2002 BMW 540i Touring
European model shown. Photo: BMW. Click image to enlarge

by Grahame Shannon

The 2002 BMW 540i Touring combines the power and performance of the 540i sedan with the practicality of a wagon body style, reports reviewer Grahame Shannon. Equipped with a 290 horsepower 4.4 litre V8 engine and 5-speed Steptronic automatic/manual transmission, the 540iAT is a smooth, effortless
performer with a hefty base price of $76,800. An optional M-Sport package, which includes an aero body kit, blackout trim and 17″ M5 style wheels brings the price to $82,200.

Editor’s note about changes to Steptronic transmission for 2002

In his review of the 540iA Touring, Grahame Shannon noted a significant difference between the Steptronic transmission in his test car and the one in his own 2000 BMW 3-Series. In manual mode, to change up, you now pull back the lever rather than push forwards. To shift down a gear, you now push forwards rather than pull back. It turns out this was a change made to all Steptronic transmissions for 2002. At least one of our readers thought this was counterintuitive to the way people naturally shift gears, so we asked BMW Canada why the change was made.

“As you know we continually conduct assessments of all our products,” explained Cort Nielsen of BMW Canada’s Corporate Communications department. “One of
the major reasons we do this is to improve the driving dynamics of our
vehicles. Our research has shown that people find the revised form (forward downshift, pullback up shift) to be more natural. This is indicated in the new M3 SMG and in our F1 program.”

Only time will tell if BMW owners find this more natural, but it sure must be confusing if you step out of a 2001 BMW with Steptronic and into a 2002 model with the new system!
— GW

A BMW station wagon? Somehow the performance image of BMW doesn’t jibe with the “go for groceries image” of a station wagon. Forget that image. The BMW 540I Touring is not your mother’s wagon!

My test car was fitted with the M-Sport package, which includes an aero body kit, blackout trim and 17″ M5 style wheels. It looks a lot like an M5 wagon would look, if such a thing existed. To my eye it is better looking than the 540I sedan on which it is based.

Sliding in, I was struck with the familiar feel of the interior. In common with most BMWs it feels smaller than it is. An E-class Mercedes, the competition, feels somehow large and ponderous. This isn’t a matter of handling or road feel, since it struck me before I turned the key. I think it is because in a Mercedes, the prominent hood ornament and grille bulge shows you where the front of the car is. In this BMW, you don’t see the hood at all, just the road in front. As long as I didn’t look back over my shoulder, it actually felt smaller than my own 3 series coupe. Looking back though, there is a lot more car there!

The back seat is comfortable for two big people but snug for three. The luggage area is quite large but the floor is quite high, as there is a full size spare beneath. With the back seats folded down, two people could sleep back there. However, if you can afford one of these, you probably can also afford a five star hotel! The tailgate opens vertically, and the window glass can open up by itself for small items.

2002 BMW 540i Touring
Click image to enlarge

Before starting up I took a look around at the gadgets. Electric everything including mirrors, seats, windows, wheel (tilt and telescope), glass sunroof, and probably a lot more I missed. All four windows go all the way down and feature express up and down. But, with the standard and very effective climate control you might never drive with the windows down.

The sport front seats, part of the M-Sport package, adjust every which way, and fit me perfectly. I’m over 6 feet and 200 lb. but my 5′-2″ wife found them comfortable as well. Even the headrest height adjustment is electric. There are 3 memory positions for seat and mirror settings so once you find your comfort zone a push of one button will return to your preferences. The steering wheel tilts up when the ignition is off, to make entry easier.

The way to make a driver feel good about a car is to ensure the quality of the items he handles every day. I mean the door handles, the key, the steering wheel and the shifter. Here BMW excels.

The key is a substantial piece with a head large enough for three buttons. It locks and unlocks the doors, and a separate button opens the tailgate without inserting the key. You do have to put it in the ignition, where it works smoothly and easily. The steering wheel is thick rimmed, heavily padded leather. The shift knob has a leather and wood finish. Everywhere you put your hands feels expensive. Even the cheapest BMW has this feel. You can’t say that of every Ford!

2002 BMW 540i Touring
Click image to enlarge

A twist of the key and the engine starts right up. There is only one exhaust pipe, of a healthy diameter. At idle the engine is near silent, but a gentle push on the throttle produces a low moan and a brisk getaway. A harder push on the pedal shoves you back into the seat while the engine makes a slightly angry V8 roar. It sounds a lot like a Corvette from about a block away. Unlike most luxury cars, this one always lets you know what the engine is doing, yet the sound is so rich it is never irritating.

The transmission is a 5 speed adaptive Steptronic, which means an automatic with a manual shift option. Shifts were smooth but audible. In manual mode I noticed the first oddity. You push the shift lever forward to shift down and back to shift up. The 3 series works in the opposite way! Why BMW would make two models that feel so similar yet work differently in this key area is beyond me. I prefer the 3 series sequence, probably because I’m used to it. Once I got used to it, the manual mode worked well, particularly on hilly, winding roads.

A sports suspension and low profile performance tires is part of the M-Sport package. The wheels are great looking M5 alloys. On the road, the ride is firm and supple. The car feels carved from a single block of hard rubber, without a single rattle. It corners very well with minimal roll. There is never a shortage of power. On steep hills the merest touch of throttle will have you soaring upward at illegal speeds. Top speed is an electronically limited 206 kph (130 mph). Without the limiter the top speed would be 250 or so.

2002 BMW 540i Touring
Click image to enlarge

While this is a very high-powered car, BMW’s Dynamic Stability Control does an excellent job of controlling the power and preventing wheel spin. If you want to burn rubber, you would have to switch it off. But why burn up those expensive treads? 30 years ago a car with this much power would have been a handful on wet roads, but not this one. When the rain set in, it behaved impeccably. This is when I noticed the rain sensor. That’s right. It knows when to switch on the wipers, and adjusts number of sweeps and the speed automatically based on how much rain hits the windshield. How does it know? Beats me.

Another convenience I like is the PDC. What? That stands for Park Distance Control and it is a pair of beepers, front and rear, which let you know how close to an obstacle you are. It also detected pedestrians walking close to the car, so it could save a life when reversing.

The dashboard has a radio with CD player that integrates with BMW’s multi functional trip computer. It calculates your fuel consumption among many other things. Mine worked out to 15.9 L/100 km around in hilly North Vancouver where I live, and 10.9 L/100 km on the freeway at 110 km/h. This is one place where you pay for all that power.

The 540I is a great highway car, quiet and effortless at any speed. The cruise control on the steering wheel works smoothly and allows fine adjustment of speed without touching the throttle. Driving at the speed limit is just crawling. The huge 4-wheel discs with ABS will bring you down from any speed in amazing style. Press hard and it feels as if you have run into a wall of marshmallow. No drama, the speed just disappears.

So, this leather-lined luxomobile goes, stops, turns and rides. Is it worth the $82,000 our test car lists at? I think so, but most of the same virtues are available at a lower price in the 3 series Touring, also worth a look.

What didn’t I like? The high-pitched beep made by the alarm system when arming and disarming sounds just like a microwave oven. That, and giving it back!

2002 BMW 540i Touring
Click image to enlarge

I will go on record here that I prefer this car to the X5, which has the same engine, but is considerably bulkier without a lot more useable space. Yes, the X5 is a fabulous handling SUV, but the 540I touring offers even better handling in a tidier package.

The 5-series touring is also available with a 184 HP 2.5 litre engine as the 525I. I haven’t driven it, but my guess is that most people would find it quite adequate, especially with the 5 speed manual transmission. The 290 HP V8 I tested is only available with the automatic. I think the 225 HP 3.0 litre engine from the 530I would be about perfect, but it isn’t available in the touring model.

Technical Data:

2002 BMW 540iA Touring
Base price $76,800
Price as tested $82,200 (with M-Sport package)
Type 4-door, 5-passenger station wagon
Layout front-mounted longitudinal V-8, rear wheel drive
Engine 4.4L V-8, DOHC, 32 valves, Motronic engine management
Horsepower 290 @ 5,400 rpm
Torque 324 lb-ft. @ 3,600 rpm
Fuel Premium Unleaded
Transmission 5-speed automatic Steptronic with manual shift mode
Curb weight 1840 kg (4048 lb.)
Wheelbase 2830 mm (111.5 in.)
Length 4805 mm (189 in.)
Width 1,735 mm (68.3 in.)
Height 1440 mm (56.7 in.)
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km
Fuel consumption (US data) City: 13.9 L/100 km (20 mpg)
  Hwy: 10.1 L/100 km (28 mpg)

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