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BMW 540i M-Sport Performance

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BMW 540i 540
Rancho Santa Fe, California, July, 2005

2003 BMW 540i M-Sport, Sterling Gray (click to enlarge)

The fun of driving a 2003 BMW 540i Sport is beyond my poetic ability to describe. It's fast of course, but also luxurious and nimble. It's as much of a kick in the pants as a tiny car like a Miata for handling, and also packs more punch than a 1960's hot rod and is quiet and comfy. I'd never have considered a BMW, and driving a 5 sport converted me instantly. The 540 lays down potent numbers, but the fun of driving it transcends those numbers indescribably.

It's a new world out there. For instance, the feared Mercedes 6.9 of the late 1970s only made 250 - 286 HP from its mammoth 6.9l (417 CID) engine, less than the 540i. The 6.9 weighed a lot more and is much slower.

Motor Trend found these numbers for the 2003 here. I presume this is for the non-sport version:

0-30 MPH 2.03 s
0-40 MPH: 3.20 s
0-50 MPH 4.47 s
0-60 MPH 6.16 s
0-70 MPH 8.02 s
0-80 MPH 10.09 s
0-90 MPH 12.91 s
0-100 MPH 16.02 s
Quarter Mile 14.39 @ 96.60 MPH
60-0 MPH
123 feet
100-0 MPH
344 feet

V-12 Torque, Power and Smoothness

The BMW 540 M-Sport elicits twelve-cylinder torque, power and smoothness from it's advanced V8 engine. It mimics a 6.6 litre V12 and also duplicates its fuel consumption. I know; I've driven the Mercedes V-12 SL600, and S600 coupes and sedans.

BMW does this in the 540 M-Sport through four techniques:

1.) Low axle ratio. The sport package has a lower axle ratio, so the engine always turns more RPMs than the standard, taller axle ratio.

2.) High stall torque converter also makes the engine turn more RPMs than a standard torque converter.

3.) Transmission programmed to shift late, keeping the engine turning even more RPMs than an ordinary luxury transmission.

4.) High-flow, quad-cam, four valve-per-cylinder engine loves running at these high RPMs.

For most driving the engine turns 50% faster than other V8 luxury cars. It turns 2,000 - 3,000 RPM even in light driving, while regular V8 cars are turning 1,300 - 2000 RPM. The 540 M-Sport displaces 50% more per mile and fires cylinders 50% more often than other V8s, duplicating a V-12 and the V-12's limitless torque, power, feel, smoothness and voracious fuel consumption.

The BMW 540 has the around-town feel of a V-12 without the 300 pounds of extra nose weight.

At very high speeds the 540 behaves like a V8 since the low-road-speed RPM tricks no longer apply. This isn't much of an issue: the twelve-cylinder 2001 750iL weighs 21% more than a 540, yet its traditional V-12 only puts out 12% more horsepower and only 11% more torque, thus the 540 is still far faster in every way than BMW's traditional twelve cylinder cars.

The 540 is faster than traditional V-12s since one only finds V-12s in much bigger, heavier cars. The bigger cars are geared much taller for quiet luxury. The 540 Sport duplicates the V-12's comfort and exceeds the V-12's performance. The 540 Sport retains the V-12's around-town mastery without all the clumsy weight. Believe me, the Mercedes V-12s are not cars for zipping around twisty mountain roads while the 540 is.

Here's the best part: the earth-shattering BMW 5.0 litre V-12 of 1989 - 1994 only made 296 HP, just 2% more than the 2003 540i, and it had to move a thousand more pounds in the huge 7-Series. The 540i is still worlds faster than the 750s were.


It's lovely: it's as silent as it can get. You can hear it if you get on it, otherwise it's very quiet as I prefer.

It also is a single three-inch diameter pipe. A single three-inch pipe has much better flow than several smaller pipes. This single 3" pipe is unique to the 2003 sport version.

Headlights (click)

Steptronic Transmission

"Steptronic" pseudo-manual control is silly. It's a marketing weasel-around allowing dull people to pretend they're shifting. Just leave it in "Drive" unless you're autocrossing. I say "silly" since I prefer a clutch. I don't believe in torque converters.

Steptronic does what you tell it, but only if it's in the mood. It doesn't always follow directions as a real manual does.

I haven't gotten the point of steptronic yet. It does not keep the transmission in one gear even if you've told it to do so. If it feels like downshifting it will. It will downshift if you punch it, or come to a stop. I need to try doing what you shouldn't, which is punching it in a hot corner for which safety dictates it not downshift lest you lose the back end. Mercedes AMG transmissions are smart enough not to do this, I'm unsure if BMW is.

The Steptronic lacks Mercedes' one-touch ability to send the transmission to the lowest safe gear. With steptronic you need to jerk it off gear-by-gear till you get there.

Worse, the only time I bother to shift an automatic manually is for descending long, steep hills. Traditional automatics make this easy: just move it a click or two to 3 or 2 and you're done. With the steptronic you need to pull it to the left and then jerk it forward a couple of times; good luck concentrating of driving while you're counting the steps. By comparison all Mercedes for several decades have had keyed shift gates which allow doing this by feel in one movement. Today's Mercedes shifters also allow this with one motion that brings you to the lowest safe gear. The steptronic could be likened to my BMW motorcycle's shifter, except the motorcycle never shifts for you in manual mode as steptronic does. For instance, if you have steptronic in 5 and come to a stop it brings you down to 3. Take off and and it stays in 3. It's more work keeping track of what Steptronic is doing than it is trying to second-guess any traditional automatic. You have to take your eyes off the road annd peer at the dashboard, a bad thing.

Sorry, I told you I prefer a clutch and I'll admit that everyone else who has these just loves them. I just got the automatic to make my wife happy. Please, one of you other enthusiasts out there, explain to me what I'm missing.

Air Conditioning

BMW e39 540 Air Conditioning

BMW 540 Climate Control

Fully automatic climate control. Tell it the temperature you want and everything, from vents to fan speed and everything, are automatically adjusted to keep you comfortable. You never need to adjust anything as the weather or car gets warmer or colder. It even remembers your preferences if someone else, like your wife, uses another key to drive it. When you get back in everything is set back automatically to the way you like it.

It works magnificently well. Come warm or hot weather it adjusts everything all by itself. It's smarter than my Mercedes SL500 because the 540 has a solar sensor which lets it know to make things cooler in the daytime to compensate for the sun shining on you, and warmer at night when it isn't. I don't have to change my temperature setting as the seasons change. Get in after the 540i has sat in the sun on a hot day and it automatically runs full blast and gently settles down all by itself as the 540i cools down.

The standard BMW 540 air conditioning has extraordinary cooling capacity. I've gotten into hot black cars and they cool down immediately and automatically. Likewise, the BMW 540 cools and dehumidifies so much air that there is always lots of distilled water coming out of the bottom of the car from the air conditioning system. This is normal. The BMW 540 makes so much cool air that I actually have two streams of water coming from the system. You'll see this if you look on your driveway after you've just parked your car: you'll see two trails of water drips.

This is distilled water that condenses when the air is cooled, so it evaporates without a trace. All cars do this, but the BMW has so much capacity that it makes a lot more water. I've always thought a good idea would be to catch this distilled water and have a spigot in the dash for fresh, cold water that is always available. Heck, the car could use this to maintain battery and coolant and windshield washer levels, too!

Not that you'll need it with the already excellent and powerful automatic climate control, but the BMW 540i also has a MAX button on the climate control. Hit that when you get in a warm car and it gives you full cold, recirculation and full blast of the fan with one push. It cools things down fast. The automatic mode also automatically selects this for a hot car, but eases off the fan speed sooner for quiet. I'll use the MAX control if I feel like getting the car cooler a little quicker.

Fuel Economy

US EPA: 17 MPG City, 21 MPG Highway for the 2003 BMW 540i Sport. See it here at the EPA's site. This is 2 MPG better than the 1997 - 2002 sport models' city ratings.

The non-sport 540i is rated 18/24 MPG. The Sport gets lower ratings due to the performance tricks that turn the V-8 into a virtual V-12.


I run my 540i only on premium fuel that meets BMW's Top Tier certification. BMW and some other makers actually certify which brands of fuel are best . See the link for the currently approved suppliers.

Living in California we are often the brunt of the US Government's socialzed make-work programs for farmers that mandate the addition of midwestern grain alchohol to our fuel. Our Governer Schwarzenegger recently challenged this, since the filler increase air pollution and wastes money, but he was shot down.

In any case, at different times of year we get this crud added to our fuel, and it reduces fuel economy in direct proportion to the amount of ethanol added. When we have the maximum of 10% ethanol we get 10% lower fuel economy. Luckily this won't hurt the BMW; the manual OKs the use of up to 10% methanol.

When measuring and comparing fuel economy one needs to be wary of just how much gasoline is in the mix and how much filler, since MPG drops as the percentage of gasoline drops. I think this filler is also called MTBE and "Oxygenated"on the pumps

(Chemists: please feel free to correct my use of veracular chemical expressions.)


I get about 11- 14 MPG beating my 540i Sport around town waiting at stoplights. It starts off at about 5 - 6 MPG when cold started and improves after the first quarter mile as the engine begins to warm.

Now that we have several cars with built-in MPG computers I've discovered that there is very little variation from one car to another, and that the variation is almost entirely dependant on how you drive. I get the same crappy milage locally regardless of what I'm driving. I'm using the digital computers you can reset for each trip or segment, not instantaneous MPG guages.

Our 2.0 litre 2002 Saab 9-3 also only gets 12- 14 MPG running errands locally (EPA: 21 MPG city) and out 1999 Mercedes SLK (EPA: 22 MPG city) also got the same abysmal milage cold starting, sitting at stoplights and buffeting around parking lots.

I got the same 13 - 14 MPG in a 2006 Chevrolet Malibu LT 3.5L rental car (EPA: 22 MPG city) in the same driving. The Malibu also has an MPG computer.

With MPG computers it's trivial to start the computer for each trip and see how each car does, unlike the old days of calculating only after a fill up. My eye-openng observation is I get the same fuel economy making the same trips almost irespective of what vehicle I drive!

We were curious when our cute little SLK only got 14 MPG locally, and now we know why: it's primarily the driver and where you drive that determines fuel economy, not the car.

These observations have been epiphanal. I now realize that there is no fuel penalty for driving a V8 locally instead of a whimpy car, regardless of the old EPA ratings or common sense. Likewise these computers should help people recognize that their fuel efficiency depends on how they drive, and not blame it on defective cars.


I get about 26 MPG on the freeway. I've never had my 540i on a freeway long enough to observe the long-trip freeway fuel economy accurately. Others with the standard transmission get 33 MPG in top gear at 80 MPH in Scotland.

Unlike local driving, I see great differences between different cars on the open freeway. A 1999 Miata got 25 MPG (EPA: 29 MPH highway), my SL500 gets 24 MPG (top up, EPA: 23 MPG highway), the SLK got 23 MPG (top down, EPA 30 MPG highway), the Saab gets 30 MPG (EPA: 29 MPG highway) and the Malibu rental got 37 MPG (EPA: 32 MPG highway).

Freeway milage usually depends on speed. Some cars like the Saab and Malibu get better milage at slower speeds. My 540 seems to get the same regaredless of speed.

Hills and elevation change alter this drastically, and here in Califiornia we have a lot of grades. Use your GPS to read elevation as you watch the freeway fuel economy! The Saab and Malibu get 50 MPG over tens of miles when driving down mild hills from a mountain town down to lower elevations!


Gas mileage worries are for wimps, especially when it comes to $64,000 cars. I only get curious about it since I'm an engineer and look at fuel efficiency as a sign of good design. As you can see above, fuel economy in real driving by the same driver along the same routes varies much less between cars than outdated EPA measurements suggest, making the folly of worrying about fuel economy a moot point.

Just for grins, let's actually beleive the EPA measurements and see what happens.

Let's compare the premium-gas-guzzling 540i Sport to the anemic 6-cylinder BMW 525 and girlie Sierra-Club-member 325i with standard shift . (I'd love to have a 325i convertible and I volunteer for the Sierra Club, so don't take this the wrong way!)

2003 BMW Models EPA MPG Annual Fuel Cost* Money Saved
540i Sport 17 / 21 $2,209 none
525i auto 20 / 28 $1,827 $382
325ci convertible manual 20 / 29 $1,751 $458

* Per EPA's calculations based on 45% highway, 55% city, 15,000 annual miles. You can recalculate these at the EPA's site here for your own driving style. Personally I drive less than half this amount!

You can drive a car with a small fraction of the go power and save a whopping $400 a year. I can't fathom how people buy $64,000 cars and can't afford the gas to run them properly. Many of those people also cheap out and buy regular, in which case the difference is even smaller.

Since I drive less than half this that would be less than $200 a year. So?

I also don't understand 6-cylinder "enthusiasts" who spend far more than this on engine performance tweaks that leave them with far less than V-8 power. I love Diesels, but see no reason for low performance gas engines in performance cars.

But wait! The 540i M-Sport is a special interest car that will hold its value better than common 6 cylinder models. You more than recoup the gas expense in lack of depreciation. Sweet! It always pays to buy the best. (That's why I love my Mercedes.)

Of course most people would love to have the V8 540i. The catch is that BMW bundles it together with many other great options so it costs about $12,000 more than the 6-cylinder versions. It's the $12,000 that stops people, not the voracious appetite for fuel.


As I've explained above all cars get crappy fuel economy locally, but let's humor my celebration of the 540i Sport's abiltiy to guzzle fuel like beer at Oktoberfest and carry on.

If you care about fuel economy buy a different car. The 540 Sport gets awful mileage in exchange for performance. The BMW 540i M-Sport is designed for fun on the empty roads about which most people only dream. If you drive in traffic or have to commute don't get a 540i Sport. Get a 530, 525, German-market Diesel or even non-sport 540i instead. The 6-cylinder versions can get 30 MPG or more. Some people under very favorable conditions in the non-sport 540 can average 25 MPG. Of course the non-sport 540 is nothing like the 540 Sport. Nothing is.

The BMW 540i Sport gets abysmal fuel economy, on premium no less, because it's designed to favor speed, acceleration and handling instead of fuel economy. Those 32 valves and 3" diameter exhaust pipes flow more than just air! The BMW 540i M-Sport guzzles premium fuel when you put the hammer down just like its Bavarian brothers guzzle beer during Oktoberfest. The M-Sport version has a much lower-ratio high-performance rear axle ratio (3:15 instead of 2:86) as well as having big, fat sticky tires on big, fat heavy 18" wheels. Conventional non-sport 540s with an automatic are rated 18 MPG city and 24 MPG highway. I explain the other reasons the Sport gets such awful mileage above under options.

If you want fuel economy get a Diesel. If you want to haul ass, suck gas and have a darn good time doing it get the 540 M-sport. The good news is for long trips on the open road it probably get OK fuel economy, and for blowing around town it has the displacement and the gears to suck all the gas you need to make the power you want.

Starting out cold I get 6 MPG for the first mile or so. I get 11 MPG running short errands of a few miles and about 13 - 14 MPG continuously if I'm stuck in town at traffic lights. If I drive for 20 miles half local, half on the freeway, I'll get 19 MPG. I thank I get about 26 MPG on the freeway. People who actually drive more than 10 miles at a time get much better mileage. I'll let you know when I really start driving my car. My dealer is so bad I have yet to resolve some basic purchase issues after two months, thus I've only driven it home and left it in my garage since I bought it. I had a dealer so bad I just can't believe BMW hasn't pulled their franchise.

The radio/dashboard fuel consumption computer can't read below 5.9 MPG, which is 40 litres/100 km. That's where mine sticks when I head out with a cold engine. It comes off that virtual peg after I put on a mile or so and warm up the engine.

People who actually drive the 540i Sport seem to average 17 - 19 MPG depending on style.

The dashboard MPG gauge is actually accurate. That's nice, however the gauge is calibrated the same as in the economy BMWs thus in the 540 it's usually pegged at it's minimum 8 MPG even under the mildest acceleration.

Compare this to my mom's 6 cylinder gas Passat which usually gets 15 MPG while accelerating and 30 MPG overall. It even gets 25 MPG up hills!

For you pilots, the 540i M-Sport's fuel consumption at idle is about 0.7 GPH (gallons per hour) in drive. Thus at idle you conveniently suck about 0.01 gallons per minute, making calculations easy while standing at the starting gate. It's about 10% less in neutral, or 0.6 GPH.

Under straight and level conditions fuel consumption is about 2 GPH at 40 MPH and about 2.7 GPH at freeway speed.

Full throttle, full power fuel consumption is about 25 GPH.

At a steady 164 MPH (265 km/h) it gets 11 MPG (21 l/100 km) as you can see here and here. That's 15 GPH (55 LPH) which makes sense since you're not at full power at 164 MPH. Mach Schnell!


Of course no one really gets mileage as good as the EPA tests. This article here explains why. Consumer Reports, October 2005, pages 20 - 23 also had an article detailing why the EPA numbers are way too high. You may be able to read it here. CU found 90% of vehicles got worse than the EPA estimates and suggests people subtract 30% from the city figure as the best estimate for 2003 model gasoline cars. Hybrids and Diesels were even worse!

Here's another good article where they tested various gas-saving myths and ideas.


The gauges are the same excellent ones BMW has used for decades. They have white hands, numerals and graduations on black faces. They are illuminated by orange LEDs at night. The LEDs are pulse-width modulated for brightness control. The gauges are all electronic.


The Speedometer reads to 155 MPH with 5 MPH minor graduations.

Mine reads about 7%, high so when you're doing 60 MPH it reads about 64 MPH. Mine reads 35 MPH at 32.5 MPH.

BMW designs their speedometers to be defective. Compare this to every one of my Mercedes and even my recent Dodge minivans, all of which have been accurate to less than the width of the needle.

Specifically, when asking my dealer if my speedometer could be fixed, I was handed a Technical Service Bulletin from 1996 as TSB 620296 which points out that BMW makes the speedometers defective on purpose. BMW's euphemism is "speedometer advance." BMW's speedometers are so bad that this TSB from BMW considers a defective reading as high as 10% plus an additional 2.4 MPH as perfectly OK.

Thus at 60 MPH BMW considers a reading as high as (60 +10% + 2.4 MPH) or 68.4 MPH acceptable. At 70.5 MPH BMW thinks it's fine if your speedometer reads 80 MPH!

For comparison, all of my Mercedes and all my company Dodge minivans have been more accurate than the width of their speedometer needles. I had a 2006 Chevy Malibu rental car which also was accrate to within 1%.

You need to do your own calibrations and keep a calibration card next to your speedometer. This explains all the speedometer photos of 540s topped out at 164 MPH. 164 MPH indicated is really 155 MPH actual.

The average speed and other calculations in the dashboard computer also read as high as the speedometer.

My readings use measured miles and live calibrated satellite GPS data, all of which agree with each other.


My odometer reads about 2% high.This odometer error saves BMW 2% on warrenty claims and subtracts resale value from your car.

My readings use measured miles and live calibrated satellite GPS data, all of which agree with each other.


The Tachometer reads to 7,000 RPM. Redline starts at 5,800 RPM and becomes solid by 6,000 RPM. Minor graduations at 500 RPM.

Water Temperature Gauge

The temperature gauge has a trick in it: it stays locked in the center from about 85º C to about I think 125º C. This way it doesn't bother you with the usual and perfectly normal variations.

MPG Gauge

The MPG gauge is calculated electronically several times per second and is accurate. Its scale seems odd, calibrated form 40 MPG to 8 MPG, however in it's native L/100 km it reads linearly from 0 to 30 L/100 km.

It's not very useful on the 540i because it pegs at 8 MPG, which is anytime you're even lightly accelerating. I would prefer a log scale.


There are a lot of LCDs, all backlit in orange and all perfectly legible regardless of the ambient light. BMW has a secret way of ensuring that these are legible regardless of the lighting conditions.

BMW has three different ambient light sensors. Each sensor controls the brightness of a different LCD!

There is one light sensor in the lower left dashboard. This controls the lower center LCD just over the steering column.

The second ambient light sensor is in the MID/Computer/Radio system. It's behind the tiny hole at the top left of the radio next to the DSP button.

The third ambient light sensor is the tiny clear nipple on the lower right of the perforations on the right side of the climate control.

Cover any of these during the day and the associated LCD will dim. Take the flashlight out of the glove box and shine it on the sensor at night and that LCD will get brighter! It takes several seconds to do this. This keeps BMW's secret design secret and prevents the displays from blinking everytime shadows and sunlight cross them.

BMW seamlessly integrates these light sensors with the dashboard brightness control so everything always looks perfect. You appreciate how well this works if you've ever had a car whose LCDs became invisible in some lighting conditions.

Fuel Guage, Tank and Range

After one gallon is used the gauge reads full. Each 1/4 tank indication corresponds to four gallons, thus 3/4 is 5 gallons used, 1/2 is 9 gallons used, 1/4 is 13 gallons used and 0 is about 17 gallons used.

The tank is only rated at 18.5 gallons with 1.8 or so as reserve, yet I regularly get 18.5 US gallons into it when it's close to empty. I jammed in 19.077 gallons into it on September 29th, 2005, and it was still running fine. The computer read RANGE 0 MLS and then RANGE - - - - MLS and it still was running fine. I drove it around the parking lot of the fuel station until I got the RANGE down to 0. The gauge read below empty. If anyone knows just where the bottom really is I'd love to know.

It takes 15.25 gallons (US) when the reserve light first comes on at which point the gauge reads 1/8. My computer was indicating 55 miles left till empty or about 4 gallons. This tank is a good size for the six cylinder and OK for a sports car to save weight. It's too small for a luxury V8 grand tourer. You typically get 225 miles around town when the light comes on. This is much more than my BMW motorcycle and more than a blown '29 hotrod with an 8 gallon custom welded tank, but less than a luxury car ought to get. I told you the BMW 540i M-Sport is a special interest vehicle.

The manual also says the computer ignores last 1.8 gallons in tank, thus when it reads "0 miles to empty" you still have 1.8 gallons left. I don't think that's true on mine, but I haven't ever run it dry to find out either.

Oddly I've noticed that my 540 read lower when first started. One night I brought it home with 1/8 of a tank and 60 miles remaining, and the next day it read 13 miles remaining so I aborted my mission. The next day I started it and it read ZERO. As I drove it the fuel gauge resurrected itself back to 1/8 of a tank.

Design Defects

The 540 is just about as perfect a car as has ever been imagined. These are the worst tiny points I can pick with an otherwise perfect vehicle. Even the window switches are years ahead of even BMW's current models. Other cars have real problems like engines that surge and run rough, air conditioning that doesn't cool very fast, wobbly suspensions, transmissions that die after 30,000 miles and other real problems. The 540 runs like the wind and amazes me at every moment.

Speedometer Calibration

As explained above, BMW spedometers are designed to read too high. Even a 2006 Chevy Malibu rental car was accurate to within 1%, while BMW allows for +10% + 2.4 MPH of error as "normal."

Rain Water Management

This is no Mercedes. It has no channels along the sides of the windshield to channel water away from the side windows. Water runs off the windshield onto the side windows to obscure vision just like crappy rental cars.

Interior Light Switches

The dome light switches are unlit. With three different dark buttons I have to fumble around while driving at night, which can cause an accident, injury or death. Other cars like my Mercedes SL500 and 190D illuminate them safely and use solid, well detented slide or rocker switches. The BMW uses wimpy little push-push buttons instead. Everything else is well lit on the 540, including the steering wheel buttons which don't need it because they are directly under your thumbs and easily identified by feel.

Traction Control Warning (DSC) Light

Unlike most cars which put this at the top of the speedometer, the 5-series puts it on the bottom of the instrument cluster. Therefore you can't see it with the steering wheel turned, which is when you usually want to see it. I like to be able to see the light since it lets me know whether or not I'm hitting the gas too hard for conditions.

MPG Gauge

The MPG gauge stops at 8 MPG. This means it's pegged anytime you're accelerating even lightly in the 540i, making it almost useless.

It's very accurate.


There is no conventional clock with hands. There is only a digital display. Worse, the digital clock has no fixed position. You can make it appear on either or both of the bottom center of the dash and on the center console computer, or you can make it go away entirely. Flexibility is nice, however I wish the clock had hands and had a permanent place on the dashboard.

Mine runs fast about 15 seconds per month.


The US owner's manual keeps mentioning Canada. Canada keeps applying for statehood, but has not yet been accepted.


Why does every BMW catalog have to be in shades of cool gray, like the blue and white Bavarian flag and my section headers? Are they doing this to assert independence from Germany with it's black, red and gold flag? Come on guys, WWII is over in most people's minds. Likewise, the colors of today and the past several years have been cool and boring. Sorry to rant. I prefer real colors over endless shades of boring gray metallic.

Drinking while Driving

People who drink and drive complain about the cupholders. They're right; if you want to eat and drink while driving you'll be much better off in a minivan like the Mercedes R class. The 540 is so fast you'll spill everything all over.

Common Service Issues

These are issues common to BMW e39 540s. Actually these are trivial; other cars do things like spin bearings, blow transmissions, have numerous crippling electrical failures or what have you. Consumer Reports and others rate the 2001 - 2003 BMW 5-series as having much better than average reliability.


The BMW 540i radiators blow up at about 50,000 miles. The cheap plastic hose connection at the top of the radiator cracks, leaks, and leaves you stranded. The good news is that these cheap radiators are cheap to replace, according to my favorite discount OEM supplier, Europarts.

I'm serious: I was test driving a 2001 or 2002 certified-pre-owned 540 at BMW of San Diego with about 58k miles on it and it blew up on me during the test drive! The salesman was mortified, and I was laughing since I had heard about these issues.

We went out and drove a few miles. I saw COOLANT LEVEL LOW bong onto the display above the steering wheel and noticed the temperature gauge was higher than normal. We headed back. A mile or two later we had steam pouring from under the hood. Popping the hood back at the dealer after a mile or two showed steam billowing from the usual spot.

Of course it was covered under warranty, and whoever bought this 540 (I didn't) got themselves a new radiator in the deal and don't even know it.

I don't know if the defect was fixed for the 2003 version.

See also David Carlson of Canada's scientific Weibull analysis of the failure rates.

Squeaking Rubber Door Seals

Most BMW 5-series have squeaky rubber door seals. My 2003 had these seals replaced under warranty at 15,000 miles and again at 29,000 miles. Motor Trend's initial 1997 test car also had the same sqeuaky seals. If you listen to the radio you'll never notice. If you drive listening just to the car you'll hear it as you go over any rough pavement that twists the 540's frame.

The 540 has three to four sets of rubber seals around each door. That's a lot of rubber and keeps the 540 quiet enough to hear the squeaking.

BMW suggested I try Lexol's Vinylex, but it didn't help. The BMW dealer also sells gummi-pflege to clean and lubricate the rubber to help reduce this.

The good news is that it's better on the 1997 - 2003 540 than it is on the current 2004 - 2006 5 series. When I popped into my dealer they, from the description of my problem, first walked over to one of the newer model cars and admitted that it's a really bad problem with the new models.

Dead Pixels on the Dashboard Display

The lowest LCD that displays the clock, warning and other messages directly above the steering wheel has rows of pixels that go black. It comes and does and gets worse with time.

This is covered under warranty. Apparently BMW's supplier for the LCD or its connector made a big, bad batch of them. I also hear if you have the problem outside of warranty and ask really nice and have a history of using the same dealer for service that you just might get the part for free.

I've had this problem and had it fixed under warranty. It didn't bother me, but my dealer points out that it only gets worse with time so we may as well do it now.


All in all, an incredible car to drive and very safe, solid, reliable and fun, fun fun!!!!

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