(first posted 12/1/2015) The current F10 generation BMW 5-Series is a very capable, very competitive large luxury sedan. There’s no denying that. With BMW’s legendary engineering, a profusion of gasoline, diesel, and electric powertrain in four, six, and eight cylinder options, and numerous performance, luxury, and technology features that could take hours to fully explore, the modern 5-Series is a highly appealing vehicle. Unfortunately, for many of us who remember 5-Series of years gone by, the excitement in BMW’s middle child is no longer present.
It was not too long ago that BMW was the undisputed king of handling and driving experience among luxury brands. While its vehicles were indeed luxurious, being the Ultimate Driving Machine was their number one priority, even if it meant that comfort took more of a supporting role. Recent years, however, have seen BMWs become increasingly more comfort-oriented, in the ever-fierce battle to take first place in sales among luxury brands. Conversely, “softer” brands like Mercedes-Benz and Lexus have been releasing models aimed towards performance, with sportier styling elements and firmer suspensions. The result of this is that all luxury vehicles are becoming more alike in features and driving dynamics.
Going on sale in Germany and Europe in late-1995 as a 1996 model and arriving in North America the following year, the E39 (“E” for “Entwicklung”, the German word for “Development”) 5-Series replaced the highly regarded E34 5-Series, sold from 1988-1996.
Slightly larger in every dimension, the E39 drew heavily from the recently introduced E38 7-Series for its design inspiration, looking somewhat like a 7-Series that had gone though the dryer. This degree of familiarity was by no means a negative, as at least in your author’s opinion, the short wheelbase E38 is one of the most beautiful BMW sedans ever.
Some of this beauty was lost in translation to the 5-Series’ smaller proportions, owing to a bit of chunkiness versus its larger sibling’s lankiness. This look was especially made prominent by the E39’s more bulbous front end, to this day my least personal favorite part of the design. Compared to the outgoing E34, the E39 clearly looked sleeker and more aggressive, while still retaining lineage to its predecessor. Although headlights were now single-piece composite units, BMW’s iconic quad round headlights were retained, now courtesy of dual projector beams behind the glass.
Increasing structural rigidity for better comfort and handling was a major goal of engineers. Utilizing high-strength steel and laser welding, the E39’s body structure was greatly stiffened over the E34 for less flex, with torsional rigidity increased by some 40 percent. To keep weight down and give the car a more maneuverable feel, aluminum was extensively used for brake, suspension, and chassis components. Depending on model, in some cases, the E39 was actually lighter than a comparable E34, despite its increase in size.
Numerous enhancements were also made to the car’s suspension over its predecessor, all improving handling. For the four and six cylinder models, BMW now used rack-and-pinion steering and an aluminum subframe. V8 models continued using the old recirculating ball and steel subframe due to the engines’ larger size and weight. Both front suspensions were MacPherson strut type. For the rear, all E39s employed a four multi-link setup using Chapman struts, which was derived from the flagship E38 7-Series.
The engine lineup for North American models initially consisted of just the six-cylinder 528i and eight-cylinder 540i. Over the 1995 525i’s 2.5L, the 1997 528i’s 2.8L made just one additional horsepower, but 25 additional pound-feet of torque and an improved torque curve increased the E39’s zero-to-sixty time by 1.2 seconds, for a 7.4 second figure. With its 4.0L V8 initially producing 282 horsepower and 324 lb-ft torque, the 540i was in many ways the sweet sport of the E39 lineup, offering a very healthy increase in power and performance (especially with its available Sport package, standard when coupled with a 6-speed) for substantially less money than the M5.
Speaking of which, the M5, with its 5.0L, 394-hp all-aluminum V8 returned to the European market in 1999 and North America for 2000. With an 11.0:1 compression ratio, fuel-port injection, a semi-dry sump oiling system, a 7000-rpm redline, and six-speed manual, the M5 was capable of sprinting from zero to sixty in an impressive 4.7 seconds. Of course, being a BMW of this era, handling was just as important, if not more important, than raw power.
On that note, BMW expectedly gave the M5 extra firm shocks, higher spring rates, larger M ventilated disc rotors, bigger 18-inch wheels with fatter tires, and Servotronic power steering, a system that increased effort and responsiveness over the standard setup. Upon its release, the E39 M5 was met with near-total universal praise, and immediately became the benchmark high-performance sedan of this period.
“Regular” 5-Series were not forgotten though, with still very praiseworthy handling and dynamics, and a wide range of engine choices. Over the course of its seven-year run in North America, the 5-Series was available in M5, 540i, 528i, 525i, and 535i form, the latter two of which replaced the 528 in 2001. Unlike the current F10 generation 5-Series, wagons were still exported to North America.
Typical of most German cars, customers in the homeland had a much higher degree of choice in powertrain, with 520i, 523i, and 530i gasoline engines and the 520d, 525d, 525td, 525tds, and 530d diesel engines all offered. Not that I need to tell you, but the first number of these models denotes the 5-Series and the last two numbers of each model denotes how many liters the engine for that model possessed.
Transmissions offered on the E39 included a 5-speed manual, 4-speed automatic, or 5-speed Steptronic semi-automatic on smaller-engined models, and a 6-speed manual, 5-speed automatic, or 5-speed Steptronic on 530i and above models.
Stepping inside, the interior of the E39 was a huge leap forward in terms of luxury, amenities, and overall refinement. The somewhat stark interior of the E34 was replaced by a far more cohesive and substantial looking driver-focused dashboard, plusher seats, and a greater use of padded surfaces, all very E38 7-Series in design.
Taking place of the pedestrian looking rotary dial and slider bar climate controls was an imposing wall of symmetrical buttons for the climate, radio, and other various vehicle functions. Genuine wood trim ran the entire width of the dash (interrupted only by the steering wheel) and wrapped into the front door panels, where it continued their entire length. Wood also adorned the top of the center console and gear shifter.
In the North American market, broad, contoured buckets were commonly upholstered in standard leatherette on lower models or in available Dakota leather. In other markets, several types of cloth upholstery were offered. Wood trim and rather elegantly stitched leather door panel inserts continued to the rear. Although most interior measurements were up over the E34, despite the E39’s longer wheelbase, rear leg room was actually down, a sore spot for some critics.
BMW had no hesitation rolling out the latest technology features in the E39, among them an in-dash GPS navigation system. Four successive versions of this system, the first three CD-based and the fourth DVD-based, were implemented over the course of the E39’s production. Anticipating these updates from the start, BMW utilized a flexible bus system, making it easy for owners to retrofit their cars with the latest software.
For all its class-leading handling prowess, capable powertrain, sumptuous interior, advanced technology features, and Teutonic engineering, the E39 is generally regarded as the pinnacle 5-Series, and overall, one of the best packaged luxury sedans of the era. The E39 M5, in particular, is commonly named as one of the greatest BMWs ever produced. By the end of its life cycle, most competitors had been redesigned and improved, yet despite its age beginning to show, the 5-Series was still one of the most competitive luxury sedans in its class right up until the end in 2003. Although it went on to achieve higher sales, its E60 successor grew in size, softness, and complexity, with its somewhat controversial styling and iDrive infotainment system panned by critics.
Having recently driven a 2016 535i xDrive, I can say that I was more than a tad disappointed. Power was there, but the car’s 8-speed automatic frequently took too long hunting gears to make adequate use of this power when accelerating, and downshifts were noticeably jerky (something unexpected, as I’ve never had these issues in other modern BMWs with the same ZF transmission). Steering was thankfully good as far as the overly power-assisted systems in new cars these days go, but that sweet revving sound I was hoping for was missing, even when artificially amplified in “Sport” mode. 300 horsepower may sound like a lot, but with 4,200 pounds of bulk, a number that is actually higher than the 2016 740i, the 535i xDrive felt painfully heavy.
Granted the 2016 750i does have a twin-turbo V8 with 145 additional horsepower, but even with an extra 400-pounds and 13 inches of length, the 750i I’ve driven feels remarkably more agile, athletic, and sheer exhilarating than the 535i. Realistically, I’d much rather take a 500-pound lighter 335i xDrive (or better yet, skip the unnecessary xDrive and save 200 additional pounds) with the same engine, less sound deadening, and a few less luxury features for a driving experience that I can firsthand attest is lightyears more enjoyable and exciting.
Given where cars in its segment are going in this day and age, I doubt we’ll see a return to the E39’s size and dynamics in a near-future 5-Series, as that mission is largely being carried out by the 3- and 4-Series now, with the 2-Series subsequently taking the role of 3-Series coupes of yore. While the 5-Series might indeed remain a full-size automobile (the current F10 is as long and wide as the short-wheelbase E32 7-Series), it’s likely the next generation 5 will take its lead from the new 7 and go on a weight reduction program. We can only hope in that in the process, the 5-Series gains back some of its dynamic road manners cars like the E39 possessed.