EXPERT REVIEW

Our view: 1997 BMW 540

There are a number of slick sports sedans out there, from the relatively inexpensive Ford SHO and Nissan Maxima SE to the relatively costly Mercedes-Benz E420 and BMW 540i.

But only one can be the greatest of them all.

For my money, that distinction goes to the redesigned 540i equipped with the new six-speed manual transmission.

Certainly, the differences between the 540i and the E420 are pretty slight. Both are wonderfully realized midsize sedans that permit large measures of performance and luxury to coexist under the same roof. But I think the Bimmer looks and feels a little leaner and a little more athletic than its fellow countryman. And unlike the E420, it is offered in this country with a manual transmission, which I always thought a true sports sedan ought to have.

The 540i is the second redesigned 5 Series car to be released for the 1997 model year. The first was a lower-priced, lower-powered car called the 528i.

The 528i is powered by a six-cylinder engine that generates 190 horsepower. That’s enough gumption to make the car fun to drive, but not enough to engender true automotive arousal.

The 540i, on the other hand, is powered by a 282-horsepower V-8 that will leave the most jaded driving enthusiast in a state of reproductive readiness.

There is, of course, a considerable fiscal quid pro quo for all that extra power. There always is with the Germans. The 528i starts at $38,900, the 540i at $49,900.

In fairness, the 540i buyer is getting a bit more than extra umlauts on the drivetrain. The 540i is a more upscale car whose menu of standard appetizers includes leather upholstery (optional on the 528i) and a generous serving of burl walnut interior trim (not even available on the 528i).

The 540i is available with either manual or automatic transmission, each of which has one more gear than your average gearbox. (The manual has six forward speeds, the automatic, five.)

The transmission situation becomes curiouser and curiouser. While most automakers charge you more for the model with the automatic, Bayerische Motoren Werke clubs you around the head harder if you get the 540i with the manual. (The automatic model is $49,900, while the 540i mit sticken shiften costs $52,350.)

This odd state of affairs derives largely from the fact that the 540i with the manual is a higher-performing car. It comes with a special sport suspension and high-performance, 17-inch tires, instead of the standard undercarriage and 16-inch all-season radials found on the 540i automatic.

Essentially, the 540i is a joy because it is such a seamless fusion of the luxurious and the spirited. Beyond that general condition, it is a delight in any specific way you care to mention.

The body styling, while fairly conservative and little different from the previous 5 car’s, is still clean, beautifully proportioned business that speaks of good taste. The interior, a glorious amalgam of high-gl oss burl walnut veneer and soft leather, is stirring as well as classy.

The test car, a 540i with the six-speed manual, afforded the superlative handling you might expect from a BMW fitted with a special sport suspension. What wasn’t expected was a ride this comfortable and compliant from a performance-biased suspension.

I think this amount of ride compliance from an athletic undercarriage shod with hard-riding low-profile tires can be traced to two factors: the new 5 car’s even stronger platform, and the copious use of aluminum in the suspension, which reduces the vehicle’s unsprung weight (and, thus, causes the car to bounce less than the wheels).

The real kickaroonie with the 540i is, predictably enough, the way it accelerates. The 540i automatic does the 0 to 60 m.p.h. calisthentic in a rapid 6.6 seconds. The manual motors on up to 60 in 6.1.

Whoosh. Wow.

Base vehicle: Rear-wheel drive; 4.4-liter engine; six-speed manual transmission; tracti control; power disc brakes; antilock braking system; variable-assist power steering; sport suspension; 17-inch alloy wheels; P235/45WR17 performance tires; dual front and side air bags; automatic climate control with air filter; leather upholstery; cruise control; electrically adjustable steering column; power driver’s seat; power mirrors; memory for driver’s seat, mirrors and steering; stereo-cassette; power moon roof; keyless entry; security system; power windows.

Test model: Heated seats, fold-down rear seat, premium stereo.

Base price: $52,350

Test model: $56,945 (inc. shipping and $1,300 gas-guzzler tax). EPA city rating: 15.

Test mileage: 16.3.

Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles bumper to bumper; roadside assistance.

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