Buying used: BMW M5

Buying used: BMW M5
Buying used: BMW M5

Picking up a great 1998-2003 E39 M5 V8 from as little as £8000

Many enthusiasts consider BMW’s 1998-2003 V8-engineed M5, codenamed E39, to be the absolute cream of the crop. No M5 before or since has ever been so perfectly conceived. Its 394bhp 4.9-litre V8 is considered by some to have begun the spiraling horsepower race: if the future new M5 really does deliver over 600bhp, it will have this car to thank for it.

But amazing as it is, the appeal isn’t just in the engine. The E39’s chassis is also an exemplar, with pin-sharp handling and all the involvement you could ever dream of in a large five-seat executive saloon. BMW sharpened the steering, added a limited-slip differential, lowered the suspension and bolted on ventilated disc brakes all round.

The ESP system was a bit rudimentary but you’ll have no fear turning it off, so predictable is this M5. A Sport button spices things up and the six-speed manual gearbox provides a refreshing contrast to today’s automatics. It was sensation overload.

Sensations the whole family can enjoy. It was no less roomy than any other period 5 Series, itself considered one of the best BMW’s ever made. The interior oozes quality and there’s a bounty of equipment as standard, even stretching to TV monitors and rear screens.

Changes through its life were mild. Following its 1998 launch, a mild facelift in 2000 introduced so-called ‘corona ring’ headlights, revised tail lamps and front parking sensors. Otherwise, the front air scoops, quad exhausts, wider M5 kidney grille and 18-inch wheels were carried over unchanged: the subtle look this created is another part of the car’s appeal.

Experts do warn the good ones are starting to thin out, though. Darren Park is from James Paul BMW Specialists, a firm that’s sold around 50 of them over the years. “It’s getting much harder to find a decent one with reasonable mileage,” he says.

“If I were offered one now, I’d be all over the suspension and steering, checking for wear. Anything with an M badge on it isn’t cheap, so I’d consider general parts costs, too.”

10 things to watch out for

  1. Start the car from cold. Hear a noisy rattling? The VANOS unit could be on its way out.
  2. The plastic chain tensioner doesn’t like the wrong grade of oil. If there are question marks, budget to change both this and the timing chains: it could save you the price of a new engine.
  3. Clutches last 60,000 miles, and are expensive to replace. Try to find out when it was last replaced.
  4. When new, a 1,200-mile running-in service was mandated. Go back through the history to make sure it was done – it’s important.
  5. Yes, these BMWs can rust. Look behind the bumpers, the wheelarch liners, boot seam, around the petrol filler and behind trim on doors and windows.
  6. This V8 uses oil – a litre every 1500 miles. Check the oil level to find out how attentive the owner’s been.
  7. Check the seat bolsters for wear. Chances are, there will be some, but it shouldn’t be serious and certainly not cracked or worn through.
  8. Windscreens are expensive to replace: built into it is the sensor for the rain-sensing wipers.
  9. Look over the paint for evidence of orange peel. It didn’t come from the factory like that so what led it to being repaired?
  10. Suspension and brakes wear, and are pricey to fix. If it’s done 100,000 miles, suspension almost certainly needs replacing. Brakes are particularly punitive.

E39 BMW M5: what you get for your money

£8000-£10,500: You can get them from £8000, but we’d only buy privately at this level. Meet the owner and work out if they’re likely to have skimped on maintaining it
£10,500-£12,000: You’ll find all sorts of mileages and conditions here, but there will be gems hidden amongst them. Buy with as much history as possible
£12,000+: The best late-model E39s cost over £12k – you’ll get a solid, honest car with decent miles at this level. Want the best? You’re looking at over £30k

Rob Adams

Top ten: PCP deals for under £400 a month

An executive saloon, an SUV, MPV – whatever you want, it’s available new for under £400pcmThe vast majority of new cars are

The Knowledge vs Uber vs sat-nav; which works best?

We tackle London’s chaotic streets three different ways, but which is the quickest?Tackling city streets in a car can be stressful, particularly

Do speed cameras really save lives?

Neil Thorpe, Newcastle University and Lee Fawcett, Newcastle UniversitySpeed cameras have been the focus of motorists’ anger and frustration

Buying used: Subaru Impreza WRX

How to navigate the multitude of models that make up the 2000-2007 Impreza WRXIf you like ample choice to pick from when buying a used performance