This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to get a few hours behind the wheel of a 1988 E28 BMW 535is in Alpine White. Equipped with a broken odometer showing 215,000 miles, no air conditioning, and a cue-ball shifter, the E28 was far from pristine. Idle was rough, heat would pour into the cabin through the shifter boot, and warning/check engine lights lit up the dash after every turn of the key.
My expectations were admittedly low for the car. 80s electronics and a sub-200 horsepower straight-six left me a bit worried. But once I took the car away from the pedestrian-packed suburbs and into the hills just outside of Palo Alto, CA, I decided to give the old Bimmer a chance to be “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” And deliver it did.
The steering, controlled through a beautiful, non-airbag, thin-rim wheel, was as precise and engaging as any I’ve ever felt. Diving into 13 consecutive hairpins on a fantastic, redwood-line strip of tarmac, the E28 felt planted and confidence-inspiring. The fiver would claw at the tarmac all the way to the apex and then power smoothly away, emitting a fantastic straight-six wail all the while. The power-adjustable Recaro seats were ideal, grabbing you unintrusively as lateral G’s skyrocketed. The shifter was perfectly placed, and the clutch was light and predictable. The 535is required you to be lucid and precise during every minute of the drive––dive into a corner perfectly, however, and the car would reward you like few other cars can.
The experience left me wondering what sort of modern BMW sport sedan could leave me as satisfied as the E28 did. I’ve driven a fair number of BMWs in my life, but that drive was a singular experience. No vehicle produced by the company could ever live up to the pure rawness that the 535is delivered. And that realization troubled and perplexed me.
My opinion is that the loss of true driving pleasure in modern BMWs boils down to the company’s loss of direction. Take a look at weight and size; the 535is that I drove tipped the scales at just under 3300 pounds, and looking at the car alongside modern sports sedans made its compact dimensions even more obvious. Even the owner of the 535 says that the car is often mistaken for a 3-series. Juxtapose those dimensions with the 2015 F10 BMW M5, which weighs in at a whopping 4,387 pounds and can be mistaken for a 7-series.
The concept of an almost-4400 pound M5 boggles my mind. It seems that BMW and the M division have taken on the Mercedes-Benz AMG mantra, creating über-luxurious cruisers that need north of 550 horsepower to feel even moderately sporty. That’s sacrilege in my book––BMW owners should be able to enjoy fantastic handling as opposed to tire-smoking twin-turbo V8s. BMWs should impress owners not with their brute force, but with their finesse.
Another issue for BMW is the advent of luxury (read: heavy) options that true enthusiasts don’t need or want. Yes, heated/cooled/massage seats are nice, as is iDrive, full leather, and all-wheel-drive. Soft-close doors are a great feature, for a Maybach. Privacy glass with sound insulation is nice, until you have to pump in fake engine noise through the speaker system. On true BMW sport sedans, especially those produced by the M division, these features simply add unnecessary, crippling weight, making these cars anathema to the original BMW philosophy.
BMW isn’t AMG, and they need to realize that. That’s why I propose that the company develop a hard-core, weight-saving “CSL” package for all of their high-end sports sedans. Even those without M badging, such as the 435i ZHP and 550i, should have the package available. Cars so equipped would be built without iDrive, heated/cooled/etc. seats, full leather, and the Comfort Access package, just to name a few. CSL cars would be equipped, however, with manual transmissions, a basic leather interior, basic climate control, an LSD, and little else. No soft-close doors, excessive sound deadening, or fluffy leather interiors. Just three pedals, an engine, and lightweight Alcantara sport seats. That’s it.
Sure, there are those BMW buyers who aren’t enthusiasts and simply want the checkered badge and a few luxury options. But that doesn’t mean that true enthusiasts should be limited. The company should continue to make boat-like performance cars for those who want them, but they should at least give BMW-philes an option to have the driving pleasure that they so crave.
BMW hasn’t used the CSL nameplate since the fantastic, Euro-only E46 M3 CSL. I challenge them to bring the line back to please all of those disappointed, isolated BMW enthusiasts out there. It’ll help the brand regain its former perception as the go-to for enthusiast drivers. And until then, BMW, the ball is in your court to prove the “Ultimate Driving Machine” slogan.
Please enjoy this TFLcar.com video review of the original BMW M6.