A Retro E39 Road Test

Article By all test participants; photos by Victor Yuen and Chris Tworek

One never knows what will come up at our monthly Cars, Coffee & Chat (CC&C) In Calgary Alberta. A few months ago, Gerard Mercier, came up with a spur of the moment comment that we should do a retro road test of E39’s. While the idea caught on spontaneously, actually rounding up cars and finding a date proved a tad more challenging.

Well … let’s just say there are highly organized road tests with testing of many metrics sometimes at some exotic racetrack. Our equivalent was rounding up five E39 examples and doing seat of the pants testing for driving feel and fun on a gorgeous sunny Sunday afternoon. Our answer to an exotic track was some twisty back roads between High River and Longview south and west of Calgary into the foothill of the Rockies. Yup – guy time in cars we love!

There is a wee bit of social protocol involved in these tests – we are not trading seats in a corporate machine destined for a wringing out by journalists – the cars we are driving are prize jewels of members and you don’t want to be that guy that breaks the toy. So the “tests” are pretty tame limited to a few minutes to see what the seat of the pants might sense.

First a little history – the E39 was the BMW 5 series sedan designed by Joii Nagashima and produced between 1995 and 2003 (available 1997-2003 in North America). It attracted a large fan base as it was considered to be one of the most aesthetic BMW’s that was a very well balanced sport sedan that could carry five people. Many loved it as the “best seat of the pants driving experience” and there is some thought that this car was the birth of the Ultimate Driving Machine slogan. Car and Driver often featured the E39 in its 10 Best List and considered it the benchmark of its class. Consumer Reports gave the 2001 530i its highest car rating ever, declaring it the best car they had ever reviewed.

It also started a bit of a cultural war between Germany and North America – it came with the most anemic and annoying coffee cup holders – North Americans wanted the Big Gulp capacity and the Germans were beside themselves as to why you would drink coffee while driving.  How times change!

The E39 came out as a 4-door sedan and was followed by a Touring (Wagon to the NA crowd). The fabled M5 came out in 1998 (2000 in North America). While the body style stayed more or less constant, there were continual mechanical and electrical system upgrades. The most noticeable exterior change was the introduction of Angel Eyes headlights in 2001.

While there were diesel options available and highly popular in Europe, most North American models were gas – M52 2.8L for the 525; 3.0L M54 for the 528/530 and the 4.4L M62 for the 540.  The M5 came with the 4.9L S62.

The S62B50 quad-cam 32-valve engine of the E39 M5 was the first BMW V8 to feature variable camshaft phasing for both intake and exhaust (double VANOS) and individual electronically actuated throttle bodies. Previously, individual throttle bodies and double-VANOS that had only been featured on the E36 M3 and McLaren F1. A semi-dry sump oil system with scavenging pumps for hard cornering was also included.  The 4.9-liter engine put out 394 hp at 6,600 rpm (7,000 rpm redline) with 369 lb. ft. of torque at 3,800 rpm.

The S62 was used in racing long after the E39 went out of production. This was a bit of a golden age of naturally aspirated engines with the S85 V10 and S65 V8 following before turbocharging and direct injection took over.

One interesting option available until 1999 was the latent heat accumulator.  Engine heat was stored in a salt filled insulated tank, which could hold heat for several days. On startup of the car, the salt would turn from liquid to solid with the released heat heating the engine quicker allowing faster window defrosting and interior heating thereby reducing engine emissions. Perhaps something for the Russian market!

The E39 was the first 5 Series to use aluminum components in the front suspension. The 6 cylinder models had an aluminum front subframe, steering knuckles, outer strut tube and the spring pads. These models also had rack and pinion steering.  The V8 models had steel sub frames and only used aluminum in the steering box and several suspension links. They used recirculating ball steering systems.

The rear suspension was copied from the E38 7 Series and was the four-link design called “Z-link” using Chapman struts. These struts minimize unintentional toe angle changes allowing better stability. While the suspension design gave that great seat of the pants feel, it has always been known as a rear tire killer and giving your pants a great feel is not synonymous with long tire life!

A quick note on Dinan – while it is no longer the case, at the time you could buy the various Dinan components from BMW Dealers or Independent Shops. The various stages allowed a multiplicity of engine and suspension upgrades. The ultimate was Stage 3, which added supercharging, engine mods, clutch, exhaust and suspension to create a very dynamic rocket ship.

So – enough history of why the love affair is so strong and on with the test drive! Using a highly calibrated engineering test drive to the approach, we switched drivers among the cars at varying intervals and rated the “wows” (compensated by chocolate bars and jerky eaten at Longview) from each contestant. 

The results:

Car #1: Michael Winder is the third owner of the 2003 Jet Black M5 6-speed manual with Black Nappa leather with Imola Red inserts. It is a fully loaded M5 with 17 major BMW options. RCTS installed a total Dinan S3R Kit in 205/06 for the previous owner. Only about 14,000 km have been put on the S3R install which includes supercharger, engine management software, high flow intake, larger throttle bodies, tuned velocity stacks, Brembo brakes, stainless steel headers, free flow stainless steel exhaust, Dinan 3.45 limited-slip differential, mono tube shocks, and reinforced rear sub-frame. Michael had RCTS put in a Dinan clutch and flywheel in 2014.The 4.9 L engine has 621 hp @ 7000 rpm and 502 lb-ft. torque @ 4500 rpm.

  • Testers found it to be a well-balanced total package. The car is mint with around 77,000 km on it. While it is a surprisingly comfortable driver, a nudge of the gas pedal in second gear gives a neck-snapping push into your seat experience. On some twisty corners north of Longview, the car showed stick like glue handling. The Dinan HP Clutch required a bit of effort and one might want some left leg muscle building to drive the car. Car would be amazing on an open circuit.

Car #2: Gerard Mercier’s Fjord Gray 1998 540i 6 Speed with full Dinan 5 supercharger package affectionately named Dinansaur.  It has a dyno tested 431 rwhp (approximately 460 crank hp) with the aftermarket exhaust system.  Besides the supercharger and associated ECU software upgrade, Dinansaur has a 3.15 rear differential, high performance clutch and lightweight flywheel, Stage 3 adjustable suspension and camber plates, exhaust, front and rear braces, UUC short shifter, Brembo BMW 6 piston front brakes with 2 piece slotted & drilled rotors, and Powerflex polyurethane suspension bushings. Type 37 M Parallel Forged OEM BMW wheels and a M Steering wheel and shift knob complete the package.

With 204,000 km on the clock, the car is a very strong and a good daily driver and the longest Gerard has owned one car. The Dinan project was done over a period of years by RCTS Canada at a cost that remains unknown (And Gerard doesn’t want to add it up!).

  • Another fast grocery getter. Very unassuming while hiding the beast within. Slightly harsher ride, but not unbearable.  Gerard is thinking of replacing the polyurethane bushings with rubber to improve the ride. Nothing beats the howl of that engine though! Fun to drive!

Car #3: Wallace Chow’s 2002 Le Mans Blue 6-speed M5. Wallace was busy so son Conrad brought out the car. Bought in Vancouver, it is essentially stock with 394 advertised BHP. An AFE cold air intake, Turner Conforti remapped ECU and the last Mark 4 GPS upgrades are the only modifications.

  • Driving this immaculately kept car makes you realize why these cars are so loved. Very well balanced power and handling and a feeling of suppleness. A great driver. Wallace is thinking of going back to the OEM ECU mapping for better drivability.

Car #4: Gerard Mercier’s 2001 Alpina Blue B10 V8 featured in June Freude am Fahren. Bought from Japan in 2017 and re-registered with Alpina Archives.  347 hp 4.6 litre V8 with a Switchtronic automatic transmission and steering wheel mounted gear selector buttons, Alpina suspension, brakes, deck lid spoiler, front bumper and pin striping and exhaust.

  • Great cruiser, smooth, elegant, easy to drive, lots of power when needed. Feels like a classy and tonier version of the marquee.
  • The automatic is reminiscent of that era and while a special unit, you can feel the up and downshifts and the rpm change.

Car #5: Chris Tworek’s 2000 Silver 528i with MotorSport package (190 BHP 3L 6 cylinder with 5 speed).  Bought as a demo from Grant Keil at Calgary BMW in March 2001.  Currently has over 270,000 km. While well maintained, it has been a highly reliable and fun car to drive for over 17 years. Know as a back tire killer when too much fun is being had. Took Blizzacks to make it stick to icy roads.

  • Perhaps an under rated knife at a gunfight.  Probably the best all round car for a daily driver for being both quiet and smooth even at current mileage.  Testers reported zero neck and back strains from acceleration.
  • The 528i is the only E39 in this comparison equipped with rack and pinion making the steering more “direct” compared to the V8’s with the recirculating ball steering.
  • Two less cylinders and a couple hundred less hp make this a lot more fuel-efficient (about 8 L/100 km on road test).  Rear child seat compatibility was a plus!

One final lesson – having your social media guy along posting as you go along is an excellent hubby tracking tool if your significant other is on Facebook at the same time!

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