If you decide to do a quick, cursory Google search for ‘E39 5 Series’ (or any similar phrase, really), you’ll notice that contemporary road tests and latter-day internet forums all come to the same conclusion – that the mid-90's to early 2000's mid-size sedan from the Bavarian automaker is a benchmark, and is a car that’s still used as a yardstick to this day when it comes to the development of new models. But what exactly makes this generation of 5 Series so appealing; 16 years after the last ones were sold new?
A good place to start is the place where most spend their time, the interior. As befitting a car that sold new for about $160,000 in 2001, there’s gadgets and luxury galore with plenty of dead cow and tree inside, and the build quality is impeccable (with carpeted door pockets, no less!) with nary a rattle or squeak after 17 years and just over 200,000km. The E39 5 Series is a wonderful place to sit, with the major controls falling easily to hand, and controls on the steering wheel; something that some cars a decade later didn’t have.
Other highlights include a driver-focused dashboard and large, clear instruments with excellent visibility in most directions, save for rather fat C-pillars, which is something which the parking sensors front and rear help to mitigate somewhat.
My particular car also has a combined GPS/TV/Phone setup (with a 6-disc CD changer in the boot!), which is a great conversation piece (especially the quaint old Motorola flip phone). The graphics on the monitor are awfully dated, as it reminds me of the graphics from Windows 95 of all things!
The system is still user friendly and easy to navigate, and is adequate in 2019 for what was cutting edge in 2001. Just don’t go in expecting Bluetooth or Apple CarPlay and you’ll be fine. Another bugbear inside is the storage; there isn’t a great deal of it aside from the boot, which at 460 litres is plenty of room.
There’s no centre console cubby hole (as the phone gets in the way) even with the adjustable armrest. But the worst feature of the interior would have to be the cup holders, which are flimsy and pretty much hopeless to hold any drink you’d care to name.
Other gripes on the inside is that some of the plastics can feel a touch cheap in some places, and the dashboard has the common pixel burnout issue that plagues many BMW’s of this era - though it’s not as bad in my car than what I saw when I was shopping around, thank goodness. The sunroof can be a bit funny at times, but is a problem that can easily be fixed.
Being an older car, and especially being painted a subtle shade of dark blue, it tends to hide in traffic amongst the typical soft-roaders and hatchbacks, but the BBS wheels fitted to this particular car as standard, along with the flared wheel arches and wide, low stance hint at what it’s capable of.
Despite the oh-so-90's rounded design and orange indicator lenses dating the car, there are modern touches in this face-lifted version, most notably the famous ‘angel eye’ parking lights on the front and the LED lights on the back. While the use of xenon headlights date it somewhat, it all still comes out looking rather sophisticated and fresh for what is an almost 25 year old design.
But the greatest thing about any car is its oily bits; engine, gearbox and suspension. These oily bits are a 4.4-litre V8 with 32 valves and variable valve timing (called VANOS by BMW) going by the name of M62TUB44, which is mated to a ZF 5-speed auto with a manual/sports mode, developing 210kW of power and 440Nm of torque at 5400rpm and 3600rpm respectively. While the engine is butter smooth with a linear power band and a metallic growl past 3500rpm, it’s not as economical as you’d expect, especially in town with an average consumption of 14 litres per 100 kilometres and costing circa $100 to fill the 70-litre tank with 98 octane. It much prefers the open road where consumption drops to around 9L/100km.
But the best feature of this (and any BMW really) is how it drives. Compared to its E34 predecessor (which sold from 1988 to 1995, being replaced by the E39 in 1996), this model is 40% stiffer in the chassis, but weighs slightly less thanks to the extensive use of aluminium in everything, save for the steering and sub frame. The V8 models use a recirculating ball steering gear and steel to cope with the extra heft from the engine and lack of room in the engine bay, as opposed to the 6-cylinder models, which used a rack and pinion and aluminium set up instead.
You do feel this at work when you drive the car, especially in fast turns. The sheer weight of the engine and the slightly dead centre of the steering does take the edge off of an otherwise stellar drive - you can’t fight the laws of physics, even with 50/50 weight distribution and an aluminium chassis and suspension.
But for a large, heavy (1735kg), leather-lined luxury car, the handling is still exceptionally tidy with a well-controlled (yet rather firm, especially on Sydney’s poor roads) ride, with an enthusiasm that belies its size. It feels like a much smaller car than it is, and it tends to ‘shrink’ around the driver.
While it’s not perfect, the E39 5 Series is still an incredible car with character and practicality in spades, with fastidious attention to detail on the things that matter, that is - grace, pace and space (to quote Sir William Lyons). There is also reasonable dependability (save for worries around a plastic cooling system and timing chain guides, and the technological anomaly of a water-cooled alternator) and armchair levels of comfort, whether on long drives or commuting.
People like to rag on European cars for being unreliable, but the only thing that’s gone wrong in the six months I’ve owned the car is an alternator, and while that was expensive ($1200 for parts and labour!), I don’t think I can entirely blame the car for that.
But if you are looking for an E39, make sure the service history is comprehensive and that the major problems (focusing mostly on the cooling system and radiator) have been ironed out, as the previous owner had done with mine. Find a good one, and in my opinion, for the money it’s incredibly hard to beat as an everyday car… it’s just so lovable that you’d want to keep it until it drops.