If the E39 is the most iconic and beloved BMW 5 Series, its predecessor, the E34 comes in a close second. Sold for the 1988 through 1996 model years, this third generation 5 Series decidedly marked the point in which the 5 Series “grew up” from being merely BMW’s middle child to essentially become a “baby 7 Series”, offering much of the flagship BMW’s technologies and luxuries in a trimmer, more agile package.
With its release, the E34 brought numerous advancements and firsts to the 5 Series, including dynamic traction and stability control, dynamic damper control, and engines with variable valve timing (VANOS). The E34 was also the first 5 Series featuring an available V8, six-speed manual, five-speed automatic, all-wheel drive, and a wagon (aka “Touring”) bodystyle, obviously not all together. In total, the E34 offered seventeen different engines ranging from inline-4 to V8, and seven different transmissions.
Larger in every dimension than its predecessor, most notably riding on a 5.2-inch longer wheelbase, its styling drew heavy influence from the E32 7 Series released two years prior, contributing to a more substantial appearance. Sheetmetal was more aerodynamic, with bumpers, front fascia, and side mirrors better-integrated into the body for a more cohesive, wind tunnel-shaped look. In fact, drag coefficient was just 0.30.
Traditional BMW styling cues, however, were thankfully still there. E34s featured a prominent Hofmeister kink, dual kidney grille, quad round headlights, L-shaped taillights, flared wheel arches, and a sharp character line running end-to-end.
With regards to two of those trademarks, the dual kidney grill now featured a body color surround, with V8 and later I6 models featured a wider version. It should also be noted that the E34 was the last BMW to feature exposed quad round headlights, with future vehicles incorporated them into single-piece headlamp housings.
Inside, BMW upped their luxury game without straying from the traditional driver-oriented environment associated with The Ultimate Driving Machine™. As in its predecessor, the E34’s instrument panel was heavily angled towards the driver, with all controls in easy reach and view. Style-wise, the new 5 Series’ dash looked as if it were lifted straight out of the 7 Series.
Compared to its predecessor, everything about the E34’s interior exuded a greater sense of upscale and premium look and feel. Materials were of higher quality and finishes were substantially upgraded, with better plastics, vinyls, leathers, and wood trim. Door panels in particular, looked far more substantial.
Lasting nine model years, the E34 proved a pivotal vehicle for BMW, firmly planting the 5 Series as an industry benchmark for the midsize luxury sedans. It also set the standard for future 5 Series to come, introducing a number of technological and performance innovations.
Its successor, the highly-regarded E39 is often considered the best 5 Series in history and among the most perfect sports sedan of all time, but the E34 deserves a lot of credit for polishing the 5 Series from its teenage years to its successful young professional stage of life.
Photos generously provided by Will Jackson