First impressions of the BMW 520i

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The latest 2-litre fuel-injection model from Munich completely captivates the editor

Many things in this life are too good to last. I was reminded of this when the time came to return the BMW 2500 which I had had on long-duration loan. Ford-of-Britain eased the pangs by lending me a Consul 3000 GT as a very adequate, and less-expensive, substitute, which I described last month. But Raymond Playfoot, the “live-wire” PRO whom BMW Concessionaires GB are so fortunate to have, presumably read my thoughts, for as soon as he could he provided a 520 for test. The BMW organisation in this country being as impeccable as the performance and reliability of its cars, this smart Atlantic-blue saloon was awaiting me at Renault’s Acton premises when I returned the Renault 5 I had been testing—another of my more memorable motoring contrasts!

With a sigh of satisfaction at finding myself once again behind the wheel of a BMW, I set about cleaving the congestion along the Euston Road and down Pentonville, on the way to the office. It was immediately apparent that this latest, smaller BMW has all the merits of the older models. For instance, the driving position is commanding, it went where I pointed it, and its eager pick-up and taut steering made it very nice to handle, even in traffic. The steering is heavy at low speeds, somewhat less so than the Consul’s manual steering but remaining heavy overall. The brakes were very sudden on initial acquaintance. The gears are changed with a stubby short-travel gaitered floor lever, its polished wood knob just where the left hand feels for it. The change itself is slightly notchy, but pleasant to use, reverse easily obtained by tapping the lever “round the corner” from first gear position.

I was pleased to find the same excellent layout of minor controls, instruments and stowages as on the bigger six-cylinder BMW. Why, the 520 was like the 2500 even to the driver’s door requiring a slam before it would shut properly and the floor hand-brake needing a good tug to make it hold! And, as with the 2500, if you drive it hard it soils its front wheel trims with brake pad dust. I thought perhaps I would dislike the big protective pad on the 520’s steering wheel, not having liked a similar “pod” on the Peugeot 504. In fact, this is hardly noticed, although the lower left steering wheel spoke does mask the flashers’ warning light, which is of no real importance. The wheel has four short spokes at its upper circumference, each with a push for the rather subdued horn. The 520’s instrumentation differs somewhat from that of earlier BMWs. There is a panel before the driver enclosing behind a single glass the speedometer, tachometer, fuel and heat gauges, the smaller dials at its extremities being angled for easy reading. This occasionally caused a flickering reflection from lighter outside surfaces and it distorts the “empty” area of the fuel-gauge reading. As there is a low-level light above the dial, matched by an oil-pressure light above the other small dial, this is not much of a shortcoming. The plain black faces of the two bigger dials set off their clear white digits to perfection and neat white labelling is used for the various knobs and switches. A centre panel contains the clock, which is a Vdo like the rest of the instruments and emits a hushed whirr. It has a knurled rim which selects the three speeds of the heater fan and two other rotary controls, with recessed finger holds, control heat and ventilation.

Fresh air is emitted when required from a number of grilles which obviate draughts, two quadrant levers providing that de luxe feature of an independent supply to left or right of the car’s interior. Facia lighting is by aircraft-type orange/red floods.

All this I took in as I drove the first few miles. I also noted such useful equipment as hazard lights, rear fog-lamp, heated back window, fitted carpets, etc. and that the interior decor was nicely done in black plastic mouldings, with but a trace of simulated wood strip on the facia, and that the upholstery was in matching black but with grey cloth cushions, which are going to put this BMW out-of-bounds to Motoring Dog the Second. . . .

It was only after I had looked at the BMW in the office car-park that I realised just how clairvoyant Raymond Playfoot is. You see, the lettering on its boot-lid told me this was a 520i, or fuel-injection, version of the new 2-litre. Now when I had read a road-test report on the 520 I noted that its 0-60 m.p.h. time was 11.3 sec. Even in advancing age I like to think that I can cope with rather faster acceleration and so I wondered whether I would find a 520 too sedate, after the 2500 or “little-six” BMW. But its single-o.h.c. 89 x 80 mm. 1,990 c.c. canted four-cylinder engine gives an extra 15(DIN) b.h.p. with the Kugelfischer injection system pumping fuel into the induction piping at a pressure of 426-532 lb. sq. in., compared to the twin-Stromberg carburetted engine, and that 130 b.h.p. means that my minimum target of 0-94 k.p.h. in 10 sec. is just about achieved. This calls for no increase in peak revs., which remain at 5,800 r.p.m., which is 200 r.p.m. over that recommended for the normal BMW 520.

Thus reassured, I was able to forget the paper specification and concentrate on the driving enjoyment which all BMWs dole out. That evening I left Notting Hill just after 19.00 hours and, without emulating a rally driver, even an amateur one, I was at my place in Radnorshire by 22.30. The four circular Hella q.i. headlamps aid speed at night. I next took the 520i to Oulton Park for the VSCC Race Meeting, the other side of the coin, as it were, because had the BMW not been so thoroughly pleasing to drive fast, I would have been craving a good vintage car.

On this run it proved to have that desirable feeling of being fully under control at all times and of doing effortlessly exactly what I intended, which is only possible with a combination of good road holding, precise steering, powerful but insensitive brakes (I had now got used to the feel of the servo disc/drum retardation but perhaps this is the weak aspect of “touring” BMWs?), and instant willing response to the throttle pedal. The 520i has all these qualities, to a high degree. Above about 3,000 r.p.m. the power comes in, accompanied by a satisfying “hard” note from an engine which might seem a bit noisy in a soggy family saloon. In the well spaced gears the 520i will go to 30, 58 and 89 m.p.h., with a top pace of 114 m.p.h. But the pleasing thing is that there is no need to take it to anything like peak revs, to achieve satisfactory average speeds. “My” car had done 1,687 miles when I took it over, so it was amply run-in, and ready to go to its maximum of 6,400 r.p.m., yet as I hurried towards OuIton Park there was no need to thrash it along; it is the kind of car that, given reasonable conditions, “averages 60 m.p.h. without exceeding 70”, on account of its impeccable road manners.

I always enjoy the return journey from Oulton Park. You run down to Tarporley, restrained for miles by double white lines, slip quickly through that town, and go right at the lights, to make good time along the recently improved going to Whitchurch. Quick negotiation of the outskirts of that town and it is soon right turn off the main road for Wem, via a pleasing back route which brings you into picturesque, river-bisected Shrewsbury, on the right side to cross Welsh Bridge and aim for Bishops Castle, continuing over undulating country roads to Clun, Knighton and Penybont, onto the A44. On this scorching hot Saturday evening I made this in comfortably under two hours, which was, for me, a measure of the BMW’s superiority.

Driving like this, I was surprised to obtain a fuel consumption of nearly 30 m.p.g. This I would not have believed, and the odometer has not been properly checked and may be a shade optimistic, had I not seen the maker’s figure of 28.3 m.p.g. by the DIN 70030 standard test method. Certainly I shall expect this so enjoyable and well-contrived motor-car to give very good petrol economy. The 520i has a 9.5 to 1 c.r. (compared to 9.0 to 1 for the 520) but runs on the lower grade (98-octane) four-star. Fuel injection thus not only gives sure starting and good flexibility—the engine, geared to do approx. 4,000 r.p.m. at an indicated 70 m.p.h., will pull unconcernedly from 1,500 r.p.m.—but is very thrifty. As to fuel range, although the tank cannot have been absolutely full when I drove away from Renault’s, it was 254 miles before the low-petrol-level light winked and another 38 miles before the tank was dry.

Although the coil-spring all-independent suspension of the latest race-developed type is on the hard side, the occasional lurches induced as the wheels follow road undulations do not deflect the BMW from its course and the ride is as good as that from much more loudly-publicised and sophisticated systems. The test car is on those excellent Michelin X AS tyres, a complement to safe road-holding. There is but mild understeer when cornering, not enough to make the Michelins protest, and the worm and roller steering, four turns lock-to-lock, is shock-free, quick, and has strong castor return. There are several good high-performance small saloons about today, so it may not be quite correct to say that the 520i is as far ahead in its class as the 328 BMW was ahead of other pre-war sports cars. But it is by all standards a remarkable car.

Back in 1962 I tried the then-new BMW 1500 in Germany and was very impressed, among other merits, by its notable refinement. This is reflected in the 520, emphasis on which is provided by the very complete tool kit found neatly stowed on the underside of the boot-lid, the wheel-changing equipment and accident-warning collapsible red triangle packed equally neatly into the well on the n/s of the big unobstructed boot (the opposite well just takes my Easypour fuel-can) and the 17 electrical fuses, relays and servicing socket accessibly grouped beneath the bonnet. The bonnet itself typifies the careful and conscientious BMW enginering. Forward-hinged, it slides away from the scuttle for ease of lifting, a push on its nose sending it back into place and securely locking it. The engine repays detailed study and I was delighted to see a Tectyl sticker in the back window, which tells me that the car has been given the 5-year-guaranteed Valvoline de-rusting treatment which emanates from BMWs Endrust Centre in Derby. This is in addition to the very thorough standard painting and undersealing.

Servicing by the Blue Ribbon electronic system is required at 4,000-mile intervals, so those who pay in the region of £3,600 for one of these fine cars need have no qualms about the steps taken to ensure its longevity.

It is early days yet, with this 520i, because Raymond Playfoot and his Managing Director, Mr. Anton Hille, have so much faith in the car that they suggested I should drive it for an appreciable time and report on what I find. So far, I like very much what I have found! The slogan on the back window says “Unbeatable BMW”—justifiably. (N.B. So far no Triumph Dolomite Sprints have eaten it!).

In conclusion, although it may stir into action the few dissatisfied customers whom even BMW must have, I venture to publish a letter from a reader who has sampled BMW service, because it will. I think, provide one of the answers to why there are so many of the Munich-built cars on British roads.–W.B.

Sir,

At a time when it is the norm to hear of complaints regarding the attention given to customers by many of the large motor manufacturers, it is a pleasure to be able to record an example of good old-fashioned service.

I had a bit of trouble from the automatic choke on my 2002 BMW, and took it in for a standard service, and asked them to look at the choke while the car was at Chiswick. It was returned to me the following day, purportedly repaired, but I found that although better, the engine still gave trouble in initial running from cold.

I reported this, and suggested that they had another look when next the car was in for service. (The fault was only very minor, and could be overcome completely by allowing the engine to tick over for a few minutes from cold before starting off.) They would not hear of this however, and asked me to bring the car in at any time to suit me, so they could put it right once and for all, and they apologised profusely that I should have been inconvenienced in any event.

I took the car in and they had it for four days, while they stripped and checked everything in connection with the choke and carburetter, and when I eventually collected the car, it was returned to me, again with apologies, and I was not charged one new penny for all the labour spent on putting it to rights the second time.

I wrote to you a few years ago, praising the BMW service I had, and it gives me great pleasure to write again on the same subject; it is no wonder that I am still a satisfied customer, and the proud owner of my second 2002. Mind you, I admit I preferred the manual choke on my previous model.

Robin Stelfox – Blackheath.