1999 BMW M5 Retro Review

Welcome to our latest series of Retro Reviews that take us back in time through the history of the BMW M Performance division. This 1999 BMW M5 review is the second of several classic BMW M car reviews to hit our little piece of the web in the coming weeks. We have started with the old and are moving towards the new. Enjoy the pictures and the nostalgia. We hope you stay 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 car world talks nostalgically about BMW, there are a few key benchmark cars that rise to the top. One such car is the 1999-2003 BMW M5, also known as the E39. It wasn’t the first M5, but it’s arguably the one that best defines what an M5 is. The E39 generation lives in that brief period when the pure performance of cars grew at a rapid pace, but before electronics became king.

It had a naturally aspirated 4.9-litre V8 engine, was only available with a six-speed manual transmission and reached a speed of 60 mph in just 4.8 seconds. That in itself is a highlight, but in M5 fashion you wouldn’t assume this car is a roaring enthusiast darling just by looking at it from the outside.

BMW has created a timeless look and the E39 earns a spot in the race for all the “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 kidney grille frames, the subtle spoilers, unique M aero mirrors, small quad exhaust, M logo at the rear, M5 specific wheels and in some cases unique M colors. It’s all just enough to tip a potential admirer, but not enough boy racer to grab extra attention. Sometimes there is beauty in simplicity, and the E39 M5 is one of the best examples of such a phenomenon.

However, I’m a little less enthusiastic about what BMW thought the interior beauty looked like in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Step inside the E39 M5 and the mahogany panels try to seek luxury and quality but look dated and tired these days. The same goes for a number of other interior details. BMW got adventurous with technology, so it’s no surprise to see this technology more of a hindrance than a help in 2022. The “infotainment” system predates iDrive (not to mention an intermediate system available on 2001 and later E39s), and it essentially serves as a reminder that using a computer from over two decades ago is no fun. The other major annoyance is the center console that accommodates cell phones in the car. A large hole in the center of the armrest has been dug to hold BMW-supplied telephones for the businessmen who bought this car at the time. Unfortunately, that makes the armrest a very annoying place to rest your arm, because of the large, hard plastic hole where you would like to put your elbow.

Returning to the good, there is a legitimately cool tech that you can also find in the E39 M5. My favorite is the variable tachometer warning zone which “unlocks” more of the tachometer through warning lights as the engine warms up – at start up you are “limited” to just 4,000 rpm. A “Sport” button can be pressed to increase throttle response and decrease power steering, giving you a heavier wheel (that was ahead of its time). There was no electronically controlled adaptive suspension, but going “Sport” still offers a tangible difference in how the car drives. Plus, it was the first M car to come with BMW’s now ubiquitous “Dynamic Stability Control” to pull in this rear-wheel-drive monster whenever you want.

What BMW really spent its money on, however, is the downright stunning engine. This aluminum V8 has an induction system to make any motorcycle geek swoon. For starters, the engine breathes through eight separate throttle bodies. It gets a carbon fiber intake plenum and the Double VANOS system means it offers variable valve timing for both the intake and exhaust. BMW fitted a dry sump lubrication system to ensure good oil flow during high performance driving, which is exactly the kind of driving you want to do with this car.

The first time you floor, it’s just relieving. It pulls like a banshee all the way to the red line, and the sound is a combination of pure muscle power with a heavy dose of intake noise as the engine breathes through those eight separate throttle bodies. Each gear is long enough to enjoy the beauty of the bike, but not so long that you want shorter gears. There doesn’t seem to be a weak part of the rev range. Unlike the modern M5, you can even stay on the accelerator for more than a few seconds without hitting extra-legal speeds. In that sense, it’s just a perfect street car.

One area it lacks is exhaust noise, as BMW erred on the side of quiet and long-range ear comfort by alerting the wider universe to its presence. That’s easily remedied through the aftermarket if you’d rather be noisy, but it’s also an advantage of modern cars with their active exhaust systems allowing you to be completely silent or cut all the noise in an instant.

Like the original E28 M5, the E39 retains its comfort and long-distance handling characteristics. It soaks up bad road surfaces with its thick sidewalls and forgiving suspension. I didn’t get much of a chance to really test its handling on South Georgia’s relatively straight roads, but in the few chances I did, the M5 proved it to be a nice-feeling, smooth driver. There’s more body lean than pretty much any new M car, but it’s driven with great predictability and stability, giving the driver the confidence to push harder. One possible point of contention, though ultimately just trivial, is that the E39 M5 has a recirculating ball steering box for packaging purposes rather than the normal rack and pinion arrangement of the 5 Series. I didn’t find it lacking in feel or problematic in any way during my ride, so BMW made it work.

There is little about driving this M5 that I would change. It has the performance, styling and all the important aspects of owning a super sedan. It’s not perfect by 2022 standards, but it’s a car (and bike) that gets under your skin like only specialty cars can. you want to keep driving it. you want to live in that upper range of the tachometer over and over again. you sure will not forget to drive fast if you ever have the extreme privilege of doing so.

A little buyer’s advice

The engine is the main point of consternation for old E39 M5s. Possible problems include carbon build-up in the combustion chambers over time, a malfunction of the VANOS system in the form of an oil leak and problems with the timing chain tensioner. You will definitely want to check those timing chain guides because the worst case scenario of leaving them unattended is the destruction of your engine. Furthermore, it’s worth taking a look at the usual suspension bugaboos, such as worn bushings and ball joints.

Among BMWs, the E39 M5 is far from the worst culprit for crushing maintenance costs, so if you get it professionally inspected and take good care of the car, it’ll probably treat you well too.