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
I have never before heard the claim that the E39 is the most iconic and beloved 5 series. Is this a general perception?
I was under the impression that most people believe it peaked with the E28.
For me the E34 is one of the very best looking sedans (and station wagons) of all time.
In the U.S. at least. Values on E39s, especially the M5, are going up.
I was/am BMW a huge BMW guy for years, and the e28 was/is THE iconic 5-series.
The e39s were nice and evolutionary update from the e34, without breaking much new styling grounds, but they really came into their own when the e60 came out and many realized that the future of BMW was going to be electro-crap VS. enjoyable driving experience.
My favorite 5-Series, so classic and well defined. I may not be a huge BMW fan, but if I were to own a 5 Series, I would take one of these E34s.
Can I just say, I’ve never really cared for the BMW E39? I’m sure if I were to drive one, I might feel different, but I’ve never liked how they’ve looked. There’s just something, off about them that I just can’t help but have an irrational dislike towards. I also thought the E28 was considered the best 5-series, and if the E39 is considered the most loved, I honestly believe the only reason that is, is because it was the last M car and the last sedan before Chris Bangle and I-Drive took over and people praise the E39 simply because it came before the Bangle years.
To put it in very odd terms, its like the people who praise the hell out of a season of a TV Show, simply because it came before the season or time period that was considered the low point for the series. Maybe it’s just how my brain works, but be it a season of a show or a generation of a car nameplate, I don’t think praise should be piled onto a car simply because it came before something so hated and despised. Every single generation or season should be judged on its individual merits, and if I don’t care for or find flaws in something, I’m not going to overlook them or remove my personal opinions simply because what came after was deemed a travesty. To me, at least from an aesthetic standpoint, not a technical one, the E39 just doesn’t look good. It has the same flaws and aesthetic problems that the E60 had, just no Bangle Butt and annoying computer interface in the console. Whereas I can look at the E34 and go, “Wow, it’s so simple but I wish BMW still designed their cars in a similar way.”
But, that’s just me.
I, for one, agree with your comments. I think one of the issues where the E39 falls short of the featured car here is that in comparison it has an ever so slightly more rounded appearance which to me makes it look just a bit puffy compared to its predecessor. But compared to what followed, it’s still fairly neat and unfussy.
As I read Brendan’s article, I was trying to figure out why I liked the E34 so much. For me, it’s just as you say — it’s one of the cars that came before what I perceive as BMW’s downfall.
The E34 still possessed some of the hard-to-define qualities that made BMWs unique, both visually and from a driving perspective. Meanwhile its successors began heading down the road of homogeneity. As I think more about it, I believe that for me, the Ultimate BMW sedan is the 525i.
Your example reminded me of the hate the 1997 Camry gets… I and many others love the 92-96 generation but that is because it was truly the greatest Camry up to that point, and cemented that car as a legitimate midsize player. The fourth generation was not improved in any way and in fact was dulled down, yet it became the best selling car in the country. However I would not say I like the ’92 car just because the ’97 was boring. I just never warmed up to it.
For me, the pinnacle of the 5-Series was the E28. It was the first car I ever really went fast in. And, in the true German fashion, it was really good at it! That car was a 535i…maroon with a tan interior and a 5-speed, and that characteristic center-mounted exhaust. They were more simple and a little less robust, but had a certain personality the “Fünfer” hasn’t had since.
I will agree, however, that the E34 did more than any other version to move the 5-Series upscale. These were very much the kid brother to the then-current 7-Series. And, of course, it ushered in era of the V-8.
E28 is most iconic 5er. I owned 4 of them, a tii and a few others. To me the E34 started a regrettable slide to larger, more complex, heavier less agile cars and much more difficult to shade tree. Just my $.02 get it?
X2! I liked the E34s when they were new(or newish) because they looked visibly larger and more “modern” than the E28, but as I grew up and both both generations aged, the E28s look and feel like old BMWs, while E34s are just like a 90s luxury car, and have all the problems of one(possibly the posterchild). The E28 presses all the buttons that a good car a good car to me.
A BMW from back in the day when owners BOUGHT the car, rather than LEASED it.
Which, I think, says just about everything about BMW . . . . . . .
I don’t think BMWs were ever cars that did well in the ownership verses lease stakes. They weren’t in the Mercedes mode; they were performance cars. Like a Pirelli over a Michelin- fast fun and competent, but not particularly long lasting.
Not that I really want to get into this debate again, but are you trying to say there is something wrong with leasing? Cars are depreciating assets, so unless it’s a supercar or something, you don’t get a return on your investment the way you would with real estate.
Leasing also allows you to get into a new car every couple of years and getting to essentially “walk away” at the end of it and not have to worry about trade-in value and negative equity.
The other nice part about leasing is that you don’t have to worry about how an accident will affect your car’s value upon trading it in. Let’s say you buy a brand new car and someone rear-ends you, 100% their fault. Your car’s value will plummet by large amount. With leasing, you don’t have to worry about this.
I should add that the percentage of lease customers, at least at my BMW-MINI dealer, is a lot smaller than you probably think. Most BMW-MINI drivers buy their cars and pay cash, not finance.
Leasing certainly makes sense in some circumstances. However, I fear that it encourages both the driver and the manufacturer to consider the car as disposable. I long for the days of the W123 Mercedes and Volvo 240 that could go hundreds of thousands of miles without worry. I had a W211 Mercedes E500 with Airmatic and SBS brakes: never again. After 100,000 miles it was a terrifying experience trying to keep the car on the road and for what benefit? I liked the ride on the W124 and W126 better and I didn’t have to worry about the COMMAND system flaking out! Locking the car, I held my breath wondering, is the suspension going to fall to the ground because of some computer fluke? I had to pull the fuse more than once to get the radio to turn off. Leasing a car such as that one makes sense. However, for someone who drives upwards of 20,000 miles a year, I have ruled out ever buying a post 1995 Mercedes again.
“However, I fear that it encourages both the driver and the manufacturer to consider the car as disposable.”
My own suspicion would be that the leasing driver would consider the car disposable without a lease too. My father leased cars and bought cars. Until his last one (in years of retirement and poor health) his cars were used up when he got rid of them, an interval that almost never went beyond 4 years. If anything, people who lease worry more about visible body damage knowing that they will have to pay for it when they turn the car in.
As for manufacturers, haven’t they always considered their products good for a certain design-life and disposable thereafter? Those of us who like at least the idea of keeping a favorite car for a long time are outliers, I am afraid.
Look at a rental property versus a home. Some people treat both the same, with equal numbers treating both as well as possible or as badly as possible. However, for the most part, most renters treat a leased property as someone else’s concern, and make little to no effort to keep it up other than cleaning. Homeowners, on the other hand, tend to maintain and upkeep the property, as they have a vested interest in it. A car is not an investment, and you would never think it would appreciate in value, but there is little thought given by most people leasing to change the oil regularly, keep the tires inflated properly, to wax it regularly, etc, as it will be returned. An owned car, well maintained, has higher value as a trade, or can be reused by kids, or otherwise repurposed rather than being returned at the end of a lease, and as such is often better maintained. But, as noted, manufacturers and dealers really want their products to be replaced regularly, so they prefer leasing as it continually moves new product. Those who prefer long ownership are in the minority.
These are all accurate points, and are a big part of why I tend to lease my vehicles. I am admittedly, however, part of the somewhat narrow demographic that leasing works especially well for: I don’t break 10,000 miles a year, I don’t make modifications, and I absolutely pamper my vehicles. For others, just the cost-per-mile alone for exceeding the annual mileage could be a deal-breaker.
That being said, I don’t particularly like the way the German companies tend to sell their cars. I can get free metallic paint on a Kia, but not a BMW. And I’d honestly rather have cloth seats than “leatherette” if you’re not going to equip the car with leather to begin with (although I know that’s a US market distinction and can be had in other markets). The Germans seem to be of the mindset that you pay for the privilege of buying their car. But I will say, like anything else in life, you get what you pay for. And I can honestly tell you I don’t regret getting any of my BMWs, as I’m now on my third. I just don’t care for the price structuring compared to other manufacturers.
Yeah! Back when people paid cash for their houses and didn’t have these fancy, 30 year mortgages!
It cannot be denied that the 30 year mortgage, ever longer auto financing terms, and easy leasing correlate with an increase in both home and auto prices. I know that I am in a tiny tiny minority, but in my perfect world, mortgages would not extend beyond 7 years and most purchases would be made in cash. Prices would fall and wealth accumulation for most people would be something more than a dream. When you borrow it affects the market price for all market participants, driving prices up. As prices increase, people who would have been able to buy in cash must finance because they cannot afford the new higher price.
The last BMW I bought was a 1998 328i. Since then I’ve leased a string of them. Frankly, only my enemies should own a BMW that isn’t under warranty these days. They’re still nice cars -I have a 528i- but the handling is all electronic; the driver has zero direct control. The throttle, steering, braking, and suspension are all controlled and adjusted by the car’s computers. It’s a video game simulation of a BMW.
A previous lease 3 Series got tapped in the rear bumper; it required a new bumper cover. When I go it back from the paint shop and got in, neither my air conditioner nor audio system worked. The shop decided that his crew had failed to reconnect (something) when they put on the new bumper cover. He told me to take it to BMW and to send him the bill. They did. For $1100 dollars. That’s why I don’t own them when they’re not under warranty anymore.
Which is exactly my point with all of this new sh*t. A damn E28 in nice condition has everything I need. But it is a bit loud, that’s my only gripe to be honest.
The E34 was an amazing car! It moved the 5 Series from being a “3 Plus” to a “7 Junior.” You got the tight handling of the former, with the looks and most of the luxury from the latter. We had a 1995 525i and it was a wonderful car.
However, in defense of the E39: that car brought the E34 up-to-date for the late 1990s. The interior, in particular, was improved with a smoother, more integrated design and more logical HVAC controls. The driving dynamics of the E39 were also better than ever in terms of combining “sport” with “luxury.” Hence, at least among buff books both then and now, the E39 was hailed as the “best” 5 Series.
My first association when seeing this car is that it was what brought that deep, dark green paint back into the automotive color spectrum after about a decade-long absence.
I still remember seeing one in traffic in maybe 1989 or so and being struck by the beautiful (And unusual) deep green finish. And then the predictable happened when the 90s became the decade of green cars.
I really liked the E28 but saw this as a good update.
Except that is an E39 from ’97 on.
Good point. It looks like BMW offered 3 or 4 dark green paints in 1990, at least two of them 1990-only. That picture (and shade) looked a little off but my coffee had not kicked in yet.
Agree with most of the comments above, I had an E34 for about 18 months in the early 90s, and it was simply the best car I’ve ever owned. It knew its purpose and delivered on its promise: it was sleek, not fat, it wasn’t styled like a Transformer, it was a quality environment to drive and travel in, but without unnecessary toys. These days BMW is just another car company filling every niche, but 25 years ago they still had a clear mission. Peak BMW.
As much as I despise nostalgia as often our selective memories only remember the best and forget the worst, oh how I wish BMW returned to the days of the ultimate driving machine. My F30, even modestly equipped, is part dishwasher part iPhone…a fancy appliance. If I could buy a new E46 I would. I have an eighteen year old E46 which I drive nearly daily, leaving the F30 in the garage. Please keep the iDrive, hybrid powertrains, automatics, LCD screens, coded batteries, and key-less push button start. The newest BMWs are even loosing the red backlit gauges. If BMW really felt it necessary to compete in the consumer electronics game and go after lessees instead of long term owners, perhaps they could have made the MINI brand technology focused and kept BMW as a driver’s car. Having driven an E34 and an E39, both certainly are driver focused. The E60, I have no idea what happened.
I agree that it would be wonderful if they would build cars for drivers versus cars for those wanting a fancy appliance, but it ain’t gonna happen. The issue is with margin. The drivetrain, the suspension, the greasy bits, what actually is the car, is pretty fixed, as people in general do not pay more for upgrades to these things. What people in general do pay more for is the infotainment and luxury items, like leather seats, etc.and those can go in profitable packages. Leasing killed off a lot of individual items in favor of packages, all in an effort to keep the lease payments lower. If you are buying a car, you would want the best motor, the upgraded brakes and suspension, and similar greasy bits, as you are probably going to keep the car for several years. If you lease it, you don’t care so much, as you will turn it in and get another one just like it in 2-3 years. Since you will not need to maintain it, who cares, right? But, you do want that NAV, those leather seats, and the “comfort package” contains that. Oh, it also includes 7 other items you could care less about, but it works well on the lease contract. Car makers build cars to make a profit, not to satisfy enthusiasts.
I share your pain. Our “Cyberdyne” BMW (F10 5 Series) is a loaded with all the modern goodies (Xdrive, iDrive, etc., etc.), but is about as stimulating as a Bavarian Buick. A far cry from the E34 and E39s we used to have–I’d take modern versions of those cars in a heartbeat. Sadly, BMW doesn’t really even pretend to be “driver’s cars” anymore–that mantle has seemingly shifted to Porsche.
My wife and I recently drove the new G30 5 Series, larded up with things like Gesture Control (utterly ridiculous feature) and every other high tech gizmo known to humankind. It’s a very luxurious car and “improved” in every way compared to the F10, but it does not even remotely feel like an enthusiast’s machine, just a fancy, expensive, high tech showpiece. No doubt the newest 5 will sell (at least as much as any non-SUV can), but at some point I wonder if BMW will lament forfeiting their soul to satisfy “market demand.”
I Guess that you meant 1988.in your article says 1998 to 1996.
Brendan, later 6-cylinder cars also had a wider kidney grill, same as V8 cars had from the beginning.
Thanks for pointing out my error! You’re right, just like how later V8 models on the E32 gained the V12’s wider grille. Too many late nights writing articles with a glass of wine!
The transition from E28 to E34 was huge, literally as well as metaphorically. The E28 was really just an somewhat improved E12, but fundamentally the same car. Meaning, very tight rear seat room, and as someone else said, essentially a slightly bigger 3 Series. The E34 changed that equation, and finally became a legitimate competitor to the Mercedes mid-range, in this case the W124.
Having bought (leased actually) a W124 in 1985, I wondered whether I had made a mistake after the E34 came out. The 535i had the big 3.5L six, and I liked the looks of it. But as much as I have a huge amount of respect for the E34, it just wasn’t as good as an all-round car as the W124, which handily kept its most-recommended status in buff magazines around the globe. And I don’t think it’s aged as well as the W124 either, although it certainly has aged quite well. And the ratio of W124s to E34s on the streets here is completely off the scale. W124s are very common still, but E34s have became quite rare.
One thing I never liked about the E34 and most of the BMWs for ages was that their console felt unnecessarily wide. I know I’m sounding like Jason Shafer here, but the W124’s interior, and especially the console, felt more efficiently designed and had better ergonomics, among other things. There was a true brilliance to the W124 that the E34 could never quite match, but then no car could.
It is true that the W124 remains more prevalent but then again it’s also true that they sold a boatload MORE of them than the E34 too…. and MB drivers are also less likely to drive enthusiastically therefore less likely to trash cars.
Not to downplay the W124 — I love ’em. 400E is tops.
I had 2 E34’s; a ’92 525ia, and ’94 530i. Very comfortable, dependable, with a tank like robustness. My favorite 5 series. Later model’s got larger and ugly. The e34 is about the same size as the current F30 3 series. It was a nearly perfect car.
I also think the E82 1 series are excellent. Very robust, tastefully simple interior, and the 135i are very fun to drive.
Peak 5-series, for me the E39 looks like an E34 that’s been out in the sun too long. The earlier car has a sober elegance that BMW has since abandoned. Glad I’ve still got mine. Much prefer it to the W124 estate I had a while ago – that was an underpowered, stolid to drive slug. Perhaps 300TE would be better than 200TE but 520i is just fine with a stick shift.
“Sober elegance.” Wow…that is spot on!
Count me in with all the folks who think the e34 and e28 were both far better looking and more exciting cars than the e39. And I do agree with Paul that the Mercedes w124 interior was more comfortable and no nonsense.
Based on experience, I think the reason for the comparative popularity of the e39 has to do with significant quality problems in both the e28 and the e34. My father’s 1984 533i 5-speed was a dream car for me at age 16, but it was a bit of a nightmare for Dad, as the car would shut down completely on a random basis from new, and require a flatbed and trip to the dealer, never to be properly diagnosed. Dad went to a 1986 260e Mercedes as soon as he could to get rid of the BMW. His 1991 e34 525i automatic was also a dream car to me and he loved it, but it was surprisingly cramped inside for 5 people, and Dad complained that the transmission (which was designed to “learn” the driving style of the driver or something like that) never quite worked properly. By the time he traded it in on a 1993 530i v8 auto, I remember it being rattle-y and creaky in a way a Mercedes would not have been.
And of course the v8 e34’s famously suffered engine failure because of the Nikasil-coated cylinder walls in the V8’s. While dad’s didn’t have the problem, it was a very public black eye for BMW and I think contributed to low resale values.
Finally, I truly don’t understand why anyone would think that somehow buying is inherently better than leasing. Are you suggesting Syke that everyone should pay cash for their cars? Or just that financing a car is better than leasing. Because if everyone should pay cash, most of us wouldn’t have a car. And if you’re just suggesting financing is better than leasing, then they are just two different financial instruments. The benefits of one versus the other just depend on the individual terms of each at the time of purchase.
I’m with you Matt on several points. From my (limited) exposure as a passenger, they aren’t roomy and the aesthetic quality of certain interior components left a lot to be desired when you considered the price of admission.
The love for the E39 is almost solely due to the M5.
The M5 was unavailable in the US for most of the E34 M5’s run.
A customer with a very nice emerald green E39 M5 found it to be the best BMW he’s had so far. He also has a ’73 Bavaria, a M3, and a newer M3 The M5 has had normal (expensive) maintenance, but nothing has gone wrong.
Still my favourite 5 series. A director I worked for had a all white 525i in 1992-95 ish – it was a great car.
Personally, I’d prefer it to the W124, albeit I am much less familiar with it.
Had a ’94 525iA for 10 years. Finally had to put it down after the second GM auto box died at 190xxx miles. My favorite car thus far.
e12 – 1st fiver, simpler, HUGE windows, my personal favorite. I think the perfect combo of 60s-70s dynamics in a more liveable package even by modern standards.
e28 – evolutionary update on a near perfect Paul Bracq e12 design, but it was BMW at it’s aspirational height in the aspirational 1980s. The iconic 5-series.
e34 – big step towards modernity, gave up some of the classic BMW special-ness in favour of being a ‘better’ more modern car overall car.
e39 – evolutionary update on the e34, again giving up more of that BMW special-ness in favour of being an even better car. It and the e46 were the last evolution of the Neue Klasse and the e3 in particular.
Oh, and the W124 interior is MUCH nicer than the e34, not even close in my opinion. The W124 interior is probably one of the nicest ever made.
I’m also a BMW guy whose actually own e12s, an e28, an ALPINA e34 not to mention all the 3-series…
Those old BMW’s still look modern and fresh inside and out being close to 30 years old! Talk about timeless masterpieces for sure. BMW’s of that era were some of the most reliable, best built cars on the road at the time. It isn’t difficult to find old BMW’s today with 300,000 miles or more on them and still looking and running beautifully.
This 5 and the contemporary 7 series were, to me, the first BMWs that were truly luxury cars. The interiors, options, V8, contemporary looks and BMW performance really elevated the brand into the top tier.
As the former owner of a 1992 E34 535i (the last year of the old big-block M30 engine) with a 5-speed manual, limited slip diff and electric everything, I have to concur that this was indeed peak 5-series. Many others before me have remarked that the E12/E28 was just a bigger 3-series, and that’s true – some wheeltime in a late-model E28 535i showed up its comparatively narrow cabin and upright glass, and its handling was… interesting.
That drive in the E28 also highlighted how much heavier the E34 became, as the same engine in the older car felt considerably sprightlier than in my E34. However, I consider this a fair trade-off for the vastly improved cabin space, noise insulation and overall comfort of the later car.
Some notes about my E34: I am yet to encounter another car (except the oleopneumatic Citroens and perhaps the C3 Audi 100/500/5000) which could treat speed bumps (sleeping policemen) with as much disdain. It simply nailed the balance between an absorbent ride, controlled body motion through corners and outright grip. Furthermore, the bodyshell was incredibly solid – to creaks or groans at any time, and that thump when you closed the doors simply shouted quality. There were some electronic glitches, though – most notably the central locking, which stopped working and would randomly unlock doors overnight. That required replacement of a specific control module, the price of which wasn’t too terrible, but with a diagnostic process which took days.
As for the E39, it’s a really nice evolution of the E34 theme, but with more electronic stuff to go wrong. And it never approached that simple elegance either – I’ve always found the confluence of lines at the base of the A-pillar particularly jarring. Doesn’t help that the profile abandoned the E34’s chiselled lines in favour of a jellybean look with all those edges smoothed off either. In the end, the E39 lacked visual character, something the E34 had in spades. I know which one I’d rather park in my driveway…