Used Car Advice: BMW E39 M5 (1999-2003) (July 2008)

Words - Joe Kenwright

BMW's iconic M5 went from a six to a V8 and was built on the mainstream BMW production line for the first time as the E39 series enhanced the M5's dual-purpose luxury liner/seriously fast sports sedan focus even further. Joe Kenwright discovers how little it takes to indulge in $200k top shelf motoring

The E39 5 Series is rapidly building a reputation as one of the best BMWs ever with the ultimate M5 version contributing to the mystique. Where previous M5 examples were built by BMW's M division, the E39 version came down the BMW production line with fewer special requirements and a more mainstream approach to everyday driving.

It arrived here in mid-1999 some time after its 1998 European debut then exited late in 2003 leaving a two year gap before the V10 E60 arrived.

Although its more civilised low speed feel and extra electronics might initially suggest a loss of breeding, the special 294kW/500Nm V8 and Getrag Type D six-speed manual along with comprehensive chassis and wheel upgrades allowed the M5 to become the definitive sledge-hammer in a velvet glove in an instant.

Fully-equipped base specification which included multiple airbags and DSC could be varied with several leather choices and colours along with various cabin highlights that featured several woodgrain and aluminium finishes. Because the final presentation varied widely, this can affect values dramatically.

Main upgrade arrived for 2001 with subtle exterior changes including BMW's new ringed headlights, round front indicators and LED tail lights, thicker steering wheel, larger dash screen, extra airbags for a total of 10, grey instrument faces and other tweaks.

Final examples had Bluetooth from March 2003.

Massive $198,500 launch price can plunge to $45,000 for an early high km example in white with drab interior while the best of the post-2001 examples in the right colour and trim can still top $80,000. Hefty brake bills and other routine items such as tyres and clutch can affect values more than most.


* Main concern is engine oil consumption but this shouldn't be a big worry if the specified Castrol TWS oil or equivalent is used. Like most high performance engines of this era, it varies according to running-in and is less of an issue if the oil is changed more frequently which specialists advise anyway. A new ring design was used from March 2000 production but oil consumption in these later engines can still vary and are still sensitive to oil quality.

* Even a basic oil change and filter costs serious money in an M5 so check that past owners have not cut corners in parts and fluids and damaged expensive parts.

* Standard clutch size struggled with huge boost in grunt despite upgrade in materials. Repeated slipping and abuse during hard acceleration will destroy it so check for clutch slip under load in a higher gear and a high take-up point.

* Special brakes can chew through rotors and pads quickly if performance is used regularly for replacement cost of $2500 plus.

* M5's substantial 1795kg places massive strain on rear anti-roll bar during track days and tail-out cornering which can bend it and damage its brackets and may need upgrading.

* Camshaft position sensors, air mass flow meter and PCV oil breather circuit are failure items so be wary of rough running and signs of rich fuel mixture.

* Double VANOS on some examples needed attention when new but should be fixed by now. Check for oil leaks and timing chain rattle on high km examples.

* ABS control unit is a routine and expensive failure item at over $2500 and takes out speedo, ABS and DSC so check that all warning lights come on during "ignition on" then go out at start-up.

* Different size tyres front to rear require expensive premium replacements otherwise expect sharp deterioration in road noise, grip and ride.

* Mystery flat battery is usually traced to a faulty heater fan resistor.

* Radiator header tanks need to be monitored for cracks before they fail and cause the expensive engine to overheat and seize.

* Classy interior has brightwork that can mark easily while the leather needs ongoing conditioning to remain supple. Check operation of all controls and electronic accessories. Cupholder and other fittings can break over time.

* Check for underbody damage especially cracked alloy suspension components and engine and transmission casings if car has run over kerb or hit something underneath.

Technical data confirmed by Northern BM (03) 9499 3088