Why is the E39 Still Considered the Perfect M5?

Jan 2 • E39 5 Series, Opinion18 Comments

From friends to auto writers the E39 M5 has long been held up as the perfect sports sedan. With BMW sizing up the 3 and the 5 we thought we ‘d take a look at why this 10+ year old car continues to fascinate so many of us.

Perhaps the quickest way to sum it up is that the E39 M5 possesses the perfect ratio between size and power. But there ‘s mushers that makes this car so special. There ‘s the feel of the six speed manual. The perfection of the cabin and how it wrapped neatly around the driver. It ‘s the simplicity of the exterior design. Devoid of the ornamentation of the E60 and similar cars, the E39 is 100% classic BMW. Proportion, design, it ‘s all there.

Like other M products of the era it all started with the engine. The E39 M5 had a high-revving 4.9 V8 known internally as the S62. Based on the M62 found in “normal ” 545i BMWs, the S62 produced 400 hp and featured a 7,000 rpm redline, Double-VANOS, individual throttle butterflies for each of the cylinders and (at the time) shockingly fast rev times for such a large engine. Not unlike the current manual found in the MF10 M5, the E39 ‘s six speed manual was actually the same unit found in the 540i. But it ‘s hard to argue with the precision and feel it had.

Thankfully the S62 produced plenty of power and torque because the E39 M5 was not a lightweight at 4,026 lbs. Unlike the the S65 V8 found in the E90 era M3, the S62 V8 had a fat torque curve and plenty of flexibility. The result was a car that felt ready to put the hammer whenever needed yet liked to rev to heights not normally associated with a V8. It was magnificent and is still considered by many enthusiasts as the best V8 the brand has ever made. Oh and by the way, it remains the basis of the “BMW Powered ” DP class entries in Grand Am because of its flexibility and relatively low cost to performance ratio.

But there ‘s much more to the E39 M5 than the S62. Not unlike the E46, the E39 seemed to be perfectly sized to offer just enough space and comfort for its segment while feeling like a proper sports sedan. It stood perfectly at the cross-section between luxury saloon and sports sedan. And while it was no lightweight, the power to weight ratio was spot on for more than adequate acceleration and speed.

And it was simple. This is where the argument gets a little difficult. I loved the new F10 M5 – especially in manual form. But the E39 M5 is a car that, ten years on, is more attractive due to its simplicity. There was one button – sport – to sharpen it ‘s throttle mapping. Everything else was purely analogue. A formula used in the E46 M3 and 1M brilliantly.

We ‘re not saying the almost infinite adjustability of current M cars is a bad thing. But there is something beautiful about simple. And when you add powerful, nimble and luxurious to that equation you have something remarkable.

E39 M5 Test Team

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  • Roland Renno

    Well I don’t agree with the writer of the article because technology moves on and without technology, we wouldn’t have seen the E39 M5. Days pass by, cars get older, feelings become standard… we need to move on to keep seeing sport cars.

    • Drfritts

      You sound like a bachelor.

      • Roland Renno

        I would prefer the M5 (E60) much more than this one due to the SMG, engine sound, feeling, and look.

      • Escobar G

        hah!

  • http://www.facebook.com/frank.granados.733 Frank Granados

    I agree on that the E39 was the best looking 5-series ever made. Never really cared for the E60 (The M5 version being an exception) and the current F10 while nice apparently suffers from a case of Buick like isolated steering.

  • BimmerFile_Michael

    Nomex suit on… To me the E39 steering was not as good as it could be, it had an issue with on center, the rest I loved but BMW later made the perfect second edition of the E39 M5. It came with an improved V8, better steering, brakes and reliability- it is known as the E90 M3 :)

    • http://bridger.us/ Gabriel Bridger

      And it forgot to add the torque! :)

  • Adam

    Still to this day one of my all-time favs, not gonna change soon. I owned an E 39 540i M and even that “almost M” put a smirk on my face. Still with the Inspection 1,2, oil consumption and electronics gremlins like the cluster pixels I’d keep an M5 in that gen as a garage queen, its about as steep to run as an F360 Modena!

    • Freddymertz

      You are joking about the costs, right? Like a Ferrari? I’ve owned a Ferrari, and there is no comparison between the costs of ownership of a Ferrari and any BMW, even an M car. Everything that you mention is almost trivial. Cluster pixels???? Who cares about that? TWS oil is $13 USD per liter. I use 1-2 liters per year, other than during oil changes.

      I own both an e39 M5 and an e60 M5. Neither is babied. Both are quite reliable, even though both are first-year (US) models.

  • 03Beastcharmer

    We love our E39 M5, especially with a proper catback exhaust to wake up the sound. Even with all the maintenance, my wife wouldn’t trade it in for anything. And it’s scary that it’s practically the same size as our new E92 M3. I agree the E90 M3 is the spiritual successor from a power and size standpoint. The power button also changed the steering weight, which was more important to me than the remap of the throttle.

    I also think the E39 was the last of the understated sleeper M5. The E60 screams that it’s the M5, so you can’t go incognito.

    • Freddymertz

      Agreed. There’s a reason why we call the e60 M5 ‘the beast.’

  • GJRPa

    I believe this article could apply to any model E39 vs. its 5 Series successors, not just the M5. I enjoy driving my 2003 530i much more than an F10 535i I had the chance to sample over a couple of days.

  • boomtownrat

    It’s a pure driver’s car . . . no coffee, no texting, no Costco . . .

  • Cossie

    Love mine to bits maintence and parts cost a bit but it’s a BMW so what do u expect taken cats and back boxes off mine now it sounds like a proper v8

  • MPower

    I owned an E34 M5 11 years, loved it but my favorite is the V10 E60 M5 by far. Wicked stlying, beautiful engine, wicked performance. The E39 was ok a decade ago and still is a great machine but the E60 M5 is so modern and unique.

    • Freddymertz

      They are both great, just very, very different. The last of the (naturally-aspirated, high-revving) breed, though….

  • BraveBruce

    The E39 M5 is really the quintessential M5. The E60 and F10 may have more horsepower and fancy gadgets, but they don’t look and feel like a BMW M car should. I find they look more like Japanese sports cars than bimmers. http://m5e39.net/ for life!

  • stratomartin

    I am a devoted car enthusiast and appreciator. My daily driver is a 2001 M5, and while there are dozens of great cars that could fulfill that role, I always grab the e39 keys when I head out the door.

    Simple under-the-radar styling, ease of repair and maintenance, plenty of room in the cabin, and well documented performance keep me intrigued.

    Every time I go to the dealer for maintenance, the salesmen all rush me to sell me a newer car, but when I go around to the service entrance the technicians all come over and ask “hey mister, is this your car! We love these.”

    I’ve driven so many great new BMWs at this point, but I just love my old M5.

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