Words and photography by Vijay Sankar (@pink_helmet)
The year is 2005.
Formula engines bounce off the rev-limiter at an eye-watering 20,000 RPM, and sound more glorious than ever before. BMW is fully invested in the sport, and their power unit is firmly the paddock favorite in terms of sheer aural excellence. On the automobile front, too, they are as decorated as ever, riding on the laurels of the E46, E38 and E39 range of ultimate driving machines, among others.
The naturally aspirated engine prowess housed in Munich is yet to peak, as they decide to show off their motorsport pedigree with road car offerings. The M5 gets the pick this time, and is blessed with ten cylinders, 5 liters, 500 horsepower, an 8250 RPM redline, all packed into the front of family saloon body. The formula is set for greatness.
And–believe it or not–the engine is only half the story.
Despite the adulation it gets today–though underrated it still is–the E60 was received with cold hands by the public at its unveiling. The timeless elegance of the E39 had been replaced with the bold strokes of Bangle and co, and the world was not ready for it. 17 years on, whoever called the car ugly in period has been resoundingly proven wrong. This thing is genuinely compelling to lay your eyes on, if not gorgeous in the conventional sense.
After the manual only E39, the SMG offered in the E60 ruffled a lot of feathers. But for ONCE, the US market got the good one – the manual, V10 M5 (listen to the sound of that). The good-old-fashioned 6-speed manual was shipped only stateside. It was destined for nothing short of an iconic status.
Step into the car when it’s cold, plug in the key, press the start button, and you’re greeted with a tachometer with a variable redline. The rev limit starts low, but eventually goes all the way up to a hair-raising 8250 RPM when it’s all warmed up. Once up to temperature, it’s ready to show its truly special stripes, as it sings the coveted song of the V10 Gods.
There is electric throttle response throughout the rev range, and it makes peak power at its manic top end near 8000 RPM. It punches well low in the rev range, but boy does it pay to rev it out to the climax. The motor hits so hard at the top after a linear climb through the tach that it feels like it would almost do a wheelie. In M Mode, the individual throttle bodies make the pedal razor sharp, dancing to millimetric movements of your right foot. It’s breathtaking and intoxicating to embark on the journey from 4000 to 8250 RPM. And it sings with an induction note that makes NA BMW engines from the era so memorable. Every single time.
The long second gear makes the climb up the revs a prolonged voyage, and you’re doing silly speeds at the end of it. But it just keeps asking for more, relentlessly. And you oblige, because there’s nothing else that’s quite like it south of the Lamborghini V10, the Lexus LFA or the Carrera GT.
The SMG may have shorter gearing that lets you work through the ‘box more often, but it’s dated, and simply wouldn’t let you have the involvement of the manual. Heel-and-toe dancing to the tune of a stellar V10 engine up front? Yes, please. This alone makes it one of the best automotive experiences you can have. And the manual eliminates all the concerns with the reliability of the SMG system. It’s the way to go; win-win.
A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
The harder you drive, the better the chassis gets, unlocking levels of performance that shocks you in this category. Beautifully balanced front to rear, neutral and well-behaved with bundles of grip, with the suspension promptly soaking up imperfections of the road. Another hallmark of a great driver’s car–it shrinks around you as you start pushing it on the twisty stuff. The seats adapt to hug your sides around tight corners–another neat trick.
The brakes! Better stopping power and modulation into corner entry than some high end sportscars of the era–gives you an immense amount of confidence. Stock brakes are ample for backroad blasting, no doubt. And then you have the engine to lean on, hurling yourself out of corner exits. All in all, it flows along beautifully.
The car begs to be driven harder and harder, revved out to an inch of its life, and leaned on. It’s much happier that way.
Magnum Opus Super Sedan
In a world of ubiquitous turbo this and hybrid that, the E60 M5 reminds you what BMW had going in its heyday. This engine has a lot of the flavor of the later E92, but the former is in a different league with respect to the exotic noises it makes, the response and the exhilaration it delivers. There will never be another one.
Yes, it’s a heavy sedan, but it still feels very mechanical in the way you interact with the powertrain and how it follows your inputs. Like the great cars from the mid-2000s, this is a perfect blend of modern safety and technology with the right amount of analog involvement. The only gripe I have is with the second gear being so long-legged, because the engine is so dramatic that you want to work your way through it more often.
This car will continue to age more gracefully, become more sought-after with the passage of time, given it is such a perfect zeitgeist of its times. It’s the bleeding edge of naturally aspirated engine technology, all packed in an unassumingly elegant suit.
It’s not at all alarming to own as the horror stories tend to suggest–a good service history, proper care and preventive maintenance will have it raring to go every time you step into the hot seat.
In the two hours of seat-time I had with the car, I have never been more thoroughly impressed with the capabilities of an automobile of this type. It deserves a lot more appreciation than it already garners. And I must admit–this is perhaps peak naturally aspirated BMW, bar none.
Words and photography by Vijay Sankar (@pink_helmet)
Thank you to Julian (@czechmate_e30) for offering to let us experience this car.