There’s no doubt that retro is what sells these days – everything from the all-electric Honda e city car sold in Europe to 4x4s like the Suzuki Jimny and 70 Series Toyota Land Cruiser are proof of that – and it could be argued that this retro revival is what’s been increasing interest in and values of older cars that do have a bit of a cult following.
BMW is certainly one brand that this is truest for. With its own latest attempt at retro-come-homage styling – that being the controversial grille on the new M3 and M4 – being a swing and a miss, and the brand’s focus shifting from keeping a lineup of rear-wheel driven driver’s cars to big SUVs and affordable front-wheel drive models turning away many enthusiasts, there’s been renewed attention on the company’s past ultimate driving machines.
While values of all pre-2000s BMW are all on the rise, it’s M models that have unsurprisingly had the most attention on them, one such example being the E28 M5 – the very first M5 the Bavarians created in a lineage of exceptional sports sedans. But with the E28 M5 never having made it to Australian shores, there’s no way of me being review one for you as long as I’m on these shores – however, I can at least bring you the next best thing.
Enter the 528i Motorsport – an Australian-exclusive version of the E28 5 Series. Based on the standard 528i offered in most markets around the world, the Motorsport model (of which it’s rumoured as few as 72 were imported) effectively made the regular E28 look like an M5, but unlike most average BMWs you see driving around with an M badge stuck on the back, this was an official job.
Adding the M5’s more aggressive front bumper, a set of BBS alloy wheels (which have been replaced with a larger set of BBS’ on this particular example), some unique stripes, and Recaro seats and a leather sports steering wheel inside, the visual upgrades are aplenty, but there’s more to this tarted-up E28 than that.
With mechanical upgrades made to the Motorsport model including a Getrag 620 five-speed manual gearbox, a limited-slip differential, lowered springs, Bilstein dampers, and thicker front sway bars, its tighter handling and marginally improved performance meant that there was some real merit to the name.
Certainly, the E28’s sporting pretensions were on full display on the inside, with its cabin epitomising decades’ worth of BMW’s signature interior design language.
With a clear and simple gauge cluster, a centre stack all angled towards the driver, and a perfectly-placed gear shifter and well-spaced pedalbox, it’s every bit a driver-focused interior you’d expect.
The surprisingly supportive Recaro seats fitted as part of the Motorsport Edition package do certainly add to the sporting character of this interior as well, as do the various M-coloured stripes and badges on small details like the steering wheel and shift knob, but otherwise, it’s a very simple and ultimately normal cabin inside – something that I’m sure is part of the charm of older cars like this these days in an age of increasing amounts of technology being stuffed into new cars.
It’s all pretty normal under the bonnet as well, as that’s where you’ll find its M30B28 engine – a 2.8-litre straight-six with Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection making a relatively modest 135kW at 5800rpm and 240Nm at 4200rpm.
Getting it out on the road, the first thing you’ll notice is that the shifter gates are very wide apart – meaning you might mistake third for first, although don’t ask me how I know that… – so although going between the gears it feels solid, it’s perhaps not quite as tight and short a throw as you may be expecting.
Nonetheless, rowing your own gears in a Beemer is still always a pleasure, as its five forward ratios are well-spaced and the clutch pedal is easy to get a feel for. The driving position is classic BMW as well, with supportive seating, a perfectly sized steering wheel, and excellent shifter placement.
That archetypal BMW feel is really in the sensations it gives you from behind the wheel, however, as this car serves as a reminder of just why many have grown to recognise the brand as being one that knows how to build a proper driver’s car.
The straight-six under the bonnet is a perfect example of why it was the go-to engine of choice at the time for companies looking to build cars that could feel both luxurious and sporty. It’s an incredibly smooth engine that feels as though it runs on whiskey, rather than a liquid as crude as petrol, yet when you start to explore the upper reaches of the rev range, it has a great bark to its exhaust note – something enhanced by a muffler delete on this example.
Being an early fuel injected and naturally aspirated engine, you do have to work it hard to really make progress – even if there is a decent amount of torque to keep you moving if you hang in third gear – so staying in second is where you’ll really get the best out of it, and while it’s certainly no rocket ship it does at least have enough power to have some fun with.
The steering feel is truly wonderful as well, as it’s a responsive and communicative tiller that feels direct and well-weighted. And indeed, the chassis on this thing is most impressive, with it feeling incredibly balanced – thank the excellent weight distribution – and enhancements such as the standard fitment of a limited-slip differential only helping it feel even more competent.
Worth mentioning here is that this particular example has been fitted with a set of BC Racing coilovers to aid handling while still retaining the original ride quality, along with a set of grippy Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres on those BBS rims, but even without these modifications it’s clear to see that it’d be an impressive thing to drive.
If there’s one weak point, it’s definitely the brakes, as the stock stoppers are less than stellar, with the spongey pedal feel and lack of strength when you’re really trying to push it hard doing an otherwise incredibly well-sorted car a disservice.
Anchors aside, it really is an impressive thing to drive though. While it certainly shows some signs of its age in areas, it feels more like a product of the ’90s than the ’80s, and that’s a definite compliment.
Between its classic squared-off looks and unmistakably old-school BMW driving experience, it’s easy to see why the more extravagant E28 models Australia never received are starting to be worth a prettier penny these days, much like many other old M and M-derivative models.
But even with a more regular example of the breed, you can still get a good slice of the fun – and particularly the looks and driving feel when it comes to this 528i Motorsport – for a lot less than an M5 would set you back, even with values on the rise.
Principal photography by Marcus Cardone. Additional photography by Patrick Jackson.
My thanks to Dean for supplying the beautifully-presented vehicle tested here.