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Future Classic Friday: BMW 5-Series E39

Published 03 November 2017

There are certain cars that come along that are instantly brilliant, and go straight to the top of their class. BMW's 'E39' 5-series is one such car - from the minute it made its debut at the 1995 Frankfurt Motor Show, replacing the much-loved E34, the executive saloon was touted as one of the best cars the German company had ever made.

By the time it hit showrooms in 1996, the E39 had stoked up even more enthusiasm. The media were in raptures over the car's impeccable driving dynamics, while the build quality, performance and comfort were also first rate.

The E39 was also an impressive piece of engineering, using more lightweight materials than any previous BMW, including a new aluminium subframe and - for the first time in a 5-series - rack-and-pinion steering. The new set-up gave fine handling balance and a level of agility that made the E39 feel like a much smaller car from behind the wheel.

All variants were punchy - even the entry level 520i had 150bhp from its 2.0-litre straight six, while the 523i and 525i models were pleasingly rapid. If you wanted proper poke, though, the real stars of the range were the new V8s - the 535i and 540i. Refined, powerful and with a wonderful exhaust note, they were also surprisingly economical, especially on the motorway. It's no wonder, then, that the E39 was widely regarded as the best executive car on the market by all of the contemporary car magazines.

BMW 5-series E39 (3)

The E39's armoury was strengthened even further in late 1996, with the addition of the 'Touring' estate model, which featured a pop up rear screen and an extremely capacious load bay. If anything, the Touring was even more handsome than the well-proportioned saloon, and again went instantly to the top of its class.

Indeed, the only weak link in the range was the diesel engine. The 525 TDS used the old 141bhp six-pot turbodiesel from the E34 (also found in the Vauxhall Omega), and while it was a tough unit, refinement and performance weren't its strong points.

BMW's answer was, in 1998, to yet again create a class leader. The new 530d used a three-litre six-cylinder engine newly developed for the model, with incredible performance and torque. It was, in the eyes of many, the best diesel car in the world. It was followed up in 2000 with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel in the fleet friendly 520d to coincide with a mild facelift - a car that might not sound that exciting, but was more than capable of delivering a satisfying drive. 

The E39, then, was a true great. One of the best cars of its era, if not the best in terms of its context. Its status as a future classic is guaranteed, but don't buy one with your eyes closed. Early 530ds aren't renowned for their reliability, while E39s are currently cheap enough for people who can't afford to properly maintain a BMW to own one, and that means there are several ropey high milers out there, some with questionable modifications. 

BMW 5-series E39 (2)

Don't buy one of those. Instead, seek out a well maintained and totally standard example. A good maintenance record is far more important than mileage, and be wary of rust, especially around the rear arches, trailing edge of the sills and on Touring tailgates. E39s are tough cars, but they're not immune to rot, especially with the oldest examples now being over 20 years old. They don't look it, though, do they? A truly handsome and brilliant car.

Comments

expertad    on 3 November 2017

Possibly the best car ever made.Have a 1998 528iSE,260,000 miles,still does 145MPH on the Autobahn.Worth about a grand according to 'we buy any car' or whatever.And faster,better made and much nicer to own than my company 2017 Audi A4 TDI.

Philip Burgess    on 3 November 2017

On my third E39... started with a 525d followed by a 530d and now driving a 2002 530i. They are brilliant... best cars ever made and so much car for the money. Solid, reliable, refined and comfortable. For a second hand cheap car it's a total no brainer. Just a shame they stopped making them.

THE best car in the world bar none.

Edited by Philip Burgess on 03/11/2017 at 18:00

Dave Hocking    on 3 November 2017

I drive a bmw 530i m sport champagne 2. Absolutely the best car I have ever had.
It's finished in metallic black and cream leather interior. It's a 2003 limited edition I've been told, to commemorate the end of the E39 engine. It's so reliable and responsive, an amazing drive, I'm always cleaning it and looks stunning when polished. I'm always having notes struck to the windscreen asking if I want to sell it, the answer is always no. It's also a petrol one. There's only one thing missing, the phone handset which sits on the centre console.

AWESOME !

halcyon26    on 4 November 2017

I had a 525d and it was the best car I have ever had, fast, economical and pretty reliable. I still miss the Shaeffer green motor.........the body styling was understated and tasteful, in fact the latest version seems to hark back ! Your comments about the engine are crap!

symonh    6 days ago

I have had two 528i's in Manual gearbox form, and both were briliant cars, especially the later version I had with the twin Vanos version of the engine. If I could critisise them slightly is that I found the 528i slightly underpoweredin some situations due to the car being heavy. Of course the V8 versions were more powerful but they had a steering box rather than rack and pinion which takes a lot of enjoyment from the drive. The 530i or an Alpina based 6 cylinder petrol would probably be the models to have simply because of the steering.

Edited by symonh on 12/11/2017 at 10:13

David rae    5 days ago

I own a 525i touring with m tec pack and full grey leather interior. Love the car . Smoothest driving car I’ve ever owned with every receipt and service from new. Paid 1400 for it . Bargain.

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