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BMW E39 5-Series (1996-03)

words - Joe Kenwright
The BMW 5-series is a popular mid-size combination of prestige 7-series styling and V8 mechanicals at the top end while offering the more frugal sixes and agility of the popular 3-series at the entry level

As the last 5-series before the new BMW look, the E39 stands alone with its more traditional BMW styling. Joe Kenwright unravels what can be a confusing model range.

BMW's long model runs delivered a smooth new 5-series in May 1996 featuring a generational advance in styling and major engineering changes to counter slick new models from Audi and Mercedes-Benz.

Under pressure to match the Audi A8's lightweight alloy construction, BMW refined the steel construction of the 5-series delivering a body shell that was 80 per cent more rigid with a weight increase of only 10 kg. The comprehensive use of aluminium in suspension, engine and transmission parts delivered an overall weight loss of 15 kg.

In combination with a 10 per cent improvement in aerodynamics, the new model delivered a big boost in efficiency, crash safety and performance. As the car ages, some of these lightweight components can generate problems and expense when the margin for abuse and neglect is reduced.

Its BMW family look and neat proportions made the E39 look smaller than its actual size. Although it was slightly bigger in some dimensions than its Mercedes-Benz E-class rival, it can be mistaken for the smaller 3-series to the untrained eye unless there is a context to highlight its extra size.

This was one of the catalysts for BMW's radical new look which gives each new BMW model its own clear identity. Although the E39 was dated by today's radical new model more than what previously occurred with BMW's evolutionary model changes, it still has a strong following as an elegant and timeless prestige model.


  • May 1996: Launched as a 523i and 528i only with 2.5-litre and 2.8-litre versions of the all alloy in-line six cylinder M52 engine.

  • Dec 1996: Better-equipped 535i and 540i models join the range with all alloy M62 V8 engines and different steering system.

  • July 1997: New 528i Touring Wagon released with weight loss of 25 kg, split access liftback and self-levelling rear air springs.

  • Jan 1998: Previous 540i is renamed 540i Executive and a new 540i with a lower spec plugs the gap between 535i and 540i Executive. All V8 models gain overhead side airbags.

  • Aug 1999: Urban attack-resistant BMW 540i Protection model released. M Sport option offered on all models except 523i with aero body additions and other upgrades.

  • Jan 2000: Minor specification upgrades in all models.

  • Jan 2001: Major facelift with new headlights, different front spoiler and grille. New six-cylinder M54 engines generate new 525i and 530i models with major power increases. Touring wagon upgraded to 530i. All 5-series models now split into Executive and Sport specifications. Previous 523i and 528i are dropped.

  • March 2003: High-line option pack offered on Executive. High-tech pack offered on Sport.

  • Sep 2003: All new E60 series launched. E39 discontinued.

The first 523i is the cheapest E39 entry point in the mid-$20,000 range with a $3-4,000 premium for the 528i. Best value buys include the last 528i models coming off lease from the original owner in the low $30,000 range. Later 525i Executive starts in the low $50,000 range with a $2000 premium for the 530i. Premium V8 models start in the high $20,000 range for the first 535i while the top shelf 540i can fetch an extra $5-10,000 with prices going up in $5,000 increments depending on kilometres and year. After the Jan 01 facelift, the 535i starts in the high $60,000 range with the 540i starting in the mid-$80,000 range.


Body tolerances and shutlines were very fine in this model and not easily restored if the car has been in a major shunt or repaired cheaply. Check the paint finish and gaps on all panels for consistency. Check for damaged lights and crunched alloys.

Most electronics glitches of previous model eliminated but check that all instrument panel display functions are operational. Check operation of early cupholders, power windows and sunroof. Airbag sensors can also malfunction.

Although grey import 5-series examples are less common than for 3-series, check delivery history carefully and make sure you don't pay too much for a car where the kilometres are not genuine.

Consider a pre-purchase inspection by a BMW specialist who is familiar with how the car should drive and how it left the factory. High prices make it profitable for a backyarder to cut and shut two wrecks.

As most BMWs are leased, check that vendor is actually in a position to sell the car and that lease is paid out on delivery.

Early six cylinder engines suffered from cracked plastic thermostat housing. If owner missed warning signs and engine overheated, a failed head gasket can reveal engine block stud problems where the area around the stud can crack and lose tension. Compression test is therefore a must on these models.

All late model BMW engines have oil galleries that can sludge up and generate oil starvation if the oil is not changed often enough under constant short runs. Make sure that maintenance records have covered time requirements as well as distance as overdue coolant and hydraulic fluid changes can wreak havoc in all aluminium componentry.

The V8 engines are long-lived but have an alloy thermostat housing that requires routine attention. Glitches in the coolant temperature sensor wiring can cause the whole car to play up. PCV valve fails and can cause rough running.

Underbonnet heat is starting to harden plastics and seals on early cars for cracked or split hoses and plastics and generating leaky seals and gaskets.

Replacement engines are readily available and not as expensive as expected considering new price of car. Many examples have already crossed 200,000 km without problems and if an example has terminal engine or transmission problems, it still may be worth considering at the right price.

The auto transmission, which has a sequential manual function on most models, is generally trouble-free providing it gets a routine check and specialist maintenance.

Disc rotors are routine replacement items so make sure that brakes meet minimum thickness for pads and rotors

Sophisticated front and rear suspension depends on many bushes and joints that soften or wear and will need progressive replacement after 100,000 km to maintain tight handling and controlled ride.

Good quality replacement tyres are essential if car's quality feel is to be retained.

Check for underbody damage especially cracked alloy suspension components and engine and transmission casings if car has run over kerb or hit something underneath.

Technical data confirmed by Northern BM (03) 9499 3088




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    Published : Wednesday, 1 December 2004

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