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BMW's 540i Sport is six speeds more fun

BMW's 540i Sport is six speeds more fun

As an automotive enthusiast of long (and, I hope, good) standing, I am constantly stimulated by the rich variation of the automotive landscape that I survey. Even with the good fortune to experience so many styles, types, and interpretations of vehicle design, I’m bound now and then to sigh, “So many cars, so little time.” It humors me, therefore, to encounter this or that manufacturer who characterizes the latest model du jour as the one car for all tastes. There is simply no such thing. There is only context, and it is the rare manufacturer who admits as much by designing a vehicle with a specific purpose and a specific customer in mind.

The arrival of such a vehicle is a genuine cause for applause. I’ll confess that I failed to anticipate the exhilaration that was in store for me when BMW’s 540i Sport sedan rolled temporarily into my life, but I will admit—sheepishly—that I made a foolish spectacle of myself cheering “Bravo!” and “Encore!” while chasing after the car once my evaluation had ended.

This is a car that seems to know who it wants behind the wheel. It makes no attempt to impersonate mere transporation. Its hauteur is palpable and defiant—rudely brusque in an egalitarian climate. Drivers may well approach the car with plaints of “I’m not worthy; I’m not worthy,” but this very comely sport sedan rewards the genuine enthusiast with extraordinary performance. This is, perhaps, the kindest way to explain that the six-speed BMW 540i Sport is not for everybody.

It is important to note at the outset that the 540i Sport is a genuine grand touring sport sedan with luxurious overtones. It is not a luxury sedan aspiring to sportiness. Upon first opening the driver’s side door, one is confronted with the taut, Teutonic presentation that is BMW’s trademark. Leather upholstery is stretched skin-tight over the firmly supportive semi-bucket seats in front and the three-passenger banquette in rear. Doors latch and unlatch with a satisfying click; and because the windows nestle so precisely into their weather-stripping, BMW has had to devise a reflexive mechanism that lowers the panes by a quarter inch or so—then raises them again—each time a door opens and closes. Discrete intelligences such as these, inhabiting as they do the voluptuous envelope of the 540i’s vaguely ovoid shape, call to mind the excruciating detail of Fabergé’s princely eggs.

Sliding in behind the steering wheel finally makes plain this car’s disinclination to compromise. The Sport model in BMW’s 5-Series lineup wears a six-speed Getrag Type D manual transmission. Mated to the effortless power-making potential of the car’s 4.4-liter, 282-horsepower V8, such a transmission suffers fools not at all. A relatively long clutch throw hampers a commuter’s ability to start and stop smoothly in crawling traffic. A particularly “tall” first gear (4.23:1) gobbles up pavement faster than prudence requires in a typically quiet—and well-policed—neighborhood.

In the proper setting, however, everything makes sense: Clutch throw and shifter feel syncopate naturally under pressure of hard acceleration to deliver published 0-to-60 and quarter-mile stats of 5.3 seconds and 14.11 seconds/110.6 mph, respectively. This is not a luxurious, stately pace. This is race-car stuff, complete with blurring scenery and hairs standing on end. With six speeds at a driver’s disposal, theoretical top speed easily crowds 150 mph. For the unwitting (and overweening), I can understand why BMW has incorporated a programmable, password-encrypted top-speed limiter into its dash-mounted “message center” computer. It simply wouldn’t do for an unsuspecting customer (or auto writer) to vanish fleet into the night like some latter-day Ichabod Crane.

Not that there’s much risk that buyers able to pony up the $55,000 price tag will misunderstand what they’re buying. The gorgeous, riveted two-piece alloy wheels pretty much shout the performance message in clarion tones—likewise, the 17-inch, ultra-low profile tires (235/45R-17 front; 255/40R-17 rear). Borrowing from its in-house motorsports skunk works, BMW equips the 540i Sport with M-Technic calibrations for the four-wheel independent suspension. Coil springs accompany the front struts and rear four-link setup. Handling is controlled, flat, and predictable—no mean feat for a 3,700-lb. car. In fact, it’s due to this weight that BMW selected recirculating-ball steering over a sportier rack-and-pinion design. The nominal loss of precise steering feel is hardly noticeable within the overall context of a car this size carving this fast through the twisties.

At all times, this car indulges its sporting driver with the illusion that he or she is intently in control. Nevertheless, a bewildering array of artificial intelligence is always humming just beneath the surface. Take, for example, the automatic traction control system, which, though switchable, is better able to harness rear wheelspin in a trice than most aficionados will admit about their own reflexes.

Another way this car condescends to us mere (and very vulnerable) mortals is with “Differentiated Deployment System” airbags. Depending on whether or not the driver or front passenger is seat-belted, the airbag(s) will inflate at one of two rates to minimize potential for injury. Not only that, a new “Head Protection System” deploys inflatable sausage-shaped tubes from the headliner in conjunction with the door-mounted side airbags (standard for front, optional for rear). Even the lowly car battery reaches esoteric heights: Under impact, a small pyrotechnic charge severs the electrical connection between battery and starter motor to help eliminate risk of a spark-induced fire.

Considering the brilliant “risk-aversion” technology incorporated into the 540i Sport—not to mention its stunning overall performance—there yet remains a certain calculated risk in offering such a car for sale. There is, you see, the risk that hubris will convince more than one buyer to select the six-speed Sport model over the civilianized 540i automatic or even the charming, six-cylinder 528i. BMW even tacitly seems to acknowledge this risk by offering a new optional Sport appearance package for the other 5-Series cars. A buyer may now elect to look like a sport without actually having or wanting to drive like one. After all, the very appearance of BMW’s 540i Sport poses an near irresistible challenge to any self-loving hot-shoe with an excess of cash and gumption. And if the looks don’t getcha, the car’s performance potential will.

But buying such potential is a far cry from exploiting it. If you can’t or don’t like to drive as fast as the 540i Sport is capable of going, you’ll be disappointed at best. “Did I really spend over 50 grand,” you may hear yourself wonder, “to be humiliated by my car?”

Off the floor

Mustang fling

How appropriate that America’s hardest-workin’ hot rod should stampede into Nashville over Labor Day weekend for the Music City Grand National meeting of the Mustang Club of America (MCA). By best estimates, over 500 pristine Ford Mustangs dating back to the original “pony car” of 1964 herded into Brentwood to transform CoolSprings Galleria into the highest-octane performance corral in the nation for the three-day weekend. So notable was the event that Ford Motor Company planned its national introduction of the redesigned ’99-model Ford Mustang to coincide with the Grand National meet. At a press conference last Friday, cleverly arranged at the Wildhorse Saloon, Ford Division president Jim O’Connor revealed the new coupe and convertible models of the baby-boomer icon that celebrates its 35th birthday in 1999.

“Since its introduction April 17, 1964,” O’Connor said, “Mustang has captured the imagination of the nation. The public’s initial acceptance of the original pony car was so dramatic that I can remember when people used to marvel that hotcakes were selling like Mustangs.” The current Mustang design team, led by Janine Bay, has dedicated the ’99 model to purists, with a return to crisp, edgy sheetmetal styling and a welcome performance boost underhood. The new V6 Mustang jumps to 190 horsepower from the current 150 HP, while the V8 GT climbs to 260 HP from 225 HP. The cars are scheduled for dealer showrooms by mid-December.

With well over 20 million sold since ’64, the Mustang is arguably the most popular performance car ever manufactured. Certainly, the variety of models at the Music City Grand National meet testifies to the range of passions the car inspires. Standing beside their immaculate ’69 Mustang Mach I 428 “Cobra-Jet,” MCA members Camille and David Lashlee of Stewart, Tenn., attempted to describe the special affection Mustang owners have for their cars.

“I’m not really sure how to say it,” David admitted, “but it’s a way to relive what was probably one of the best times of my life. And when you realize that all these other people here feel the same way about their own cars and memories, it makes collecting Mustangs a real special pastime.” Asked about the Mach I’s revered reputation as one of the era’s more potent muscle cars, he chuckles: “Yeah, Ford published 330 gross horsepower for this car back in the ’60s, but everybody knows that was underestimated for insurance reasons. Let’s just say it’s real fun to drive.”

Euro-a-go-go

As if a national Mustang extravaganza weren’t enough last weekend, Collier Cycles is hosting its annual European Bike Show and BBQ from 4 to 11 p.m. this Saturday, Sept. 12, at its showroom on the corner of Old Hickory and Charlotte in Bellevue. The event is cosponsored by the Motorcycle Club of Nashville, and this year features live music by Jonell Mosser, Backwaters, and The Fugitives.

Virtually single-handedly, moto-impresario Sonny Collier is responsible for holding aloft the banner of Euro-bikes in Middle Tennessee. This year’s event promises another rich array of the classic cafe-bikes, TT machines, and gran turismo motorcycles that give European motorcycling its exotic appeal. In addition to the host of historic bikes on hand, a new marque will make its local debut. Collier’s recent acquisition of the Team Laverda franchise for Middle Tennessee adds these hallowed Italian models to his existing lineup of Ducati and Triumph machines.

Admission to the event is $5; for information, call 353-1919.

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