PH Heroes: BMW E39 M5


When it comes to quick BMW M-cars a lot of people think of the 3-series. The M3 is the young man’s sportscar-slaying hero – as fast as a 911 Carrera but £20k cheaper new, and a BMW to boot. But the M5 is a middle-aged man’s car – fast but a little bit sensible. But if you do your research you realise that an E39 (1998 – 2003) BMW M5 is faster, bigger, rarer and, as a second hand prospect, cheaper to buy than an E46 M3. This is a car that was £60k new but is only worth £16k when six years old.  Executive cars have notoriously bad residuals after about 6-7 years because people who could afford the running costs can afford the new model - so there is no demand. Put simply, the M5 falls into that executive car category, and the M3 does not. Enough about money, what about the car? Well, the BMW M5 has a long history dating back to the early eighties’ M535i. These were the real Q-cars: big saloons with huge engines for their time.  The creation of the Q-car is often a tradition with which Lancia is credited – when it put a Ferrari V8 in a Thema. The concept of the super-saloon really took off in the 1990s, with the awesome 377bhp Lotus Carlton. Then came the E34 M5, which, in its final incarnation, had a 3.8 litre six cylinder engine with 340bhp. In 1998 BMW went the whole hog and put a 5 litre V8, developing a whopping 400hp, into the already sweet-handling E39 5 series. Now the M5 was quicker than contemporary 911 Carreras in a straight line and had crisp, responsive handling, which belied its 1700kg and 4.7m length. The 0-60 dash is quoted at anywhere between 4.8 and 5.2 seconds, and it certainly feels closer to the faster time.

One of the first things you notice about the M5 is the noise it makes. The engine note is a lazy V8 burble which at low revs is reminiscent of the ‘General Lee’ from the Dukes of Hazzard. And when it gets above 3500rpm it turns into a full-on sports car roar. The


handling of the M5 is astonishing for such a big car. When you are having fun on open B-roads the M5 handles like a sports car. There is plenty of feel through the steering wheel, nice responsive turn-in and so much grip that you have really have to be a hooligan to lose the back end. The dynamic stability control (DSC) is brilliant in these circumstances. In the dry, and at speed, all it does is sit there watching over your shoulder for an unexpected tight corner. When that corner comes, as it inevitably does, the DSC quietly saves your life by breaking the relevant wheels and killing the power where necessary, and then it goes back to looking over your shoulder. It makes driving a 400hp rear-wheel drive car a practical proposition for mediocre drivers.

The best thing about the M5 is that it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It has supercar chasing performance in a package that is discreet and practical. Okay, it does 19 mpg combined but you can easily fit 4 adults and luggage in and drive to France in total comfort. There are a few things to mention about its faults. Firstly, the DSC is intrusive in the wet, and I’m nowhere near a good enough driver to drive at any speed in a 400hp RWD car without


it. Although, to be fair to BMW, I’m sure that’s true of the traction control in all 400hp RWD cars. Next, there is a lot of understeer in tight, slow corners. Again, with a big engine up front and 1700kg following it along, it would be a miracle if this was not the case. You just need to be careful turning-in to mini-roundabouts in the wet. Also, if things go wrong, they are expensive. This is something of a lottery; if a part is from the standard E39 540i, then it isn’t too bad. If it is an M5 part, it is. However, you can’t drive a 100,000 mile super-saloon and expect it to be cheap motoring. Finally, the wolf in sheep’s clothing effect can be annoying. If you like to make a statement by the car you drive, and have schoolboys point and stare at it, the M5 isn’t the car for you. BMW didn’t help this by putting the M5’s valances and spoilers on all E39 5-series with ‘sport packs’ after about 2001. But all this aside the M5 is a staggeringly capable car, and can be all things to all people. Just make sure you afford to run it.

PH Hero Rating: 7.5/10

Comments (94) Join the discussion on the forum

  • RDMcG 20 Sep 2013

    Best four door car I ever owned. In its time it was the best car out there.

  • Bogracer 20 Sep 2013

    Drove the RS6 at the time which was just awful despite the Audi salesman claiming it was better than an E39 M5, with it's dismal, dim automatic gearbox, boring 4x4 and rubbery feel. "It's not" I replied handing the keys back.

    So brought a used M5 in the end and did 80,000 glorious miles all over Europe, Stevilo Pass, Nurburgring, Cannes, Monaco, Milan, Paris, Le Mans, wonderful car in everyday as you would expect from BMW M Division. Cosseting yet precise and engaging with a NASCAR V8 sound when pressing on, fast yet limo refined when you just want to just waft home. Reliability, clutches last 60,000 miles other than that routine servicing, 12 MPG round town, 22 on a longer run, er 7mpg around the Nurburgring.

    If you like driving sideways - when you choose to - this is the car, wonderfully balanced and forgiving, Turn in under braking give it the boot and your are surfing on the throttle and steering!

    A car you must own before you die.

    Edited by Bogracer on Saturday 21st September 13:39

  • nonuts 22 May 2012

    Now that is some thread comeback!

  • LewisR 21 May 2012

    Zod said:
    Boulder said:
    The E60 was very marketing led in its development,in comparison to the purity of this beast.
    Oh, why do people have to come out with this crap. What exactly is marketing-led about the E60 in comparison with the E39?


    I fully expect to see the same rubbish posted in a few years' time about how the E60 was so much pure than the Fxy.

    Just ask Derestrictor, a man with the taste and sense to own both an E39 and an E63 M6.


    Edited by Zod on Monday 28th January 21:00
    I think that there's some mileage in that. I've owned an E39 528i & now an E60 530i. The interior of the E60 is one big cost-cutting exercise; cheap-looking plastics, deletion of interior boot release button, glove box torch, temp gauge and standard dual climate.

  • simer553 06 Aug 2011

    Mmmmmmmm.... Always wanted one of these but 'cos I did huge milage had to settle for a slightly cheaper to run e39 i sport. OK - it only had 1 exhaust poking out the back but otherwise hard to tell the difference?

    I do hope that the new generation M5 is equaly as good (if not as pretty...)

    My Missus refused to drive my old E39 "..its too powerful for me" lol, she drives a legacy outback 3.0R now which could be described as 'not exactly slow'!


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