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Progress Report: 2024 BMW 520i vs 1998 BMW 535i

Head to head in two posh executive saloons. What progress?

Published: 18 Jun 2024

Ah, an E39. The best executive saloon there's ever been?

You’d certainly face fierce debate dare you disagree, and not least from us. See, we retrospectively named it our 1995 Car of the Year when we celebrated three decades of TG mag by bringing together our 30 CotY champions, with Chris Harris also describing it as “the most complete car I have ever driven”. And voting it his favourite of the lot amongst a sea of Ferraris, fast Fords, and, er, Fiat Multiplas. Make of that what you will.

Why the hype?

Born back in 1995 and the fourth generation 5 Series to roll off the production line, the E39 scored the perfect hat trick of being good to look at, drive and passenger in. Available with a range of straight-six and V8 petrols plus a handful of diesel engines – Josh’s early 535i SE has a 3.5-litre V8 petrol outputting 232bhp and 236lb ft of torque, good for 0–62mph in 7.7secs and a top speed of 152mph – it laughed in the face of every other executive saloon.

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What generation are we on now?

The G60 rolls out the doors some four generations later and over a quarter of a century after the E39, and while its looks aren’t as offensive as some of BMW’s other recent monstrosities, it undoubtedly feels somewhat frumpy alongside the classy earlier car. Under the bonnet, buyers have the choice of a range of mild, plug-in hybrid or fully electric powertrains – we’ve brought along an entry level 520i, which gets a 2.0-litre 4cyl mild hybrid with comparably similar specs to the E39, with its 205bhp and 221lb ft of torque good for 0–62mph in 7.5secs and 143mph.

Does the E39 feel old by today's standards?

Get behind the wheel of one of these and it doesn’t take too long to understand why it was so lauded, from its nicely weighted steering and poise around corners, to its smooth power delivery and the way it floats down our broken British B-roads, to feeling calm and composed when you do push on. Josh’s car, complete with original £35k sales invoice, is fast approaching the 100,000-mile mark, but while the cabin may lack the tech fest of today’s 5er, it still feels luxurious even by modern day standards.

How does the newer one compare?

What it lacks in style it more than makes up for in presence, having grown in every possible direction compared to the E39. But that’s really par for the course these days and it still feels best in class to drive, with the electric gubbins helping to mask any sluggishness and the ride even more surefooted, albeit slightly less forgiving. Sure, it might not have the character of the older one – and this is now a 50 grand plus car – but the family lineage feels clear. As the old adage goes, if it ain’t broke...

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