  In the days before the arrival of the 'M' Series the 535i was the performance king in the Bavarian carmakers local range.

Today it's largely been lost in the crowd with the vast number of sporty BMWs that have since been released, but a chance encounter recently with an acquaintance who had bought one for a couple of grand was a reminder of what can be bought with a very limited budget.


The 535i was the top model in the E34 5-Series range that arrived here in 1988.  Minus the edgy look that overtook later models from BMW the E34 was a classically elegant four-door sedan that boasted beautifully clean lines and balanced proportions.

It was a great looker when it was new, and that it remains a good looking car today when there are still many on the road is a testament to the appeal of its styling. It's hard to imagine that more than 20 years have passed since it was launched.

The E34 range was extensive, extending from the modest 2.0-litre 520i through the popular 2.5-litre 525i and the 3.0-litre 530i to the sporty 535i that sat atop the tree.  Later there was the V8 540i and the first M5, both of which shoved the 535i into the background, but for a year or two the 535i was the king of the road.

The E34 platform was highly regarded with independent suspension back and front, responsive power steering and powerful four-wheel disc brakes.  Up front it had a 3.5-litre fuel-injected single overhead camshaft six-cylinder engine boasting 155 kW at 5700 revs and 3.5 Nm at 4000 revs.

BMW offered the choice of a five-speed manual gearbox or four-speed automatic transmission, with the final drive through the rear wheels in traditional BMW style.  Standard features were air, central locking, fog lamps, power windows and radio/cassette sound.

An Executive model was available with alloy wheels, cruise and a power sunroof.  There was also a 535is model available with power mirrors, a limited- slip diff and traction control.


It's hard to imagine that a car that carried a sticker of around $120,000 when new could be bought for a couple of grand, but it's possible.  The car I recently came across had been bought by an acquaintance in the trade so, while it did change hands for just a couple of thousand dollars don't expect necessarily to find one on the retail market for the same money.  But it is possible to drive away in a true grand touring sedan for $10,000 or less.


The key to enjoying the thrill of driving an old car is to buy well, and there is one simple rule to follow when buying: condition, condition, condition.  To find the best car in the best condition it's necessary to shop, shop, and shop.

BMW service specialist John Heckrath of Heckrath Engineering Services reckons the 535i is a great car, to own and to drive.  The engine is very strong and gives little trouble; the only word of warning he gives is that they can give cylinder head trouble if they get hot.

The main reason they might get hot is a failure of the plastic reservoir in the radiator, which was a common failure with this model 5-Series.  If the temp gauge climbs off the scale don't be tempted to keep driving it, disaster awaits if you ignore the telltale sign of trouble.

Brakes can be expensive to replace if that's needed to make a car roadworthy; expect a bill of $1000 for a full brake rebuild with new rotors.  Suspension bushes, particularly the front caster bar bushes, do wear so listen for a knocking noise under brakes, but the caster bar isn't expensive so isn't a huge concern.

Electrics can be an issue; things like power windows and the heater control are known weaknesses. Check the operation of all systems to identify anything that isn't working and might need repairing.  The body stands up well, and doesn't rust, and the paint doesn't fade to any degree.

Inside the trim also stands the test of time well and the dash isn't prone to cracking, but some minor trim parts do eventually come unglued and the foam in the headlining can crumble in time.  But a car with 200,000-plus kilometres already will keep going long into the future if well maintained.


Settle into the driver's seat of the 535i and you immediately feel at home, the controls readily fall to hand and the dials tell you all you need to know without any of the superfluous information you get on later cars.

Start the silky smooth six and hit the road and you are quickly transported back to an age when the engine was the true heart of the car.  While sporty in character with plenty of good old grunt, the 535i is really a high-speed cruiser and at home on the open highway.

The straight-six engine revs smoothly and sweetly with great mid- range response to make overtaking a breeze.  When required it would race to 100 km/h in 9.5 secs and cover the standing 400-metre dash in 16.5 secs.

It also handles with aplomb, even though it's quite a big car. The steering response is quick and accurate, the handling nicely balanced and predictable, while the ride is firm but comfortable.


The 535i was born before the widespread adoption of airbags, but it is a fundamentally sound motorcar with a solid body and a well- balanced, responsive chassis that gives the driver every chance of avoiding a crunch.  If it lacks the passive safety of airbags the 535i does have the important active safety delivered by ABS antilock braking.


Ask anyone about the 535i and you're likely to be told that it's a gas-guzzler. That is its reputation and it is a well-earned one at that.  The 535i shouldn't be bought if you're concerned about fuel consumption; this is a high performance car and it will use quite a lot of fuel.

A road test at the time of the launch had it returning 11.9 L/100 km, which isn't too bad, but that can quickly blow out to 14 L/100 km or more if that taps are regularly opened with enthusiasm.


. Classically elegant shape.
. Smooth six-cylinder engine.
. Sporty performance.
. Thirsty if driven hard.
. Expect high mileage.
. Service record a must.


LEXUS LS400 - 1990-1994 The car that shook the German automakers to their bootstraps. The Germans never believed the Japanese could build a car of this quality, and were shocked to find that they could. Beautifully engineered and built the LS400 set new benchmarks for everyone in the industry. Hard to fault, but it looks boring and lacks real punch on the road. Pay $10,000-$15,000.

HOLDEN CAPRICE - 1990-1994 Begged the question of why would you buy a 'Benz or a Beemer when you can have a Caprice for half the money. The Caprice was good value for money and stacked up well when new, but over the long term the better engineering and build quality of the German cars meant the gap between them and the local product grew ever wider. Now looks dowdy. Pay $8000-$12,000.

JAGUAR SOVEREIGN - 1989-1994 The name is enough to have heads turning, but the Jaguars of the late-'80s were off the pace. There was plenty of room inside, where there was a nice old world feel to the interior, the big cat rode comfortably and drove smoothly, but was let down by quality glitches. Pay $10,000-$14,000.


An oldie but a goodie. Buy right and you will thoroughly enjoy the thrill of driving one of the greats from a bygone era.

RATING 70/100

Comments on this story

Displaying 3 of 14 comments

  • Hi I am lucky enough to have just purchased a 535is 1991 e34 33500 miles absolutely mint cannot wait to drive it

    Andrew of uk Posted on 11 January 2014 8:28am
  • I am about to purchase one of these beautys tonight for $1000. It has a low 133,000kms, auto, paint and interior almost immaculate. it needs the auto box repaired or serviced, and the radiator has a crack in it. All that doesnt really matter tho, as its getting the Engine/gearbox From a 94 toyota Soarer...1JZGTE, 2.5 litre twin cam 24 valve twin turbo and will have a modest 300-350rwkw, but sill be luxurious and comfy, without attraction unwanted attention

    Simon J of RADelaide Posted on 08 April 2013 12:54pm
  • Don't believe the performance figures of the 535i, BMW engines lossen up considerably as they age. I have a 1989 535i, running 98 octane fuel and it is almost as quick in the real world as HSV commodores and Falcons, I would estimate the 0 to 100 around 7 1/2 seconds....quarter about 14.8, 15s....(depending on the air temp).....A manual will run 6's to 100 every day of the week and low 14's for the quarter: New they were a good second slower...Great car and every bit as quick as my old 351 GT and HDT statesman...both were worked slightly. But feels 100k dearer!

    Mad Max 351 of Sydney Posted on 14 February 2013 6:09pm
  • Being 20+ years old, good examples are hard to find... either have no equipment, or the autobox is shagged, or the interior is destroyed, or the owner can't believe how much it actually isn't worth and won't lower their price. I searched for months and finally found a 540, which is the next step above the 535 in both performance and features. The V8 is a bit more expensive to maintain preventatively (ignore Nikasil not an issue here) only due to having two cylinder banks but if the dollars are spent when they ought to be it's hugely reliable. The 5HP30 autobox is overspecced as well (same as used in V12 5L+ Rolls and Astons) but it does need ATF changes contrary to stupid BMW "lifetime fill" recommendation! It's a big heavy car but fuel economy is totally dependent on the driver because there's so much lowend torque. But if you want to get 5L/100k go buy some oiler four pot. Man up, get good rubber, don't shrink at fuel bills and drive it like it was made to be driven!!

    Ben of Melbourne Posted on 26 January 2013 4:20am
  • Owned an e34 for 6 years now and found it to be a very solid reliable car.....the 535 engine is just superb. The car simply cannot be compared with falcons and commodores,which shake themselves to bits and are hugely dangerous when driven above 160 ks. I have done over 200 in the car on several occasions,even hit 240 once...the car was steady as a rock. I would not do more than 120 in an australiian family sedan

    steve of melbourne Posted on 26 March 2012 10:31am
  • Got this car at the moment, excellant car to drive. Just dont crash it, don't overheat it, dont over rev it and you will have the car for atleast another 5 - 10 years with good preventive maintenance. Make sure at one point you overhaul your steering components. It will cost $300 to import an entire overhaul kit from America. You can install these yourself or pay a mechanic about $300 to do it at $50 an hour. You will not regret this, the steering will tighten and feel like brand new. Make sure wheels are balanced and in line! Make sure coolant is topped up and using a good anti corrosion. Don't over rev it, you will warp things and you dont want a blown gasket, trust me. Don't let it over heat, ever. Change oils and keep up with stuff like tranny oil, diff oil, steering oil etc...after 20 years a tranny oil needs a decent change! Don't bother so much with messing with performance parts like cams and performance heads or plugs. Just run basic stuff through it, its a fast car, but dont go overboard its not worth it. I highly reccomend this car to anyone looking for a cheap bmw thats got more power than skylines, supras will destroy most imports. Good luck

    Bmw 535i Owner of Goldcoast, queensland Posted on 13 December 2011 12:42pm
  • The BMW 535i is described in this article as a high performance car. The figure of 400 metres in 16.5 sec would not suggest this. Other cars that match or better this figure is a 1999 Jeep 16.5sec, Falcon EB series II 4.0ltr 16.6sec, Commodore VN 3.8ltr V6 15.8sec. These cars would hardly be described as high performance cars. The BMW is some peoples opinion may handle and do other things well but one of the key requirements for a performance car is acceleration and BMW's 400 metres figure is no better than a standard Australian family sedan.

    Peter of Sydney Posted on 07 September 2011 9:48pm
  • 6 months ago I was lucky enough to buy a 1993 535i m5 and have to say I haven?t driven a car like it. I know for a fact that I am the 2nd owner and I know most of its history. It?s been very well looked after and it didn?t need much work at all other than a good scrub. I didn?t know a lot about BMW's when we first got it but after a few hours on the net I soon realised what it was and it definitely lives up to its reputation. I have never driven a car that you could compare it to. EB Falcon, VN Commodore lol, not even close. It does have one problem though, as previously mentioned the electric windows stopped working. I hope someone would be able to help with some info on how to fix this. I am lead to believe it?s the ECU but I would like to be sure first. And if it is, where would I find one? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Deano of Queensland Posted on 14 February 2011 11:07pm
  • I thought the 5 series had 2 airbags, not none in Australia at least.

    Ernest of Melbourne Posted on 04 January 2011 6:12pm
  • The 535i 1998 is a LEMON capital L. If I was the sucker who bought it originally for $120,000 I would be ropeable? The worst aspect is the PLASTIC DOOR LATCHES that look like metal, but snapped off in my 12 year old daughters hand? Imagine the car is on fire and you want out in a hurry and the PLASTIC DOOR LATCHES BREAK OFF IN YOUR HAND... The electric window modulators are also crap... The vehicle uses twice as much fuel as my Ford Transit Van... The only plus is a great paint colour and good road handling... all in all, a pile of crap.

    Stuart Shepherd of Sydney Posted on 15 December 2010 8:22pm
  • I have an 88 German imported 535i (original owner mocked up as m5) its a beautiful car to drive and not as expensive to repair as some would let you believe, find an enthusiast mechanic who is honest and this car will be a great companion. My partner doesn't even mind me spending money on it as she loves it as much as i do, only down side to it is the fuel consumption, Even though this car is 20+ years old its still a head turner and still has the built in P**SY Magnet smile If you find a decent one buy it, A rare find is an Alpina or a genuine M5 if you can get one cheap grab it over the 535, but as far as all the boxes to tick this one has met and exceeded my expectations. The rims i have on it also are a big winner with all BMW enthusiasts (M5 throwing stars) Tyres are a bit pricey on them but what tyres aren't anymore, expect to pay around 3-400 per tyre for a good set and i only buy genuine BMW parts for running gear, for others like pumps etc, i will buy aftermarket and despite warnings i have been given they are GREAT! Also as stated teh e34 was between 1988-1996 in 1996 the E39 replaced the model bringing the V8 530i sports as a semi equivalent model! Enjoy!

    Justin of Melbourne Australia Posted on 25 July 2010 1:24am
  • In regard to the manufacture date of the 535i, I believe they were continued right up to 1997/8, not 93 as indicated.

    Mark of Melbourne Posted on 06 June 2010 6:26pm
  • I currently own and drive a 535i every day to work and back which is a round trip of 80klms. Even after 230,000 on the clock it drives and feels great. I've owned the the car for 12 years and has proven to be very reliable and value for money.

    Peter Repnoli of Sydney Posted on 23 March 2010 10:50pm
  • I'd like to point out that you've got your model range a little bit mixed up here. The 520i, 525i, 535i and M5 were all available when the E34 generation was first released. Later, the 535i was removed from the model lineup to be replaced by the V8 530i and 540i. The 530i was never offered in six-cylinder form.

    Anonymous Posted on 18 March 2010 11:16pm
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