The 90s were an interesting time for BMW. They were on a roll with the E38 7 Series and having just as much success with the E39 5 Series. It certainly helped by offering that 4.4L V8 engine from the 740iL as a top-end option for the 5 Series, making it one of the quickest midsize sedans on the market at the time.
A Sport package had always been offered, and was included with any manual transmission version of the E39, however BMW wanted to update that package for 2001 by introducing the M Sport package as an option for the North American 540i. Those in the United States had to wait until 2003 before that option was made available. M Sport added several unique options, such as M Sport Suspension II, M Aerodynamics Package, Steptronic Transmission (for automatics), Front Sport Seats, M Leather Steering Wheel, Individual High-Gloss Satin Chrome (Shadowline Exterior Trim), Individual Roof-lining Anthracite, and for 2001 models only BMW M Style 66 rims.
The owner of this 2001 540i replaced the original rim for M Style 65 M5 rims, and also replaced the shocks and springs as the original M Suspension components needed to be replaced after 250,000km and OEM parts are significantly more expensive than a good set of performance aftermarket ones. Aside from that the car is almost completely original with slight signs of it's age around the body trim and panels.
When it comes to performance and collectibility, a true 540i M Sport is the next best thing after the M5. While M5 prices are considerably higher, the limited production of M Sport models are making these cars difficult to find. As we mentioned during our road test, several of these cars have been selling for high prices recently. Vehicles with over 200,000km are still selling for $10,000USD or more, with lower milage examples going for almost double that. They seem to sell higher in the US due to demand and the lack of M Sport model years from 2001 to 2002, making imports from Canada a great way to make some extra cash.
We filmed a 2003 525iT back in the winter as a Full Tour during our previous iteration of TestDrive. The beige interior is very similar to this as very little changed over the course of the E39's production run. The centre audio and climate controls are driver-oriented and face the left. I'm not a huge fan of the aluminium trim around the car, but many people prefer this look over what seems to be considered an old-man's taste in wood.
The M Sport steering wheel was a nice change over the standard 4 spoke heated steering wheel found on the E38 and E39s without Sport packages. The steering was very tight and heavy, something the E39 has always been known for. It takes a bit of extra muscle to move the wheel but the precision is next to none, you point it exactly where you want it to go and have full confidence that it will take you there.
When looking for cars like this you should be aware that the LCD displays will often fail, as the radio display on this car has. The instrument clusters are usually the first to go but on 5 Series models the standard radios fail as well. I've yet to see a climate control screen go on the fritz, but it's certainly possible. Finding a 540i with navigation will be tough, but might be worth it if you're like me and prefer having an idea of where you're driving, even if the maps are a decade out of date.
The sport seems are quite nice, with the extra leg and bottom bolstering to help keep you in place when driving around corners. There's no lumbar support or upper back adjustment, so these 10-way power seats are less functional than the 7 Series' version. If you end up loving your 540i M Sport it might be worthwhile seeking out a complete set of E38 sport seats, maybe go all out and get the active comfort option as well!
This was a very enjoyable car to drive, and one that surprised me more than almost all the other performance-oriented vehicles we've had the chance to review. If you're in the market for an E39 and come across a well maintained 540i M Sport, you really should jump on it. You'll enjoy the roar of that engine, the handling of a precise car, and the styling of probably the last true classic BMW ever made.
You can watch our full episode of TestDrive Spotlight on this 2001 BMW 540i M Sport on YouTube.