2002 BMW M5 E39
Was the third generation of M5 the best? We chart its history and meet an owner who bought three to find his perfect specification.
Words: Bob Harper
Photos: Jason Dodd
Three is the Magic Number
The third-gen M5 is still considered by many to be the best M saloon ever made
E39 M5 – IS IT THE GREATEST M5 OF ALL TIME?
BMW well and truly set the cat among the pigeons in the ’80s and ’90s with the first two generations of M5. They were stunning super saloons powered by characterful and melodious straight-sixes and with chassis setups that were equally at home pottering around town, eating up motorway miles or entertaining and involving the driver on a favourite back road.
The E28 and E34 M5s were, quite simply, the standard by which all others were judged.
So when BMW launched the E39 generation of 5 Series in 1995, and it was almost immediately dubbed ‘The best car in the world’ by the motoring press, companies who were producing pretenders to BMW’s super saloon crown must have been quaking in their boots.
If the boggo 523i or 528i were this good, how much better would the M5 be? There was a rumour doing the rounds at the time that BMW might not actually produce an M5 for this generation; after all, the 540i was a seriously decent piece of kit, and developing a new M5 would have been time-consuming and expensive.
When those other manufacturers were about to exhale a collective sigh of relief, BMW re-entered the fray with what many believe to be one of its finest-ever creations, the E39 M5. It was first shown at the Geneva show in 1998, with production starting at the tail-end of that year. There might have been a nigh-on four-year gap since the E34 M5 had ceased production, but the new car was well worth waiting for.
Based on the E39 540i, the M5 would be the first of BMW’s super saloons to feature a V8 engine, and for its M5 application, it was heavily revised. Bore and stroke were up (2mm and 6.3mm respectively) to give a capacity of 4941cc, the compression ratio was upped to 11.0:1, and following proven M-engineering philosophies, there were individual electronically controlled throttle bodies for each cylinder.
There was also double-Vanos variable valve timing, modified cylinder heads, oil-cooled pistons, a G-force-sensitive lubrication system, a coolant-to-oil heat exchanger, hollow camshafts, a dual air induction system, and a high-capacity water pump. The result of all this hard work was a heady 400hp, but the M5’s trump card was its flexibility. 369lb ft of torque was available all the way from 3800-5000rpm, but a glance at the S62’s torque curve tells a story of even greater flexibility, with 354lb ft being available from just 2000rpm.
Performance was excellent, with 0-62mph being knocked off in a scant 5.3 seconds. The V8 was mated to a Getrag six-speed manual ’box, similar to that used in the last of the line 3.8 E34 M5s, but with very slightly revised ratios, and the expected 25% limited-slip diff was present. For the first time on an M5, there was a traction control system – DSC Dynamic Stability Control – which made the car much less of a handful in the wet. The suspension was as per the rest of the E39 range but with shorter springs, bespoke damper valving, and thicker anti-roll bars. Steering was by recirculating ball but with a reduced ratio when compared to a 540i – 14.7:1 for the M5 versus 17.9:1 for the 540i. Naturally enough, the brakes were uprated to cope with the extra performance with larger front and rear discs, but M was criticised at the time for sticking with single-piston calipers – an M car bugbear over the years on many different machines. Externally the styling was pretty restrained – as were the E28 and E34 before it – but 18” Chrome Shadow alloys (8”- wide front and 9.5” rear) shod with 245/40 and 275/35 tyres, respectively, helped it to stand out, as did a new front bumper/ spoiler assembly and a rear bumper and valance, through which sprouted quad exhausts. The mirrors were bespoke, and there was a smattering of M5 badges, along with a subtle body-coloured boot-lip spoiler.
Inside, there were grey-faced M dials, the expected M badges dotted here and there, as well as a choice of two-tone or Heritage leather seats. When the M5 hit the UK showrooms in late 1998, it was priced at a heady Åí60,000, but you did get quite a few goodies for your money. Climate control air conditioning, electrically adjustable sports seats, heated seats, steel sunroof, xenon headlights, 10-speaker Hi-Fi system, six-disc CD player, M multi-function steering wheel, on-board computer with check control, and eight airbags were all standard. In total, BMW manufactured 20,482 E39 M5s between October 1998 and June 2003, comfortably eclipsing the combined total of E28 and E34 M5 production by over 5000 examples.
While it was certainly a more common sight on the road, there was nothing common about the way the E39 M5 went about its business, and it was quite simply a sublime machine to drive. Not only that, it was hugely versatile; not just good at carrying out the everyday mundane tasks, but excellent at them – it was, after all, based on the ‘best car in the world’, but this one was just a bit faster.
Everything about it was just so right, even before it turned a wheel. The doors had a pleasant heft and closed with a reassuring thunk, the driving position was sublime, and ergonomically it was nigh-on perfect with all the important interfaces falling neatly to hand. If we had to nitpick, we could point to cup holders that weren’t really up to the job. But that’s just about it for downsides.
And twisting the key banished any thought of beverage containers, as the V8 was superb. Hugely melodious with just the right amount of menace, yet quiet and composed when cruising with the family on board. The controls all have a decent and pleasant weight to them, and while there might be a little bit of play in the hydraulically-assisted steering about the straight ahead, it feels beautifully weighted as soon as you’ve got some lock on. There’s a delicacy and fluidity about the way the M5 tackles a favourite piece of tarmac, it shrinks around you, and very rarely do you feel its 1700kg+ working against you. It has wonderful poise, composure, and a supple ride that is far better than any contemporary super saloon. Add in its practicality and its performance that still feels more than adequate, and it’s not hard to see why so many people still think this is the ultimate M5.
And this is something that the owner of this Silverstone blue example would agree with. You might have seen some of Tahmid’s collection of M cars either in the magazines or through his active social channels (@m635bmw on Instagram and YouTube), and while he has a plethora of modern classic BMWs to choose from, the E39 M5 is his go-to car. “I’ve had it since 2021,” Tahmid tells us, “but this is one I’m keeping forever. It’s got the right balance of old and new – it’s got the modern-day powertrain, more than enough power to keep up with, and outshine, many modern cars – it’s one of my favourite cars, and I just love jumping in and driving literally anywhere. It’s got that usability I guess.”
But buying it wasn’t plain sailing, though, as Tahmid recounts. “I’ve actually had three of these. I was looking for an E39 M5 a while back as it’s always been one of my dream cars, and I came across an Avus blue one – this must have been in early 2021 – and it had the blue and black interior. It was a really nice car, even if the colour combination wasn’t what I was really after, but it came up at the right price and I did a deal on it. I saw the advert at about one o’clock, agreed a deal on it at about two o’clock, and went up to Scarborough later that day to go and get it! I drove it back down, and it was amazing.
“The intention was to keep the Avus car, but then I saw an advert for a Silverstone blue one with black Heritage leather, and I thought the spec was a little more attractive, so I bought that one… and then about a month later the one I currently have came up for sale – typical! Caramel is my ideal interior colour, and I really like my different interiors, so I bought this one and ended up owning three E39 M5s at the same time!
“I sold the Avus blue one first, and I’ve just sold the Silverstone/ black one, and the one I have now is the one I’m going to keep – I can’t see myself ever selling it. It was the third time lucky, really – I still really liked the other cars, but as time went on, I kept finding a nicer one, but I don’t think I’ll find one with a better colour combination than Silverstone with Caramel. It’s not your first choice of colour combination, but, personally, I think it really works – it definitely needs to be seen in the flesh to really appreciate it. Everywhere I take it – to car shows and whatnot – everyone compliments the interior. It works so well even though it shouldn’t!”
Tahmid’s car is one of the early ones – it’s a 1999 example – but has been fitted with the facelift headlights. He did a bit of digging around in the archives and discovered that it’s one of only four that was made with the combination of Silverstone blue paint and Caramel Heritage leather, and Tahmid believes this one is the only right-hand-drive car. “It feels like a brand new car inside,” Tahmid says, “which I also think helps its usability. When I get in the car, everything just looks new, and the glass sunroof lets in even more light, and it’s just got that nice feeling to it.
“I bought it on 71k miles, and it’s currently just about to hit 76,000 miles, so it’s fairly low mileage for an E39. I’ve done about 5k miles in it since I’ve owned it, which is quite a lot given I have a few other cars to choose from. If there’s any excuse to take the M5 out, I do, no matter what the weather is – it’s fun in the wet! Apart from the headlights, the only other modification is the exhaust backboxes, which had been replaced by a previous owner, but it sounds perfect and adds to why I drive it so much. The exhaust note is absolutely spot on, and there’s no drone or anything, especially on the motorway where it’s as quiet as you want it to be, but if you want to go a bit faster it opens up and sounds great.”
So far, Tahmid’s M5 has been pretty bulletproof, with no reliability concerns and it tends to be his go-to car, no matter whether he’s heading to the shops or to Germany. “It’s just so usable,” he says, “the ultimate daily classic. There’s nothing I’d change about it. Perhaps a bigger fuel tank would be good… but apart from that, nothing else. It’s very comfortable, it’s got heated seats, it’s got the sat nav, television, electric rear blind, so it’s got all the mod-cons you’d expect from a modern classic, and it really is my favourite car in the collection. It’s got enough space for everyone, the boot’s huge, and I can’t really fault it in any way. Happy days! If you find a good one, buy it, you can’t go wrong.” Best ever supersaloon? It might just be.
If there’s any excuse to take the M5 out, I do, no matter what the weather is – it’s fun in the wet!
The 4.9-litre S62 V8 makes 400hp and a meaty 369lb ft of torque.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE 2002 BMW M5 E39
- ENGINE: 4.9-litre V8 S62B50
- MAX POWER: 400hp @ 6600rpm
- MAX TORQUE: 369lb ft @ 3800rpm
- WEIGHT: 1795kg (EU DIN)
- 0-62MPH: 5.3 seconds
- TOP SPEED: 155mph (limited)
- ECONOMY: 19.6mpg
- PRICE WHEN NEW: £60,000 (1999)
- NUMBER PRODUCED: 20,482
Grey dials are an M-car staple of this period; this is thought to be the only RHD car in this colour combination
The E39 M5 is a very discreet super saloon, and it has aged incredibly well 18” Style 65 Chrome Shadow alloys