Welcome to our latest series of retro reviews that take us back in time through the history of the BMW M performance division. This review of a 1999 BMW M5 is the second of several classic BMW M car reviews to hit our little slice of the Internet in the weeks to come. We started with the old and are moving towards the new. Enjoy the photos and the nostalgia. We hope you’ll stick with us on this journey through time and a re-examination of some of BMW M’s most iconic performance vehicles..
SAVANNAH, Ga. — When the collective automotive world speaks nostalgically of BMW, there are a few key reference cars that rise to the top. One of these cars is the 1999-2003 BMW M5, also known as the E39. It wasn’t the first M5, but it might be the one that best defines what an M5 is. The E39 generation lives in that short period of time when pure car performance was increasing at a rapid pace, but before electronics became king.
It had a naturally aspirated 4.9-liter V8 engine, was only available with a six-speed manual, and hit 60 mph in just 4.8 seconds. It’s a highlight reel on its own, but in true M5 fashion, you wouldn’t assume this car is a ripping enthusiast darling just by looking at it from the outside.
BMW has crafted a timeless look, and the E39 deserves a place in the running for all “best-of” BMW design lists. You wouldn’t know this 5 Series is an M5 from the front via an ‘M’ badge. No, you have to look for the wider grille frames, subtle spoilers, unique M aero mirrors, small quad exhaust, rear M logo, M5 specific wheels and in some cases unique M.C colors is just enough to warn a potential admirer, but not enough to attract attention. Sometimes there’s beauty in simplicity, and the E39 M5 is one of the best examples of such a phenomenon.
I’m a little less enthused about what BMW thought the interior beauty looked like in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Step inside the E39 M5 and the mahogany-look woodwork tries luxury and quality, but look dated and tired today. The same goes for some other interior subtleties. BMW has gotten adventurous with technology, so it’s no surprise that said technology is more of a hindrance than a help in 2022. The “infotainment” system predates iDrive (not to mention an in-between system available on the 2001 and later E39), and it basically serves as a reminder that using a computer from over two decades ago is no fun. The other big inconvenience is the central console that can accommodate a mobile phone in the car. A large hole in the middle of the armrest is hollowed out to hold the telephones provided by BMW for the businessmen who bought this car at the time. Unfortunately, this turns the armrest into a very annoying place to rest your arm, due to the big, hard plastic hole where you might want your elbow to be.
Getting back to the good, there are also some legitimately interesting technologies that you can find in the E39 M5. My favorite is the variable tachometer warning zone which “unlocks” more of the tachometer by way of warning lights when the engine warms up – on start-up you’re “limited” to just 4000 rpm. A “Sport” button can be pressed to increase throttle response and reduce electric steering assist, giving you a heavier wheel (this was ahead of its time). There was no electronically controlled adaptive suspension, but switching to “Sport” still offers a tangible difference in the handling of the car. Plus, it was the first M car to feature BMW’s now ubiquitous ‘dynamic stability control’ to roll up that rear-drive behemoth whenever you want.
Where BMW has really spent its money, however, is on the utterly stupendous engine. This aluminum V8 has an induction system to make any engine nerd swoon. For starters, the engine breathes through eight individual throttle bodies. It gets a carbon fiber intake plenum, and the Double VANOS system means it offers variable valve timing for the intake and exhaust. BMW installed a dry-sump lubrication system to ensure proper oil flow in the high-performance drive, and that’s exactly the kind of driving you’ll want to do with this car.
The first time you lay the floor is simply illuminating. It pulls like a banshee all the way to redline, and the noise is a combination of pure muscle with a heavy dose of intake sound, as the engine breathes through those eight individual throttle bodies. Each gear is long enough to savor the engine’s splendor, but not so long that you’d wish for shorter gears. There doesn’t seem to be a weak part in the rev range. Unlike the modern M5, you can actually stay buried in the throttle for more than a few seconds without hitting extra-legal speeds. It’s just a perfect tram in that regard.
One area it misses is exhaust noise, as BMW erred on the side of quiet, long-haul aural comfort by having it alert the wider universe to its presence. This is easily fixable via the aftermarket if you prefer to make noise, but it’s also a point in favor of modern cars with their active exhaust systems allowing you to be totally silent or make all the noise at all. moment.
Like the original E28 M5, the E39 retains its comfort and handling over long distances. It soaks up rough pavement with its thick sidewalls and forgiving suspension. I didn’t have much of a chance to really test its handling on the relatively straight roads of southern Georgia, but in the few occasions I did have, the M5 proved to be a pleasant, smooth operator. There’s more lean than virtually any new M car, yet it’s controlled with great predictability and stability, inspiring driver confidence to push harder. A possible point of contention, although ultimately simply trivial, is that the E39 M5 has a recirculating ball bearing steering rack for racing purposes rather than the normal rack and pinion configuration of the series 5. I didn’t find it lacking in feel or problematic in any way throughout my ride, so BMW made it work.
There is very little about the handling of this M5 that I would change. It has the performance, the style and nails all the important aspects of owning a super sedan. It’s not perfect by 2022 standards, but it’s a car (and engine) that gets you in the way only special cars can. You want to to keep driving it. You want to live in that upper tachometer range over and over again. You certainly habit quickly forget to drive it if ever you have the extreme privilege to do so.
A little buyer’s advice
The engine is the main point of consternation with older E39 M5s. Possible issues include carbon buildup in the combustion chambers over time, VANOS system failure that shows up in the form of an oil leak, and timing chain tensioner issues. You will definitely want to check these timing chain guides because the worst case scenario for leaving them unattended is destroying your engine. Beyond that, it’s worth taking a look at the usual suspension bugaboos like worn bushings and ball joints.
Among BMWs, the E39 M5 is far from the worst offender for crushing maintenance costs, so if you have it professionally inspected and take good care of the car, it will most likely treat you well too.