To this point, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the E39 M5 referred to as the “first of the robot-builts”. Sound ridiculous? So does dismissing a car because it was produced in mass quantities. While the original run of 4- and 6-cylinder M-cars got the trend rolling, there are quite a few who’d argue that the recipe of the super-saloon was better achieved in the third generation M5 rather than the first two. It was still very understated, yet with 400 horsepower and instant torque it was quite a bit faster than the prior generations had been. It retained the ability to demolish back roads, keep up with super cars, and bath its occupants in luxury. Despite not being assembled ‘by hand’, it was also the last of the “analogue” M5s, with limited computer intervention and interface. And, they only came as manuals. This certainly sounds like a recipe for success.
It was. BMW sold nearly 10,000 E39 M5s in North America – triple the combined total of the E28 and E34 models. So there should be a lot of really great examples out there to consider. Yet many are starting to come to market with upwards of 150,000 miles a a laundry list of maintenance to catch up on. Where does a low-mileage example fall these days? This beautiful Royal Red one in California gives us a clue:
Back in November of 2017, I looked at an early special-order 540i Sport Package. It ticked many of the right boxes; while the later cars gained the shouty M5 exterior bits, the early cars are understated in a nice way, yet still potent. I’ve especially always been a fan of the Style 19 BBS wheels on the early Sport cars, but the follow up wasn’t bad, either. The turbine Style 32s mimicked Alpina’s signature style, but looked right at home and as if they were always intended for the E39.
But this car has some other items going for it that the first didn’t. While both are M62/TU 6-speeds and carried the M-Sport suspension, this one also has the M-Sport steering wheel and sport seats. The downside?
Back to wagons!
Today’s example is another fan-favorite model, of which it seems surprisingly hard to find a great example. The E39 continued and expanded the 5-series wagon’s popularity by bringing bigger wheels, more power and updated looks to the mid-range Audi-challenger. Like the first generation, these were only available in rear-wheel drive in the U.S., so matching the all-wheel drive variants available from…well, everyone else, required a very good looking and potent package. BMW pulled that off, with the Sport versions of both the 528i and 540i Tourings thoroughly encapsulating the ethos of the great Euro wagons.
But there was a catch.
If you wanted a manual gearbox, you had to select the lower output 528i model. For all its shouty V8-ness, the 282 horsepower 4.4 liter M62-equipped 540i only came with BMW’s Steptronic if you needed to haul ass and a family. Of course, that hasn’t stopped a few enterprising individuals from combining the manual from the sedan with the more desirable wagon:
Sport, M-Sport, Sport, M-Sport, Sport, M-Sport. Choose your title! More research and some comments from our astute readership seems to confirm that the official title of this car is 540i Sport in the USA, though it includes items labeled as M-Sport within that package. Thanks to everyone for their commentary and following!
Starting in late 1999 for the 2000 model year, BMW replaced the “Sport” package on the E39 with the newly recycled “M-Sport” moniker. Of course, the M-Sport had been seen on the E34 before and carried M-bits over to the normal 540i model. This was much the same for the E39; moving forward, the M-Sport models not only got the upgraded suspension and larger wheels associated with the sport package, but also gained a M-Sport steering wheel, shift knob and door sills. However, it wouldn’t be until the 2003 model year that the M-Sport reached its full potential when BMW slotted the M-Technic bumper covers on to create a ‘M5 light’ once again.
In between, there were minor changes mostly notable for different wheel designs. In 2001, for example, the Style 66 wheels were used. Staggered at 17×8 in front and 17×9 in the rear, the wheels mimicked the design of the Style 65 18″ M5 wheels minus the second set of split-5 spokes inset. These wheels were also coincidentally the optional winter wheel package for the M5. But without the bigger bumpers and M-Parallel wheels associated with the 2003, the 2000-2002 models were much more understated in their approach and to most aren’t quite as desirable as the M-Tech’d models.
Of course, when you find a showroom fresh one with only 1,890 miles, maybe that doesn’t matter?
My recent M5 v. Alpina B10 post took a look at two exotic versions of the E34. Of course, BMW offered their own alternative to the M5 late in the production cycle, as the introduction of the M60 V8-powered 540i produced nearly as much usable power as the more expensive M variant. Such was the success of the 540i that BMW initially judged the M5 dead in this market; it was removed from the U.S. in 1993 after slow sales and wouldn’t return until the new millennium.
As a result, the 540i flew the 5-series performance flag for two generations and still is very popular today. Especially in Sport versions, the E34 and E39 540is offered power, refinement and outstanding chassis dynamics in a package that was attainable for more people. So which is the better buy today – the first or second generation?
As we drove home in our E61 the other day, an E60 M5 with temporary plates sat in front of my wife and me at a light. She commented “Are those getting cheap? Because I’m seeing them more often…” She’s right. The E60 M5, with its screaming 500 horsepower V10, now can be had for around the same price as an entry level Hyundai. Pound for pound, they’re now the cheapest way to get into an M-branded 5-series. But though we own a fifth generation five, I’ll admit frankly that it’s not a car that’s for everyone. It’s big, heavy and complicated – and can be quite expensive to fix. Couple that with any M engine and drivetrain, and these cars are capable of draining your wallet as fast as they can accelerate.
So although the power levels are lower and they’re not as flashy or modern, for many the E39 model that preceded the one we saw is still the epitome of M5s (though they’re often challenged by an equally vocal group who says the first one is the only one!). We’ve seen them start to trend upwards after dipping a bit low over the last few years, and now places such as Enthusiast Auto Group have a plethora in the $35,000 – $80,000 range depending on mileage. So you missed out on this fan-favorite, as well?
Not so fast.
There are a few select automotive tuners who can take an impressive package and refine it into an even better entity. That group includes legends such as AMG, Alpina and Ruf – all of which are staples of this segment.
Yet they are far from alone. Given the task of improving on what is generally considered to be one of the greatest sedans ever made is no small feat, but if there was one group up to it, it was Steve Dinan’s eponymous company in California.
While just about anyone can take a turbocharged engine and crank up the boost, slap a few stickers on it and call it done, the E39 M5 didn’t come with forced induction. On top of that, it was a motor which wasn’t exactly underdeveloped before it went into production. Nor were the brakes, suspension, or any other aspect of the third gen M5. But Dinan thought they could improve upon them, and with a tremendous amount of work, did.
Dinan went to town on the S62 from start to end. Out came the factory air boxes, air meters and velocity stacks, replaced by Dinan units of larger diameter and better flow qualities, along with larger throttle bodies bored out by the company. This necessitated reprogramming of the computer controls for the engine to match the new flow characteristics. To help the exhaust side of the motor, unique tubular headers were fit to a free-flowing, lightweight exhaust system. While this sounds a bit like old-school engineering, it was successful; the result was an additional 76 horsepower and 51 lb.ft of torque – basically, this was like adding a 1980 Rabbit’s worth of power to an already powerful car.
Dinan coupled the engine mods with a shorter final drive and higher rev-limiter to reach fantastic speeds. The S2 was capable of 0-60 runs around 4 seconds flat and, in unrestricted mode, geared out around 190 mph in 6th.…
I’m not really sure where the “wagons are cool” craze comes from. Back in Europe, estates tend to be regarded as a bit boring. But the longer I’ve lived in America, the more I can relate. Camping trips, afternoons spent chasing down furniture on Craigslist, and weekends spent helping friends move apartments in the city have all led me to appreciate the appeal of a good wagon.The highly competent 540i sedan is already well loved, combining a well-balanced chassis with a torquey 4.4 liter V8 that puts out about 290 hp. The Touring version offers all of this plus a load space nearly on par with that of a small pickup, once the seats are folded down. What’s even better than a 540i Touring? A 540i Touring M-Sport, which adds more aggressively styled, M5-like bumpers, firmer sport suspension, sport seats and shadowline trim (sedans also received M-Parallel wheels, although Tourings did not).
The E39 M5 continues to be a firm fan favorite, and it’s not hard to see why. These cars offer a compelling combination of brilliant performance and everyday practicality, all served up in a beautifully balanced chassis with a slick 6-speed gearbox and screamer of a naturally-aspirated V8 engine. I have no doubt that they will one day be regarded as classics: perhaps the last of BMW’s M-cars from the analog era, before the advent of dual clutch auto-manuals, turbos and piped-in sound effects. Even nice examples aren’t that expensive today, when you consider how much car you’re getting. It’s probably a good time to buy one, since they continue to climb in value with each passing year.
The E39 M5 is an everyday supercar whose restrained exterior belies the power that comes from the monster lurking underneath its skin, a 4.9 liter V8 that makes 394 hp and will scream its way up to a 7,000 RPM redline. There’s something very pure and unadulterated about this car, and this gives it a special place in the heart of most M-enthusiasts. That purity comes from the application of a very simple (and by now seemingly old-fashioned) formula: take a big, naturally aspirated motor and add 3 pedals, 6 gears and only subtle exterior modifications to the already quite conservatively styled 5-series body shape. The product is a practical, four door sedan that you can use to pick up your groceries and drive your family to the mall. Or, blitz around the track.