For over thirty years, the BMW M5 has been one of the most immediately recognizable names in the motoring world. Its heritage traces back to the BMW M1, and carries into the current decade with the asphalt incinerating and low-production M5 CS. With BMW M celebrating its fifth decade of manufacturing exhilarating automobiles, what more perfect time could there be to get into a vintage – or newer – M car? Last time we looked at the storied BMW M3. But today, we’ll look at what may be an even more important car – the BMW M5. And hopefully by the end, you’ll have a better idea about which one might be a good fit for you.

E28 M5

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Arguably the most historically important car on the list, the first ever M5 debuted in 1985, but the US only ever saw a 1988 model year. Though the genesis of the M5 badge can really be traced back to the E12 M535i – featuring the “M90” engine – the E28 M5 was the first M road car to get a truly special powerplant. The M88/2 in the E28 M5 is a nearly identical to the M88 inline six previously powering the BMW M1 racecar, only substituting a few pieces of hardware and newer fuel injection and engine management.

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Photo by BMW USA

Which explains why it only trailed the Ferraris and Porsches of the day by a couple miles per hour at terminal velocity, and from zero to sixty beat them both. Sadly, the US got conned out of the hot version, making do with “only” 255 horsepower from the derivative S38 engine. But it’s still an outrageous performer for the time. Even more special, it was hand assembled by select technicians in one of two plants (either Munich or Garching). And if you were in North America, you only got one option – heated seats. They all came in black, and they all got tan interior. Except 101 cars – 30 in the US – which received a black interior. Globally, only 2241 E28 M5s ever found their way into customer hands.

For what now might be obvious reasons, picking up an E28 M5 is becoming a tough find – and European versions might as well be unobtainium. Not long ago, these cars could be had in driver-quality for around the price of a new Honda Civic. But enthusiasts have caught on, and now on the rare occasion that a car does show up for sale, even high-mileage examples are trading around $50,000. So, much like the E30 M3, one of the most rewarding to drive cars is quickly becoming reserved for the well-heeled collector looking for the ultimate M piece.

E34 M5

From 1987 until 1991, the United States saw a whole lot of nothing in way of the M5. The song remains the same here, with North American models once again getting bilked out of the hottest versions of the M5, sticking with an improved S38 carried over from the E28 M5. But we’re even worse off with this one – we don’t get the wagon, we don’t get the six-speed, and we don’t get any of the unique “Special Editions” that BMW M built with unique colors and packaging. What a scam. But hey – at least you can choose from more than one color combination on this one. Plus, it’s still a hand-built M car, on the same line that assembled the preceding M5.

Photo by BMW Classic

So, the E34 M5 you want is the 3.8 liter Touring (wagon) with the six-speed Getrag. And why shouldn’t you – it’s a rare, 340 horsepower, manual BMW wagon. But I’ll contend that the one you should buy is the more restrained, North American version – the 3.6 liter still revs out nicely and is 9/10ths of the car the European specification car is. And it can be had for literally half the price. They’re even more readily available than their E28 brethren, despite only 1,484 US versions being produced. And, due in part to that low production volume, I suspect the E34 M5’s value has nowhere to go but up. Thus, the E34 M5 is for the smart buyer and driver – getting you an unmistakably “M5” experience, but at a palatable price and no fear of driving the value out of the car.

E39 M5

While the E28 M5 could certainly be argued as the most important car on this list, the E39 makes a solid contender for the spot of most iconic. It’s powered by an S62 V8 paired with a six-speed manual Getrag gearbox and came with lots of standard amenities like heated seats, a moonroof (in the US), and navigation. To a lot of enthusiasts, it represents the intersection of the best of vintage BMW M and a “just right” level of modern tech. It doesn’t hurt that it has a fantastically communicative and well-weighted steering, a 7,000 rpm redline, and devilishly good looks.

And keeping with M5 tradition, the E39 M5 has quickly started rising in value as they get harder and harder to find. But prices have normalized a little bit, with clean drivers starting at around $30,000 – and with widespread electrification and turbochargers everywhere today, the E39 M5 represents a wholly unique driving experience that I absolutely believe is worth every penny of $30,000. Desirable colors – like Le Mans Blue or Imola Red – and interiors will command considerable premiums, but generally recoverable on resale. Who is the E39 M5 for? Everyone! It’s approaching classic status (already there?) and it’s universally hailed as one of the very best driving cars money can buy.

E60 M5

After freshly ruffling the feathers of purists missing the inline six-cylinder from the E39 M5, BMW went even further with the E60 and introduced the five-liter S85 V10. Unsurprisingly, the somewhat unhinged S85 engine is where most of the E60 M5’s charm lies. Its 500 horsepower and 8,250 revs of absolute insanity, and you can even find one with a ZF six-speed manual if you look hard enough – a North American car exclusive, and a spicy one to boot.

The one you want is a 2010 (updated iDrive 2.0, improving the interface immeasurably), probably with a manual, and I’m not sure what other options matter. With so much of the car’s character coming from the engine, though, I’ll break from character and even recommend the SMG III transmission as a palatable option. It’s significantly different from the SMG II found in other models, and while far from perfect, doesn’t completely ruin the car. Another option is to import a E61 M5 Touring, as they’re on the cusp of becoming legal in the States.

The E60 M5 works for someone who is all about the aural experience. The V10 sounds downright exotic in the current landscape of EVs and turbocharged cars. While the car boasts 500 horsepower, it is heavy, and still isn’t what I’d call fast nearly a decade later. But it’s quick enough and really shines on highway runs when you’re using the right half of the speedometer. Pick one up around $30,000 and you can’t really go wrong – just be prepared to finance the maintenance accompanied with an F1-derived V10. It’s all fun and games until somebody’s rod bearings fail.

F10 M5

The F10 M5 yet again decided to horrify purists en masse by downsizing the decadent V10 into a V8; but that’s not where the problem was. The problem was, this was a bona-fide, turbocharged M car. The blaspheming engine in question is the S63, a twin-turbocharged V8 generating a rubber-scorching 560 horsepower and 500 pound-feet of torque. This is basically the same unit as the powerplant in the E70 X5 and X6 M, but with beefed up components (i.e., intercoolers and turbos) and some upgraded hardware. The F10 is thoroughly modern; it’s got massive 15.7” front brakes and 15.6” rears, fully adaptive driving modes (Comfort, Sport, Sport+), 20” wheels, and an optional “Competition Package” that added 15 horsepower, revised suspension tuning, and added a quicker steering rack, alongside some exterior cosmetic touches.

With only 8,088 units of the F10 M5 being produced for North America – and less than 20,000 worldwide – the F10 promises to be a future classic. The one you want is probably one of the 118 manual, Competition Package cars produced for North America. But the car is fast enough that an argument for the DCT can be made. A collector will certainly opt for a manual car. A driver will likely be just fine with the DCT, and better for it – they’re easier to find and carry a lower premium. The F10 M5 is best for the person that wants fast RWD fun, and is probably the best option for someone who wants to modify an M5, too. Thanks to its turbocharged S63 engine, the F10 is only a handful of quick bolt-on modifications away from well over 600 horsepower. The Ultimate Burnout Machine.

F90 M5

The F90 M5 likely needs no introduction. It’s a 600 horsepower, all-wheel drive monster that can drive itself in traffic (with the optional Driving Assistant Plus). A traditional automatic replaces the dual-clutch unit in the F10, and a slightly tweaked S63 V8 heart beats under the hood. While an amazing engineering feat, it couldn’t be a more different car than the original E28 M5 it’s descendent of. But it’s a performance junky’s fantasy come to life. It’s even got a super exclusive “CS” version – but if you don’t already have one, you’re probably too late.

The F90 M5 is the absolute best performer by the numbers, and that will make it very alluring to some people. Fans of older BMWs may find it a bit heavier, wider, longer, and overall bigger – because it is. It dwarfs cars from the early 2000s and before. But it’s truly amazing how well 600 horsepower and all-wheel drive can mask those shortcomings. At this point, we’re reasonably sure this will be the last fully gas-powered M5, and it for sure sets a benchmark as one of the fastest production sedans ever made – just like its predecessors. It’s a good buy for someone who wants the competency of AWD, and the best technology and interior that money can buy – while still maintaining the performance benchmark that the “M5” badge has implied for so many years.

Conclusion

Just like that we’ve covered six generations and over 30 years of BMW M5 history. Hopefully you learned something – but even more importantly, hopefully you’ve decided on which M5 to buy! Luckily, there really aren’t any wrong answers when it comes to vehicles like these. Happy driving!