BMW’s “new” E28 5 Series arrived in the US in 1982 with a bit of a shocker under the hood: a decidedly low-rev, high-efficiency 2.7 L “Eta” six, making a mere 121 hp at a diesel-like 4250 rpm. Quite the come-down from the E12 530i, the definitive mid-size BMW sport sedan, and the only version sold in the US.
Ironically, sales of the new 528e boomed. But the hard core BMW aficionados sat it out, and their wait was well worth it, when BMW introduced the 533i in 1983. Phew! A genuine BMW six was back, and better then ever, even if its very familiar body shape was nothing more than a tweaked E12 body. BMW had spent its modest E28 development budget under the skin, where among other improvements, significantly revised front and rear suspensions were hidden from view, until one entered a curve and lifted off the accelerator. That’s then the changes were very much on display.
The 3.2 L (yes, its actual capacity was 3210 cc) SOHC six now made 181 hp at a much more BMW-typical 6000 rpm. Given that the sedan was some 200 lbs lighter than the 633i coupe (and of course the 733i), it was now the fastest BMW available in the US. 0-60 in 8.1 seconds was a fine number at the time (there was no malaise here), and the 1/4 mile came up in 16.4 @85.5 mph.
Both the front and rear suspensions were considerably revised, with the front struts now having a double-pivot, and the rear tailing arm unit’s notorious twitchiness having been tamed some.
The BMW’s steering came in for high praise, despite being a recirculating-ball unit and not rack and pinion. But despite the bigger TRX tires, it was only a hair quicker than the 528e in the slalom test and about even on the skid pad. The Michelin TRX tires also had traction issues on the acceleration runs.
The 528e was of course targeted specifically at helping BMW meet CAFE targets, but for many of the buyers who were new to BMW and bought it because of the propeller on the hood were actually quite well served by it, as its low-end grunt was more familiar to Americans. But for those wanting a genuine sports sedan, the 533i was a welcome gust of fresh air.