The 5 Series is a hugely important model for BMW, not least because its predecessors arguably pioneered the idea of a sporty, luxury saloon and, by extension, cemented the German marque’s reputation for sharp-handling cars. Besides, 5 Series cars accounted for half the company’s profits in 2010.
The money-spinner in question is the recently facelifted sixth-generation 5 Series, which I tested two months ago in Munich. While there, I was also given the chance to take a virtual trip back in time, and sample significant models from the line’s past five generations.
First, a brief bit of history: The 5 Series as we know it made its debut in 1972, although in spirit, it was in existence for a decade before that as the New Class saloon (the 1500, 1800, and 2000 models).
The first-generation 5 Series also brought another significant first for BMW – it was the first to use its current naming convention, that is, the first numeral denoting the model range and the last two numbers for the engine’s displacement.
First Generation E12 (1972-1981)
Introduced at the 1972 Frankfurt Motor Show, the 520 and 520i were the launch variants. Both feature 4-cylinder engines with outputs of 115bhp and 130bhp. Characterised by its large windows and low beltline, the first car to be known as the 5 Series also sports BMW’s now-iconic design signatures in the dual headlights and the Hofmeister Kink (the sharp curve) in the C-pillar’s windowline. The following year, the 525i hailed the debut of the range’s first 6-cylinder engine, with 145bhp. The search for more performance was one of the key reasons behind the expansion of the model lineup. To that end, with the help of BMW’s motorsport arm, M GmbH, the M535i was born in 1979. Armed with a potent 218bhp 3.5-litre motor, this car was one of the fastest saloons back then with its top speed of 222km/h.
It’s more than 35-years old, but the first 5 Series is still a joy to drive, especially the M535i. It set the template for M cars today: rapid, yet usable day-to-day and most importantly, charismatic.
Second Generation E28 (1981-1988)
Advances in engineering gave the second 5 Series more cabin space, and improved weight distribution and occupant safety. New items included anti-lock brakes and a different suspension layout. The E28 also led to the first M5, which is powered by a 6-cylinder engine (derived from the M1 supercar’s) that produces 286bhp. Two other noteworthy models were launched for this generation: the 524td and the 525e. The former has the carmaker’s first turbo-diesel powerplant, while the latter is fitted with a petrol drivetrain designed to optimise efficiency. The 525e develops peak torque (240Nm) at just 3250rpm, while an overdrive economy function on its 5-speed auto gearbox ensured that was one of the most frugal cars in its class.
The 524td’s engine surprisingly plays a more melodious tune than the one sung by the current 520d. Typical of diesel engines, there’s plenty of shove at lower revs, which reminded me to never judge a diesel vehicle by its power output (it has just 115bhp).
Third Generation E34 (1988-1996)
BMW’s introduction of the catalytic converter in 1984 saw all third-generation 5 Series models fitted with it as standard from launch. The M5 model introduced in 1988 features a 3.6-litre motor with 315bhp and 360Nm. A host of revisions in 1992 included a larger 3.8-litre engine boosting power to 340bhp, making the M5 the most powerful German saloon then. All models with 6-cylinder engines benefitted from BMW’s proprietary Vanos camshaft management technology, while electronically controlled dampers and Servotronic steering assistance were offered as options. The E34 also resulted in the launch of the marque’s first estate, the 5 Series Touring, in 1992. It was available with an almost identical range of engine variants as the saloon, and fitted with a self-levelling rear axle.
The E34-generation M5 is a car I’ve dreamt of driving for the longest time, and one I surely would’ve bought some years back if the seller wasn’t asking for a ridiculous amount of money. Despite its great 3.8-litre inline-6 engine and the way it corners like it’s on rails, the 340bhp it mustered didn’t feel all that powerful. But in all fairness, my impression of this M5 might have been coloured by its immediate successor.
Fourth Generation E39 (1995-2004)
Debuting at the 1995 Frankfurt Motor Show, the E39 was made curvy and elegant in its execution. A noteworthy feature up front is the glass cover protecting the signature dual round headlights. These units are enhanced with another (now) signature BMW design element: the “corona rings” for positioning and daytime driving assistance in 2000. New to this 5 Series were a multi-function steering wheel, navigation system and Dynamic Stability Control electronic stability management. This fourth-generation 5 Series also laid claim to being the first large-scale production road car made almost completely of lightweight alloys, which boded well for its chassis rigidity. It was launched with a 6-cylinder engine, with two V8 powerplants made available in 1996. Another V8 entered the fray in 1998, under the bonnet of the new M5 (this 400bhp unit was the most powerful production motor built by BMW at the time). Among the car’s array of go-faster tech is an engine oil supply tuned to account for the centrifugal forces experienced during hard cornering, and electronically adjusted individual throttle butterflies.
The only E39-generation 5 Series available for testing was the car that “ruined” my impression of the E34-generation M5. It is a perfect embodiment of the M car philosophy, with its ease of use (its clutch action is surprisingly light) and devastating pace from the 400bhp, 5-litre V8. Make no mistake, however – this M5 is no straight-line muscle car, as the way it corners is also awe-inspiring. Step hard on the beefy brakes before you enter the turn, aim for the apex and floor the throttle as the road straightens out. Then, sit back and enjoy the aural fireworks produced by the V8 motor. A very easy pick for my favourite 5 Series of all time.
The fifth-generation 5 Series stood out with its impressive design and innovations in the fields of active safety, driver assistance systems and efficiency. With its aluminium engine and lightweight aluminium front-end, the E39 achieves a particularly good front-to-rear weight balance. Another important component is the integral rear axle, also made of aluminium. Adaptive, electronically controlled dampers and anti-roll stability management were offered for the first time, while highlights in the area of driver assistance include a Head-Up Display, Night Vision, and Active Cruise Control (the last with the ability to let the car come to a dead stop and resume automatically, making it a boon when sitting in a traffic jam). Six petrol and four diesel models were made available, with the M5 and M5 Touring being the most powerful. Propulsion for both M5 variants is from a drivetrain comprising a 5-litre V10 motor with 507bhp mated to a 7-speed automated manual gearbox. In 2007, all versions of this 5 Series were endowed with a wide range of BMW Efficient Dynamics measures, such as brake energy recuperation, a gearshift point indicator, and active air-flap control.
Despite how it’s absurdly fast in a straight line, thanks to the savage thrust produced by the 5-litre V10 (507bhp), the M5 didn’t inspire all too much confidence. I put this down to the muted feedback from the steering and the clunky 7-speed SMG III automated manual transmission. But perhaps I must have been doing something wrong, because as the Ring-Taxi, it gives high-speed joyrides around the fearsome Nurburgring Nordschleife circuit. Ring-Taxi pilots have included German “race queen” Sabine Schmitz.