Opinion

I Drove Every Generation of BMW M5, and I Have a Favourite . . .

by James Mills
4 July 2024 4 min read
I Drove Every Generation of BMW M5, and I Have a Favourite . . .
Photos by James Mills

It will soon be 40 years since BMW caused a stir at the 1985 Amsterdam motor show. Like Clark Kent stepping into a revolving door and ripping off his sensible grey suit to emerge as cape-clad Superman, when the dust sheet was pulled off the 5 Series, a new breed of super saloon emerged: the M5.

In that time, it’s hard to think of a car that has done more to enhance the image of the sober saloon car. There have been six generations of M5, with a seventh finding its way into showrooms as you read this. It arrives with a (scarcely believable) 717bhp, 737Ib ft plug-in hybrid powertrain that speaks of how far things have come since 1985.

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Driving an original E28 M5 today is an eye-opener; it really is a hot rod of a car that feels every inch the Motorsport project that it was. At the end of the previous decade, we’d had a hint of what was to come, after BMW Motorsport crafted 1979’s M535i. It was the first production series M car, and I vividly remember a family friend in Belgium owning one and blowing everything on the road into the weeds, as we ripped along the autoroutes on the way to the Belgian Grand Prix, accompanied by the distinctive, bassy rasp of that straight-six motor.

The M5’s M88/3 straight-six was essentially lifted from the mid-engined M1 sports car (a car with a fascinating backstory worthy of every car enthusiast’s time) and dropped into the nose of the E28 saloon. In those days, it was very much a hand-built car, assembled in Preussenstrasse, Munich, initially and, from the summer of ’86, in Daimlerstrasse in Garching, where the remainder were also built by hand.

I got some seat time in an example belonging to Andrew Barrett, an old friend of Hagerty, who has owned the M5 twice. This time he’s not letting it slip through his fingers, and I can see why. The 3453cc motor has a faintly unhinged presence that hints at its motorsport roots, with an oh-so-slightly lumpy idle, a love for revs, and an intrusive soundtrack that marks out the 278bhp engine as the dominant part of the package – a package that saw the chassis and steering struggle at times to match the upper reaches of that engine.

If the E28 was rough around the edges, what came next was arguably exactingly executed. The two-tone, perfectly proportioned E34 featured the S38B36 straight-six engine complete with a set of throttle bodies, and its 315bhp was complemented by a chassis that perfectly contained every last bit of performance.

After the E28, it feels a much more modern car, both to sit in and to drive. Yes, it piled on a not inconsiderable 314kg, and yes, the power-to-weight ratio fell from 200bhp/tonne to 186, but it brings a reassuring composure that makes the car much quicker across country.

BMW M5s E28 E34 E39
Left to right: E28, E34, and E39.

I’ve fond memories of testing the 400bhp, V8-powered E39 M5 back in the day, but the loss of that snarling six and the inclusion of options such as double-glazed windows is enough to tell you that in the evolution of the M5, this one was as focussed on being an autobahn stormer as it was a British B-road blaster. 

The standout for me, driving each generation of M5 back to back, was the howling, yowling E60, a certifiable lunatic of a 500bhp super saloon. When it was current, we took one to Brintingthorpe airfield, only for heavy rain to stop our photoshoot. So myself and three colleagues spent most of the afternoon drifting around the airfield at silly speeds and increasingly silly angles, until one of them lost it at about 80mph and we had a near-miss, sliding back over the grass and passing a brick-built outbuilding with a wing-mirror’s width to spare.

That’s the surprising thing about the E60. Its rev-hungry V10 engine and brutal SMG gearbox encourage you to take this M5 by the scruff of its neck, and when you do, you discover a large executive saloon that is indecently behaved in the best possible sense. Sliding behind the wheel and gunning it down some of the best driving roads in Wales was like getting back together with an old mate who’d go to gigs and be last at the bar with you.

The F10 and F90 that followed are hugely capable cars, especially in the respective Competition and CS specs that I drove, but as all-conquering as those turbocharged V8s are (0–100mph in 7.5 seconds, anyone?), they’re missing the magic dust that makes some of the earlier cars so engrossing. And then there’s the thorny issue of just how fast you have to be going to even remotely approach the limit of their chassis – the latter F90 even coming with switchable four-wheel drive. 

As for the all-new G90, well, I haven’t driven it. But I do know this. The original M5 – the great, great, great grandfather to the G90 – seated four people in comfort, covered ground at a pace and weighed 1431kg. The electric-petrol hybrid G90 has ballooned by 1079kg; at 2510kg it’s as heavy as a seven-seat SUV, and has piled on more than 500kg compared with the F90. Regardless of the performance and depth of ability, that seems like a backward step at a time when it’s becoming more pressing than ever to find efficiency improvements. 

So, here’s the question. I know which I’d take – the loony E60 – but if the entire family of M5s were at your disposal and you could only pick the keys to one generation, which would it be? 

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Comments

  • Paul C says:

    For me, it would have to be an E34 or E39, as they just look so elegant, before Bangle ignored the BMW heritage of beauty (think E23 through to E46, not one ugly car). But the E39 doesn’t have the steering of the six cylinder E39 cars, which would make it perfect. To be honest, I would ignore them all and go for an Alpina B10 3.3 based on the E39, with a manual gearbox, as my perfect BMW. But then I enjoy driving rather than enjoy speed or noise.

  • Pierre Noir says:

    I prefer the looks of the E34 but the E39’s performance really blew me away back in the day. Hard to remember a bigger step-change. Hmmm.

    Tough to choose between the two. Depends on my mood on any give day! ATM, probably the E34 …

  • Pierre Noir says:

    *given

  • Keith Hayman says:

    F90 Comp is so brilliant as an all rounder.
    I agree that adding half a ton to the G90 may well turn out to be an error.
    Not rushing to upgrade any time soon though look forward to the Comp version which I suspect will be rushed out in 2025……

  • Matty B says:

    I think it would be the E28 for me, probably for nostalgic reasons. I was in my early twenties when they came out and was working with my brother out of an old farm shed in Mid Wales repairing, building and modifying cars. My brother and I had done a lot of work for a chap called Peter Hayman on his 2.4 Holbay Mk4 Cortina (famously known as ‘Hayman’s Haymaker’, winning the 4 pot challenge at Santa Pod back in the day) and fitting a Jaguar V12 into a Datsun 280 ZX. Peter brought a friend up to us one day in his BMW E28 to have an aftermarket exhaust manifold fitted, a tricky job as it fouled badly on the engine mount so my brother had to fabricate a new mount for everything to fit. I remember looking at the car and thinking how great it would it be to own one and I’ve always loved them ever since. I never did get to own one but have had a string of 3 series Beemers. The E28 M5 would be the one for me, even though the later cars were superior I think ownership of such a car is about so much more, probably the smiles per miles factor, and the BMW six cylinder engine just sounds great – the original and the best!

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