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.