The fourth generation BMW 5 Series hit the market in 1995 when it replaced the previous BMW 5 Series E34. It took the code E39. In 2000 it underwent a restyling that brought changes to the design (first of all we note the new headlights and taillights) and some modernizations on a technical level and in the interior. In 2003 it was replaced by the next generation BMW 5 Series E60. Let’s see the BMW 5 Series E39 review with the most important information, faults and common problems.
Table of Contents
- Impressions and Description
- Reliability and Issues
- Engines and their Problems
- Conclusions and Advice & Tips for buying used
Impressions, Interior and Comfort
During its production, the BMW 5 Series E39 proved to be one of the best cars in the E-segment. Just in the middle of the 90s, the modern German automotive school was developing tremendously. BMW 5 Series E39 has been significantly improved compared to the previous generation. It has improved a lot in terms of comfort, equipment and prestige.
Rich trim packages have become widespread and poor ones, on the contrary, very rare. In terms of mechanical components, the car was both modern and very reliable, but we’ll talk about this in more detail later.
Unfortunately nowadays it can be difficult to find a BMW 5 Series E39 in perfect condition. Despite the great initial reliability of the car, several important problems can appear over the years. In this article we will see if the maintenance costs will not be exaggerated to use a similar vehicle.
Platform and Body
In the design of the platform, many elements in aluminum alloy were used to reduce the weight of the car. The platform has a longitudinally installed engine and rear-wheel drive.
The front suspensions are an evolution of the previous MacPherson scheme, this time with a double joint. The rear suspension is multilink, with links anchored to a subframe.
The high-end German car has a body design that is both dynamic and elegant. There is not the great aggressiveness typical of the most modern cars, but a lot of seriousness and robustness are noticeable. Even today, despite their great age, the E39 BMW 5 Series can still be defined as aesthetically pleasing, especially after the restyling/facelift. Right after the restyling came the well-known “Angel Eyes” (headlights with ring-shaped position lights) which became a typical element for every subsequent model.
Aesthetically, the car is attractive, both before and after the restyling, especially in the more equipped versions.
The fourth generation BMW 5 Series is available in two body styles: sedan (4-door) and Touring (station wagon). The German car has a length of 4775 – 4806 mm, a width of 1801 mm and a height of 1415 – 1486 mm. The wheelbase is 2830 mm. The weight of the car varies from 1485 to 1830 kg depending on the version.
Comfort and Practicality
Seeing as this is a 5 Series, you’d expect a large amount of interior space, but the reality is different. This is an older 5 Series that isn’t nearly as big as a modern generation. The wheelbase of the BMW 5 Series E39 is comparable to that of the BMW 3 Series F30, so the amount of interior space is also similar.
On the front seats anyone will be able to position themselves comfortably, but the rear passengers may feel a little lack of space if they are particularly tall.
The trunk/boot is also not huge by modern standards – only 460 l on the sedan. The Touring (Station Wagon) version has a boot volume ranging from 410 l to 1525 l. Under this aspect the competitors Audi A6 C5 and Mercedes-Benz E-Class W210 show themselves better. However, we must recognize that the shape of the trunk of the BMW 5 Series E39 is quite comfortable and practical.
The suspensions are configured very well and are able to offer both very good control and stability on the road and good ride comfort. All together it makes the BMW 5 Series E39 an enjoyable car both in and out of the city. Even on longer journeys you shouldn’t get so tired.
Interior and Equipment
The interior also has a pleasant design and very good ergonomics. The quality of the materials is very good and their resistance over time is great. The central panel is slightly inclined towards the driver and this choice once again recalls the philosophy of the brand which puts the driver’s pleasure first.
On some elements, serious signs of wear may appear at high mileage. First of all, of course, the most used elements wear out: the steering wheel trim, the gear knob, the climate control buttons and more. At high mileages, wear and tear on the seat upholstery is also unavoidable.
The good part is that all traces of wear and tear present in the cabin can be eliminated if desired. Some pieces can be replaced, others can be repainted or restored.
The soundproofing is very good and the interior remains silent in any situation.
The amount of electronics inside has increased significantly. This offered the possibility of implementing many modern systems (for that period) for both safety and comfort. For example, ABS and traction control (ASC+T) were installed to improve active safety. To increase comfort, you could have electric adjustment of mirrors, steering wheel and seats, multifunctional steering wheel, automatic climate control, parking sensors, rain sensor, integrated Siemens telephone and much more.
The multimedia system can be of different types. Basically it was quite simple, but optionally you could have the system with display and increased functionality. Of course almost all the features are outdated nowadays. Audio quality can be very good.
In the EuroNCAP safety test, the BMW 5 Series E39 got 4 out of 5 stars. Crash safety is quite good, but to decrease the risk you need good tyres. Tires are almost the most important thing for safety on the road.
Reliability and Issues
Gearbox and Transmission
On the BMW 5 Series E39 you can still find manual gearboxes paired with powerful engines. Even at that time, premium cars were almost exclusively fitted with an automatic transmission.
The manual transmission is very resistant and should not cause any particular problems. A weak point is the dual mass flywheel which is very expensive. Often it is better to repair it rather than replace it. The clutch is also quite expensive.
After 400 – 500 thousand km (250 – 300 thousand miles), bearings and synchronizers will have to be replaced.
ZF 5HP automatic gearbox
The ZF 5HP automatic gearbox as well as being quite fast for its period, is also very reliable in general. Obviously it has some weaknesses, this is especially true for the versions from the early production period.
This gearbox does not like overheating and can suffer from premature wear of the torque converter and its lock-up clutch. Usually the automatic transmissions of the BMW 5 Series E39 with powerful V8 or diesel engines are more stressed.
Among the least expensive elements that will need to be changed over time are various solenoids and sensors. The valves in the hydraulic block (Valve Body) can wear out over time and this will cause rough gearbox operation. There can be also problems with the drums.
In general, with normal use and regular oil changes, the 250,000 km (155 k miles) mark is exceeded without major problems. If the gearbox is treated very well, in some cases it is possible to reach even more than 500,000 km (300 k miles) without major investments.
GM 5L40E automatic gearbox
GM 5L40E (General Motors) automatic transmissions are rarely encountered with 6-cylinder engines. These gearboxes don’t perform as well as the ZFs.
With aggressive use there will be heavy wear on the torque converter and its lock-up clutch. It can be completely worn out already at 80,000 km (50 k miles), causing major vibrations and oil leaks. Fragments caused by wear end up in the oil.
Dirty oil will quickly ruin the hydraulic block (Valve Body) and irregular operation with rough shifting will appear. The oil pump will also suffer a lot. This, in addition to dirty oil, does not like long running at high speeds. As the pump wears out, oil pressure is lost, and the number of possible problems suddenly increases.
Early production GM gearboxes could have problems with the thermostat. If this gives way, the gearbox overheats and accelerated wear of various elements occurs.
When it comes time to repair this automatic transmission, it usually costs a relatively large amount. If, on the other hand, frequent oil changes are made and you drive calmly, the gearbox lives without major problems at least 200 – 300 thousand km (125 – 185 thousand miles).
Drivetrain and Transmission System
If you decide to buy a used BMW 5 Series E39, you will need to carefully check the drive shaft (cardan shaft) which begins to fail over time. For the rest, in general the transmission is quite resistant and long-lasting, provided that the car is used in a not too aggressive way.
Suspensions, Steering and Brakes
As we mentioned, the suspension is very nice on the BMW 5 Series E39. It was one of the best sedans of the late 90s under this aspect. We have also mentioned that extensive use of aluminum elements has been made and this can lead to large repair costs.
Unfortunately with age these wonderful suspensions start to give problems. Among the first elements to give way will be the bushings of the front arms, stabilizers and silent blocks. Even some arms and links may need to be changed around 150,000 km (95 k miles).
To put everything back in order you have to invest quite large sums of money. In general, owners say that the BMW 5 Series E39 suspension needs major repairs approximately every 150 – 200,000 km (95 – 125 k miles). The duration obviously depends a lot on the quality of the roads and the driving style.
Due to the high prices of original spare parts, on many cars you can find non-original elements or elements in bad condition which greatly spoil the driving sensations.
At high mileages play may appear in the steering system. Failures of the steering rack and power steering pump also happen.
The brakes are effective and pleasant. With normal use both the discs and the brake pads have a good life.
The brake booster is located in a box under the left dust filter, which can become clogged and cause accumulations of water. This water can come into contact with the brake booster, so you have to pay attention to noises when braking.
Electronics and Electrical System
The German car can give several electronics problems. This is caused by both the complicated electronic system and advanced age. Many of the problems are caused by broken wires or oxidized contacts.
Problems are most often caused by climate control temperature sensors, airbag sensors, ABS sensors and xenon headlight position sensors. Window regulators can also stop working. The fuel level sensor can fail and the procedure to replace it is complex and expensive.
On the various displays mounted on board (of the climate control and of the on-board computer) the pixels can burn and therefore it is difficult to read the information.
If the BMW 5 Series E39 consumes more fuel than it should, the Siemens engine control unit and lambda sensors may be to blame. Both of these items cost a lot.
Headlights and taillights can lose their waterproofing and begin to accumulate moisture. If you don’t solve the humidity problem over time the light stops working completely.
The battery is quite stressed by the large amount of current that the complicated electrical system consumes. Generally the batteries need to be replaced every 5 years. Also there can be current leaks for various reasons. These power leaks can drain the battery even after 2 – 3 days (in the worst cases even overnight) of parking.
The body has a medium resistance to corrosion. This is not to say that used BMWs 5 Series E39 are completely rusted, but on cars that live in places with a particularly severe climate, some traces of rust can be seen. Furthermore, many of the cars on sale have suffered more or less serious accidents and this factor also greatly affects the resistance to corrosion.
The E39 5 Series was produced at that time when the paint was still of good quality and its layer was thick. Nowadays however, since so many years have passed, it is difficult to find a car with the paint still in good condition. Scratches and a loss of initial shine can be seen on almost all cars. Chrome elements are almost always in bad shape.
You have to listen carefully to the operation of the service belt. If it makes noises, has an erratic movement or is under excessive strain, the reason could be the near death of the generator (alternator) or the air conditioning compressor. Both of these elements may require large investments.
The alternator is very sophisticated on the BMW 5 Series E39 and has liquid cooling. It is very expensive and does not last very long. It can stop working even every 70 – 100,000 km (45 – 65 k miles). To save money, a simpler one with air cooling can be mounted.
Over time, radiator leaks begin to occur.
Engines and their Problems
Diesel engines list :
|Version||Engine||Power||Top Speed||Acceleration||Fuel Consumption|
|520d||2.0 l M47D20||136 hp||206 km/h or 128 mph||10.6 s||5,9 l/100 km
US: 39,8 mpg
UK: 47,8 mpg
|525td||2.5 l M51D25T||115 hp||198 km/h or 123 mph||11.9 s||7,9 l/100 km
US: 29,7 mpg
UK: 35,7 mpg
|525tds||2.5 l M51D25S||143 hp||211 km/h or 131 mph||10.4 s||8,3 l/100 km
US: 28,3 mpg
UK: 34 mpg
|525d||2.5 l M57D25||163 hp||219 km/h or 136 mph||8.9 s||6,7 l/100 km
US: 35,1 mpg
UK: 42,1 mpg
|530d||3.0 l M57D30||184 hp||225 km/h or 140 mph||8.0 s||7,2 l/100 km
US: 32,6 mpg
UK: 39,2 mpg
|530d||3.0 l M57D30||193 hp||230 km/h or 143 mph||7.8 s||7,1 l/100 km
US: 33,1 mpg
UK: 39,8 mpg
Petrol/Gasoline engines list :
|Version||Engine||Power||Top Speed||Acceleration||Fuel Consumption|
|520i||2.0 l M52B20||150 hp||220 km/h or 137 mph||10.2 s||8,5 l/100 km
US: 27,7 mpg
UK: 33,2 mpg
|520i||2.0 l M52TUB20||150 hp||220 km/h or 137 mph||10.0 s||8,4 l/100 km
US: 28 mpg
UK: 33,6 mpg
|520i||2.2 l M54B22||170 hp||226 km/h or 140 mph||9.1 s||8,9 l/100 km
US: 26,4 mpg
UK: 31,7 mpg
|523i||2.5 l M52B25||170 hp||228 km/h or 142 mph||8.5 s||8,5 l/100 km
US: 27,7 mpg
UK: 33,2 mpg
|523i||2.5 l M52TUB25||170 hp||228 km/h or 142 mph||8.4 s||8,5 l/100 km
US: 27,7 mpg
UK: 33,2 mpg
|525i||2.5 l M54B25||192 hp||238 km/h or 148 mph||8.1 s||9,3 l/100 km
US: 25,3 mpg
UK: 30,4 mpg
|528i||2.8 l M52B28||193 hp||236 km/h or 147 mph||7.5 s||9 l/100 km
US: 26,1 mpg
UK: 31,4 mpg
|528i||2.8 l M52TUB28||193 hp||236 km/h or 147 mph||7.5 s||8,9 l/100 km
US: 26,4 mpg
UK: 31,7 mpg
|530i||3.0 l M54B30||231 hp||250 km/h or 155 mph||7.1 s||10,2 l/100 km
US: 23,1 mpg
UK: 27,7 mpg
|535i||3.5 l M62B35||235 hp||247 km/h or 153 mph||7.0 s||10,3 l/100 km
US: 22,8 mpg
UK: 27,4 mpg
|535i||3.5 l M62TUB35||245 hp||247 km/h or 153 mph||7.0 s||11,5 l/100 km
US: 20,5 mpg
UK: 24,6 mpg
|540i||4.4 l M62B44||286 hp||250 km/h or 155 mph||6.2 s||10,5 l/100 km
US: 22,4 mpg
UK: 26,9 mpg
|540i||4.4 l M62TUB44||286 hp||250 km/h or 155 mph||6.2 s||11,8 l/100 km
US: 19,9 mpg
UK: 23,9 mpg
|M5||5.0 l S62B50||400 hp||250 km/h or 155 mph||5.3 s||13,9 l/100 km
US: 16,9 mpg
UK: 20,3 mpg
Many people might opt for diesel engine versions thinking they’ll save money thanks to lower fuel consumption, but this isn’t always the case. In some cases, maintaining an older diesel can be more expensive than a petrol/gasoline one.
2.5 l M51D25S Engine
For example, in the case of the 525 tds version with the 2.5 l M51D25S diesel engine, fuel consumption can exceed 11 l per 100 km in the city (US 21,4 mpg, UK 27,7 mpg). Despite the large consumption these engines also have a relatively small power for the large German car. Consequently, one cannot even have active driving.
Also, these engines are not without problems. Among the most common are those with broken pistons, fuel pump and cooling system pump. Be that as it may, not all engines necessarily encounter these problems, some specimens exceed 500,000 km (310 k miles) without major problems.
2.5 l – 3.0 l M57 Engines
The 525d and 530d versions are fitted with 6-cylinder engines of the M57 family. These are respectively the 2.5 l M57D25 and 3.0 l M57D30 engines. They are very similar from a technical point of view with some differences related to power and displacement. They are reliable and strong engines, but given their age, they can have some problems.
The optimal choice will be the 3.0 l diesel engine. It offers good power and at the same time quite low fuel consumption. The 2.5 L will be suitable for a more relaxed driving style.
The mechanical part of the engines is very resistant and their maintenance has acceptable costs. In most cases they exceed 300,000 km (185 k miles) without major problems. They don’t tend to overheat, they don’t tend to consume oil, they have good torque and acceptable fuel consumption.
However, there may be some problems. Almost always these are caused by poor maintenance or great age. They encounter oil leaks, oil pump breakage, they are sensitive to cooling system malfunctions, and they do not have a very reliable thermostat. You also need to pay attention to the condition of the crankshaft pulley which could fail every 100,000 km (60 k miles). There may be problems with the injectors which do not like poor quality diesel and overheating.
Engines that have had power increases (chip tuning) may also have a higher operating temperature which in some cases can lead to cracks of the cylinder block, valves or pistons.
The secret to a long engine life is always the same: frequent oil changes, regular cleaning of the cooling system, use of high quality diesel.
2.0 l M47D20 Engine
The 2.0-litre diesel found on the 520d is from the M47 series. These engines are also very reliable and are generally similar in strength and problems to the larger M57 series engines described earlier. The distribution chain lives for less time and will have to be replaced already at 150 – 180,000 km (95 – 110 k miles). Fortunately it is located in the front part of the engine and therefore there are no particular difficulties in changing it.
It must be said that it is too weak for the heavy BMW 5 Series E39, but has fuel consumption of less than 8 l per 100 km (US 29,4 mpg, UK 35,3 mpg). On the 520d there are problems with the fuel pump, turbocharger, dual mass flywheel and converter pulley.
The petrol engines fitted to the BMW 5 Series E39 are also very reliable, especially when compared to the new BMW N-series engines which have been fitted to more recent models.
On BMW 5 Series E39 with gasoline engines you have to pay close attention to the cooling system. A malfunctioning thermostat, a broken cooling system fan or a problem with the radiator can easily overheat the engine and then have its consequences. You have to be careful to have clean radiators and not to have any coolant leaks.
Before the 2001 restyling, the M52 series petrol engines were mounted which had an aluminum block and nickel-plated cylinder walls (later cast iron liners were installed). After the restyling of 2001 the petrol engines fitted became of the M54 series. The new engines had cast iron cylinder liners, a new intake, new ignition system and a new pistons. Unfortunately due to technical differences and due to the higher operating temperature, the M54 series engines may prove to be slightly less durable than the M52 series.
M52 family Engines
In the M52 family there are engines with displacement: 2.0 l, 2.5 l and 2.8 l.
The 2.0 l 150 hp engine mounted on the 520i versions is very common on the pre-facelift BMW 5 Series E39. Even this engine is too weak for the big German car and can only suit calm people who are not in a hurry. Its real fuel consumption is around 12 l per 100 km in the city (US 19,6 mpg, UK 23,5 mpg). After 1998 the engine was updated and got variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust camshafts. This new configuration got the name of Double Vanos. Thanks to this, the power increased up to 157 hp.
The 2.5 l of the 523i versions will be slightly more performing, but the 2.8 l petrol engine with 193 hp remains one of the best mounted on the BMW 5 Series E39. Unfortunately the consumptions are not small.
All engines in this family have similar problems. The nickel cylinder coating can wear out over time due to incorrect use or simply due to high mileage. These engines are very afraid of overheating, which can deform the cylinder head and burn its gasket.
The cause of frequent misfires is usually clogged hydraulic compensators (hydraulic pushers). The valve of the DISA variable geometry system can in some cases become detached and fall into the cylinders. There are cases of problems with the membrane of the crankcase ventilation valve and with the Vanos system.
After 200 thousand km (125 thousand miles), oil consumption may appear due to wear of the piston rings.
M54 series 6-cylinder Engines
The 6-cylinder engines of the M54 series were installed in the BMW 5 Series E39 after the facelift. They are available here in 3 displacements: 2.2 l, 2.5 l and 3.0 l.
The M54 series engines are very reliable, but in some cases they suffer from increased oil consumption. Generally the cause of consumption is a malfunctioning crankcase ventilation system. Oil consumption is so widespread that this is considered more a feature than a defect of these engines. The truth is that an engine in perfect condition does not consume oil. The valve of this system should be replaced every 2/3 services.
In general they presented themselves as relatively simple, powerful and long-lived engines. If treated well, these engines should not require major investments before 300 – 500,000 km (185 – 310 k miles). You have to pay attention to the condition of the gaskets, there may be a need to replace the plastic elements of the intake manifold (inlet manifold).
In the event of slight overheating, oil consumption could increase due to clogging of the piston rings. If action is taken immediately, replacing or cleaning the rings may be enough to solve the problem. It is better to avoid active driving with a cold engine because the oil pump and its chain could fail.
The optimal choice could be the 3.0 l engine which offers a good compromise between reliability and power. It has electronic throttle, aluminum block with cast iron liners and variable valve timing on both camshafts. With this engine the German sedan offers good performance. The good power, however, is paid for with a relatively high fuel consumption. Because of this, many decide to mount the gas system and fortunately the engine tolerates it quite well.
The large V8 petrol engines are from the M62 series. These engines are very nice and reliable. Of course, there is also a significant fuel consumption on these engines. The main problems of these engines are high operating temperature, fragile oil seals and fragile valve stem seals.
The nickel coating of the cylinders does not tolerate bad maintenance and poor quality petrol.
All engines have a durable timing chain. However, the manufacturer recommends carrying out periodic checks given that there have been cases in which it is worn out already at 150 – 200 thousand km (95 – 125 thousand miles). If all goes well it can last up to 300,000 km (185 k miles).
There are cases when the Double Vanos system has to be replaced completely already at 150 – 200,000 km (95 – 125 k miles). The cause of erratic idling is often a leak in the intake manifold. The unit can suffer from coolant and oil leaks from under the valve cover.
The engines treated very well manage to reach even 500,000 km (310 k miles) without major problems.
Conclusions and Advice & Tips for buying used
Lovers of this German manufacturer consider the BMW 5 Series E39 one of the best cars ever produced which when new was able to offer an excellent mix of reliability, pleasure of use and great quality of materials.
A car in good condition will not be problematic, but this does not mean that maintenance will be inexpensive. Spare parts costs are high because the car is part of the premium segment.
If you manage to find a BMW 5 Series E39 in good condition, you will only have great satisfaction thanks to the very good handling on the road, the comfort of the suspension and the great luxury of the interior (especially in the very rich versions).
The most important thing is to find a car in good general condition.