BMW E39 – The Pinnacle of Timeless and Uncompromised Automotive Driving Pleasure
There was a time when German meant better. And that was from 1996–2003 with the BMW E39 5 Series. Globally acclaimed as the best luxury saloon car ever made, the E39 still sets benchmarks in modern cars, notably the VE Holden Commodore and the Hyundai Genesis. The ’90s was such a sweet era for automakers. Especially those who set up shop in Germany. Every component was over-engineered. So that meant it was efficient, durable and technologically advanced.
The E39 was ahead of its time from its very skeleton. It was the first production car in the world to be built on a fully aluminium chassis. This, coupled with BMW’s famous 50/50 weight distribution, made it an amazing-handling car with perfect and predictable balance.
This review is one I have been putting off for a long time. Mostly because I genuinely believe it is the best car ever produced and I need to make sure my review does it justice. My particular example is a 1999 528i. This model came geared with the updated 2.8-litre inline-six engine, which has variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust valves. It produces a hefty 142kW of power at 5500rpm and 280Nm of torque at 3500rpm. Sitting behind the silky smooth motor was an equally silky smooth five-speed ZF automatic transmission with Steptronic (intelligent tiptronic to be later discussed).
Standard equipment on Australian-delivered 528i cars included tri-zone climate control, real leather seats, real walnut woodgrain trim, cruise control, CD stacker, multifunction steering wheel, electro-chromatic rear-view mirror, full-sized spare alloy wheel, projector headlights and fog lights front and rear. Factory-fitted options on my car include metallic paint, M Sport steering wheel, rear parking sensors, electric glass sunroof, TV, GPS navigation and 10-way electric front seats and steering column adjustment with three memory settings. All of this in the year 1999.
Let’s start with the styling of the E39. There is one word that always springs to mind: timeless. It is completely timeless. It doesn’t show its age from any angle. It has soft curves, a very angry front end, signature kidney grilles and twin-barrel headlights. This car is clearly a BMW. The E39 was designed as a much sportier successor to the older E34. This is evident in the car’s wide stance, long hood and pronounced side skirts. The side skirts are so pronounced that they are even the same on the flagship M5.
This theme is carried through consistently into the interior, where we are greeted with several more signature BMW traits. Illumination and ambient lighting is orange, the centre stack is angled towards the driver, and the gauges are a familiar layout. The interior is not overdone in buttons, but make no mistake, it was a very high-tech car for its time – still carrying technology that only sits in high-end cars in 2018.
The interior reeks of quality and attention to detail – all of which has aged incredibly well. If you try to look for hard plastics, you’ll be looking for a very long time. Every surface is drenched in high-quality soft-touch materials. Even the door pockets front and rear are carpet-lined. All buttons press in and out with a solid click, the leather is legitimate (practically impossible to find in a new car), and everything is exactly where you would expect it to be.
There are patterns stitched into the leather seats and the leather panelling in the door trims. The grab handles and glovebox all have soft open and close. The steering wheel, handbrake lever and gear shifter are all wrapped in real leather. All of this, and nearly 20 years later the car still has a strong leather smell inside it, and nothing rattles or creaks. A true testament to build quality.
Technology – BMW hit the nail on the head with this one. I mentioned that my example was optioned with electric seats and steering column adjustment with memory. The seats move in 10 different directions at the press of a button. Even the headrests lift and lower electronically. The tilt and reach adjustment for the steering wheel is operated using a small joystick-like stalk on the side of the column. The mirrors, as expected, are also electric. All of these adjustments are committed to the car’s memory. Three times over. So three different drivers will have everything in the right place at the press of a button.
But wait. It gets better. Who wants to be a second-rate citizen and have to press a button when you get into the car to make sure the seat is in the right place? I want it done before I even get in. No bother. The memory function also remembers which key was in the ignition when the memory was saved. So the minute you press unlock on your key, everything starts to move inside so that by the time you’ve pressed your executive arse into the driver’s seat, everything has been adjusted.
To make matters even better, cars fitted with the electric steering column adjustment also automatically lift the steering wheel to the highest position when the ignition is switched off, to allow for easier entry and exit from the car. As soon as the engine is started, the steering wheel will come back down to the saved position.
I have some beautiful genuine staggered BMW BBS wheels fitted to my car, and would be devastated if they ever licked a gutter. Parallel parking in the E39 is easy-peasy thanks to an intelligent feature that automatically tilts the passenger-side mirror down to the ground when selecting reverse. This makes it incredibly easy to park as close to the gutter as possible without destroying your wheels.
These conveniences extend to the air-conditioning system too. Hate it when the truck in front of you is pumping out terrible fumes and you have to change the AC to recirculate mode? Well, this car does it for you. When keeping the air-conditioning system in automatic recirculation mode, sensors in the system detect when air quality is poor and automatically switch to recirculate mode.
Still not impressed? No bother. Say it’s a cold winter night and you need to make a trip to the supermarket. You can’t leave the car running, but you want it to still be warm when you get back in. "No worries," says the E39. Just press the 'REST' button on the climate-control panel after turning the car off and the heater will keep pumping warm air into the cabin at your selected temperature for 30 minutes until you return.
Comfort – there is no compromise with the E39. My 70-year-old grandmother told me recently that in the E39, you cannot tell whether you’re sitting in the front seat or the back seat. Occupants are carried in supreme luxury irrespective of which seat they’re in. The seats are all upholstered in plush German cow hide, the AC system is blizzard-spec powerful with both face and foot well vents in the back seat, including temperature control from rear occupants.
The suspension is wafty for the passengers but involving for the driver, and road and wind noise are non-existent even at high speeds. All of this comes in addition to the aforementioned creature comforts.
Now, we get to the best part of the E39. The way it drives. I have driven a series of different six-cylinder and eight-cylinder E39s, but for the purposes of this review, I will speak to the driving dynamics of six-cylinder models. We are talking specifically now about the 528i 2.8-litre twin VANOS engine and five-speed ZF automatic with steptronic.
To quote Jeremy Clarkson on the engine in my E39: “Imagine bathing in extra-virgin olive oil, and then slipping into a pair of satin sheets… With Roger Moore. That’s how smooth the engine is”. And this sentiment is true at idle all the way through to the 6500rpm redline. Thanks to the brilliant gearbox, shifting is just as smooth. Sure, comparing the gearbox to that of a modern BMW would have you calling it a slushmatic. But comparing it to the offerings of even Mercedes-Benz of the same era, the BMW’s ZF auto was leagues ahead of the competition.
This brings me to the Steptronic technology. Steptronic is more than just tiptronic (semi-automatic). This technlogy is intelligent and assesses the way you drive. Say, for example, you floor the accelerator to pull out into traffic. In a car without steptronic, as soon as you ease off the accelerator, it would upshift into the next gear. Steptronic will hold that gear for a few seconds in the event that you want to jump on the accelerator again. This is great for fast manoeuvres and overtaking.
Thanks to 50/50 weight distribution, a well-sorted chassis and a class-leading traction-control system, putting the power down even in bends can be done with confidence and safety. My car has seen thousands of kilometres of spirited mountain driving, and I have entered and exited corners at decent speed with the car responding only with dignity and grace and by begging for more.
In terms of performance/handling modifications, I have upgraded the front brakes using 540i (4.4-litre V8) brakes, increasing disc diameter from 298mm to 324mm), I have installed Eibach lowering springs, a cold-air intake and, of course, the 18-inch staggered wheels. All of this has amounted to what is the perfect sports luxury saloon car for me. A few modern tweaks that have kept the car relevant.
Anyone who owns a six-cylinder E39 will tell you that the best part of the driving dynamic is the steering. And, oh my god, is it good. It's heavy, it’s full of feel, it’s communicative and it’s precise. I distinguish the six-cylinder steering from the V8 steering, as it uses rack and pinion over the V8's older recirculating ball set-up.
Ownership has been fairly affordable for me in the four years and 80,000km I have put on the car. The odometer reads just shy of 230,000km. I have had the car serviced by an independent BMW specialist every 10,000km and have carried out all maintenance as required. No expense has been spared, nothing has ever broken on the car, and everything still works as it was intended to. If you look after these cars, they will look after you. They’re bulletproof. Especially the six-cylinder motors.
My car was retired from daily duties after the fuel bill started to get a bit pricey. I sit in a lot of inner-city start-stop traffic and fuel consumption was quickly approaching 15L/100km. This was with no highway driving. The car sits on 6.5–7L/100km on the highway, and a typical combined cycle would get me around the 12ish mark – bearing in mind there is quite a bit of weight in my right foot.
To be honest, there aren’t many things I think weren’t done very well on the E39, but there are a couple of gripes I have with it. The cupholders front and rear are all useless, and they’re very fragile. They were all broken when I bought the car, but were replaced immediately. It can be a bit thirsty in city driving, and it chews through rear tyres like no tomorrow (with regular everyday driving). Something that adds up very quickly when you have staggered wheels so you can’t rotate them. The turning circle is not very friendly for fast U-turns, and that ultra-heavy steering can sometimes become a nuisance when trying to park in a tight space.
No car is perfect, but I’ll be damned if I have ever driven or owned another that comes this close.
There was a time when German meant better, and it still is with the BMW E39.