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The E34 M5 shows what’s missing from modern BMWs

The BMW E34 M5 is the grand daddy of the modern M monster, but it's a very different car from what the M5 has become.

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This beautiful E34 M5 is for sale! Please reach out to the owner if interested.

My absolute favorite part about being an M guy is the inevitable cycle that occurs whenever a new BMW M car comes out. There’s vitriol thrown in its direction. “Not a real M car” and all that. Eventually, we find that everyone is full of it, the new M car is actually awesome, and we all stand in circles and point at them every Sunday morning. But why is that? What’s so special about these old BMWs that we can’t let go of? Is a car like the E34 M5 so great?

No. And Yes.

BMW E34 M5

1991 BMW M5 Quick Take

Get one:

Everything you touch provides real feedback. Looks great. Suitable for daily duties and Sunday mornings. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

Don’t get one:

There’s a reason why they don’t make ’em like this anymore. Slower than you might remember. Love letter to Exxon.

Soul Score: 7

This M5 is so good, it remains a relevant car over 30 years later.

The 1991 BMW E34 M5 overview

BMW E34 M5

“Respect your elders”, or whatever else these classic BMWs have on their back windows. They park in a corner away from the new stuff, hanging out amongst themselves. “Not my BMW”.

And when you look at an older model, you may not see much of a resemblance. You could fit 10 of these M5 grills inside my M3’s. It’s actually physically smaller too, despite being a 5 Series. And what’s this – no turbo? We’re about 20 years too early for that.

But the most important thing is here. I’d call the current F90 M5 one of the the best modern sports sedans made. Back in its day, this E34 was king of its jungle too. Nothing could touch it. “This might just be the best car in the world.” said Car & Driver. Seems the apple did not fall far from the tree.

Let’s see how far back the roots go.

Performance Score: 7. Beef-MW

BMW E34 M5
The party starts after 4,000 RPM.

Think of someone you had a crush on in high school. You haven’t seen them in 20 years, and then suddenly, boom, there they are at the checkout line in front of you. Hmm, not exactly as you remember, right? Yet, they still look good. “So you’re sayin’ there’s a chance now?!”

Sort of. The E34 M5 is certainly attainable now. And though it might not perform like what you remember, it’s still got the moves. What I’m sayin’ here is, maybe I can call you sometime, M5?

Engine

BMW E34 M5
You can still discern that hallmark BMW inline-six wail.

Underneath this M5’s bonnet (that’s fun to type even though I live in New Jersey) is the at-this-point venerable S38 inline-six. In what would be its final appearance, the engine was heavily revised from its original placement in BMW’s only super car to date, the M1. It makes 310 horsepower and 265 pound-feet at 4,750 RPM.

Think about that RPM number. You need to to rev this engine out to make the car move. This is chapter one, verse one on how to make something fun to drive. With a not-too-lofty redline of 7,250 that requires you to shift more to go fast, this engine is reserved but engaging. Better be, because absolutely nothing happens below 4k on the tach. The S38 is a real life “Come on, do something…” meme you get to drive.

And there’s no “sport” button, no adjustable exhaust – the car simply comes correct from the factory. What a novel idea.

Transmission

E34 M5
The self-centering stick takes some getting used to.

Connected to the S38 is a five-speed manual, which in this particular car has been modified to a self-centering shifter. Once you get used to it, the sensation becomes natural – it’s like shifting from neutral every time in a regular manual.

Throws are short and tight, with a satisfying “click” from the exposed mechanics.

The clutch itself feels like every other BMW, which is to say a bit soft to take an initial bite, but precise in overall feel. It adds another layer to the driving experience.

Chassis and steering

BMW E34 M5
All natural.

Permit me a side note. This car weighs 3,846 pounds, which is about the same as my G80 M3. However, the E34 M5 has smaller physical dimensions, and of course a lot less technology. My point: perhaps we should lay off BMW a bit for making modern ones so heavy. They’ve added quite a lot and managed to make a tech-laden, bigger car weigh the same.

That being said, this car is physically smaller, and it drives like it. A lowered suspension aids in keeping body roll to a minimum, and when you look out over the low hood, it gives the car a go-cart sensation.

Steering feel – oh baby. This E34 has a steering box as opposed to full-on power steering, so there’s much less assist and much more feel. Once you build up a bit of speed, it’s so confidence inspiring and connected that you find yourself wishing the Earth were made of right turns (blinker optional). What a shame so much has been lost in today’s machines.

BMW E34 M5
The car is lowered, but by no means harsh.

In fact, it’s such a huge change that upon climbing back in the M3 and turning my own wheel, I almost fell out of the seat. Ever go to lift a box you think is heavy, but there’s nothing inside? Yea, like that.

Finally, ride quality isn’t terrible – this is a performance car and it rides as such, but it never punishes you. No reason why it couldn’t be your daily. Still a 5er at heart.

Brakes

BMW E34 M5
335i brakes poke through 8 Series wheels.

Very cool detail alert. This M5 had its front brakes replaced with those from an F30 335i. Not the M Sport brakes, the ones that came on an M Sport car without the brakes. Whatever – click on the 35 story and you’ll see.

Here, they work perfectly, the Brembo four-pot setup giving great pedal feel and stopping assurance. Looks terrific too, poking out from behind those 8 Series wheels.

This E34 M5 hits the sweet spot between the past and future, and I love cars that let you push them hard on the street without needing to look over your shoulder every two seconds for red and blue lights. Put another way, this 32-year old car provides the same performance as the WRX from last week, but is way more enjoyable.

Utility Score: 7. Coupe dupe

BMW E34 M5
Boxy dimensions lend well to a spacious cabin.

This M5 has four seats because BMW decided to give you a big center armrest. It’s fine – who uses that fifth center seat unless you’ve decided torture is the only way to obtain the nuclear codes? Still, the outboard seats are a little tight for rear leg room. And the seatbelts click over the opposite shoulder of what you’d expect. It’s a weird car, ok?

Up front, we have plenty of headroom even for a helmet-equipped noggin, and a center armrest deletion that allows you and a passenger the freedom to engage in special mommy-daddy time.

The boxy trunk has all the room for your life. Newer BMWs have a higher beltline and thus a deeper trunk, but there’s still enough practicality here.

Economy: 2. Cookie monster

BMW E34 M5
This little computer can tell you your average MPG. Maybe better you don’t look.

Let’s all have a laugh because the EPA says you’ll get 11 miler per gallon around town in this E34 M5. How did they use so much fuel to make so little power back then? Blame all the revving you have to do to get going. It’s Cookie Monster tapping you on the shoulder every few miles, “Me want more!”

Things even out on the highway to 20 mpg, so your average will likely be around 17. And this S38 was enhanced by the M Gods to achieve better mileage than the ghosts of M engines past. The E28 M5 was even worse.

I write this facetiously – drive the snot out of this thing. If you’re worried about fueling up, there’s a Prius article waiting for you on Consumer Reports.

Features and Comfort: 7. Decontented contentment

BMW E34 M5
BMW has always lacked the finish of Mercedes inside.

This car smells like that 3000GT I drove last year inside. Eau de classic. Adds to the experience. The E34 M5 is a 90s time capsule with a level of refinement you won’t find in some new cars today. Take a big whiff.

No modern stuff in here, duh. Clip your phone to the dash and you’ll be fine. You can say refreshing, or you can say proof, as in this car is proof that you should focus on driving, not changing that Taylor Swift song before you get to the red light because the windows are down and there might be a cute girl in the white Civic.

Haters gonna hate, hate, hate…

Seat Geek

BMW E34 M5
All you need.

I think it’s an underestimated trait, but seats, and seating position, are so crucial to the overall driving experience. You sort of melt into the good ones, not making themselves known to you unless you turn hard or pin the gas.

And that’s exactly what happens in this M5. Sit inside, adjust as one would in any BMW, and off you go. The leather is still soft, the bolstering still intact, and the cushions still supportive. Perfect, because this car encourages you to drive quickly.

BMW E34 M5
Super comfy for cruising or attack mode.
BMW E34 M5
Window switches used to be in the center console until the E9X generation.

Grab the Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel (no adjustable column here, sorry), and step on pedals that are perfectly spaced apart. Look up for a sunroof, which you will need to open because it’s Lord Vader dark in here. Speaking of venting, I enjoy the door-mounted air vents that point to nothing in particular.

There are more than a few interior bits that are on the plastic side – BMW has always been behind Mercedes in that regard.

BMW E34 M5
Can you imagine the conversation BMW must have had? “Nein! Ve must have ze numbers on ze hot and cold dials!”

Look down for power window switches because they are in the center tunnel like every old BMW (this owner took out the rear units for cranks). Enjoy the dual climate control knobs, imperative because she’s always cold and you’re always hot. Take note of the HVAC sliders – it’s good to remind yourself how things used to be. Also, gotta love the small computer that can tell you all sorts of non-essential information, but is very nostalgic nonetheless.

BMW E34 M5
Hope you like knuckles chilled.

The nose knows

BMW E34 M5
No size envy here.

This M5 is a palette cleanser. But then, every M5 always has been. The F90 and F10 both feature subdued good looks, and they get them from their great-grand daddy.

There’s no silly slits, vents, scoops, or hoops on this car. No lip spoiler because you’re going to get groceries and not attack the ‘Ring most days. Subtle fender flairs. Perhaps the only thing to do is shave the door guards, but that’s simply a personal taste.

A nice upgrade here is a set of Xenon bulbs in the headlights – you can’t see anything with standard 90’s lighting tech. And though this is a wrap, I must say it’s a fetching color.

BMW E34 M5
Trust me, you need these upgraded lights.

The BMW E34 M5 makes you want to travel back 30 years

BMW E34 M5

We’ve been here before – we’re here often. Bringing back things from the past. But Ah-nuld is Ah-nuld, whether he’s pumping iron 30 years ago or smokin’ a stogie anywhere he wants today.

When you cut out the crap; the horsepower and the grille size and the weight, or whatever else people want to complain about when new ones come out, is there a way to distill the essence of what an M5 truly is?

Like the judge said, I know it when I see it, and the E34 absolutely fits the bill. Refined, precise, fun – these are ways to describe this 90’s classic. I wouldn’t call it the best M5 ever – later versions provide even more of pretty much everything (and yes, the E39 is still over rated), but you don’t get to those cars without this one.

So go ahead, fill up at the Exxon, light that stogie, and head over to the next cars and coffee, where you should park right next to that new F90 with the HRE wheels and the titanium exhaust.

There’s no need to let go of the past just yet.

E34 M5
Thanks to Tom from Tyspeed for lending his E34 M5!
BMW E34 M5

1991 BMW M5 Specifications

Vehicle Type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 4-passenger, 4-door sedan

PRICE

Base: $56,600

POWERTRAIN

3.5 liter DOHC 24-valve inline-6
310 hp @ 6,900 rpm
265 lb-ft @ 4,750 rpm
Five-speed manual transmission

DIMENSIONS

Wheelbase: 108.7 in
Length: 185.8 in
Width: 68.9 in
Height: 54.8 in
Curb Weight: 3,846 lbs

EPA FUEL ECONOMY

Combined/city/highway: 14 /11 / 20 MPG

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