Retro Road Test: E39 BMW M5

What is it?

The BMW M5 is one of the most iconic performance cars in the motoring world. It’s a car which manages to feel both special and completely user-friendly at the same time.

This is one of the standout generations – the E39. Based on the angular, boxy shape of the late-1990s 5 Series, it’s one of the probably one of the angriest, punchiest-looking M5s ever made – and that’s part of the reason why it was so popular.

The M5 is a car at home both in the bends and on the straights
The M5 is a car at home both in the bends and on the straights

Watch any number of action films created around the same time as the M5 and it’s likely you’ll see the baddie piloting this V8-powered muscle saloon. It sounds just as evil as it looks too, courtesy of a 4.9-litre naturally aspirated engine. It’s also very practical, being relatively unchanged in layout to the regular 5 Series. There’s a decent boot, space for five inside and, despite the lowered suspension, a decent ride too. It’s therefore pretty close to being the ideal performance daily driver.

What’s it powered by?

The M5 packs a 4.9-litre V8 engine, which sends drive to the rear wheels via a joyous six-speed manual gearbox. When new, it produced 394bhp and 500Nm of torque, capable of sending it to 60mph in 4.8 seconds, before hitting an electronically limited 155mph top speed. It does show how far we’ve come in the performance stakes, even in a relatively short amount of time – the new M5 now has just over 200bhp more than this E39 model.

The M5 uses a powerful V8
The M5 uses a powerful V8

BMW’s M-Division garnished the M5 with plenty of performance goodies to make it as capable as possible. It got a quicker steering ratio compared with other V8-powered 5 Series models and it received larger brake discs too. It was even one of the first performance cars to get a Sport button – pressing this adjusted the throttle, making it more sensitive in certain modes.

The car’s ride height was also dropped by 23mm compared with the regular car, and this gave it better cornering abilities, while also making it look even better – in my eyes at least! The E39 preceded the mad, V10-powered E60 M5, and it was the last naturally aspirated V8 M5 that we’d see – it all became turbocharged after that.

How are values today?

Prices for the E39 M5 vary quite wildly today, depending on mileage and condition. Many have been overworked and under-maintained – it’s these you’ll have to watch out for. Look to spend in the region of £17,000 to £20,000 for a pristine, low- mileage example, although you could go as low as £8,000 for a high-mile, slightly tired version.

The M5 drives power to the rear wheels alone
The M5 drives power to the rear wheels alone

One thing’s for sure – prices for this age of M5 are now as low as they’re likely to go, so it’s a good time to get your hands on one before they start to increase in price, as I’ve seen in all areas of BMW used cars. Have you seen the price of early E30 models recently? They’ve gone through the roof.

Le Mans Blue is one of the best-looking shades for this age of M5 – although Imola Red is also a bit of a highlight. The best thing about this age of M-caris the complete absence of over-the-top styling. You just get four pipes at the back and some subtle badging dotted along the exterior. No one will ever see you coming – and that’s why this age of M5 is one of the best to surprise others.

What were its rivals?

There were quite a few contenders in the M5’s segment during the late-1990s and early-2000s. The Jaguar S-Type R was a stylish, high-powered saloon car with retro looks and an equally retro- looking interior. In fact, it matched the BMW in terms of power, packing 395bhp from its 4.2-litre supercharged V8 engine, allowing it to hit 60mph in just 5.5 seconds. It also sounds fantastic – but then most things with a supercharged V8 under the bonnet do.

The M5 gets lowered suspension to aid with cornering
The M5 gets lowered suspension to aid with cornering

Then there was the Mercedes E55 AMG. Coming in just before AMG’s incredible revival in popularity, the E55 was based on the regular E-Class. The E55 weighed into battle with a lot of power, thanks to a 5.5-litre supercharged V8 with 469bhp. It was also available as either a saloon or an estate – with the wagon version arguably one of the best-looking cars of its time.

Anything to look out for?

Although the vast majority of the M5’s setup is bulletproof – the interior, for one, is brilliantly made – there are some aspects of the car you need to double-check. Chain tensioners are quite sensitive to which oil has been used, plus keep an eye out for whether the clutch has been changed, as these last for around 60,000 miles and are costly to replace.

The M5 is a great under-the-radar performance car
The M5 is a great under-the-radar performance car

BMW 5 Series of this generation were also a little susceptible to rust. Check the car’s arches (they can turn into dust if uncared for), along with the area behind the bumpers and underneath the window and door trims. And although that interior is pretty robust, give the seat bolsters a good looking over. They’re the main area of wear in the cabin and can be prone to collapsing if given a hard life.

  • Model: BMW M5 (E39)

  • Engine: 4.9-litre naturally aspirated V8

  • Price (when new): circa £53,000

  • Price (today): circa £20,000

  • Produced from: 1998-2003

  • Power: 394bhp

  • Top speed: 155mph