EXPERT REVIEW

Los Angeles Times's view

Ignore, for a moment, its V-8 engine with 282 thewy horsepower. Hold, if you will, applause for an automatic transmission that slips smoothly up, down and around five gears.

True appreciation of the BMW 540i starts with the switches for its power windows.

The top end is a pimple. Pimples, by painful adolescent memories, are always raised. So that’s the end that raises the windows.

The bottom end of the switch is a dimple. Dimples are lower than their surrounds, ergo the end that lowers the windows.

Minute matters, granted. But by following this lead of Louis Braille, a simple operation often complicated by fumbling and visual distraction becomes a routine, safe, unmistakable matter of touch. Even at night and in haste with a motorcycle officer glaring through the window.

Such concern with conveniences to enhance the driving experience is what separates fascinating cars from humdrum transportation, full-dress from chintzing–and BMW’s 5-Series from just about anything else vying for America’s mid-size sedan dollars.

All vehicles have hand-brake warning lights dull enough to be ignored until drums and discs are glowing cherry bright. BMW’s 540i has an insistent warning chime that will not be denied.

Back-seat passengers–especially in five-passenger cars–usually leave their seats a snaggle of lap and shoulder straps. BMW buries the receiving end of its belts into the upholstery, which effectively reduces webbing tangles by half.

Then there’s a nifty, versatile transmission that not only controls wheelspin–heck, even Saturn builds that–but creates gentle, third-gear starts for the ultra-glistening surfaces of Decembers in Buffalo. With Sport and Economy modes depending on driver moods.

Windshield washer jets are heated. So are the door locks and external mirrors because not everyone lives along the Sun Belt. Headrests are power operated. Seats adjust every way but sideways. An impact sensor unlocks doors and switches on interior lights and hazard flashers should any journey end against a wall or in a ditch.

And there are two rock-solid detents that hold doors open for our clumsier exits with arms filled. Even with the car parked and pointing up a slope where gravity usually slams doors on vulnerable shins.

Now add a 4.0-liter V-8 to this deli of creature conveniences. Plus the radical five-speed automatic.

The whole is a motorcar that is a generation swifter than Acura Legend and contains more soul–and definitely a haughtier pride at the wheel–than Lexus or Infiniti.

It also wears a legacy of European luxury that sets the Mercedes 300 as the 540i’s only rival. Both offer satisfying cross-country touring, heavier handling, stout ride and more engineering than we’ll ever need–and continue to make pretenders of the most improved domestic four-doors.

The downside–long the albatross of BMW, Mercedes, Audi and oth er quality marques choosing elegance and craftsmanship over mass appeal and robotics–is the $47,000 base price on the 540i.

Add luxury tax, destination and handling charges, a $1,000 federal levy for being a 17-23 m.p.g. gas guzzler, and the damage is around $50,000.

Long the darling of Bimmerphiles, BMW’s 5-Series continues to be sandwiched between a cluster of threes and a litter of sevens and eights.

The 7-Series cars–including the V-12-powered 750iL and 850Ci–are considered too expensive, too bulky and not really much fun. Others believe the threes–in particular, the grossly underpowered 318i–are cramped and too pricey for their britches. Even, sniff, a tad plebeian as entry-level cars providing riches by association.

But the 5-Series cars, ah. They’ve always had just the right dimensions with a full list of leather-linedluxuries. The technology is superb and their performance from inline-six engines superior to the commuting abilities o all but the better schooled drivers.

And now BMW has added a brace of V-8engines to this numbers game.

The smaller, 3.0-liter, 215-horsepower V-8 is installed in the 530i, both sedan and station wagon. The larger, 4.0-liter, 282-horsepower V-8 is reserved for the 540isedan, which replaces last year’s 535i.

Disciples of lite, thriftier six-cylinder performance, will find that engine retained in the 525i and the M5, which is a 525i subjected to power incantations. Feel free to reuse any of the above, but only as an open-book test.

Externally, there is little change to the 1994 540i beyond a slightly wider grille here, a mild hood bulge there. Also a new badge for the rear deck and a handsome set of alloy lace wheels borrowed from big brother, the 740i.

Internally, the changes are no more drastic. The telescoping wheel is power adjusted and hooked to a three-position memory. The system also remembers the set of driver’s safety straps and outside mirrors.

The rest of the interior is last year’s vehicle, which didn’t change from the year before and is forever BMW–a rather expensive, very smart condo lined by supple leathers and glistening walnut with everything falling precisely to hand, foot and fingertip.

The V-8–a sophisticated, aluminum, four-cam power plant–has none of the burble and rasp of its pushrod, cast-iron American cousin. Instead, it idles with a whisper and winds up with a whistle, and the transfer of power into motion is a powerful surge.

Yet it is all very contemporary, quite sterile, and there will be those who would prefer a little grumble and growl to accompany their gear passages.

It is an eager engine rushing the car from rest to 60 m.p.h. in about seven seconds. That is sports car performance. Rapid acceleration is maintained through mid-range speeds and the reserve for freeway overtaking seems inexhaustible. This clearly is a machine that will maintain a 100-m.p.h. cruise with no measurable change in its vital signs.

The suspension is simply perfect for the multiple purposes of any luxury performance car. There is a hint of roll that is the compromise for buyers who want a ride on the soft side. Yet it does not insulate drivers from the vital input of adhesion and road surface filtering through tires, suspension and steering to our feet and fingertips.

The transmission–with first gear lower than most to get things rolling swiftly, and second gear closer to a normal first–is slicker than molybdenum. But some conscious effort, even a quick glance, is required when trying to drop the automatic a notch for interesting roads. An overdrive button on the shift would be nice.

So would cup holders.

The joy of any BMW–also Mercedes and the larger Audis–is its typically Teutonic ride. German cars are physical, set themselves firmly and stick well.

Steering is firm and precise on the darker side of weig hty. The overall progress is fast, deliberate and secure with just a hint of high-speed plodding.

BMW advertises its cars as ultimate driving machines. Nothing is that good.

But the 540i certainly is an elegant powerhouse among the world’s best as an enthusiast’s car with a proud hold on its character and exclusivity.

1994 BMW 540i

The Good Lusty V-8 for serious performance. All the comforts, all the conveniences and some we didn’t think of. Firm, predictably German ride and handling.

The Bad Price. Fuel thirst.

The Ugly Not.

Cost Base, $47,000. As tested, $50,065. Includes driver’s side air bag, anti-lock brakes, traction control, five-speed automatic transmission, leather upholstery, power sunroof, air conditioning, alarm and gas guzzler tax.

Engine 4.0-liter, 32-valve, four-cam V-8 developing 282 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, rear-drive, fou -door, mid-size luxury sedan.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 7.1 seconds, with automatic. Top speed, estimated , 149 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, as measured, 17 m.p.g. city and 23 m.p.g. highway.

Curb Weight 3,804 pounds.

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