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The Boss - E60/E61 BMW M5

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

There was a time, not that long ago, where the big reveal of a new M car was a treat for which patience was key. There was no instant gratification via a Go Pro stuck on the end of a stick talked at by an influencer on YouTube, the big reveal would nearly always be from a printed monthly magazine. And occasionally, if you were really lucky, some of those rare M car reveals even made it on to the nation’s favourite car programme, BBC 2’s Top Gear.

It was on one such Sunday evening back in 2005 that an episode of Top Gear was shown that made quite an impact on me, and for a couple of reasons, not all of them pleasant. For it was a night that the gregarious Mr Clarkson performed a review on an M Car that I was beside myself to see and hear, and that was the video of the brand spanking new 5 litre V10 M5.


I mean this was a totally crazy thing to do, to place an engine that big and with that many cylinders in a family saloon car; the only other car manufacturer in the whole world to do something that crazy at that time was Lamborghini, and they made high end supercar exotica. And even more amazing, especially for BMW, you could buy an Estate version too, and that hadn’t happened since they launched the left-hand drive only E34 M5 Touring way back in 1992.


And so, as Top Gear began and part 1 of the M5 review was broadcast my great excitement was immediately replaced by a sinking heart, Clarkson was slating the hell out of the car. He called it “shouty”, “ugly”, “flashy”, and “a massive disappointment”. I recall being so offended, after all, I had read the positive print reviews already, that I openly shared my foul mouther displeasure with no one in particular other than Clarkson on the telly. I was devastated.


But then, thankfully, Part 2 started and after a few more moans and groans Clarkson pushed that little button on the steering wheel, simply marked with the letter “M”. Clarkson’s overly dramatic negativity was immediately replaced with his overly dramatic positivity. Phew, he does like it! One of his best lines from that film just has to be, “You want to take it on? Don’t bother. This is quicker, it’s faster, it’s more astonishing…. It’s motoring perfection!”. To quote James Brown, I guess the M5 had “paid the cost to be the boss”.


It’s a review that I have never forgotten to this day, and if you haven’t seen it already, then look it up on YouTube, it’s worth 9 minutes of your time if only to see Clarkson at his most, (choose one), annoying / animated.


Of course, it wasn’t just Clarkson’s review that was somewhat difficult for the E60 (Saloon) and E61 (Tourer) models, it had already taken a fair amount of criticism for the way it looked too. It was and still is one of the most distinctive looking 5 series in the near 50 production years of the model. When launched in 2003, its design was, it’s fair to say, universally criticised.


Davide Arcangeli penned the finished bold design under BMW’s infamous Design Director, Chris Bangle.Bangle had arrived at BMW in 1992 himself under Product Development Chief Wolfgang Reitzle. It was a time when models had a safe family look, one model leveraged from the next.


The E60/61 5 series was therefore a huge step change design wise and dynamically compared to the previous E39 model; the flame surfacing design strategy played out to its maximum effect with almost no smooth edges to be seen anywhere. Right from the eyebrowed headlights at the front, the strong high shoulder crease carries along its length, leading round to the almost afterthought looking boot lid placement, but with those original angular rear lights somehow softening everything through their long lashed eye balls, clearly feline in their execution.

Despite this sharp suited design, the car was labelled “ugly” and “fat” from some less reserved sections of the motoring press. I myself had a base Tourer version at the time and tellingly, although I really liked that car as it was just perfect with the two toddlers we had at the time, I never recall giving it that telling last “look back” as I stepped away.


But time has been kind to the E60, and I think particularly so for both of the M5 models. These two models were given a significant exterior and muscular design overhaul versus the standard cars by English designer Karl Elmitt, he of M3 CSL fame. The larger dished 19” wheels covering the bulging arches, along with the front wing side vents, four rear exhausts, boot spoiler (E60) and diffuser, all add up to what I think is without doubt one of the best looking three box car designs BMW have ever produced, and certainly one of the Bangle era’s finest hours.


Of course, looking the part is always important for any BMW, not alone an M Car. But it’s what’s under the skin that makes this particular M Car totally unique, and particularly under that big piece of Aluminium skin up front, “This car was always going to have 500 hp, nothing less”, said Gerhard Richter, head of BMW’s M division at the time. For those that like the technical stuff as I do, here you go: The S85 engines was 5 litres, had an Aluminium alloy engine block cast at the BMW light alloy foundry in Landshut, Germany (of F1 fame), a 90-deg V to join two identical five-cylinder banks for its low vibration and comfort characteristics, 10 individual electronic controlled throttle bodies and a bi-VANOS variable valve timing. And at the time, this M5 had the most powerful ECU ever used in production car history.


Now how the output of this engine was deployed was via a unique series of power settings not seen on any BMW before, or since. There are three driver-selectable engine modes: P400, P500 and P500 S. At start up, the car defaults to P400 or 394 hp, P500 increases the power to the full 500 hp (507 PS), and then the P500 S mode keeps the engine at the same power output as the P500 mode, but adds a more aggressive throttle response. The Maximum RPM? Well this was a race car like, being at 8,250rpm, and remember, this in an executive saloon.


The engine design and output performance were so highly rated across the industry that it impressively won awards every year for four years straight from its release:

  • 2005 International Engine of the Year, Best Performance Engine, Best Above 4.0 Litre, Best New Engine

  • 2006 International Engine of the Year, Best Performance Engine, Best Above 4.0 Litre

  • 2007 Best Performance Engine, Best Above 4.0 Litre

  • 2008 Best Above 4.0 Litre

Arguably less highly rated, was the Getrag SMG (Sequential Manual Gearbox) III 7 speed with single clutch gearbox that was fitted. Interestingly the US market also benefited from a 6-speed manual gearbox a year after launch in 2006, but that was never offered anywhere else.The SMG III was the last hoorah of the SMG box fitted to a BMW, and although shift times were as quick as 65 milliseconds in its most aggressive setting, the SMG technology was eventually replaced with the Dual Clutch Transmissions technology in the next M Car generation, the E9X.


Another production first on the E60/61 M5 was the M button on the steering wheel and the ability to program it within the iDrive system. Through a multiple-choice set-up, the driver could control everything from the Electronic Dampers, through to its DSC Traction Control, Power, Throttle mapping and SMG shift change timings. Whilst at the time it was lauded for being complicated, it started a trend in programmable M driving modes which remains on the higher specified M cars to this day. In fact, the latest F90 M5 does not have one but two M buttons sitting either side and atop of the steering wheel boss, there’s progress for you.


So, with all of this impressive drive train and technology employed, how did this translate in to performance figures when coupled with the not insignificant kerb weight of 1855Kg, and 1955Kg for the Touring version? It was a simple answer, easily. The E60 M5 was the world’s fastest 4 door saloon at the time of its release, with the official 0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) acceleration figure is 4.7 seconds (magazine tests recorded figures down to 4.1 seconds), and with the 155mph electronically restricted top speed removed with the optional M drivers package, the top speed was raised to 190mph. Although with no limiter at all, a frankly staggering 205mph could be achieved; that V10 could gulp some serious air, and of course fuel, but more of that later.


Interior wise, the M5 was the height of cossetting luxury. The seats themselves, with or without the automatic inflating side bolsters, were eminently comfortable. And beyond the various M touches like the 200mph speedometer and 9,000rpm rev gauge, other tech such as a heads up display was available to the discerning executive M car enthusiast.


Driving


Fast forward 15 years and as our Covid-19 lockdown starts to ease, photographer Dean Grossmith and myself have been allowed out to meet up, socially distanced of course, with fellow Car Club member Warren Whitney Smith and his awesome Silverstone II M5 saloon. I am not sure what it is about this particular colour, but I have always thought the M5’s shape really pops in this light blue metallic hue with a wonderfully subtle contrast to the metallic silver 19” Style 166M alloys.


Opening the driver’s door and that reassuring clunk as the lock unlatches instantly reassures that this is an upmarket M Car. Greeting you inside is a swathe of sumptuous leather, this particular example fitted with the Extended Merino leather, also in Silverstone II; it’s a great combination. As I sit down in the driver’s seat it feels like I have slipped into my favourite armchair, there is no mistaking this cabin for a lesser upmarket M car such as an E90 M3, although what they do have in common is that slightly higher than expected driving position. It’s probably my long bodied 6’ 3” frame, but I feel that I’d be more comfortable sitting another couple of inches lower.

A turn of the key and there is nothing of note to hear from inside the cabin, only when you step outside is that familiar clatter of the start up routine to be heard, before the car eventually takes a deep breath and settles into its quiet rhythm. In some ways its quietness is a slight disappointment, I know there is a V10 up front and I want to hear it. Thankfully I don’t have to wait long. As we head out of Ashdown Forest, we eventually join the A22 and faster sections of the roads quickly appear, not enough to have the full M experience, but enough to take the engine revs above 2,000rpm for the first time and where the sound of that ten cylindered masterpiece first makes its voice heard.


As we flow with the traffic around the twist and turns of the A22 I talk to Warren about how he likes the car set via the M menu. The one button that makes a more significant difference than in other M cars I have driven is the EDC or Electronic Damping. Leave it in Comfort mode and just as Warren says it would, it feels wallowy, push it into a corner and the weight shift creates much more body roll than I expect, however, place the EDC into even its first Sport setting and the M5 becomes taut; this is Warren’s preferred default setting.

This car is well very damped and even with 89k miles on the clock, this M5 feels extremely well screwed together with no squeaks and rattle from the interior, only a light jangling of a few coins in the central armrest can be heard in the quiet cabin. Talking of coins, we must spend a few of them on VPower, albeit very reasonably priced at the moment, before we head on to faster roads.


This V10 does have a slightly worrying drinking problem, the iDrive is showing we are averaging 15.3 mpg for the day. “She will do a reasonable 22 mpg on a long journey” Warren assures me, a wry smile on his face.


At last we reach the M25. The M button is pushed, I pull a lever and bring the gearbox in to Manual model, drop it to third, merge onto the quiet inside lane and then punch the throttle. What happens next is both glorious and slightly frightening at the same.


The rear hunkers down, the revs start to climb. What a glorious sound, NO OTHER BMW SOUNDS LIKE THIS! I pull a paddle. A brief pause, the SMG takes a sharp intake of breath, now I have fourth. The revs climb rapidly. What an immensely powerful and tuneful engine this is, the revs are climbing faster and faster towards that 8000rpm plus redline. Boy does she go, she is really feeling alive now!

Only then do I catch sight of the speedo. The brakes are rapidly and firmly applied, quickly scrubbing off enough speed to ensure I blend in with the rest of the sparse moving traffic. This M5 is a class act, the way it cossets you as a driver and passenger is first rate, and yet if you want it to go humble a supercar it will. Is there enough Theatre in the way it goes about its business? Perhaps not as much as I’d like, a louder exhaust would be first on my wish list, but there again, if you want all the fun of the fair you could buy a similar aged less executive M car. As Warren says with a laugh, “it’s a bit of a clown’s car really, all power, noise and a bit clunky”.


I know what Warren is saying, the E60 M5 is wonderful combination of the exotic, the sensible and the crazy. I’d like to imagine that the initial E60 M5 kick off meeting at M headquarters started with one of those Americanesque introductions such as, “Right everyone, we need you to think OUT OF THE BOX with this next generation M5”. The thing is, it seems not only did they think out of the box, but they incorporated every single one of those crazy ideas into this M5, and that’s just brilliant.


Of course, the ownership proposition has to be embraced knowing that these cars are not cheap to run. They have to be serviced correctly by the right specialists and BMW dealerships. And like all M Cars, an E60/E61 M5 needs to be used frequently, warmed correctly and driven properly - getting that engine up to temperature before you do so is an absolute must, the oil temperature gauge is there for a reason, right? Of course, if you do your research you will hear of some horror stories with these cars, especially engine related, with seemingly earlier examples more prone to rod bearing shell wear, which if not checked, can cause catastrophic engine failure; sampling the oil with frequency is a necessity, just as it is with the V8 M3’s S65 engine, they are closely related. But find a good one, and there are some relative bargains to be had with the Saloon right now. The Tourer, being far rarer with only 1,025 being built versus the Saloon’s 19,564, seemingly commands a good £10k premium.

As I exit the M25 I enjoy the last of the A roads running in to our final destination for today, Chilworth in Surrey. I leave the car in M mode, the V10 squeezed as often as possible to enjoy that epic noise one last time before we pull to a stop. After initially forgetting to hand the M5’s key back to Warren as I step out, I take along look back at this astonishing machine. And whilst I stand there smiling and nodding appreciatively there is just that one tune playing in my mind from earlier, “Look at me, you know what you see, you see a bad mutha”. This M5 is The Boss.

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