Well, thanks a bundle everyone. Talk about making my life as hard as possible. Last year we made a PH Heroes video about the E39 M5. Now, I poured my heart and soul into that film. In it, I put all the stories about when I used to own an E39 M5, so it wasn’t a car review as such, but more a love letter to a wonderful car that I used to own.
Basically, then, I left nothing on the table, thinking that was it. That was going to be the E39 M5 video for PH. It had so much detail that at one point I even got the rechargeable torch out the glovebox and told you about how that might save your life. Actually, that was probably the least valuable part of the video, but there was a lot more besides that. And what did you go and do? You only went and voted the E39 M5 your favourite saloon car of the last 25 years.
I agree, of course; it’s a brilliant car. But the E39 M5 video was done, and then some. What the heck else can I tell you about it now? Why couldn’t a few more of you have voted for the E46 M3 instead, or the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrafoglio, which ended up coming in second? Either of those two would’ve made my life so much easier because I’d have had something new to say.
Still, how upset could I be? It’s hardly surprising that so many of you voted it the best saloon car of the last 25 years – I called the E39 peak M5, so we’re definitely all singing from the same hymn sheet. And to create something new for this video, we've decided to focus on the main areas that made – and make – the car so special. We also decided to bring the Giulia Quadrifoglio along on the day we filmed the video. We did this for two reasons.
Firstly, it was your second choice, and only by a whisker was it pipped by the M5. The latter took 32 per cent of the vote and the QF just under 30 per cent. From that point of view, it seemed wrong not to acknowledge it in some way. The other reason was context. To show how these mega saloons have morphed over a quarter of a century. I remember when I first drove an E39 M5 and, genuinely, I couldn’t believe how fast it was at that time – we’re talking about 1999. Back then, the idea that saloons would get any faster seemed ridiculous. But by crikey they have, and then some.
Just look at the stats. The BMW E39 M5 has 400hp and 369lb ft. It does 0-62 in five seconds, depending on who’s counting, and hits a limited 155mph. The Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrafoglio has 510hp and 443lb ft. That fires it to 62mph in 3.9sec and it tops out at 191mph. To have knocked more than a second off the zero to sixty time of an already quick car is astonishing, and this is the second rung of performance saloons, remember. The current M5 has 625hp horsepower and will do the nought-to-sixty dash in 3.3 seconds. The difference that marks out the Alfa from the F90 M5 and makes it feel more like the spiritual successor to the E39 is size. The F90 feels huge on the road, while the Alfa is surprisingly compact and more like the old-timer BMW – more so even than the current M3, as it goes.
Another trait that the QF shares with the E39 is its docile handling. Sliding the E39 really is one of its standout qualities, because few other high-performance cars are as easy to go sideways in as safely. Even with the QF’s huge turbo-induced torque, it feels just as playful. That’s a great strength it has over its contemporaries. The Alfa also steers more sweetly than the E39, and the lightness and delicacy of its rack is another thing that adds to its flyweight feel on the road. However, it doesn’t rise to the challenges of a British B-road as well in other ways.
Over crests and dips the Alfa bucks about and loses composure in its bumpy road mode, which sets the dampers at their softest. Throw in a few odd-beat cambers and there’s plenty of side-to-side sway in the car as well – at one point I was following the Alfa and could see its driver’s head being whipped from left to right like it was some sort of rollercoaster ride. If you shove the dampers into sport it hunkers down, but then feels unnecessarily stiff. The E39, meanwhile, was an absolute joy across the same section road. There’s no adjustability for its suspension – this is an old-school, analogue car, with a one-size fits all passive set-up – but it doesn’t need multiple modes. It always flows down the road beautifully, absorbing everything thrown its way. So while I watched my colleague’s discomfort through the Alfa’s rear window, I was completely cosseted in the M5.
And that’s the thing. The E39 M5 was, and still is, such a well-rounded car. Its ride comfort is supreme, its cornering potential mega, and, despite the advances in power and torque, its performance remains mighty. That fantastic S62 V8 also sounds so joyful. It can be both woofly and angry, depending on how far down the throttle is pinned and how high the revs are. It’s not as flamboyant sounding as the QF, yet I prefer the honesty of the M5’s engine note. You know there’s no trickery going on to falsify it; this is a natural wind instrument playing a beautiful, soulful tune. And honestly, despite the charm of the Alfa, I walked away from my day filming both feeling that the right car had won. The best saloon car of the last 25 years is the E39 M5. You may have made my life hard, but you absolutely made the right decision.
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