BMW 550i Touring (E61) | The Brave Pill

A V8-powered wagon that's both rare and well done

By Mike Duff / Saturday, February 6, 2021 / Loading comments

When future generations look back on the early 21st century there will be no shortage of wonder – and likely hashtag-strewn outrage – at some of the outlandish powerplants of the late combustion era. But the greatest level of surprise won’t be reserved for the brawniest engines that were fitted to the fastest cars – which is kind of as you’d expect – but rather the unlikely motors of some much more mainstream machinery.

Brave Pill has previously featured examples of the infamously temperamental V10 that BMW’s M division crammed into both the 5-Series and 6-Series of this era. But this week’s offering marks the debut for the engine that understudied the mighty range-topper, a 4.8-litre V8. And while the contemporary M5 came with a pumped bodykit and howitzer-caliber exhaust pipes to make its specialness obvious, it was possible to buy the 550i as both an estate and in what was then the boggo ‘SE’ trim level. Which is what you’re looking at here; it couldn’t be more of a sleeper if it had the East Coast Main Line nailed to it.

Unsporty models with V8s weren’t rare or unusual at this time; Mercedes, Audi and Jaguar also offered them beneath their full-flight performance derivatives. Road testers often preferred them, too – the Jaguar S-Type 4.2 was widely reckoned to be a sweeter steer than the supercharged R. But it’s fair to say that such cars were never really intended for our part of the world, having been created for places where petrol was cheap and CO2-based taxation wasn’t a thing. Given the compelling alternative of the 535d, sales of the V8 powered 5-Series were minimal in the UK, with the majority of the buyers who did splash their cash opting to spend the extra £2200 on swankier M-Sport trim. The dealer selling our Pill reckons only 11 pre-facelift 550i SE Tourings were sold during its brief 18 month production run.

This was a time when BMW still believed that big was better when it came to engines. When the E60 was launched in 2003 the base was the only four-cylinder petrol in the line-up. Above these came the straight-six 525i and 530i, and then the 545i with a 329hp V8. Which looks like a more than adequate selection of top-end powerplants by the standard of 2021, doesn’t it?

Yet BMW’s product planners clearly didn’t think there were enough choices. After just two years the 545i was doubly replaced by two new models using versions of the naturally aspirated N62 V8. The smaller 4.0-litre 540i had 302hp, while the 550i got a 4.8-litre unit with 362hp. To add further confusion BMW dropped a twin-turbocharged six-cylinder 535i into the mix for some markets two years later; this had the same 302hp peak as the 540i but made more torque and delivered it lower down.

Yet even among this plethora of choice the 550i is fondly remembered. It was slightly quicker than the 545i had been, but also had a more laid-back power delivery that made it an effortless cruiser. I never got to drive a 550i SE – I very much doubt one was ever allowed to sully the BMW press fleet – but even the firmer and bigger-wheeled M-Sport was a proper high-speed express, much calmer and more refined than the frenetic M5. The 550i sounded better, too – certainly at lower revs – with a melodious V8 grumble and no trace of the V10’s diesel-ish idle.

Most 550i buyers opted to pay the extra £1450 for the autobox, the six-speed torque converter being another useful point of difference over the M5’s snappy automated single-clutch SMG. There are manual 550is out there, though – many of which share the same famous former keeper: Timothy Needell. Tiff’s role as a BMW brand ambassador came with a company car and he used to order back-to-back manual V8s, often Tourings, doing this right up until production of the stick-shifted F10 V8 ended in 2013. These would get replaced after just a few thousand miles with the combination of high spec and a clutch pedal making them the equivalent of fizzing grenades as they entered the company’s used approved scheme. Woe betide the sales manager who didn’t notice the ‘manual’ marker before bidding on one.

Anyway, back to our Pill – a pre-facelift E61 Touring with an autobox and the unadventurous choice of Resale Silver and a grey cabin. Yet beyond those default options it seems to be in close to full unicorn trim, as an SE which was originally ordered with almost every available option. According to the vendor it comes with such rarities as adaptive headlights, panoramic roof, a heated steering wheel and even the head-up display. Presumably the first buyer wanted to combine the SE’s comfier chassis (and stealth styling) with a more generous selection of creature comforts.

Our Pill is being sold by the same dealer that has the rear-engined Mini we featured in December, and it’s fair to say the contrast is absolute. Indeed it’s pretty much impossible to think of a more discreet way of packing 362hp than this 550i; five minutes debadging this one with a hair dryer would render it barely distinguishable from a base 520d. It has had just two owners from new and the buyer is promised a generous stack of history including a service book with no fewer than 14 main dealer and specialist stamps in it, not a bad average given its 121,000 mileage.

The MOT history backs the mileage and doesn’t throw up anything too scary; it failed in 2019 with an engine light and recorded advisories the previous year for suspension wear and another of those ‘not excessive’ oil leaks our Pills often seem to suffer from. Some will regard the £8,990 asking price as optimistic considering the many E61s that are out there for banger money these days. But it definitely isn’t outrageous for a well-loved 550i – this facelifted M-Sport manual saloon was being offered for £12,500 when we featured it two years ago.

Is it courageous enough to be a Pill? Compared to its M5 sibling – a car with a list of expensive problems that are ‘if’ rather than ‘when’ – the 550i looks about as scary as Casper the Friendly Ghost. But like most BMWs from this era it is prone to a substantial number of issues, with these including failure of the valve oil stem seals, weak water pumps, temperamental autoboxes and (on the Touring) the tendency of the wiring loom going into the tailgate to fray and break expensively. Suspension components tend not to last, and an oil change on the V8 requires eight litres of the good stuff. But it’s certainly brave enough to be interesting, or maybe interesting enough to be brave – and isn’t that what brings us here every week?

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