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A Hooniverse Thanksgiving Turkey – The E28 528e

Robert Emslie November 22, 2012 Hooniverse Thanksgiving Turkey 23 Comments

It was in the mid-1970s that BMW began anointing their cars with the sobriquet The Ultimate Driving Machine  in their advertisements. It was less than five years later, after a bruising round of OPEC muscle flexing, that the German car maker introduced to the US market a model that most clearly failed to live up to that name – the E28 528e.

BMW’s reputation – and the Ammirati & Puris ad agency created slogan – was built in the US on the backs of taut Teutonic fare like the 2002Tii and 3.0CSi, but that flavor of sporting three-box, with their aggressive and comparatively thirsty for their body size engines, were a little too niche-oriented for a post gas crunch market. Lacking the broader appeal of frugal diesel models like competitor Mercedes Benz, the Bavarians took another route toward fuel efficiency  – that being a power drain.


Now, not all the E28s are 528es, but all 528es are E28s – get it? Other, less economy-oriented E28 models included the 533i, the later and even more awesomer 535i, and the first iteration of the balls-deep in amazing M5. That latter one featuring an explosive 282-horse edition of the M88 motor that first found home in the mid-section of the legendary M1. If you were to sort by genus, all three of these E28s would classify as The Ultimate Driving Machine. That was especially so when equipped with the sweet snick-snick of a Getrag 5-speed stick.

The 528e however was positioned for fuel economy rather than alacrity. The “e” at the end of the name stood for the Greek letter “Eta” which in BMW-ese meant efficiency, and that was manifested in a high efficiency 2.7-litre edition of the standard M20 straight six. That motor suffered having both the small-port head from the 2-litre engine, as well as a short-duration cam designed for producing what power it could low in the rpm range.

That power was 121-bhp and a meager 171- lb ft of torque. Not very Ultimate when compared to the next rung up the ladder 533i’s 180 ponies. Adding insult to injury, along with the Eta being a bit of a wheezer, BMW seemed to fully embrace the autotragic transmission with the 528e, and almost all of the models you come across today are lamentably two-pedal cars.

Another problem is that the 528e seems to be all that’s left of the E28 these days as it turns out it was BMW’s bread and butter for the car’s 1981-1988 model run. These days, auto-tranny 528es are pretty much a dime a dozen, and while they offer much of the same feel and BMW-ness as their more powerful siblings, their weaksauce nature is impossible to hide.

The ’80s were a trying time for BMW – the company settling into its role as the sedan counterpart to Porsche just beginning to fully jell, as was the model mix. Cars like the M5, and 6-series proved that the company could build competitive and compelling cars that fit within its narrow niche, as it does today, but they also had some missteps along the way. One of those was the ill-timed 524td Diesel which finally brought the company into oil-burning parity with MB, but was even more unrewarding to drive than today’s turkey, and lasted but a couple of years on the market here.

That of course leaves the 528e – a competent but  far from inspiring offering which now sadly litters Craigslist and, if the ones I frequent are representative, the nation’s U-Pull junkyards. I’m sure that 121-bhp is plenty for some. I’m also sure that given a manual, even an Eta can be Entertaining. But for the vast majority that I see out there, saddled with automatic transmissions and offering up a dearth of ponies, I’d wager that the E28 528e is very likely BMW’s biggest turkey.

Images: [IMCDB, AutomobilesDeluxe,  OXL, ProductionCars]


  • Devin

    On the other hand, Claus Luthe BMWs are without question the prettiest BMWs.

    • Devin

      Actually, following up on that, a 528e would be a brilliant base for a resto-mod. It's got style but there is nothing of value under the hood. So throw out the engine and slushbox, throw in something cool.

      • buzzboy7

        Plenty of room for an LS1/T56 or 5.0/T5 swap if you want to go for common and easy.

      • facelvega

        And there are plenty of pristine ones around. It seems like every gas-conscious 40 year old who bought one back in the day has kept it washed, waxed, and dealer serviced.

      • don fehlio

        Have you seen this before? It's kinda internet-famous, and I love it: http://cache.gawkerassets.com/assets/images/12/20

  • facelvega

    A few notes: the 535i had only 15 lb ft and 1 hp over the slightly smaller-displacement but higher compression 33i version of the same engine, so it wasn't that much more awesomer. And if the eta engine ran out of oomph at around 4200 rpm, at least down in commuter revs it produced as much torque as the bigger engines in a car that weighed 200 lbs less. Of course, you needed a stick with one of these or you were sunk, but a slushbox would ruin the faster E28s just as sadly.

    I actually see more sticks than autos on craigslist (my gf wants one for use around town, either that or a W123), and I imagine the ratio is reversed in the junkyards for the obvious reasons. Never driven one yet so maybe I shouldn't speak too soon, but I imagine I'd be just as happy with an eta as with a 535i– after all the speed hardly registers anymore when a V6 Altima or Camry would crush any E28 short of an M5, and maybe one of those too.

    • Joe Dunlap

      I owned a 535 for 9 years, and worked on and drove many 528e's and can assure you your evaluation is spot on. The eta motor had plenty of grunt for the stoplight grand prix, and wasnt even that bad with a slushbox for around town driving. The only place it fell flat when compared with my 535 was the freeway on ramp launch, but even there, I never felt like I was in any danger, as long as I kept my foot down. The e28 will always be my favorite BMW.

  • Rover1

    I don't think that this could be BMW's biggest turkey when since then, they've made the Z3 and the current 5 series GT and X6. E28s at least look nice.

    • buzzboy7

      Z3‽ A turkey? Maybe the Z4, but not the Z3.
      <img src="http://www.rogueengineering.com/pics/lms_2.jpg"&gt;

      • Rover1

        That is the one Z3 that isn't a turkey. I'm referring to the others, especially the flaccid 4s -even though one of them was a hilariously misplaced Bond car – they always came across as a cynical costcutting exercise in how little could be got away with if it had the roundel on it. Specially compared to the better in EVERY way Mazda MX5.

  • lilpoindexter


    It's a vehicle designed for fuel efficiency and luxury…how is this deserving of being mentioned on the same day as other vehicles that are turkeys?
    I bought one for $1600 last december when I was looking for an E39…I thought if it lasted 6 months, it would be good…it's still going, and shows no signs of ever dieing. It's got over 200k, and with all the maintenance previous owners and I have done, it should keep cranking for a long time.
    Yes, I have to plan my freeway entrances carefully, but even in stop and go So Cal Freeways, I'm still getting a real work MPG of 23/24 which isn't bad.
    Mine is an auto because the sticks tended to be more thrashed.
    A turkey???
    Surely you had too much "turkey" and are now suffering from the after effects.

  • Van_Sarockin

    I'd agree I'd rather have more engine and a manual. And it's not an M5. but it was an economy car for folks who thought a Cutlass Supreme wasn't quite Euro enough. You don't like them? Fine, don't buy one; I wouldn't either. It seems a bit much to hate on the car because some didn't come with the big motor.

    • Maymar

      Would you accept that this is the fork in the road that lead to BMW building four different SUVs? That the Eta is arguably the first move BMW made towards mediocrity for the American market's sake (which they responded with many dollars, and taught the Bavarians a bad lesson)?

      It's one thing to build a smaller engined BMW for the sake of efficiency, but they very deliberately made a relatively big, lazy, Americanesque engine to pair nicely with the slushbox. I don't think a 5-speed 518i would raise the same ire.

  • chevysrock39

    A friend of mine has a 528e with 400+ k miles on it. 5 speed, has been super reliable just keeps up on the timing belts. Averages 28-30MPG driving 110 miles round trip commute every day. The low end torque really moves them well around town, but the 4500 fuel cutoff really hurts the merging performance.

  • I can't speak for an automatic E28 eta, but a 5-speed E30 eta powered car is only a rear end swap away from entertaining. My 1987 325 had the eta engine. Wtih the stock 2.71 or so rear end it was dangersously slow, with a 3.25 LSD swap (from a E28 btw) it became entertaining. The gearing is as much or more of a curse on these things as the engine. The eta engine does make more torque than the regulat non-eta M20.

  • viking

    even with a slushbox the m20b27 can be made into a fire breathing beast. the cheap charly way: mount a m20b25 head onto the eta-shortblock. the proper way: use eta-crankshaft in a b25 (m21b24(diesel)-crank ist fine too, or even finer, because forged). too bad the young gearheads found out about it. for now its too hard to find a 525e (as they were called over here) which hasnt been abused in rural burn out contests and 1/4mile races in germany.
    loved my stock low-compression 5speed either, too bad the high-comp 125-bhp without the catalytic converter already died out -> even more low end grunt + higher mpg

  • dukeisduke

    An E28 with the friggin' tractor engine? Yep, definitely a turkey.

  • Cardad

    Another "fact" created by internet repetition by those who never drove the car. The 528e was no rocket, but it was a very nice ride at a time when gas prices were rising to levels we were not used to. The engine was all about the torque, not horsepower…..170 lb-ft, compared to 214 lb-ft for the 535.

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