The E39 BMW M5

One of the greatest cars ever made.

This post on Jalopnik by Doug DeMuro caught my eye, as he discussed a little bit about the E39 M5 — a car dear to my heart as it is my daily driver. In fact, I drive a 2002 as was the vintage which DeMuro wrote about it. In the post, which is largely irrelevant for the sake of this post, he said one thing that got me thinking:

But most enthusiasts tend to agree there was something really special about the third-generation model, the “E39,” which was sold from 2000 to 2003. And it’s easy to see why: the E39 M5 looked perfect. It had the right power. It was the right size. It was solid and well-built. For many BMW fans, the E39 is the best M5 that ever existed.

The original E28 M5 looked the best of all of them, but it was not really fast at all. It was certainly sporty, but fast it was not. The E34 M5 (which I never drove, but I did own an E34 525i) was again not a tire burner, and seemed like a half-assed attempt at an M5. It was quick, for the 90s, but once again not a fast car.

And then BMW dropped the E39 which has 394hp. For reference the E34 M5 had 311hp. The shift was massive, as the M5 brand went from being a sporty sedan, to being a very fast sedan.

My god is it fast.

From there BMW upgraded the M5 line with even more staggering performance: E60 V10 powered 500hp, and the current F10 turbo-charged V8 with 560hp.

Ever faster, ever crazier.

So why then does the E39 reign supreme for so many?

It would make sense that most people looking at getting an M5 would gravitate towards the newer E60 or F10 models — and they are fantastic — but they are very different cars than the E39. If the first two M5 models were made to be sporty four door cars, the latter two models are certainly made to be supercar-esque four door cars.

The E39 is neither a sporty sedan, nor is it on the level of supercars.

No, the E39 is what I call a true driver’s car — the closest you can get to it today is probably the BMW M235i — though I have not driven one.

The original M5s didn’t have enough power to really do anything extreme with, just enough to have some fun driving around town — and keep in mind these were made in the late 80s and 90s, a time when cars just weren’t that crazy fast.

The last two model M5s have so much power than you actually have to go in and set how much power you want. They are insane cars, and they are made to be the one car you need from board meeting to race track — and for the most part the F10 does this very well.

The E39, though, just has all 394HP available all the time. It’s enough power that you can do a burn out through first and second gears, that if the traction control is on, it will continue to cut power to the wheels under full acceleration well through third gear (because even with $2,000 worth of tires on your car and hot asphalt, it’s too much power not to spin the tires).

It’s a car that simply presents itself and says: here I am, this is all of me, you will love it.

The gear box is manual, 6-speed, and not the “manual” that is all electrically controlled. It has a clutch, and that clutch is one you must operate, it has a gear stick, which you must move around.

There actually isn’t much about the electronics that one needs to change in the E39. Only two buttons ever need to be pushed to change how the car actually operates: DSC, and SPORT.

The DSC button is your traction control, and then some, controlling the wheel spin and being able to apply brakes if you are about to flip the car. The latter, SPORT mode, makes the steering heavy and the throttle twitchy (I think it is supposed to make the ride firmer, but I can’t notice it) — but does little else. SPORT mode is a little to heavy on the steering and a little too twitchy on the throttle to really drive with on normal roads. And I don’t have a death wish so DSC is kept on.

Basically then, the E39 M5 is a car you get in and drive. The only adjustment one makes is to the seats — which are fantastic. You needn’t want for more power because the car couldn’t use it. You needn’t want more buttons, because they would get in the way.

And I drive the car like shit. It’s rather hard to get a smooth shift between first and second gear unless you are driving flat out — and I’ve talked to several E39 M5 owners about this, they all seem to agree. ((A couple of E46 M3 owners agreed with this as well.)) In other words this is a car that is perfect, and therefore shows your flaws as a driver — as opposed to being a car which can very easily hide the flaws that you as a driver have.


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.

I’ve driven a lot of very nice cars, simply because my father has owned a great many (and collected M-series BMWs for quite some time) and, of all the cars I have driven, none feel like the E39. There have been faster cars, there have been nicer cars, but none that strike the balance as lovely as the E39 M5.

Mine had 13,000 miles on it when I bought it two years ago, it now has 24,000 miles on it. I suspect I will still be happily driving it when it hits 250,000 miles.

It will never be the fast or slowest car on the road. It will increasingly show its age. But it will always be a fantastic car to drive.

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