by Jeff Mullins 03 December 2011
Since the invention of the motor car in the late 1800’s, every so often there has been something to come along and break the mould in such a way that it moves the game on considerably. Peugeot did it with their 205 in 1983, Toyota did it with their Lexus luxury car in 1989 and Ford did it with their mid-size Mondeo in the early nineties. One such company that hails from Bavaria in the south-east of Germany however created the biggest impact yet with a car in the executive segment.
Until 1996, few manufacturers had achieved the level of perfection that BMW did with their fourth generation 5 Series. While its E34 predecessor had always remained competitive throughout its eight year production run, Mercedes had just launched their updated E-Class (W210) less than a year previous and had made it look that slight bit older. Lucky for BMW, fast growing Audi had barely made an impact in the premium sector by that time and the W210 itself had been developed in a period that was at the height of Daimler-Benz’s cost cutting regime. It wasn’t a hard challenge for the more sporting German rival to push the newly launched E-Class back into the shade. Although it did more than that; it shook the segment upside down.
At its introduction, motoring publications around the world were taken aback by the latest 5 Series’ broad range of talents. With sharp handling, solid build quality and a fantastic range of six cylinder engines; it was widely considered to be the best car in the world. While the styling was considered tame even by the conservative standards of the time, the car was so competitive that it would take a long period for rivals to catch up. It was quite literally the most complete car ever made. The fact that BMW made no compromises in the development of the E39 can be seen in the adoption of all aluminium suspension for the first time (which was carried through to the E60, but disappeared with the present F10). It delivered exceptional ride and handling, with Autocar describing it as “the most complete saloon chassis we’ve ever tested” in their first in-depth review. It even featured an optional electronics and infotainment system so advanced that it could be updated with software that followed years later and was later adopted on the 2002 Range Rover.
From launch and to the finish of production in 2003, the E39 5 Series consisted of a range that was exclusively straight sixes and V8’s. At the beginning, there were four six cylinder models in the form of the 520i, 523i, 528i and 525tds (diesel). The V8’s came in 3.5 (535i) and 4.0 litres (540i), with a difference of some 40bhp between them. These two models were such accomplished machines that it actually brought into question the need for an M5 model, although criticism was levelled at their steering due to its ‘recirculating ball’ system that was less responsive than the conventional hydraulic system employed on lesser models. It did not stop the ongoing debate within Munich however and resulted in the actual M5 not arriving until a good three years later. The mid range 528i was said to be the sweet spot in the range, with pace that could match the iconic ‘whale tail’ Escort Cosworth, as well as being incredibly refined. Known as the M52, it debuted a year earlier in the 3 Series and was the smoothest six cylinder around.
In 1997, the Touring estate model arrived, rounding off the range of bodystyles. This was far more of a lifestyle estate than the likes of the S210 E-Class and possibly the only area where the 5 Series range as a whole lost out. Practical features like the split tailgate tried to make up for this and emphasise the 5 Series Touring’s position as a more sporting alternative to its rival from Stuttgart. What it lost out on in space was more than made up for in its dynamic ability. The 530d arrived a year after and was a leap forward for diesel technology in cars. It was the first convincing example of a derv model that didn’t lose out much to its petrol equivalent in both performance and refinement. Its top speed of 140mph was a headline figure for the time and regularly used in promotional literature that marketed it towards people who would have usually only considered a 528i. The arrival of the E39 M5 in late ‘98/early ’99 further catapulted the range and made the E39 even more of a force to be reckoned with. It was the first M5 to be built on the same production line as the regular model (M5’s were previously hand assembled) and featured a tuned version of the recently updated M62, bored out to 4.9 litres and with double VANOS (BMW’s variable valve timing), delivering a power figure of 395bhp and 380 lb ft of torque. It was also a turning point for modern BMW’s in the fact that it was the first of a long line of performance models to be heavily dependent on electrical systems, substituting mechanical operation for electrical in many components. The electronic throttle body that is operated by sensors rather than a cable is an example of such complexity that was previewed on the E39 M5 and now commonplace on today’s models (and something we would rather be without).
The year 2000 saw the 520i being bored out to 2.2 litres and horsepower bumped up to 170. This year also marked the official arrival of the M-Sport package which was a sports package that consisted of stiffened suspension, alcantara/flat weave sports seats, white indicator lenses and an M5 influenced aerodynamic bodykit with lip spoiler. The uptake of this package was huge and many manufacturers soon followed with their own versions (Audi S-Line, Mercedes AMG, Volvo R-Design etc.) It wasn’t long after that a facelift was announced for the 2001 model year. In what was a very successful mid-life update of a car, BMW updated the exterior with the now famous ‘angel eye’ headlamps as well as clear LED rear clusters, colour coded rubbing strips, enlarged twin kidney grilles and a range of new wheel designs. Both the 523i and 528i bowed out of the engine line-up to be replaced by the 525i and 530i respectively, while a new common-rail diesel arrived in the form of the 525d (which was never officially imported to Ireland, although several used examples have made it into the country from the UK & NI). The 530d also saw a bump in power and torque to 190bhp/300 lb ft and the range remained largely unchanged until the end of production in 2003. In this final year the ‘Comfort Pack’ became available at a heavily reduced price on standard 520i/525i/530i/530d models for the Irish market, including leather, sports multi-function steering wheel, white indicator lens, metallic paint and Parallel Spoke 82 Alloy Wheels.
The E39 5 Series was generally a reliable car throughout its production life and much simpler than the model that succeeded it. That said, be wary of issues such as a faulty ABS light on the dashboard which can sometimes be caused by either a failed ABS speed sensor or in worst case scenarios, an ECU that’s had it. If the ABS warning light is intermittent then it is likely to be the ABS module rather than the speed sensor itself. On Touring models air suspensions are also known to leak, with failure resulting in a noticeably harder ride as well as the usual sagging ride height. It should also be noted that all diesels fitted with automatic transmission suffer from the dreaded swirl flap issue. This is a little plastic propeller located inside the manifold that can become loose and sucked into the engine, leading to catastrophic failure.
Overall, despite its niggles and foibles, the E39 5 Series is still probably one of the best executive saloon cars you can buy today and the benchmark that successive generations will continue to be measured against well into the future.