Arguably nothing captures the spirit of BMW M quite like the M5, thanks to the super saloon’s understated looks, comfort and refinement… and propensity for wild behaviour.
The M5 was not the first M car, though – the 3.0 CSL actually set the ball rolling in 1972, back when M was known as BMW Motorsport GmbH, and a small team of 35 working under Jochen Neerpasch transformed the 3.0 CS coupe into a racecar. The CSL did all right. Six European Touring Car titles from 1973 to 1979 kind of all right.
Neither was the M5 the first BMW to actually wear the M badge, a distinction that goes to the M1 of 1978. We’d argue the M1’s best seen as seminal rather than definitive, however – and fascinating if something of a red herring given its spaceframe construction and mid-engined layout. No, BMW M only truly got into its stride in 1985 with the first M5.
Based on humble production saloon underpinnings, and with no motorsport ambitions, it married the M1’s 3.5-litre straight-six with the E28-generation 5 Series bodyshell. Ever since, an M5 has crowned the 5 Series range, and a further five generations have followed.
We’re re-visiting the middle children from that dynasty: the E39 generation produced from 1999 to 2003, and the E60 that followed from 2005 to 2010, both immaculate examples from BMW UK’s heritage fleet.
The E39 M5 represented a huge step over the previous E28 and E34 M5s, in large part because of a new 4.9-litre V8 with 395bhp and 500Nm (369lb ft) – increases of 60bhp and 100Nm (74lb ft) over the previous straight-six, its torque far more accessible at 3,800rpm than its predecessor’s fizzy 4,750rpm.
Today the E39 M5 remains a fabulous drive, with a supple chassis, subdued woofle from its quad exhaust pipes and an exceptionally quiet and comfortable cabin. The V8 hauls strongly from low revs, and although it doesn’t have the high-rpm anger and urgency of the later V8 M3, it continues to pull smoothly and with real vigour right round to 7,000rpm. Not devastatingly quick these days, no, but still quick.
First impressions suggest the E39’s deference to comfort might compromise its high-performance credentials, especially the slow-geared recirculating ball steering, yet this M5’s rather languid, almost lazy responses bring a unique driver appeal. You drive it with broader brushstrokes than modern super saloons, using greater sweeps of steering, indulging the long, slightly crunchy shift action of the six-speed manual, and working with the softness of the suspension to find traction – and also oversteer. Lots and lots of oversteer.
The E39 might reassure with its comfort and security, but there’s always the sense you can exploit its momentum and performance to breach the relatively modest limits confidently – good job too given the flakey brakes.
The 2005 E60 M5 is as radical a departure mechanically from the E39 as its ‘flame-surface’ design suggests. With BMW supplying V10 engines to Williams F1 (and soon to partner Sauber), BMW M seized the moment to slot a 5.0-litre V10 under the bonnet that was capable of 8,250rpm, with 500bhp – a huge 105bhp increase over the E39! – and 520Nm (384lb ft) of torque. There was also a seven-speed paddleshift gearbox, making this the first two-pedal M5 and the only BMW with a V10 engine (with the exception of the M5’s sister, the M6).
Inside, you choose from three damper settings, up to six gearbox calibrations, and a power button to unleash all 500bhp. Dig deeper and there are hidden settings in the iDrive sub-menu, and a supplementary rev counter projected in the head-up display. Even those with no interest in cars couldn’t overlook this M5’s giant stride into the future.
The E60 is a stiffer, more highly strung kind of M5 – the ride has a restless fidget, and the sequential-manual transmission is clunky in stop-start driving and laggy at part-throttle shifts (tip: lift the throttle, like it’s actually a manual). You couldn’t call it uncomfortable, but an E60 is certainly less content at a canter than an E39.
The payback comes when you finally tap all the performance, the bandwidth of which remains quite incredible. The V10 makes only 20Nm (15lb ft) more torque than the V8 and delivers it much higher up the rev range – 6,100rpm versus 3,800rpm! – helping to explain why it doesn’t really come alive until post-5,000rpm. At this point you’re already travelling at an indecent lick and it seems sensible to shift, but keep the throttle buried and the final 3,000rpm to 8,000rpm stretches out elastically, like frenzied high-bpm techno to the E39’s more laid back rock and roll.
Driven at full pelt, the gear changes come alive too, smacking with an instant, almost brutal engagement (no need to lift the throttle now) and suddenly the top bit of the rev range you weren’t really using becomes the only bit of the rev range you’re using at all.
Even today, this incendiary performance – and particularly its delivery – remains extreme. Remember, too, that no M5 has ever had more displacement, more cylinders or more revs at its disposal, even if the successive generations have fielded more power and much more torque. A high watermark indeed.
Extra grip and better body control translates to higher cornering speeds over the E39, though the E60 remains benign if you push beyond its limits, and is far from the traction-limited monster you might expect – with peak torque so far up the powerband, the V10 has to be worked hard before the rear tyres squirm, just as it should be. Brakes remain a bit iffy though!
The E39 and E60 represent possibly the biggest change in the M5’s character between generations, and arguably the gulf between them was bridged by the (also radically different) turbo V8 F10 that followed.
Both these middle children remain incredibly special in their own way, the analogue E39 with its GT flavour, the digital E60 very much the racecar trapped in a saloon car body. Ideally I’d take one of each, but forced to choose it’s the E39 generation that I think best covers all the M5 bases.