BMW 5 Series (E39): best cars in the history of What Car?

We're looking for the best car in our 47-year history, and want you to name the winner. Today, senior reviewer Neil Winn makes the case for the E39 BMW 5 Series...

E39 BMW M5 front

On sale 1995-2004 | Number sold 113,207 (UK)

Before we begin, let’s address the elephant in the room: the fourth-generation BMW 5 Series, often referred to as the E39 after its model development code, never won our overall Car of the Year title. That’s right, the greatest car in What Car? history (at least in my humble opinion) never received our most coveted award. 

That’s not to say we got it wrong back in 1996 when we instead gave the trophy to the brilliant Peugeot 406; it was, without question, a thoroughly deserving winner. But perhaps What Car? road testers of the period didn’t realise quite how dominant a force BMW’s new 5 Series was going to become, with the E39 going on to rack up an unprecedented seven What Car? category wins between 1996 and 2003.

E39 BMW 5 Series nose

During those seven years at the top of its class, the E39 5 Series not only took on and defeated its original contemporaries, but their replacements as well (for example, both the Saab 9000 and its replacement, the 9-5, were roundly beaten, despite the former being a previous Car of the Year itself).

Even all-new models such as the Audi A6 and Jaguar S-Type couldn’t put a stop to the E39’s dominance, something we highlighted in our 2000 Car of the Year issue when we said: "Five years on from the 5 Series’ first win in this category, rivals have come and gone, got better and more refined, but they’re all still playing catch up. If BMW’s engineer’s are smiling, they can be forgiven."

But let’s rewind a bit. What made the E39 5 Series so great in the first place? Well, if we look back to our first group test with the then new 5-Series in March 1996, it’s clear to see that BMW pretty much nailed the executive car formula right from the off. Not only was it more “captivating to drive” than the Saab 9000 and Mercedes E-Class thanks to its “enticing chassis”, but it was also the quickest car of the group, the most comfortable and featured the highest quality interior. It’s little wonder we ended our review with a prophetic quote: “We’ll be surprised if anything betters it for some time – unless it’s the imminent 2.8-litre 528i”. 

E39 BMW M5 dashboard

Indeed, buyers were spoilt for choice when it came to engines, with BMW offering a wonderful line-up of punchy straight-six and V8 petrols, plus a range of innovative diesels.

The 530d in particular was something of a watershed moment for diesel executive saloons: we noted in 1999 that it was the first diesel to “lift matters onto a different plain” by coming “so eerily close to behaving like its petrol equivalent”. 

And then there was the high performance M5. With a 394bhp 4.9-litre V8 up front, it was tyre-shreddingly potent, yet accessible, or as we put it at the time: “It’s a real Jekyll and Hyde car; an executive express one minute, as nimble and chuckable as a hot hatch the next”. 

I recently had a chance to sample BMW UK’s beautiful low-mileage example and, more than anything, I was struck by just how modern it felt. For example, the interior is reassuringly over-engineered, with beautifully damped buttons and dense, soft-touch materials used throughout, plus the whole dashboard is angled towards the driver, allowing you to easily reach crucial controls on the move. I’d go so far to say that it represents a high point in BMW interior design.

E39 BMW M5 rear

In addition, while the M5 was the sportiest model in the line-up, the driving experience highlights what was so great about all E39s: the wonderful balance between ride comfort and body control. With a relatively soft setup, it's supple enough around town to soak up the worst of urban imperfections, yet controlled enough when pushing on, meaning it works for both driver and passenger.

So, in conclusion, not only did the E39’s compelling spread of talents net it an unprecedented number of consecutive Executive Car of the Year category wins back in the late '90s and early 2000s, but it still has the ability to surprise us. I can totally see why we gave it a lifetime achievement award just before it went off sale, and believe it’s done more than enough to be recognised as the best car in the history of What Car?. I just hope you agree.

Come back tomorrow to read about our next contender for the title of best car in the history of What Car?: the Volkswagen Golf Mk5

For all the latest reviews, advice and new car deals, sign up to the What Car? newsletter here

Read about more contenders for the title of best car in the history of What Car? and find out how you can vote >>

Read our full review of the latest BMW 5 Series >>


Prefer something modern

Today, the 5 Series has become so big and classy that we classify it as a luxury car. But what are the best modern models over in its old stamping ground, the executive car class? Here we count down the top 10 – and reveal the one to avoid.

10. Mazda 6

Save money on a new Mazda 6 with What Car? >>

Mazda 6

The latest Mazda 6 offers strong but quiet diesel engines and plenty of room for passengers, plus Mazda's infotainment system is second only to BMW's for ease of use. Only the fact that the 6's low-speed ride is firm and the handling less precise than you might expect stops it finishing higher.

Read our full Mazda 6 review >>


9. Jaguar XE

Save money on a new Jaguar XE with What Car? >>

2019 Jaguar XE front

Taking on the German brands in the executive car market is a big task, but Jaguar has made a good go of it with its junior saloon, the XE. It's offered with a strong range of engines and rewards keen drivers with excellent steering and sharp handling. It's let down a little when it comes to interior quality, but a generous equipment list should entice company car drivers.

Read our full Jaguar XE review >>


8. Mercedes C-Class

Save money on a new Mercedes C-Class with What Car? >>

2019 Mercedes C-Class front

The C-Class is one of the big three when it comes to executive cars – the other two being the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series, which feature further up this list. Merc's car does a lot well, too, combining strong and efficient engines with a smart interior and lots of toys. However, the ride is rather firm on standard suspension.

Spinner