1 Apr 1996
Probably the best car of the 1990s, the E39 5 Series was a towering achievement in dynamics, performance, refinement, all-round capability and value, even at the high prices BMW demanded.
Dimensionally the E39 grew, liberating cabin space and increasing efficiency, yet BMW’s engineers managed to up torsional rigidity by 50 per cent while maintaining the E34’s body-in-while weight.
Initially the BMW seemed too conservative for some, as all its traditional rivals – Mercedes E-class, Audi A6 – as well as some of the newer ones – Lexus GS 300 – followed wearing more modern and fashionable clothes.
But the E39 endured at the top of its heap until the controversially styled E60 arrived in late ’03.
One famous badge returned with the two all-new in-line six-cylinder powerplants on offer.
Despite the inaccuracy of the name, the 523i offered 125kW and 245Nm from a 2.5-litre twin-cam 24-valve engine combined with the five-speed automatic that also featured throughout most of the E39 range.
This entry-level sedan came complete with dual front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control and climate control air-conditioning.
Next up came the return of the 528i badge, powered by a 142kW/280Nm twin-cam 24-valve in-line ‘6’ in either sedan or – from April ’97 – Touring wagon guises.
BMW also reissued the 535i badge, but this time with a V8 – 3.5-litres of it delivering 173kW and 320Nm.
And speaking of badges, it got the name wrong on another one – the 210kW/420Nm 4.4 DOHC 32V V8 540i.
The 528i proved to be the most popular 5 Series at the time. But the greatest, without doubt, was the E39 M5.
Released in March ’99 and available until October ’03, it wasn’t the satellite navigation, TV, leather upholstery or even bespoken lightweight body parts that made this model arguably one of the best German cars in history.
Nor was it the hand-built, 294kW/500Nm, 4941cc DOHC 32-valve V8 mated to a superb six-speed manual gearbox.
Instead it was the way every little piece came together to make the hewn-from-solid steel M5 an electrifying supercar sedan for four lucky adults.
A thorough round of revisions resulted in the E39 Series II from December 2000 to late ’03.
Gone was the confusing 523i and classic 528i badges, replaced instead by 141kW/245Nm 525i and new 170kW/300Nm 530i nomenclature that accurately denoted the powerplant sizes lurking ahead.
This time BMW split the latter sedan and Touring wagon into luxury-focussed Executive and be-spoiled Sport variants.
The same was applied to the 535i, now with an 180kW/345Nm 3.5-litre V8, while the 4.4-litre 540i gained 20Nm more, to deliver 210kW and 440Nm.