BMW E60 M5

If there are lessons to be learned from last weekend, they would be that Oregon is vast, and that not all M5s are created equal. The BMW M5’s competence is no secret: In its first generation, it took the notion of a sport sedan and turned it into the type of vehicle that could wipe the smile off a Ferrari 308 owner’s face—with three passengers and golf bags in the trunk. 

Car enthusiasts began to respect that first E28 M5, with its M1-born straight-six M88 engine and understated visuals. And as the notion of a super sedan became more commonplace, the M5 evolved, too, representing the pinnacle of four-door supercars in each era that followed. We all know that story, of course, but the synopsis gets murky in regard to the U.S., because following lackluster sales of the U.S.-spec E34 M5 and the E30 M3, the home of the Big Mac and right-on-red intersections didn’t get the 3.8-liter European M5. In fact, for a while in the ’90s, we were nearly cut out of the BMW M portfolio entirely.

What we did get was the 540i M Sport, an E34 5 Series that featured a four-liter V8, a six-speed manual, a limited-slip differential, an M-adjustable suspension setup, and plenty of M badges—except for the formal M5 on the trunk lid, of course. This was a different car than Europe’s high-revving, Autobahn-slaying M5; it was a muscle car, for one, with ample torque and a throaty V8 growl. While the chassis excelled with the high-revving straight-six, the V8 was admittedly better suited for daily use.

In many ways, however, the 540i was a precursor to the iconic E39 M5 that officially brought the nameplate back to the United States for the 2000 model year. If the E28 introduced the M5 to 1,200 of the most discerning American enthusiasts, the E39 brought it to the masses. From the YouTube videos of the late (and unmatched) Sabine Schmitz wheeling an M5 Ring Taxi around the Nürburgring to Alex Roy running the Gumball 3000 and breaking Cannonball records to Madonna’s M5 chauffeured ride in The Hire, the E39 platform became synonymous with M5 in popular culture—to say nothing of the car’s spectacular sound, driving feel, visuals, and world-beating performance.

Given that M5 heritage, it’s no wonder that the E60 M5 received something of a cool reception. BMW fans who are old enough probably remember its controversial introduction: In addition to the new Bangle-era styling, the E60 introduced an SMG transmission to the M5 nameplate, eliminating the hurdle of driving a manual from M5 ownership. It was also larger, heavier, and softer than the outgoing E39—and it introduced a first (and last) for BMW: the S85 V10 engine.

By this point in BMW history, it was all but assumed that when a new M5 is released, it will become the king of the now-populated super-sedan hill. Cars like the E55 AMG or Audi RS6, potent as they were, had nothing on the 500-horsepower, Nürburgring-ready E60 M5. This was expected. This was mundane.

Despite its clear performance dominance, however, the E60 was judged harshly—simply for differing in character from the outgoing E39 M5. It is maligned today for its intense maintenance demands.

Regardless, I want to revisit the E60 M5, because recently, I had an epiphany.

Last weekend, my partner and I flew out west to buy a car (no one asked, but if there are any fans here, it was a 79,000-mile 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited). The car was in eastern Oregon, a region notable for being nowhere near anyone that we knew. But it was five hours from Seattle, and in a moment of quick thinking, we called my friend Petar Vrcelj Nikolic. Some of you may recognize him as a BMW aficionado who has saved a large number of E34s in the Pacific Northwest, and from the photos of his wide-ranging BMW collection that he shares online. The rotating fleet ranges from an E46 M3 to a Navarra Violet-on-Lavender E38 to an E53 X5 4.6iS.

But one of his keeper cars is an E60 M5—specifically, a 2008 six-speed-manual black-on-Oyster example, with custom-built BBS E88 wheels and enough spent on preventative maintenance to buy a pretty decent E34 M5.

When I asked for a ride from Seattle to the middle of Oregon, with two passengers and 300 pounds of luggage, the M5 was the last thing I expected to be picked up in, but Nikolic insisted, and about two hours in, I understood why.

The first thing you notice about the E60 is how new it feels, even with the single-knob iDrive and wide-spoke steering wheel. Like the exterior styling, the interior has worn its thirteen years with remarkable ease: Even the instrument cluster, revolutionary at the time for eliminating the coolant-temperature gauge, is clear and informative, with an actual oil-temperature gauge and digital displays.

The second thing you notice is that the car feels incalculably lighter than it really is. The only clue to its 4,000-poundheft is how planted and comfortable the car feels, even with suspension on the stiffest setting.

The engine, though: my God.

It’s clear to see why the engineers at BMW M locked away the top 100 horsepower. The only clue to the S85’s full capability is the unwieldy nature of the MDM button: Hit it when you’re on light throttle, and the car lunges forward. Five hundred horsepower was no joke then, and it isn’t any less potent today.

Still, under 6,000 rpm, this car could be mistaken for a lackluster replacement for the E39: fast and sonorous, with a more spacious interior, but with complexity that might seem unnecessary to the casual driver. But from 6,000 to the 8,250-rpm redline, this car, as Jeremy Clarkson said in his 2006 Top Gear review, becomes an M5.

Starting a rev-matched downshift at 6,000 rpm is an absurd experience, only outmatched by the exhilaration of effortless acceleration into light speed, while the car asks, “Is that all?” I’ve been informed by friends in Europe that the E60 M5 pulls just as confidently to 175 and beyond.

But again, it’s easy to see why this car was ignored. Even in Seattle, you can use this car properly only for a second, maybe two, before it becomes dangerous. A journalist in Los Angeles or Ann Arbor who got this car dropped off for three days in 2006 wouldn’t have a road to even begin to appreciate the car on without spending an extended weekend in the county jail. It’s easy to see why you might prefer an E39 M5, or even the previous 540i M Sport, in the suburbs of California or on the back roads of Michigan.

But in Oregon’s High Desert regions, with miles to the horizon, it’s more usable than any supercar. There’s nothing—no Lamborghini or Ferrari, no exotic supercar on Earth—from this era better suited to powering across the plains  than this 118,000-mile E60 M5. It’s not even about outright speed: the ability to actually use the gears and wring out the V10 is a pure, legendary joy, and cruising across the state with comfortable suspension and plenty of passing power is magnificent. For driver or passenger, it is a superb continental cruiser. The Germans, in their effort to create an Autobahn legend, created this perfect six-speed byproduct: the ideal supercar for the American West.

When it comes to replacing the E39 M5, however, Nikolic—who has owned both—has a take on that: He says that the E60 is not a replacement in spirit for the E39. Instead, spiritually and in construction, it’s a continuation of the E28 and E34; it’s a supercar with four doors and a supercar’s engine, no qualifications necessary. And it’s built in BMW’s most traditional style, with an unapologetically rev-happy engine, port injection, a lightweight flywheel, and a near-9,000-rpm redline. 

Of course the S85 V10 requires maintenance—and yes, that includes rod bearings and expensive camshaft sensors to make sure that its high redline is sustainable. But when you see it for what it is—a supercar, period—dropping $7,000 on maintenance from time to time feels like a bargain. In practice, compared to a Ferrari 550 or a Carrera GT, it’s the reliable choice. The sensible choice. The perfect choice. And by that standard, it’s one of the most spectacular deals of the decade.—David Rose

[Photos courtesy Sydney Cummings.]

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