2003 BMW M5 Review

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
2003 bmw m5 review

The ultimate pie-eater's car? You're walking down the street, minding your own business. For once, you're not thinking about cars. Suddenly, you hear it: a low frequency, menacing rumble. The sound bounces off nearby buildings and hits your synapses like a football drilled into the back of the net. It's the burble. For a red-blooded pistonhead, the thrill created by a proper barrel-chested burble is irresistible. Involuntarily, your head swivels to identify the machine producing this mechanical siren song. It's a… BMW?

C'mon. TVRs burble. Old-fashioned muscle cars with engines that burst from their bonnets like biceps through The Incredible Hulk's shirt, burble. Well, so does the BMW M5. From the moment you turn the key, the 400 horsepower M-power plant burbles with as much conviction as a Shelby Cobra. The M5 may look like a mildly tweaked version of BMW's bread and butter barge, but it isn't. Anyone with ears knows this car is a serious piece of kit.

0 to 100mph in just 11.5 seconds. In a straight line fight with a Porsche Carrera to 60mph, the big bad Bimmer takes 4.9 seconds whilst the Porker takes 5. What's more, the M5 can carry three full sized witnesses to the fact.

The M5 after all, is a Five Series. It's still a comfortable family saloon, from one of the masters of the genre. Everything mechanical, from the switchgear to the gearshift, functions with Teutonic precision. Press the central locking button; the mechanism slots home like a rifle bolt. You're vaulted. Unless you prefer Mercedes' pretension or Lexian waft, you couldn't ask for a better daily driver; the M5 munches motorways and burbles about town with equal aplomb.

Sure, there are niggles. The "Sport" button hides underneath the climate control system on the passenger side, behind the Diet Coke shelf, for which there is no cup holder. (The steering wheel has four buttons for cruise control. Go figure.) The stereo sucks. You can't position the steering wheel for a clear view of both the speedo and the trip computer readout. The built-in hands-free phone system will only work with the world's oldest and ugliest handset. The huge front pillars create a massive blind spot. The front screen generates wind noise at speed (a failing shared by a recent X5). An automatic gearbox would be nice. And that's it. Now, back to the fun…

Anything as big and heavy as an M5 is going to be 'challenging' around the twisties. To their credit, The Boys From Bavaria have reached into their collective mechanical unconscious to create a 1756kg motor vehicle that can do the impossible: corner. With traction control and Sport mode switched on, the M5 will steam around a bend at illogical speeds, with no more than a flickering light to signal internal debate. With the traction control turned off, well, do you really fancy high-speed tail slides on a public road? If you do, the M5's razor sharp throttle response and predictable handling will help you win your Darwin award. And you get a Nascar soundtrack for no extra charge.

Still, as good as it is, the M5 has an Achilles heel: steering. The helm is a lesson in lifelessness. Driving straight ahead, the recirculating ball steering system is downright dangerous. Take your eye off the road- say, to locate the elusive Sport button-and you can easily find yourself off-course, pointing at something solid. Press Sport and the wheel loses lock slop and gains some much-needed heft. But the 'feel' remains artificial. It's not unacceptable. It's just… disappointing. A spirited driver can do amazing things with this car, but the steering fails to deliver enough information to make it truly rewarding.

Strangely, the anaesthetised steering could be a blessing in disguise. If the M5 could match a Porsche for dynamic feedback as well as sheer grunt, the temptation to use the M5's awesome power all the time everywhere would be overwhelming. The steering may be the only thing between a sporting driver and The Dark Side. Luke! Turn off the ASR. Use the G-force! Anyway, I've put my name down for the next generation M5, with rack and pinion steering. More importantly, the new M5 will boast an even more powerful and headier sounding V10. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, I can resist anything except the burble.

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  • Aranderson Aranderson on Oct 20, 2009

    How appropriate that I should find your comment (and the article's only other comment) on the same day it was posted some 7 years after the fact :) I just purchased a 2000 e39 M5 (a clean, low mileage example), which represents my 5th BMW 5 series, but first ///M car, and I couldn't possibly be happier! This car represents the perfect automotive compromise of real-world usability, style, luxury and most of all, performance. At the current going rate for these cars, I'd challenge anyone to find a better value that excels in all of those categories. These cars have stood the test of time and represent BMW's most reliable "M" car to date. Also, perhaps it's just the result of my experience with BMW's recirculating ball steering systems and personal bias, but the feel and feedback from this car is fantastic!

  • Morkus Morkus on Oct 31, 2011

    Anyone still enjoying their E39s please post! I am considering this and a 2003 911T among others.

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