E39 BMW M5 | Buyer's Guide

By Robert Bowen
May 11, 2022 | BMW, e39, Buyer's Guide, m5 | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the Oct. 2012 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Courtesy BMW; Lead by Gordon Sleigh

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]

The BMW M5 is one of the storied models of the automotive landscape. At its most basic level, it’s a four-door sedan that marries an understated appearance with a full host of luxury features, a massive powerplant, uprated suspension and performance that would humble most sports cars. 

But it also has to be more than the sum of its parts—not just a hotrodded production car. The M5 has always been the car for a driver who wants something more than an ordinary luxury sedan but can’t—or won’t—settle for the numbness of a full-size boat, like the 7 Series. Equally at home on the track and the highway, an M5 really can do it all.

A big part of the M5 formula has always been balance. The original M5, launched worldwide in 1984 and carrying the E28 chassis designation, was light and fast despite its 256 horsepower. 

As safety and performance expectations increased, however, power and curb weight both ballooned. The follow-up M5, known by its E34 chassis code, had to squeeze 307 horsepower out of the same basic six-cylinder engine in order to combat its added heft. 

The options were limited, then, when BMW readied an M version of its E39 chassis, originally launched in 1996. The top-of-the-line 540i already had a V8, and the 850’s V12 was far too expensive and heavy for a midsize sporting sedan. 

It turns out that the V8-powered M5 that debuted at the Geneva Motor Show in early 1998 was the “just right” compromise, sporting a pumped-up engine based on the 540i’s 4.4-liter V8.

The production M5 launched in 1999-2000 in the U.S. was based on the 540i, but with some important changes. In typical BMW fashion, the factory bored and stroked the 540i’s M52 to 4.9 liters. Output climbed to 394 horsepower. 

This was the pre-turbo era BMW, and the new S52 engine made its power through high compression, big cams, high-flowing ports and lots of revs. Redline was 7000 rpm, an impressive figure for an engine with an 89mm stroke. A fancy tuned-length intake manifold, individual throttle butterflies, and a tubular exhaust manifold all contributed to the high power output.

Reviewers already liked the E39 5 Series, and BMW did not stray far from that proven chassis when tuning the M5. The standard—and only—transmission was the same six-speed manual Getrag unit found in the 540i. Lower, stiffer springs and shocks, larger anti-roll bars and solid spherical rear suspension bushings contributed to eye-bursting lateral acceleration. Gigantic 13.6-inch front and 12.9-inch rear brakes were covered with 18-inch wheels—the stock rear tires measured 275mm across. 

Outside, the M5 continued the understated looks of its predecessors. Shadowline (aka black) side window trim was standard, and the M5 had a unique grille, wheels, and front and rear bumpers. A small trunk spoiler, M5 badges on each flank, and the trunk lid helped to differentiate it from regular E39s. Dual exhausts also required a unique rear diffuser.

Inside, the new M5 had a pretty standard 5 Series interior, although with an exclusive steering wheel, shift knob, seats, instruments, pedals and sill plates. Different interior choices included either Sport or Luxury leather packages with flat (Sport) or pleated (Luxury) seat upholstery. Interior trim could be ordered in either wood or aluminum-look, and Extended or Complete leather packages were available to cover more of the interior panels.

Under the skin, the car was a bit of a departure for the marque. Gone was the expensive and slow hand-assembly process used to build the E28 and E34 M5s at the BMW M GmbH facility. The E39-chassis M5 was built in the same Dingolfing factory as the regular 5 Series sedan, and the engines came through the same assembly process as ordinary V8s. Buyers did not seem to mind, since this meant more M5s could be produced.

Unlike the E28 and E34 M5s, the new car had nearly every available 5 Series feature as standard: moonroof, navigation, HID headlights, premium audio and many other items. About the only options were the interior trim packages, split folding rear seats, parking distance sensors, rear side airbags, and a power rear sunshade.

Reviewers at the time loved the M5’s high level of standard equipment and the V8’s bottomless torque. They praised the car’s high limits on track and noted its refinement on the road. In most conditions, the M5 was just as comfortable—sometimes even more so—than a regular 540i. At the same time, it could pull lateral acceleration numbers that rivaled any production car on the planet.

If there were anything to complain about in the new M5, it was the more muted driving experience as compared to previous versions of the car. A new layer of electronic wizardry, included in BMW’s DTC traction and stability control, conspired to reduce the skill needed to flog the car hard. They also tended to put a damper on fun driving on dry, grippy pavement. Thankfully, BMW gave the M5 a true “Off” switch to do away with the issue.

The M5 lasted from the 2000 model year until 2003, when it disappeared with the rest of the E39 line. More than 20,000 units were produced, with nearly half destined for North America. There were few changes over the E39’s production, with only a very minor facelift in 2001. The next M5, based on the E60 chassis, did not appear until 2006.

Things to Know

Since there were so few changes over the M5’s production, there isn’t much reason to choose one model year over another. It’s better to pick a car based on overall condition and maintenance.

Engine and Drivetrain

One of the biggest issues with the car is the S52’s propensity to use oil—particularly the early 1999 and 2000 production engines. The Alusil cylinder bores were not as well developed as the Nikasil bores used previously by BMW, and many 2000 model year engines do not have good ring seal. “Most of the 2000s that I’ve seen have oil consumption issues,” explains Arjun Soundararajan of UUC Motorwerks, “but many of the worst engines have already been replaced.”

“The clutch is smaller than the one used on the 850, even though that was a less powerful engine,” explains Teddy Rowe of Metric Mechanic. “The factory dual-mass flywheel and clutch are best replaced with a UUC flywheel and clutch package. You may not need a flywheel right away, but they do fail and it’s better to just bite the bullet and do both at the same time instead of having to pay to pull the transmission twice.”

The dual VANOS system can be a trouble spot as the components age and the solenoids fail. “The VANOS system is a known weak point of the engine,” says Karl Hugh of Active Autowerke. “When you are looking at cars, make sure the check-engine light isn’t on. That could be VANOS problems, or it could be due to the secondary air injection ports in the head plugging up. It’s a big job to remove the heads and fix that.” According to Rowe, the VANOS system can be repaired, but it’s not an easy task. “The VANOS is tricky to disassemble and reassemble,” he explains. “There are a lot of special tools needed. It’s not something that I would suggest a DIYer attempt.”

“The E39 can be a maintenance pig,” explains Rowe. “It takes many hours to do some basic things, like changing the spark plugs. They are hidden under eight throttle bodies that aren’t there on a 540. Some of the parts are more expensive, like the water pump.” 

Rowe adds that the cooling system, like on all older BMWs, is a weak point. “Replace the radiator hoses and the water pump before you have trouble,” he warns. “There is lots of plastic in the cooling system. The E36 and E46 have the same problems. After 100,000 miles or so, the expansion tank likes to split along the seam, and the radiators fall apart.”

The M5 is fast, and the aftermarket can only make it faster. “With our cold-air intake, headers, a full exhaust and a reflash, you can get 50 more horsepower,” explains Active Autowerke’s Karl Hugh. “The cold-air intake and reflash alone is good for 25 horsepower.”

“There is nothing wrong with the factory exhaust, but it is heavy and doesn’t sound very good,” adds Rowe. “There are flow gains to be had nearer to the head, though. The exhaust manifolds and cats are very compact, and [aftermarket] headers really help top-end power. The engine makes plenty of torque, so top-end power is more useful.”

According to Rowe, the M5 differential can be changed from the factory 3.15:1 ratio to as low as 3.45:1 or 3.62:1. “This helps off-the-line acceleration without losing much fuel efficiency,” he adds.

Body and Interior

The interior is well done from the factory, but a UUC short-shifter can add a bit more sport to the experience. 

Suspension and Brakes

“These cars are getting up in miles and age, and some problems are starting to show up with the suspension mounting points,” explains UUC’s Arjun Soundararajan. “Not just the bushings, but you have to check the mounts on the chassis for cracking and tearing. These can be fixed easily.” 

The usual suspension springs, shocks and coil-overs are all easily available. The M5 is such a balanced package, however, that it is hard to improve on what the factory engineered without upsetting the good road manners it is known for. Don’t expect miracles from any suspension changes

The original front control arm bushings can be replaced with the heavier units from a same-generation X5 crossover. These SUV pieces are stiffer and will last longer than the original ones. Various reinforcement kits for the rear anti-roll bar, subframe and control arms are also available from the aftermarket.

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View comments on the GRM forums
Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/17/22 11:27 a.m.

The E39 M5 introduced two things to the world that have stuck around: a Sport button (changed the throttle response and steering assist) and angel eye headlights.

Owning one is a bit like owning a supercar, it demands a lot of attention. Working in the engine bay is expert level mechanicing, definitely not for beginners. Just getting the driver's side valve cover off requires at least four dimensions of manipulation.

But they feel special. You can tell the engineers got their way.

OjaiM5 HalfDork
3/17/22 11:35 a.m.

The s52 is one of my favorite engines ever. The power delivery and sound are terrific. Also, the e39 in today comparison of car sizes is a sweet  svelte sedan. 

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
3/17/22 11:37 a.m.

In reply to Keith Tanner :

That's interesting that's where those two features originated. I kind of feel like the angel eye headlights are sort of like a more modern version of the Altezza taillights in that I've seen them put on a lot of different cars–with varying degrees of success.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/17/22 11:40 a.m.

Agreed on the angel eyes these days. They're absolutely everywhere. It's a good way to give a car's face character while also providing DRLs. There are all sorts of aftermarket upgrades for the M5 to make them brighter. You can see in the pic from the article (that's Grand Touring class of the Targa Newfoundland, which would have been a fun week) that they're kinda dim compared to modern LEDs.

The car also has a variable redline on the tach, when it's cold the redline is lower. I don't know if that's a first or not.

1988RedT2 MegaDork
3/17/22 2:34 p.m.

Granted, it's not an M5, but I have a hard time getting the keys to my son's 2003 530i Sport Package.  It's such a rewarding car to drive, and the six is so responsive (and dependable) that I'm not sure I'm missing anything by not having the eight.

Edit:  As noted above, even though it's a "mid-size" 5-series, nothing about the car feels big, it's just not cramped.  Want to make an E36 feel too small?  Drive an E39!

And those Xenon angel eyes are great until you tap a deer with one. About a grand, if you can find 'em.  Ask me how I know. laugh

rslifkin UberDork
3/17/22 2:43 p.m.
1988RedT2 said:

Granted, it's not an M5, but I have a hard time getting the keys to my son's 2003 530i Sport Package.  It's such a rewarding car to drive, and the six is so responsive (and dependable) that I'm not sure I'm missing anything by not having the eight.

Edit:  As noted above, even though it's a "mid-size" 5-series, nothing about the car feels big, it's just not cramped.  Want to make an E36 feel too small?  Drive an E39!

That whole era of big BMWs does a good job of not feeling so big when you drive it.  Even my E38 feels much smaller once you start to hustle it around, at least until you get onto a really tight, narrow back road (then it starts to feel like it just doesn't fit on the road).  No surprise the E39 has the same effect, as it's more or less the same chassis hit with a shrink ray. 

stuart in mn
stuart in mn MegaDork
3/17/22 3:52 p.m.
1988RedT2 said:

Granted, it's not an M5, but I have a hard time getting the keys to my son's 2003 530i Sport Package.  That's a pretty good alternative in my mind.

They're a pretty good alternative in my mind.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/17/22 4:05 p.m.

The internet lore is that a 540i Sport 6-speed is basically as good as an M5, but having spent a good amount of time in both it's not true. The M5 feels special, it's why I decided to spend a bit extra for one. These days, it would be a LOT extra because I got mine at the bottom of the market - but they command a premium for a reason. They're also a lot more expensive to run.

And yeah, those headlights are expensive if you want the real ones. You can get cheap knockoffs, but like any modern car the real thing will set you back. You want to know what's really expensive? The wheels. There are knockoffs of the fronts, but the rears are unicorn poop.

As for size, they're awfully close to a Tesla Model 3. A big enough sedan.

To close, you cannot discuss the E39 M5 without Star.


Loweguy5 HalfDork
3/17/22 9:18 p.m.

It's so funny this popped up today.  There is a shop local to me that carries only "special" German cars, 99% of which are BMWs.  The owner is a real car guy and knows BMW inside and out.  

He is a friend and I stopped in to tell him I bought my 330ci ZHP and that I would like his guys to give me car a once over.  He has cars everywhere, but in his excitement about my car he couldn't wait to tell me that he just picked up a 2000 540i with a manual transmission.  And it's for sale...

I realize a sport package 540i with a stick isn't an M5, but it sure is a neat car and I am seriously considering adding that one to the stable too.  It needs some shaping but looks to be a solid, honest car that hasn't been beaten.

Next week they are going to go through my car looking for anything that requires attention and at the same time I'm going to drive that 540.  I think it's a distinct possibility I drive there in one car and come home owning another one too.  Something about a V8 manual transmission family car makes me a little giddy with excitement.

Does anybody in CT have a spare couch for me to sleep on when my wife finds out I'm considering buying another car?

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