M5: Return of the King?

The big car news this week is that the latest BMW M5, codename F90 has gone into production and there are various video reviews on YouTube singing its praises. It is naturally lighter and faster than the car it replaces and is a landmark car for the M division. This is the first M car with a clever differential that can turn it from 2-wheel drive to 4-wheel drive at the turn of a switch. No doubt it is a technological marvel, with excellent comfort and extreme speed. I want to love it, yet a lot of modern BMWs leave me unimpressed.  They are faster, better and more reliable then the cars that came before, but when BMW began to chase volume sales, some of the magic I felt for the brand began to fade. 

The new F90 M5

Traditional Kidney Grills

For me, the golden age of BMW M cars was in the late nineties and early noughties. This generation of BMW all looked similar and consisted of the E38 7-series, E39 5-seies and the E46 3-series. There was an integrity to the quality of these cars that I think BMW has lost in the last twenty years. The E39 5-series was the epitome of the modern executive car. Over its life, it consistently won group tests with rivals from Audi, Mercedes and Jaguar. BMW were on the top of their game with this car.

The M5 was always the flagship 5-series and initially, BMW had no plans to develop a motorsport version of this car. They eventually caved to consumer demand and presented the E39 M5 four years into the E39s lifecycle. It had subtle menace written all over its body and was the first M car to have the now customary quad exhausts at the rear. It was also the first M5 to have a V8 engine and came equipped with all the latest technology such as traction and stability control. But at its core, it was an analogue vehicle with a six-speed gearbox. Like most cars of this era, the driver had to actually drive the car and learn to work with it rather than relying on a computer. The M5 chassis was sporty rather than aggressive and it did have its flaws. The traction control was overly intrusive, the steering (a recirculating ball design) slightly dim-witted and BMW didn't bother to design custom exhaust manifolds for the engine, limiting its performance.  

I admired every E39 I saw. In Ireland the M5 itself was a rare beast and I smiled whenever I saw one. I took pride in knowing what BMW had built. By 2000, the E39 was due for a facelift (Life Cycle Impulse in BMW speak). The refresh was subtle; bigger screen in the dashboard, new colours and wheels and the new headlights. The headlights transformed the look of the car and literally had my heart skip a beat whenever I saw them in action. They were the first generation "angel eye" or "halo" design that are now common to every BMW. But back in 2000, they were pure science fiction. They gave the car's face presence, modernity and sophistication. 

E39 M5 with the halo headlights

Seeing pictures of the 2001 model year M5 takes me back nearly twenty years. I was in my fourth year of university in Trinity College and I was working on a marketing assignment. It was very late or early depending on your perspective. The clock had turned 2:30am on a Friday morning and I was running on fumes. In my assignment, I had to describe a company or product that was ahead of its competitors using one of the marketing frameworks we had learnt in lectures. This was my final year in Trinity and I was also working on my thesis on the MINI at the time so it made sense to me to use a car as an example. I had an issue of BMW Car magazine open on the review of the updated M5 competing with a rival car and all I could see were the halo rings of the headlights looking back at me. 

Naturally, the M5 won the test so I wanted to use the car as a real-life example and this assignment was due the following day. I was scared to write it. At that time in my life being so afraid of doing anything wrong or standing out from the crowd. I was still in the closet, my stutter was out of control and I had severe acne. My peers in college had no idea who I was and I wanted to keep it that way. If I stood up and spoke well, I'd be noticed. If I stood up and stuttered, cried, farted, or blushed, I'd also be noticed. It was a no-win situation. Yet, looking at that bloody E39 M5, I felt something in my gut. I needed to write that assignment. Even if I crashed and burned, I would be putting my stamp on something. My knowledge and passion for cars was all I thought I had to offer and it was the reason I was studying marketing in the first place. 

I got typing and eventually arrived home at 5:30am. I ate, showered and went into Trinity. In the tutorial, I wasn't asked about my assignment and I didn't volunteer to speak about it either. I simply handed it in and waited. A week later I got a score of 61%. A low 2-1, I think. The tutor said my example didn't really work but the assignment met most of the requirements. 

That was one of the few assignments I can remember today and the pride I felt in myself. I bought a hot chocolate after the class and just looked at the pictures of the M5 and its halo headlights staring back at me. I imaged what it must be like to drive it and own it. To have that kind of freedom. I fell in love with it that day and my passion for BMW would never be stronger. This was before the MINI and even the Beast (the car in Just One More Drive). This was where and when I began to see that I could express myself through words and cars. 

So, the F90 M5 is in ever measurable was, a better car than the E39. It will sell in huge numbers and break all records in its path. Would I buy one? No. If I had the money, I would buy a brand-new VW Golf GTI and an E39 for the weekends. The F90, I can admire but the E39 will always hold a place in my heart. 

To me, it will always be the true King.


E39 M5 Image sourced from e39source.com

F90 M5 Images sourced from roadandtrack.com