There was a time when BMW was the standard for driving sedans in any variety offered, from base model on up to top of the line ///M versions. For better or worse that time has passed. A side effect of that makes comparing today ‘s models to those of yesteryear a bit unfair, the market has changed and the cars have changed along with the wants of the buying public. However there is a way to make the tendency to compare present to past more reasonable.
Let ‘s use the current generation of 5 series as an example. Comparing it (F10) to the 1998 E39 is just wrong. The two cars are completely different in concept although both are conservative in looks for the time they were launched. The E39 is viewed by many a BMW aficionados as one of BMW ‘s greatest triumphs in terms of looks, luxury and enjoyment to drive but from a sales standpoint it was a dud compared to the current model. The E39 was a mid-size offering that sat 4 adults almost comfortably it was well balanced, smoothed out the majority of road imperfections while still being highly communicative- it was a car for those that wanted the sports car experience but needed the practicality of a sedan with some room. Today the F10 5 series is more about smoothing out the bumps and lavishing the 4 adult occupants (5 in a pinch) in an opulent yet sterile environment free from noises and vibrations. Driving ability remains for the most part but now it is reserved for the few times the driver wants to feel engaged or sporty rather than the main focus. Of course that is an over generalization as MSport models and M Performance models have higher levels of sportiness but the overall package is less sporty- especially considering there is no available adjustable seat bolsters in the US market.
In those terms, along with size and luxury amenities the current 5er is really more aligned with the E38 7 Series, the E39 most closely resembles the not long departed E90 (size, driving ability for the period/level of tech etc.) Today ‘s cars are really one model designation down of cars from the past, and that in part is why BMW has a 1 Series to fill in the gap. Similarly, one may view the current M5 as the car BMW never brought to market in the past, the M7. What of the newer M6? That is what the 850 CSi was back in day- it ‘s not that far of a leap but starts to make more and more sense as current and past models are picked apart.
That all said, maybe this is how we really need to think about how performance and qualitative characteristics are compared to truly get an honest feel for how well these current cars really perform and function rather than just looking at the same rear badges over the years. The F10 5 Series makes the E38 look silly from a performance and luxury standpoint. Truly all the current offerings compared to the past are leaps and bounds better. Sometimes we get a bit nostalgic and reminisce about how good things were, but sometimes it is more about the idea of what we remember than reality. Is the answer comparing things off the badge? It would make it more realistic but for the vast majority of people wouldn ‘t understand how things have evolved so the deck will always be stacked towards nostalgia it would seem.
The current crop of cars, more or less since the F20 1 Series, are more about technology and integrating the car into the greater technological world than anything before and comparing them to the past makes even less sense since cars are much more now than was even dreamed of then. The automotive world will continue to compare apples to oranges since things always need to be compared…. (let ‘s see what BMWi gets compared to).