There are less than 20 minutes before we have to clear out from the Circuito De Estoril. Me and my drive partner have just wrapped up a stellar day behind the wheel of the (F90) BMW M5 and – by all accounts – it's magnificent, not just because of how it performs on road and track, but how it retains and improves on the crafted pedigree of its lauded forebears.
We had just about enough time to drive the second-generation E34 and third-generation E39 M5s respectively, for one obvious reason: they have manual transmissions. Just short of packing our bags, the BMW personnel in charge of the heritage cars asked if we’d like a go in the E60 M5, but it had to be short. “Just bring the car back in 20 minutes,” he says.
Figuring an offer like this doesn’t come every day, we jump in. We figured we could just take the car for a short blast on the roads surrounding the circuit, on a roughly 3km long loop. What we would discover over the next 20 minutes was nothing short of pure amazement.
Launched in 2005 – even amongst its own hallowed lineage – the E60 M5 was an anomaly, the wild one of the bunch. Where its predecessors favoured a measured evolution, the E60 M5 broke the mould in terms of design, and in the case of its drivetrain, the E60 M5 drew inspiration from the unlikeliest of sources: Formula 1.
I took to the wheel first. The 7-speed SMG 3 gearbox needs to be in ‘Neutral’ before you can start the car; while it can function like an automatic, the SMG 3 is still very much works like a sequential manual transmission.
The SMG 3 featured quicker shift times and smoother clutch application than the SMG 2 (fitted in the E46 M3), and for the most part it’s pretty precise in its engagement. I’m careful not to rev it too much, it creeps forward slowly until the revs rise to about 1,500 rpm when the clutch completely locks up and feels connected like a manual gearbox.
There’s a button just south of the gear knob, which allows us to toggle the gearbox shift maps, from slow to fast. In its fastest gearshift setting, there’s a short pause before the next gear is selected, it’s relatively quick when you consider typical torque-converter transmissions from the era, and about as quick as a well-executed manual shift. I dial it down a notch before just before heading out to the main road.
From the moment the engine ticks over, the angry rumble instantly announces that this is no ordinary E60 5 Series. Where the E34 M5 was subdued, not much louder than its more pedestrian six-cylinder counterparts, and the E39 M5: bassy and urgent – with the E60, there’s a profound sense of just how large its lungs are.
The M5’s odd-firing 90-degree V10, regardless of having two more cylinders, weighs just 240 kgs, almost identical to the V8 unit in the E39. The engine blocks were cast at the same facility as BMW’s F1 engines in the Landshut plant. To keep weight down, the cylinder crankcase is made up of an aluminium-silicon alloy, the one-piece cylinder heads were made from aluminium, and the forged-crankshaft sat on a ‘Bedplate’ derived directly from motorsports, which allows for precise crankshaft alignment even at stratospheric engine speeds. Each piston weighed just 481.7 grams (piston rings and all), for comparison; a football weighs about 450 grams.
The result: 507 hp at 8,250 rpm and a maximum torque of 520 Newton metres, and one of the sexiest soundtracks of any engine ever made.
Heading out onto clear roads – I slowly push the accelerator pedal deeper, speed builds fluidly and with gusto. Moving through the first three gears with part throttle application provides a sense of just how much power is still in reserve.
The steering is light and decisive, regardless of its ‘electromechanical’ active steering system, a technology very much in its infancy all those years ago, it feels communicative and precise, and instantly helps build your confidence with the car.
Round a curve, and I give it the beans, the engine immediately takes on a different character, it starts to howl as it swallows ever more air through its ten individual throttle bodies – the speedometer flies past the 100 km/h mark in third gear. As the rev counter passes its 5,000 rpm mark, the engine discharges a mountain of torque driving the rear wheels forward. The analogy of Vin Diesel pressing the infamous ‘NOS’ button can be applied here.
Between 5,000 rpm and 8,000 rpm, exhaust gases rushing through the 5-into-1 exhaust manifolds and spewing out the back can only be described an orchestra-like staccato that will awaken the dead. The engine roar gets ever louder; by now, the speedometer has blitzed past 160 km/h, flick the paddle and we’re back on the powerband blasting to another RPM redline.
The exit of the road swiftly approaches, I hit the brakes and the car anchors down with authority, there’s a slight delay everytime the gearbox finds a lower gear, so planning your shifts well ahead of a corner is paramount to utilising all the performance available. Given we’ve been spoiled by trigger-quick changes in the F90 M5 throughout the day, my clumsy downshifts feel slightly abrupt.
I remember shouting expletives to my co-driver, something along the lines of “that sounded better than a Lamborghini”.
Before driving the E60 M5, I figured the E39 M5 would be the high-water mark of the M5 range, a modern car with a manual six-speed, a soulful V8 up front, unassuming looks and a superb chassis underneath you – sort of the best of all worlds.
But, the experience pales in comparison to an E60 M5, a true titan among its brethren of immortals.
In many ways, the E60 M5 broke the mould and had to swallow the bitter pill of angering entire generations of BMW purists, but in many ways, it pushed through boundaries that would have otherwise have limited every successive model. Audi’s RS models of recent time are proof of this.
The styling was no longer subdued but in your face, it looked miles apart from any other E60 5 Series, well if you have put down double of what a normal 5 Series owner has, why not show it. To hell with subtlety, if you’ve got four trumpet sized exhaust pipes sticking out the back, why would you want dress the rest of the car up in drab? The 19-inch concaved wheels brought fitment and stance to the table before that was even a thing, and other subtle highlights, such as the functional cooling ducts on the front fender added detail to the car’s silhouette.
Granted, the SMG 3 gearbox, in retrospect may not have been the best way forward, not since we now have double-clutch gearboxes and torque-converter automatics that can handle upwards to 500 Nm of torque, but it brought technology directly from the racetrack into mainstream series production. And regardless of its slightly delayed response, experiencing its throttle blips before engaging a lower gear during acceleration is sensational.
But the one reason the E60 M5 became my favourite M5 of all time, is its engine. Modestly put, its V10 power unit is a milestone in modern engine design and construction. It is one of the most fascinating, complex and vivacious engines to ever see duty in a production vehicle, and probably never will ever again.
With automotive engineering and manufacturing, in its entirety moving in the direction of downsized displacement, hybrid electrification, and autonomous driving, we can be assured that even BMW won’t go to such lengths to create such a maniacal beast of a vehicle.
Yes, M5s have since gotten faster, safer and more predictable, but none of them capture the raw essence of a racecar in such a profound manner, and nothing sounds even remotely close to the likes of an early-2000s Formula 1 car every time you hit that go-pedal.