The BMW M5

The BMW M5

After the M1 supercar, BMW’s Motorsport division decided to go right back to basics and create something that didn’t cost a huge amount to engineer and would yield decent profits to get them back into the board’s good books. Little did they know that this little project would become the template for the very core of BMW M for the future. And so in 1980 they released the M535i.

At this time, the hottest 5-series you could buy was the e12 533i, which was effectively a luxury saloon with a big 3.2 litre 200hp straight-six, tuned for comfort and long-distance cruising. BMW Motorsport took that basis and made it into the first BMW super saloon – the M535i. Using a detuned version of the 3.5 litre straight-six from the M1, here with 220hp and 310Nm, the M535i had handling and tuning input from the motorsport division and so was turned from a luxury saloon into a proper driver’s car. It had a 5-speed dogleg manual gearbox, sports suspension, front and rear spoilers, larger brakes and a limited slip differential, and brought sports car handling prowess to a car that could ferry five people around in comfort when required. This was, without doubt a game changer, though as it came along at the end of the e12’s lifecycle it was only in production for less than 2yrs. The stage was set for the next model though.

Visually the e28 5-series was very similar to the previous model, barely indistinguishable in fact but was a totally new model. The e28 had an M535i model like before but this time it was joined by a car whose name would live on to the present day – the M5. After the success of the previous models, BMW Motorsport was given free reign to make the new M5 as good as it could be and they didn’t disappoint. To start with the M1-based engine was restored to its former glory with the 3.5 litre straight-six now back up to 282hp and 340Nm of torque, enough to give the 1400kg car a decent turn of speed along with a fantastically snarling engine note. It also had retuned suspension and a more direct steering rack, making it an incredibly engaging car to drive quickly.

By the late 80’s BMW had moved on to the newer e34 5-series, which was a fair chunk larger than the previous model, and hence heavier – over 300kg heavier to be exact. The e34 wasn’t as pretty a car as the e28, it had a more modern look for sure but lose the lithe lines and shark-nose of the previous model. The M5 was a subtle styling change too, with only slightly deeper bumpers and new alloy wheels marking it out. Those wheels were a talking point though, featuring a complicated three-piece design with a magnesium cap over and aluminium barrel and wheel. This new model deserved a new engine too, so the e34 M5 came with a 3.6 litre straight-six producing 315hp and 360Nm, enough for a 0-60mph sprint of 6.3 seconds. Due to the extra weight it wasn’t received particularly well at the time though, with less direct and communicative steering along with less exciting handling. 

The update in 1991 fixed some of that though, with an engine upgrade to 3.8 litres which brought an extra 25hp and 40Nm, along with new electronically controlled EDCIII+ suspension. This regulated roll and pitch a lot better, while some of the steering components were also upgraded to make it more direct. In 1994 the 3.8 gained a 6-speed Getrag manual gearbox and is the most desirable e34 M5 Saloon. There was another variant of the e34 though, the M5 Touring which launched with the 3.8, however this was only ever available in LHD markets.

Now we move on to the e39 5-series and what is arguably the best looking M5 ever, though looks aren’t its only trump card. What preceded and superseded the e39 weren’t exactly lookers, but this M5 really was a truly beautiful car. The proportions, the stance, the way it sat ‘just right’ on the road, it was subtle yet purposeful in a way few cars have managed. The way the styling line that runs down the bodyside is bisected by the front wheelarch flare is a genius bit of design. But as mentioned, the styling wasn’t the only good thing about the e39 – for this M5 they decided to add a couple of cylinders and rearrange them – this M5 got a V8. 

The S62 4.0 litre naturally aspirated V8 is just what the e39 needed to distinguish it from the previous models, producing a heady 400hp and 500Nm, along with a truly intoxicating V8 growl, with that power going to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox. Thanks to the aluminium MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension, the e39 M5 had a handling and ride that really impressed, with hitherto unseen levels of comfort combined with the ability to tear down a country road leaving a smile on the driver’s face and any following cars far behind. It’s no surprise that this M5 is now one of the most sought-after and desirable versions out there.

When the e39 went all out by upgrading to the V8, the new e60 M5 from 2004 needed to do one-up the old man, so what’s better than a V8 in a family sports saloon? Well, how about a 5.0 litre naturally aspirated V10 producing 507hp and 520Nm, revving to a 7,750rpm redline. Those are supercar engine stats, in a family car, so the world certainly sat up and took notice. There was one other thing the e60 M5 majored on – tech. This was around the start of the time where tech in cars started getting REALLY complicated, and probably not for the better. The e60 M5 had configurable driving modes, with three power settings, suspension settings, gearbox settings and more all selectable by the driver separately. And yes, you read gearbox correctly – this M5 didn’t come with a manual gearbox (ish), it had a somewhat-fashionable-at-the- time single clutch automated manual transmission. Shifts could either be smooth and slow, or really quick and brutally harsh, something it shares with similar gearboxes of the time from Aston, Ferrari and Lamborghini. This was the best tech they had in 2004, and at the time it felt like the future but when compared to a modern dual-clutch gearbox they really fall down.

Annoyingly, the US market actually got a 6-speed manual version of the e60 M5, but Europe didn’t. A manual V10 version would’ve been incredible but for some reason BMW didn’t think it would sell here. One they did think would sell though, is the M5 Touring – thus far the only generation to get an estate version and it was a fantastic thing. The styling of the e60 is another aspect that isn’t dating well, probably the least pretty M5 generation in many people’s eyes, plus that V10 had to be built down to a cost and that shows with the reliability. It is well known for suffering from rod bearing failures which can kill the engine very easily. The gearbox and suspension also suffer from issues that if not remedied can be extremely expensive to fix. 

Sadly, due to stringent emissions regulations BMW couldn’t complete the natural cycle and fit the 2011 f10 M5 with a 6.0 litre V12 (though amusingly, BMW did have such an engine in the 7-series). No, this time the cylinder count went back to eight in a vee formation, now accompanied by two turbos. This new 4.4 litre engine produced 560hp and 680Nm of torque, a healthy improvement over the V10 model but by now the weight gain had become pretty bad. If this was a human they’d be going for gastric bypass surgery – this M5 sports saloon was only 10kg away from weighing two tonnes. That new found power was sent to the rear wheels, this time via a fantastic M-DCT dual clutch gearbox (though once again, only the US got a manual option) and an electronically controlled limited slip differential.

Reliability, economy and the gearbox were all praised at the time, but the steering feel and handling were not. The additional weight most definitely affected the handling and meant the M5 was no longer as pin-sharp as it once was. The M5 Competition arrived in 2014 and addressed some of the criticisms with a revised suspension setup having changed the bushings, springs, dampers and anti-roll bars. It also helped that the power was now at 575hp, enabling the f10 M5 to hit 62mph in just over 4 seconds. Thanks to the twin turbo engine, the f10 M5 has become a hotbed for tuners, with many out on the road now producing close to 1000hp, which must be frankly terrifying.

Which brings us to the current f90 M5, which was launched in 2017 and was notable for two things. Firstly it came with a traditional automatic gearbox instead of the previous dual-clutch item, and secondly because it fed that power to all four wheels. The engine may be the same 4.4 litre twin turbo V8 as before, but it produced 600hp and 750Nm of torque, which given the all-wheel drive xDrive system meant it could sprint to 62mph in just 3.4 seconds, hit 124mph in 11.1 seconds and hit a top speed of 190mph when fitted with the M-Driver’s Package. Thankfully despite growing again in size, the f90 M5 actually weighed about 50kg less than the f10, so with all the technical knowhow that BMW M had pumped into it, the handling was preserved.

The AWD system had the ability to become fully RWD if desired, which thankfully retained the M5’s ability to go sideways at will and the playfulness that brought. In 2018 the M5 Competition was launched, upping the power to 620hp, stiffening the springs and chassis settings, along with a new exhaust system for more aural excitement. But that wasn’t it for the f90, as recently the M5 CS was launched as a final version before it goes off sale. This had a much greater round of changes than from std to Competition, and has gained critical acclaim, even winning the coveted EVO Car of the Year trophy in 2021. There was a modest power boost to 630hp, but weight was reduced by 116kg thank to a carbon fibre roof, vented bonnet and other lightweight parts. There is ‘gold bronze’ trim around the car including the grille and wheels, while there are only three paint options – matte green, matte grey and gloss grey. As you can see below, the matte green with gold trim looks absolutely fantastic, but so it should as it clocks in at over £40,000 more than the M5 Competition.

The next generation of 5-series has already been spied testing and is expected to be revealed later this year, with a new M5 following in 2023, this time expected to have the same twin turbo V8 paired with a plug in hybrid system for a combined power of well over 700hp. Crazy times!