By on August 8, 2017

2000 BMW M5 E39 interior - Image: BMWAnswering a question with a question isn’t my way of being rude. It’s my way of finding out what the questioner truly wants to know.

Their question comes in a variety of forms. What’s the best car? What’s the best car on sale right now? What’s the best car ever?

I want to know how much money they’re allowing me to spend, to which era I’m limited, whether I’m buying for my current life situation as a married work-at-home father or for some other situation, such as life on my neighbor’s farm.

With a recent move to a new province, I’m getting the question with far greater frequency — the result of meeting new people who are confused or delighted or dismayed at what I do for a living. I’m not sure I’ve ever had the answer pinned down before, but being asked so often has forced me to develop a thoughtful response.

What’s my favorite car? I now know.

2017 Chevrolet Suburban - Image: ChevroletI know what my favorite vehicle for my current life situation is: a Chevrolet Suburban. We need six-plus seats multiple times per week, space for bike trailers and a Baby Jogger Summit X3. We live in a very wintery part of Canada, so four-wheel-drive and some ground clearance wouldn’t hurt. Unfortunately, I can’t afford a Suburban, so our Honda Odyssey — bow down in awe — is a suitable replacement.

I know what vehicle I most enjoy driving. There’s a 2004 Mazda MX-5 Miata in my garage, and whether it’s that Miata or the numerous other examples of the breed I’ve driven, the joy I derive from top-down driving with a six-speed manual, limited power, and a lively chassis can’t easily be replicated.

I know the vehicle with which I’d most like to spend a day, as well. Just give me the latest mid-engine V8 Ferrari, currently the 488 GTB, but also the 458 Italia before it, the F430 before that, its 360 Modena predecessor, and the F355 that originally ignited my Ferrari affection. Sure, there are faster cars, better-looking cars, and cars with fewer steering wheel buttons. But desire to drive a mid-engine V8 Ferrari is deeply ingrained within me.

A Chevrolet Suburban is not, however, my favorite car. By its very nature, it inherently lacks proper driver’s appeal. A Mazda MX-5 Miata is terrific to own, but for my status in life, only as a second or third car. And as much as I’d like to spend some time driving a Ferrari 488 GTB, I don’t have an appetite for supercar ownership of any kind.2000 BMW M5 E39 - Image: BMWFor me, right now, nothing holds more appeal than an E39 BMW M5, circa 1999-2003.

Give me a choice between a new M5 and the 15-year-old M5, and I’ll take the oldie.

Offer me a Mustang Shelby GT350 or the E39 M5, and I’ll take the BMW.

Ask me whether a 707-horsepower Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat would be preferable and I’d have to think about it for a minute. Then, I’d take the BMW M5.2016 Volkswagen Golf R - Image: VWFerrari GTC4Lusso? The all-wheel-drive four-seater is enticing, but no. M5, please. Volkswagen Golf R, essentially an E39 M5 turned into a modern, semi-affordable, all-wheel-drive hatchback? Cool car, but no. M5 please. The Porsche Macan is an exceptional all rounder, a suitable family car with verifiable performance credentials and all-weather capability. But no. M5 please.

By modern standards, the E39 M5’s 400-horsepower 4.9-liter V8 will struggle in today’s stoplight drag races. The car lost some of the earlier M5s’ intangible charm by sharing an assembly line with regular editions of the 5 Series. Recirculating ball steering, rather than rack and pinion, doesn’t seem like the most direct route to feel and directness. The E39 M5 lacks stature, with a Nürburgring laptime well in excess of 8 minutes.

I don’t care.

Just look at it. Just listen to it.

The E39 BMW M5 is menacing, but not remotely over the top. Today, automakers are attempting to style their cars with this kind of aggression and can’t seem to figure it out. So they just enlarge the grille.

The wheel arches are perfect, as the M5 appears wonderfully low, but not so low that you think a Honda Prelude tuner took possession of a 528i. The headlights and twin-kidney grille are sized to scale. The length of the hood conveys all manner of rear-wheel-driveiness.

There’s even a six-speed manual transmission.

“What’s your favorite car?”, they ask.

“A BMW M5,” I say now, “but not the newer ones. BMW called it the E39. It was new in ’99.”

“Oh,” they respond, befuddled and suddenly uninterested, assuming the guy who drives a different new car every week is aware of the technological leap forward cars have made in the last 18 years. “We see a lot of BMWs around these days.”

“Yeah. Those are X1s,” I say, attempting to clarify. “This is different. 400 horsepower, rear-wheel drive, and a six-speed manual in 1999 was pretty special.”

“But the newer ones are faster?”

Sure. Yeah. The newer ones are faster.

That doesn’t mean they’re better. And it certainly doesn’t mean I want a new BMW M5 more than I want an old BMW M5.

[Images: BMW AG]

Timothy Cain is a contributing analyst at The Truth About Cars and and the founder and former editor of Follow on Twitter @timcaincars.

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58 Comments on “Finally, an Answer to the Question an Auto Writer Gets Asked Every Day: What’s My Favorite Car?...”

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    A Pucci edition Mark IV. I know, Top Gear considered it one of the worst cars ever made. But I came of age during the Malaise/Brougham/Disco era and no vehicle represents the values of that era better.

    I tell my friends/family that if I won the ‘big’ lottery that the first vehicle I would purchase would be a Suburban as it would meet just about all of our vehicular needs and most of my ‘wants’.

    However if I won the ‘small’ lottery it would be a Toyota Sienna as it would also handle all of our vehicular needs and do so in a less expensive, more dependable way.

    • 0 avatar

      Top Gear simply used it as a prop for jokes.

      Lets do a completely unfair comparison like they did: a Corvette Z07 vs. Hillman Minx.

      I personally don’t like those Lincolns at all (although I find no fault with anyone who does, to each his own), but I thought the segment with it was a low point of that episode. It isn’t because its biased against a Lincoln in particular, it was just stupid BS (and not particularly entertaining like their other BS lol).

      I’m a fan of Clarkson, Hammond and May, just not of everything they say or do.

  • avatar
    S2k Chris

    My S2000 is my favorite car. There are other cars I also lust for, but I can honestly say if I won Powerball or whatever, I’d keep my S2000 to park alongside the F355 and 993 and McLaren F1 and NSX and whatever else I decided to buy. It is, to me, the perfect roadster, and I love roadsters. Can’t drive it every day, but that’s what makes the days you do drive it (like today!) special.

    • 0 avatar

      The Author’s M5, and the S2000, are about the ultimate one-two punch as far as I’m concerned. They pretty much closed out the “peak car” era, which ran from the 993, E36, LS/SC, LC80, NSX, RX7, Legend, Integra, Azure (I just love that big old clunker….) and perhaps a few others.

      • 0 avatar

        I agree completely. My garage currently houses the modern equivalents – a Chevy SS and an ND MX-5. I lusted after the AP2 and the E39, but when it comes down to it, I needed a warranty. This is as close as I could get.

  • avatar

    My choice is painfully slow by today’s standards, is unsafe, and very popular to donk out. But I would love to have an unmolested 1988 Monte Carlo LS – the one with the Euro headlights. I’ve got a soft spot for the (almost) last of the full-frame RWD GM coupes.

    I’m sure I would end up modifying it – a stock-ish FI 350 and a rebuilt transmission would be a good warm up. Add in 15″ SS rims with some thick tires, and it would be a nice cruiser.

    Barring that, an E46 BMW 330Ci ZHP.

  • avatar

    I also lust for an old M BMW, but in my case, it’s the mid-’80s M6 coupe.

    Lovely car. Just lovely.

  • avatar

    I think asking a Car enthusiast to choose their favorite car is impossible, and I don’t actually agree with your own assessment of yourself.

    WHAT? How can someone not know what they want?

    well you already answered it. If you had to drive your family through a wintery day, your favorite car WOULDN’T be the BMW. If you wanted some personal time out in your drop top, your favorite car WOULDN’T be the BMW, and if you were off to some car shows and for a day of exotic driving your favorite car WOULDN’T be the BMW.

    You see, there is no one-size fits all. The correct answer for you is that you enjoy a collection of cars. If car people were happy with a single car, they’d own a single car, but because you are an enthusiast you value different vehicles in different situations.

    My favorite car is the Jeep Wrangler… WHEN we are offroading through mud pits.
    My favorite car is my Ferrari 360 spider… WHEN I’m off to exotic car show meets and hitting the twisties with ferrari-owning friends.
    My favorite car is the cadillac XTS-V… WHEN I am hauling 5 car people 500 miles and able to write off the gas bill.
    My favorite car is the Ford F350… WHEN I am hauling a boat to a weekend campground.
    My favorite car is the Hyundai Sonata… WHEN I am looking for a DD to do extended highway driving and fuel economy and performance must be balanced.
    My favorite car is the Corvette z06… WHEN I am racing within an inch of my life on a race track and don’t want to have to fear damage to my vehicle.

    I think asking you to choose an overall favorite car is silly, because cars are contextual. I think you can have a favorite DD, a favorite offroader, a favorite race car, or even more granular than that.

    therefore I think by overgeneralizing into your favorite car you have actually chosen a car that won’t be your favorite in the majority of situations.

    • 0 avatar
      Timothy Cain

      “therefore I think by overgeneralizing into your favorite car you have actually chosen a car that won’t be your favorite in the majority of situations.”

      Wrong. It is perfect.

      • 0 avatar
        Jonathan Yarkony

        There’s no way I could limit my choice to one car. I honestly forget about half a dozen cars every time I think of a new one… I was thinking E46 M3, same design era, but that straight-six just has some mythical appeal, and then someone mentioned the GT350, which made me forget about the M3, but then someone mentioned the S2000, and I thought about that or the Boxtser Spyder…. so many options. So many right answers. I feel like the computer at the end of War Games.

    • 0 avatar
      S2k Chris

      “If car people were happy with a single car, they’d own a single car, but because you are an enthusiast you value different vehicles in different situations.”

      That’s not what “favorite” means. Favorite doesn’t mean “only”. My favorite candy is M&Ms but that doesn’t mean it’s the only candy I ever eat.

      Think of it this way: picture the best day you can imagine. What car are you driving? That’s your favorite car.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree with your point. I am the same way. I have lots of favorite cars, each for different reasons (though many do overlap).

      I enjoyed having a fleet of vehicles from which to choose. I had as many as 8 at one time, you never knew which one I’m going to show up in.

    • 0 avatar

      Arach, I get your point but you’re kinda over thinking things.

  • avatar

    540i wagon certainly was a great car for me. sold it because i got tired of getting ripped off by BMW dealership mechanics. now i have a good shop i go to, but too late. making do with a 2005 X3. really nothing compared to that 540 wagon before or since although my 1992 NSX gets more + comments.

  • avatar

    I guess this is emblematic of my car ADD, but I truly can’t just pick a single car that I’ve consistently upheld as a single “favorite.” I’ve historically been an unabashed Japanophile and offroading enthusiast so any number of hey-day 1980s-mid 90s Japanese vehicles are highly desirable. And yet, at this very moment, I covet a clean 4wd GMT400 (either a 2 door Tahoe or Ext-cab Z71 truck). I guess living in the Midwest for some time is finally rubbing off on me.

    Something like this is about as close to car-lust as it gets for me at the moment:

    The problem is, ask me in a month and I’m sure I will have moved on to some other obsession.

  • avatar

    I am in agreement on the E39 M5… EXCEPT… The Chevrolet SS came along…

    I can’t see very many reasons how the M5 is the better car…

    A 4 Door LS3 powered 6 Speed Manual sedan? Yes please.

    I live in Canada and am not sure the SS can be brought over (does anyone know if they can be imported)?

  • avatar

    That doesn’t mean they’re better. And it certainly doesn’t mean I want a new Jaguar more than I want an old Jaguar.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    Love an E39 M5 also and I like the concept of an SS, I just can’t get over how bland the front end styling is.After a bad experience with an e46 330I ZHP, I don’t think that era of Bimmers would work for me
    Dream car would be F430 6MT or whatever the RWD 6MT Gallardo is called ?Balboni? Must have a gated shifter.I suppose R8 v10 6mt would work also.
    A nice early 80s Malibu coupe with LS Swap for cruising,and to do the Power Tour and MK2 Supra in black cherry with a non-cracked dashboard for my 80s era love for Japanese cars.

  • avatar

    If out for a weekend drive through southern New South Wales, my 1970 Giulia Coupe was damn near perfect if it was having an agreeable day. I realise this is Miata territory with winding, narrow coastal roads but the Giula just looked so much better.

  • avatar

    While there are cars that would thrill me for specific purposes, the one that gives me the most all-around satisfaction is my 1996 Volvo 850 Turbo Wagon.

    The turbo gives it the varoom I desire to blow past lesser cars on those long freeway on ramps.

    The low center of gravity (and a few mods from LPD) gives excellent handling when I take it to the track for HPDE days.

    The wagon body gives me 67 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats down. I can fit a 7 foot step ladder inside with the tailgate closed.

    The towing package and load-leveling rear shocks are rated for 3300 pounds towing capacity, which I regularly use (and sometimes exceed).

    And it is paid for. :-)

    Show me another car that can do all of the above. The Outback can only fit a six foot ladder inside, has a high CG, and only has a 2700 pound towing capacity. The Volvo V90 can do those things, but with a price tag above $60,000!

    If I had space to park them (and a more understanding wife), I could probably get what I want in two cars: a Miata and a Suburban. But my car payments and insurance costs would go through the roof! And I don’t have any place to park an additional car.

    This is why I love my 21-year old Volvo 850. Long may it live!

    • 0 avatar

      I had 1996 Volvo 850R wagon that I loved for all of these reasons, until the cost of repairs and maintenance (as well as the inconvenience of being stranded) got to me. Lots of older Euro designs from that era (E39s) are excellent, but they are getting old — too old for daily driving in my experience.

  • avatar

    I thought the answer to “what is the best car ever” has already been answered. Pretty sure it is the McLaren F1.

    I’ve owned an E39 M5. While I was happy with it, I certainly don’t miss it, and wouldn’t consider getting another one. It has pretty much cured me of any “BMW lust” that I had.

  • avatar

    Big quiet V8 RWD 4-doors.

    That’s my idea of “favorite” – sadly that’s not something currently in my stable.

  • avatar

    Best car in the world must be the Nissan Juke.

    I can’t understand any other justification for somebody choosing one.

  • avatar

    People ask me what’s a good sport car, I say MGTD or MGB. It’s usually a pretty short conversation.

    • 0 avatar

      If you brought that up with me, you’d have to listen to me describe the joy and pain of having a 71 MGBGT as my daily driver for a few years. Those old cars feel like they’re alive, the ticking of the SU fuel pump, the lovely sounding burble at idle, the punchy throttle response of a pair of HS4 carbs, all the quirky things that a soulless beater doesn’t have. The Integra that I bought after getting tired of an old British car being my only car is the pinnacle of speed, comfort and reliability compared to an old MGB, but it just isn’t special in the same way.

  • avatar

    My favorite dream car? Second generation Corvette, maybe the big wing Plymouth Roadrunner. The first was GM creating an American Jaguar E-type, the latter a car that combined two of Americas greatest non-political creations, Looney Tunes and Muscle Cars.

    My favorite DD? Used to be Volvos but I’ve grown to enjoy older Detroit boats, these days you need a truck to get anything similar.

  • avatar

    I have a favorite brand but really no favorite car in particular. I love my Mustangs for various reasons – the fox cars for their simplicity, the S-197s as best and last of the live axle brutes especially in GT500 guise, the S550 for the sophistication and style it brought in.

    The closest I’ve ever had to an absolute favorite car is the 288 GT0. There is just something about that car that seemed so quintessentially Ferrari to me.

    After the 288 GTO and perhaps the F40 Ferrari just seemed to lose it’s luster and if I had the financial means to drop that kind of money on something more modern it would be an offering from Porsche.

    After that I’d dearly love to own a 2nd gen Ford GT in Gulf livery.

    And on down the list some of which are kit cars Factory Five Type 65 or an Ultima EVO provided your not stuck with the oh so trite LS power plant.

    • 0 avatar

      Your tastes in autos match mine. I, too, enjoy V8 Mustangs. The lazy grumble of the 302 in an SN95 convertible with Flowmasters. The rowdy, approachable rambunctious-puppy-like demeanor of the Coyote 5.0 S197’s. The Germanic poise of the S550 — I had to rowdy mine up with a pair of flowmasters — but this one is the closest to the E39 M5 in sound and feel.

      The 288 and F40. The pumped up fenders on the 288; the air intake integrated into the C-pillar on the F40. The way those cars used turboes to infuse soul.

      The tense idle followed by the canis lupus howl emanating from the 180° headers on a GT40 with any Ford V8 is the stuff that bedtime youtube videos are made of.

  • avatar

    The E39 M5 is a very, very, VERY satisfying car to drive. Makes your heart burst with unalloyed joy whether you burble through the neighborhood or when you let the five-litre devil ride when freeway-merge needs must.

    Having owned a CPO’ed version for about two years, I shudder to think of the maintenance costs once that warranty has elapsed. The basic mechanicals are pretty robust, but the for-its-time-high power does put a strain on the driveline. Clutches can be fragile. Driveshaft bushings can disintegrate. Cam-position sensors die. Cooling system plastics crumble, as do other under-hood polymers: on mine, parts of the firewall’s plastic began pulverizing on contact, at around 80K miles. The secondary air injection system on many would trigger a check engine/ service engine soon light that can only be temporarily fixed by walnut-shell-blasting the air-injection passages — with cylinder-heads removed. I’m told there’s a software cheat/fix that prevents this from generating a fault code.

    Get one with all these things taken of (including the cam chain guides and valley pan gasket) and you will be paying a premium — but it will be worth it. The 2001 and newer motors do not require the liquid gold 10W60 oil.

  • avatar

    I’d have to say my favorite would be an Eagle E-Type Jaguar (series 1). Relatively modern levels of performance and comfort wrapped in the most beautiful body ever put on 4 wheels.

  • avatar

    When people indifferent to cars ask about cars as a way to make small talk (and if they think picking one favorite is reasonable, they ARE indifferent), best to give a generic answer and move on to new topics.

    You might get frustrated trying to explain the benefits of a platform that is now 20 years old, and they will regret asking you because they don’t actually want to hear about cars.

    • 0 avatar
      Car Ramrod

      I thought you got rid of your E39 long ago? You won’t be sorry of you do it (most of the time).

      • 0 avatar

        I should’ve framed my sentence “Having HAD owned a CPO’ed E39 M5 for two years…”
        I did get rid of it–come to think of it–coming up on ten years ago. The buyer flew down from Boston to pick it up from me here in TX. It was in perfect condition. If I close my eyes at eighty miles an hour in sixth in my current ’15 Mustang 5.0, I am aurally transported to that M5. Then my screaming passengers rouse me from my reverie.

  • avatar

    Incidentally, I’m entertaining the idea of an E39 M5 now. I typically get cold feet when I think about legal fixes to the carbon buildup issue though. Carbon black on caramel is a great choice!

  • avatar

    My cousin who is coming of driving age asked me what the best car out there is.

    He then interrupted himself by saying “and don’t just say a Ford Taurus” (yes, he knows me well haha).

    I said, for me, it is. For you, maybe it isn’t. There isn’t one universal vehicle that works for everyone and appeals to everyone and is significantly better than all others in every possible sense. It doesn’t work that way.

    For one guy, I’m describing Land Cruiser. To Vulpine, I’m talking about a pickup built out of his Renegade. Lol nobody can make the claim that one is the best of all for everyone, because it may only be the best for them.

    Back to my cousin:
    “For me, its the Nissan Altima.”

    I let out a “Ha!” before I could stop myself.

    “What? They’re good cars, momma has had two.”

    Yes, because the first, an ’02 bodystyle, blew an engine and it was replaced with the 2008. But, I didn’t bring that up. I wouldn’t be any different if I genuinely liked the car.

    Well, just last week, the boy go his first car (he had been driving a beater Corolla that belonged to his brother in law, but he kept getting pulled over in it, the exhaust was loud and some signals/lights don’t always work), a 2009ish one-owner, low mileage Altima 2.5 SL.

    This week, its parked. Why? CVT took a $hit. It still moves, but makes a loud whining noise and performance is lost (according to them, I haven’t driven it). They took it to a professional. Diagnosis is CVT needs to be replaced.

    Best car ever? Well, I’m quite sure they will get it fixed and he will continue to love it. Good for him, I genuinely mean that. I wouldn’t trade my Taurus for if you dropped mine off a bridge first, but that’s me.

    So, no, when someone asks you such an open question, there isn’t just one choice, because we will never agree on what we think when we answer that question personally.

  • avatar

    Being a former auto writer, I got that same question.

    I wanted to keep my answer brief, so I would reply with “Jaguar XK”.

    But if I were to break it down:

    Jaguar XK – for “spirited” driving or driving long distances (I tend to move across multiple states a lot).

    Ford Aerostar – this appeals to my love for minivans, being practical, and fulfilling my need for some 90’s Ford nostalgia that I can’t get enough of.

    Honda CR-V – my current ride that does everything I need it to for my family.

  • avatar

    Favorite car was my first car. 1977 LTD wagon.
    Favorite pickup was my first pickup. 1986 F150. Surprisingly fast.
    Favorite big convertible. 1965 Ford Galaxy.
    Favorite small convertible. 1991 Alfa Romeo Spider.
    Favorite sports car. 1965 Sting Ray.

    Give me another category.

  • avatar

    2006 LS430… someday…

  • avatar

    They are 2 cars, when I drove them and I felt the feedback of the steering,
    I said- this is it:

    BMW M3 2007–2013
    Subaru STI 2015-now

  • avatar

    No one car can be my favorite car for every purpose.

    If I had unlimited funds, I’d have a garage with four cars in it. (No more — I don’t drive enough to make more useful.)

    Those four cars would be:

    1) Leased supersedan (Benz S-Class, Audi A8, etc.; whichever has the nicest interior at lease time)
    2) The hilarious previous-generation Benz SLK55 AMG (I used to think Boxster S, but on reflection I have more use for AMG noise than for actual handling)
    3) Compact family vehicle my wife would like, such as an Audi SQ5
    4) Restomodded GMT400 pickup with 6.2L Gen V drivetrain

  • avatar

    My favourite car is a 3 series wagon, manual transmission, hybrid, made by Toyota. Let me know when it happens.

  • avatar

    If it HAD to be one car, a Unimog Doka. I could get around all year, haul stuff, haul people, haul whatever. I could see over traffic that I don’t have enough power to pass. Throw a camper on back and I have an expedition vehicle. Swap it for a dump bed and I can do home improvement.

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