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Used BMW 520i review: 1988-1996

The 5-Series launched in 1988 was a landmark model for BMW, and buyers of prestige cars, with an attractive combination of sporting performance and luxury that was previously unavailable. Add to that impressive build quality and reliability and the E34 5-Series is now attractive for used car buyers.

Prior to the E34 5-Series BMWs were looked at as the poor cousins to Mercedes-Benz in the prestige car segment of the market. While they were recognised for their sporting performance and handling, their build quality and reliability were inferior to the more conservative cars from arch rival Mercedes-Benz.

But the E34 5-Series went a long way to changing that perception. In the eight years it was produced it became a very popular model, and used cars buyers who want the cache that comes with a prestige badge have access to plenty of good quality cars at quite affordable prices.

MODEL WATCH

The E34 5-Series arrived here in 1988, but the 520i didn’t arrive until 1990.

There was a 520i in the E34 range in Europe before 1990, but with just 85 kW on tap it didn’t have the sort of performance Australians associated with the BMW badge so it wasn’t sold here. That changed in 1990 when BMW replaced the two-valve engine with a new four-valve six and the power jumped to a much more respectable 110 kW.

Performance was still quite modest by Beemer standards, with the five-speed manual car needing 10.6 seconds to accelerate from standstill to 100 km/h, and the four-speed auto equipped car requiring another second for the same journey. But the relative lack of performance was offset by its miserly fuel consumption, which was particularly brilliant on the highway.

There was a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed auto, the former being the choice for performance, the latter that for serene progress and fuel economy.

Suspension was independent front and rear, steering was power assisted, and brakes were four-wheel discs with ABS standard.

The sweetly styled 5-Series is BMW’s mid-sized car, perfect for a family of five with its roomy, comfortable interior.

The level of standard features is impressive, particularly for a car that can be bought now for less than $15,000. Air-conditioning is standard, as are power mirrors and windows, central locking, a four-speaker AM/FM/tape sound system, and cruise control.

A major facelift in mid-1992 saw the front end styling revised with the new wider BMW kidney grille, and a number of feature upgrades, but the big news of 1992 came later in the year with the introduction of the VANOS variable valve timing engine which improved the performance of the 520i.

AT THE WHEEL

The performance of the 520i is brisk without being breathtaking. If you’re prepared to allow it to rev you will be rewarded by the sweet sound of BMW’s smooth six, and acceptable performance.

Around town it’s quite happy to keep up with traffic away from the lights, but it’s better suited to rolling along at a smooth and steady pace. If you drive it that way you will regularly return fuel consumption of 10.5 to 11.0 L/100km.

On the highway you notice its passing performance is a little lacking which makes it important to plan your move. But sitting on the highway speed limit, the cruise control engaged, it will return fuel consumption figures of 7-7.5 L/100km.

The ride is superbly supple, without compromising the handling in the slightest, which is precise and responsive. A minor criticism relates to the steering, which is a little vague on centre.

Inside it’s tranquil with little wind or road noise, just the smooth sound of the six-cylinder engine as the revs rise.

IN THE SHOP

Buying any car that’s 10 or more years old requires care and attention to detail. When that car is a complex prestige car like the BMW it requires even more caution, because they are often in the hands of second and third generation owners who sometimes can’t afford the level of servicing that they need to keep them running at their best.

Before you do anything else head straight to the glove box in search of the service book. If it doesn’t have one, walk away. If it does check the service record to confirm the mileage shown on the odometer and to check that if has been regularly serviced by a BMW expert.

The 5-Series requires regular servicing, and it can be quite expensive, particularly when done at a BMW dealer. There are a number of independent BMW service specialists who will follow the factory service schedule at a much more affordable price, but you need to check the credentials of any non-factory service agent before giving them your car.

When inspecting a car for possible purchase give it a thorough body check, looking for signs of accident damage and poor subsequent repairs. Look for colour mismatches between panels, poorly fitting panels, sloppy doors that don’t close smoothly and solidly.

Check door openings, particularly looking for wear in door hinges and check links, and damage to seals.

Also inspect the lower sections of the doors for rust, looking closely around the seals for telltale signs of the dreaded tin worm.

Inside, look for heavily worn carpet under the driver’s feet, and on the footrest. Inspect front seats for heavy wear on the outer bolsters, and splits in the cushions. Some distortion of the crash pad through exposure to the sun is not unusual, but walk away if the crash pad is cracked or split. Generally the BMW interior trim stands up very well.

Mechanically the BMW is generally reliable. Check the engine for accumulation of sludge, which might indicate a lack of servicing. Be wary of any engine if you find sludge under the oil filler, a rebuild might be just around the corner.

Radiators are known to develop leaks and can lead to major problems with the cylinder head if not attended to quickly.

Look for non-genuine parts, which can indicate an owner who can’t afford the upkeep on a prestige car. Aftermarket shock absorbers, brake components, exhausts and tyres might be cheaper but often rob the 5-Series of its best performance and often don’t have the ultimate service life of the genuine factory parts.

LOOK FOR

• tight body even at high mileage.

• modest, but super smooth, performance.

• exceptional fuel consumption, particularly on the highway.

• roomy interior with accommodation for five.

• well equipped with lots of features.

• sporty handling and comfortable ride.

• BMW prestige

Pricing

Year Price From Price To
1996 $4,300 $12,870
1995 $4,300 $11,330
1994 $4,200 $10,780
1993 $3,700 $9,460
1992 $3,100 $13,310
1991 $3,100 $11,880
1990 $3,000 $11,880
1989 $3,000 $8,030
1988 $2,200 $7,480

View all BMW 5 Series pricing and specifications

Pricing guides

$4,840
Based on third party pricing data
Lowest Price
$2,200
Highest Price
$7,480

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
535i 3.4L, ULP, 4 SP AUTO $2,900 – 4,950 1988 BMW 5 Series 1988 535i Pricing and Specs
525i Executive 2.5L, ULP, 4 SP AUTO $3,800 – 6,160 1988 BMW 5 Series 1988 525i Executive Pricing and Specs
535i Executive Pack 3.4L, ULP, 4 SP AUTO $4,100 – 6,600 1988 BMW 5 Series 1988 535i Executive Pack Pricing and Specs
Graham Smith
Contributing Journalist

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Disclaimer: The pricing information shown in the editorial content (Review Prices) is to be used as a guide only and is based on information provided to Carsguide Autotrader Media Solutions Pty Ltd (Carsguide) both by third party sources and the car manufacturer at the time of publication. The Review Prices were correct at the time of publication.  Carsguide does not warrant or represent that the information is accurate, reliable, complete, current or suitable for any particular purpose. You should not use or rely upon this information without conducting an independent assessment and valuation of the vehicle.