There was a span of probably 20 years—from the ’90s through the ’00s—where BMW won almost every comparison test it was involved in, from almost every magazine. It got to the point where readers would accuse publications like Car and Driver and Motor Trend of taking money from BMW. Publications obviously weren’t taking BMW’s money, BMW was just making brilliant cars. This five-way comparison test from the November 1998 issue of Car and Driver, featuring the E39 5 Series, brings us back to that era.
In 1998, the E39 5 Series was still quite new, having debuted just a year prior. At the time, the top-dog model was the BMW 540i, which is what was featured in C&D’s comparison. Under its hood was a 4.4-liter naturally aspirated V8 that made 282 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. There were two transmission choices, a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic, and the car in question used the latter. Remember when 5 Series’ were still offered with manual transmissions?
The cars the 5er had to take on in this test were the Mercedes E430, Lexus GS400, Cadillac STS, and Infiniti Q45t. Of the five cars tested, only three have aged particularly well; the BMW, Mercedes, and Lexus. Neither the Caddy nor Infiniti were appreciated in their own time and neither of them have gotten any better with age. So it’s no surprise that those two were in 4th and 5th place, respectively.
However, the other three were not only great cars then, they’re still great cars for enthusiasts on a budget. You can find all of them for under $5,000, in various conditions, and you can’t go wrong with any of them.
But how did the rest of those three place in the comparison? The Mercedes placed third, which is probably appropriate with the benefit of hindsight. Its V8 was good and its ride was comfy but its interior lacked compared to the others and it was particularly good looking. The Lexus GS400 placed second but only being beaten by a single point, which seems pretty fair looking back. The Bimmer took first place for its killer engine, sweet ride/handling balance, and superb build quality. BMW’s E39 5 Series was an absolute stellar machine in its day that did its talking with the way it drove. Modern BMWs do most of their talking with their extroverted styling and flashy tech. So it’s nice to get a reminder of just how good older Bimmers were and we aren’t just looking at them through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.
[Source: Car and Driver]