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