Wheels (Australia) - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOS NATHAN JA­COBS

Was BMW ever bet­ter than the time it in­tro­duced the stun­ning E39 M5?

BMW CUR­RENTLY sells 28 dif­fer­ent road car mod­els with an M badge on the back, yet the first to carry any sort of Mo­tor­sport des­ig­na­tion was the E12 530 MLE that rolled from the Ross­lyn plant in South Africa back in 1976. In the in­ter­ven­ing 44 years, the com­pany has built many very good M cars but, I’d ar­gue, only three truly great mod­els: the E46 M3 CSL, the cur­rent M2 and the E39 M5.

It’s the M5 that might just be the most per­fect archetype of the M genus. The raw in­gre­di­ents are bewitching in their sim­plic­ity: a 4.9-litre nor­mally as­pi­rated V8 en­gine, a six-speed man­ual gear­box and rear-wheel drive. There are many rea­sons why this could be seen as the zenith of BMW’s M car de­vel­op­ment, but it’s the com­bi­na­tion of con­cep­tual pu­rity and ex­e­cu­tion that dis­tin­guishes it.

Con­sider what came next. The E60 M5 was, by com­par­i­son, a bit of a tan­gle. We can ar­gue back and forth on Chris Ban­gle’s styling for that car, and the same goes for the V10 pow­er­plant, but the M division lost its nerve when it came to the fun­da­men­tal way the M5 went down the road. The E39 of­fered an art­fully pol­ished chas­sis set-up from the fac­tory. Good driv­ers in­stinc­tively knew how to get the best from it. The E60 M5 swamped the cus­tomer in choices be­cause this was a ve­hi­cle with al­most 600 per­mu­ta­tions of gearshift method, power set­tings, shift speeds, sus­pen­sion ad­just­ments and trac­tion con­trol thresh­olds.

The E39 M5 had a Sport but­ton and the abil­ity to dis­en­gage the Dy­namic Sta­bil­ity Con­trol (DSC). That’s it. And few bother press­ing Sport be­cause it over­sharp­ens the throt­tle and adds un­nec­es­sary heft to the steer­ing. The throt­tle and steer­ing are art­fully honed as they are.

Equally straight­for­ward was the M5’s mis­sion. It had to wrest back su­pe­ri­or­ity from Mercedes-Benz and AMG. BMW knew that Af­fal­ter­bach was forg­ing a tech­ni­cal lead in pow­er­ful V8 mod­els, fol­low­ing the large-ca­pac­ity units seen in the W124 sedans and coupes. Its suc­ces­sor, the W210, was in­tro­duced in 1996, and E50 and E55 AMG mod­els soon fol­lowed. BMW had stretched the S38B38 straight-six to ca­pac­ity in the E34 M5 with the fi­nal cars mak­ing 250kW, but Mu­nich knew it needed a pow­er­plant that rep­re­sented a step change in phi­los­o­phy and ca­pa­bil­ity.

The 4.9-litre S62 V8 in the M5 was the first eight-cylin­der en­gine fit­ted to an M car, and some diehards were at first af­fronted by this heav­ily re­worked ver­sion of the 4.4-litre lump from the 540i, claim­ing that it fun­da­men­tally changed the char­ac­ter of the M5. It needed to. As Alexan­der Hilde­brandt, the E39 M5 pro­ject leader, said, “I well re­mem­ber the dis­cus­sions about the BMW M5, and how – in the eyes of some M fans – it still had a flaw,” namely that V8 en­gine. The al­ter­na­tive was a heav­ily boosted six which, with the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, would have rapidly been out­gunned as AMG turned to forced in­duc­tion for its V8s.

The E39 M5 was also a land­mark car in­so­far as it was not built at the BMW Mo­tor­sport fa­cil­ity at Garch­ing, in­stead run­ning down the reg­u­lar 5 Series line at Din­golf­ing, near Mu­nich. Any sus­pi­cion that it might have been M lite or dumbed down in any way were scotched when it be­came clear how ex­ten­sive its up­grades were. The en­gine was bored and stroked to 4941cc and fit­ted with in­di­vid­ual elec­tron­i­cally con­trolled throt­tle bod­ies, hol­low camshafts, a duplex chain-drive for the in­take cams and a trick lu­bri­ca­tion sys­tem with G-force-sen­si­tive scav­enge pumps.

The sus­pen­sion re­tained the ba­sic 5 Series con­fig­u­ra­tion of struts up front and a multi-link rear, but all the de­tails were changed. The steer­ing links were strength­ened, the bush­ings beefed up, unique front wheel bear­ings were en­gi­neered, heftier lower rear con­trol arms from the E39 Tour­ing were in­tro­duced, while the rear in­te­gral link came from the V12 750iL. Polyuretha­ne aux­il­iary springs sharp­ened body con­trol, as did junk­ing the rub­ber rear sus­pen­sion bush­ings for steel ball joints. The spring height was cut and spring rates in­creased, shock valv­ing was mod­i­fied and thicker an­tiroll bars were fit­ted front and rear. At the end of this ex­er­cise there was very lit­tle com­mon­al­ity be­tween the sus­pen­sion of the M5 and that of the 540i.

The M division then sharp­ened the ra­tio of the re­cir­cu­lat­ing ball steer­ing, fit­ted big­ger brakes, 18-inch al­loy wheels, ESC sta­bil­ity con­trol that talked to the Siemens MSS 52 Motronic dig­i­tal en­gine con­trol sys­tem, and a beau­ti­ful ex­haust that fin­ished in quad tips. A sub­tle but pur­pose­ful bodykit, clear turn sig­nals and a broader kid­ney grille gave the E39 M5 the req­ui­site look of re­strained men­ace.

Wheels some­what missed the boat on the E39 M5. The first com­par­i­son test we put it into was in April 2003, by which time it had been on sale in most mar­kets for four years. In those in­ter­ven­ing years, Mercedes had re­tired the W210 E55 AMG and its suc­ces­sor, the W211-gen­er­a­tion model, had ac­quired a 350kW/700Nm su­per­charged V8. Against that sort of mus­cle, the 294kW/500Nm BMW looked a lit­tle gun-shy. Nev­er­the­less, Wheels scribe Gra­ham Smith re­alised that while a new front had opened in the power wars, the M5 was still the sharper tool, not­ing “the BMW’s chas­sis is a driver’s de­light com­pared to the Benz’s which, while be­ing awe­somely com­pe­tent, lacks for those last few de­grees of en­gage­ment.” It’s those fi­nal de­grees that dif­fer­en­ti­ate a good sports sedan from a great one. And, make no mis­take, the E39 M5 de­serves its place at the very top ta­ble.

Take its size. Its road foot­print is sig­nif­i­cantly smaller than a mod­ern M3, so it never feels un­wieldy to thread along a twisty road. It is heavy, though, and the sus­pen­sion tune, while more fo­cused than its

Model BMW E39 M5 En­gine 4941cc V8 (900), dohc, 32v Max power 294kW @ 6600rpm Max torque 500Nm @ 3800rpm Trans­mis­sion 6-speed man­ual Weight 1795kg 0-100km/h 5.3sec (tested) Econ­omy 15.5L/100km (tested) Price $195,800 (2003)

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