Given the choice between more power and better handling, nine out of ten people will choose more power. It's human nature, pure and simple. We want to be stronger to attract the opposite sex and frighten the competition (that's my belief anyway). Whatever you believe, more beans means more fun; the trick is how to get there.
VF Engineering has been force-feeding cars for nearly a decade. Initially focusing on VWs and Audis, VFE has developed a supercharger system for every vehicle in the two brands' product line. It's been more than two years since we installed the VFE supercharger on our beloved Corrado VR6 and it continues to run flawlessly. That says a lot about both the hardware and software engineered into the product.Moving to BMWs was a logical step for VFE especially since owner Nik Saran had a 2003 BMW 540i lease car in his possession.
"This 540i has been my daily driver for a few years now," he said. "The supercharger makes it a lot more fun. It really surprises people, especially M5 owners."
Not exactly an underachiever, the 540i Sport was basically an "M5 Light." You got the upgraded sport suspension, 18-inch alloys, six-speed manual gearbox, an M5 steering wheel and other assorted M-quality goodies. Its 275 bhp and 290 lb-ft of torque moved the 4,100-pound chassis with authority and made it a top contender among mid-size sport sedans. Basically, the 540i Sport was the M5 for people who did not want to pay for the badge. You'd be down on power, but you still had a damn fine car.
The power part was something that bothered VFE's Saran. Over the last six months he has developed a supercharger system for the E39 chassis that closes the gap between the 540i Sport and M5.
If you've been thinking of getting a pre-owned 5 Series, the VFE supercharger is a compelling rationale. The car on these pages began as a family car. Saran's wife used it as a daily driver/grocery-getter/kid-mobile. In that role, it proved to be a most willing and reliable steed. As its lease ended, Saran began toying with the idea of a forced induction system largely based on his positive experience with the BMW.
"Overall, it is a very solid car," he said. "It's big, practical and sporty, very sporty. That my wife and I both enjoy the 5 Series is fairly unusual. I get what I want and she gets what she needs. It's a good deal. I figured it would be a good candidate for a supercharger system."Ultimately, the VFE supercharging system is a fairly simple bit of kit. It's essentially an air pump run from a crank-powered auxiliary belt. But it is perhaps this simplicity that makes it so elegant and effective. VFE spent big bucks on the plumbing, pulling the plastic piping from custom-made dies and giving them a factory-correct crinkle coat. The bracketry is wrought from thick, aircraft-quality aluminum and incorporates a factory belt tensioner. With the exception of the Vortech supercharger itself, it's difficult to tell this engine bay has been touched at all.Turn off traction control and this car gets going fast. That's the thing about superchargers-they are always "on"-no waiting for boost. And while burnouts in the sizable 5 Series are always fun, it's the enhanced midrange punch, especially between third and fourth gears, that makes it shine. Between 3200 and 5900 rpm the VFE supercharger system gives the 5 Series the feeling it's being launched from a big slingshot. Power has been increased by 133 bhp and torque by 76 lb-ft. We found ourselves leaving the car in fourth gear at freeway speeds just to sample the its newly developed muscle. Perhaps the only downside (if you can call it a downside) is its lack of auditory presence. The 5 Series is so well insulated you don't hear anything from the cabin. It's all too easy to achieve ludicrous speeds and not realize it. More brakes for the VFE 5 Series might be a good idea. Consider that an endorsement.
Our 2003 model year test car was fitted with the first generation of VFE's supercharger (hardware, plumbing, K&N intake, GIAC software, 5 psi). The GIAC software removes the top-speed limiter and increases redline to 7000 rpm (on a manually equipped car). Successive systems with most likely increase boost and include intercooling options. The average mechanic can install the entire program in nine hours; a morning drop-off will have you boosting by dinner. The VFE kit will fit '97-98 V8 single VANOS (variable intake) M62 engines and the newer '98-03 double VANOS M62TU engines. Both automatic and manual transmission vehicles can be supercharged.
As BMW is poised to release its next generation of cars, the previous models are coming off lease and will undoubtedly wind up in enthusiastic hands. Andrew Cutler of GIAC seized a 2001 330Ci for himself after a long stint in a tuned Mercedes C230 Kompressor.
"The great thing about the BMW is that it was born with good torque. I was happy driving it in completely stock form," Cutler said.
Like the 540i Sport, its solid build and predictable BMW manners made the 3 Series an ideal supercharging candidate. I spent several days in this car in an effort to answer one question: Is it possible to bring a garden-variety 3 Series into M3 territory?
On a chilly December Tuesday I managed to eclipse the quarter mile in 13.87 seconds at 101.2 mph despite a problematic clutch. Judging by the trap speed, it's obvious the supercharger was doing its job. The clutch has since been replaced by a system engineered by the clutch-geeks at ClutchMasters. Neither too springy nor hard, the ClutchMaster unit provides a firm bite without being too grabby. More importantly, it's an easy piece to live with on a daily basis.
Like the 5 Series, speed builds surprisingly quickly. Although it lacks the instant torque and characteristic "BRAAAANG!!!" of the M3, its power delivery is damn effective. Around 3900 rpm the tach takes on a decidedly hell-bent journey to its 7000-rpm redline. As Deputy Editor Funke took a long lead in our Cayenne, I goosed the throttle to catch him and nearly stuffed the entire BMW in the Porsche's trunk (that would have been funny). I later learned this car was wearing a set of big Performance Friction brakes. The engineers at Performance Friction took their ZR28 four-piston, four-pad, monoblock billet aluminum calipers-built for racing in ALMS, Grand-AM, and JGTC-and fitted them to the front of the 330Ci with their Direct Drive two-piece floating rotors and new, second-generation Z-Rated street/track pads. Performance Friction's factory M3 test vehicle with a similar setup sees sustained deceleration rates of up to 1.7 g. Some might consider it overkill, but with the improved acceleration, some type of upgraded brakes are a must.
The PF brakes provide a solid pedal feel and are easy to modulate. I'd purposely stop for every yellow light just to feel the g forces. The bottom line is: Big brakes are fun. I'm thinking about going that way for my M3.
Eibach coilovers provided a ride almost on par with the M3. Although slightly lower than stock, there's enough travel for daily street use or modest track sessions. This was my first experience with the Eibach coilovers and probably won't be the last. The ride quality and chassis control is on par with that of M-Teknic and begs the question: Why not just by factory parts? Great idea, although I've yet to see a BMW suspension with an adjustable ride height. I can get that with the Eibach coilovers.
Running gear was comprised of 18-inch DPE R06 Variant S wheels shod with Falken GR rubber. The stuff looks good and the Falkens provided a much quieter ride than my M3's worn Bridgestone S03s.
At the end of the day, the summation of its parts leaves this car a serious contender to the M3.
My hat's off to both VFE and GIAC for building such a solid program. You can hammer on these things all day and they continue to deliver. It's all I demand in a performance program.
Hurry and pick up the April 2006 issue of european car Magazine for the complete spec list of both cars, and a lot more photos