The perfect recipe for a sports sedan looks something like this: 300+ horsepower from a naturally aspirated engine, 50/50 weight distribution, excellent steering feel and precision, a rigid chassis, taut but forgiving sport-tuned suspension, great throttle response, powerful and progressive braking, room for five, good trunk space, handsome but understated design, and, of course, a manual transmission. Simple? Yes. Common? No.
But nearly 20 years ago, BMW nailed the formula with their E39 M5 (1998-2003), the reigning king of all M5s. It is a car praised for its power, performance, balance, tractability and design. Amongst the lineage of M5s, it is easily the best.
What It’s All About
The E39 M5 had great bones: the stock E39 sedan. The standard 5-Series was considered unmatched in the German sports sedan world, widely hailed as the best chassis and suspension combination of its time — with the right amount of stiffness and compliance for a ride that was both incredibly comfortable and utterly thrilling (when it needed to be).
Then, BMW Motorsport came along and made a good thing better, starting with a spectacular engine. The S62 engine had 4.9 liters of displacement from a naturally aspirated V8, based on the 545i’s M62 V8 motor. The S62 produced 395 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels with an astounding 7,000 rpm redline. This engine was built with what’s known as Double-VANOS: individual throttle butterflies on each cylinder and variable valve timing so both intake and exhaust cams possess infinite variability and adjustment. The S62 engine, with its fat torque curve and excellent flexibility, was masterful. And it happened to be so damned good that Bimmerphiles widely consider it the finest V8 engine BMW has ever made.
Power was linear, smooth and very noticeable, even with a 4,026-pound curb weight. It was quick, clocking in the mid four-second range to 60 mph. The governor limited top speed to 155 mph, but unrestricted, it could run all the way to 186 mph. The E39 M5 also had a perfect 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution, giving it superb and predictable handling capabilities. Throttle response was excellent, and coupled with the precise six-speed manual transmission, the E39 M5 was an utter thrill to drive.
The design of the E39 M5 matched the performance of the engine. Devoid of superfluous design elements, the sheet metal was clean and tight from front to back. It had a balanced look that could easily qualify as a sleeper were it not for the big 18-inch M wheels, the subtle lip spoiler on the rear deck and the M5 badging. Unlike the current F10 M5, it didn’t look big and bloated, and it was far more handsome than the overly ornate E60 M5, the generation that followed. The look of the E39 M5 was purposeful and aggressive, and though the M5 had just about every modern convenience at the time — heated leather seats, heated steering wheel, dual zone climate control, park distance control, power rear sunshade — buyers snatched it up for its road and track abilities rather than its luxury.
Its Place in History
Going on nearly 20 years, the E39 M5 is the icon of the entire M5 line (which stretches 30 years and five generations). BMW got the formula perfect with the right levels of power, balance and luxury. And, with this M5 the enthusiasts were the winners, with a focus on the driving experience rather than indulgent technology. The E39 M5 had no launch control, no paddle shifters, and nothing resembling an infotainment system. Instead, it boasted a glorious engine, a slick slushbox and a single button for “Sport” mode. And, in this state of essentials, it forever rests in the annals of sports sedan history as the best.