We trace the lineage of the world’s most prolific super sedan from the car that started it all through to next year’s model.

How icons are made

The Jaguar MK.II may have been the first super sedan, but the BMW M5 is the most prolific. Introduced at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1984, each generation since has combined a subtle four-door sedan shape with some of the finest engines the world has ever known. Before the M5, you had to choose: sports car or family car. Although it never sold in massive quantities (probably because of its relatively high price) it nevertheless created a niche that continues to grow. Other German automakers like Mercedes-Benz and Audi copied the M5 mould with great success, but so too did more budget minded manufacturers. Do you think we’d have the Subaru Impreza WRX STI or the Mazdaspeed 3 if the M5 hadn’t shown the world you can have driving thrills and a family too?

1985 M5

Generation: 1st

Handbuilt: Yes

Engine: 3.5-litre I6

About: It was based on BMW’s mid-size sedan, a car aimed at executives. Then, someone at the motorsport division had an inspired idea: put in an exotic six-clyinder engine originally developed for the M1 supercar. The result was the fastest four-door production car in the world. All cars were handbuilt by BMW M technicians. Only a few thousand were produced, making them a sought-after collector’s car these days. For the man with a family though, the only thing that mattered was now, finally, he could have fun behind the wheel and still get his kids to school.

The S38B35

The engine that powered the M5 was born for the racetrack. Transplanted from the M1 supercar and racer, and shoved into this innocuous family car, it made for explosive performance. To get the best out of it, you had to push it. The wonderful, raw mechanical sound it made can’t be matched by modern engies. Put simply: they don’t make ’em like this anymore. And, if you ask us, that’s a sad thing. These days, plastic parts have replaced metal, and all that engineering is hidden underneath cheap covers.

Auto journalists get all nostalgic about this car for the reasons discussed in previous slides, and as much as I want to rave about it, the example I drove wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. By modern standards it’s not fast, and the driving position is awkward. On the (well-used) example I drove, the controls lacked the precision and feedback I’d heard so much about. But, the pull of this car is so great, that I want to give it a second chance.

1989 M5

Generation: 2nd

Handbuilt: Yes

Engine: 3.6 / 3.8-litre I6

About: Often a forgotten part of the M5 story, caught between the famous original and the cult-classic 3rd-gen car that came after. By this point, the M5 was far too large to be considered a sports car, and it firmly established itself as an Autobahn-stormer. It completely retained the formula of the original: luxury interior, lots of practical space, high-performance engine mated to an excellent chassis. These are bargains on the used market now, if you’re interested.

The straight six

This was the last M5 to use the venerable BMW straight-six. By this point, the engine was an old design and it was at the limit of development. Every possible horsepower had been eeked out. Each of these motors was hand-built by M technicians. Still, it marked the end of the straight-six era that made BMW the envy of every engine design department the world over. (Photo:


This was the first generation of M5 to get a wagon bodystyle. Today, they are extremely rare and quite collectible among enthusiasts. What’s the one thing more practical than a sports sedan? A sports wagon. But, that’s a story for another day.

1998 M5

Generation: 3rd

Handbuilt: No

Engine: 4.9-litre V8

About: This was the first M5 that wasn’t handbuilt in Garching or Munich and it was also the first to use a V8 engine. It marked a significant departure from tradition, but nobody complained too much when they saw the results. Probably the best all-round M5 ever in terms of comfort and usable performance. In the photo, you can see just how, well, normal it looked. That was a big part of the appeal.


Still just as luxurious as you’d expect on the inside. This ain’t no lightweight special. You get A/C, power everything, leather, wood, sunroof and several stereo options.


When the third generation car made its debut in 1998, navigation was just over the horizon. That allowed BMW to make a simple, clean and classic design for the dash that has stood the test of time extremely well.

394 horsepower

Compact and strong. It was the most powerful engine ever to grace the front of an M5 up until this point. Back when it came out, 400 hp was near supercar levels of grunt. The horsepower race was on, and BMW wasn’t about to let its flagship sedan loose out to anybody.

2005 M5

Generation: 4th

Handbuilt: No

Engine: 5.0-litre V10

About: The one and only generation of the M5 powered by a V10 engine. As you can guess, the horsepower race was more competitive than ever. It had four more cylinders compared to the original M5, and double the horsepower. Yup, this monster made 500 hp. It was large and heavy, but still frighteningly quick. Gearboxes on offer were a seven-speed SMG auto, or six-speed manual. High-tech overload. But was it a step too far? What was next? V12?

The V10

It didn’t run into the redline until over 8,000 rpm and it’s undoubtedly one of the most exotic engines ever from BMW. It could propel the considerable girth of the M5 from 0-100 km/h in well under five seconds. If you had a need for speed and a family, there really wasn’t any reason to get a Porsche or a Ferrari – they were hardly any faster.


The 4th generation M5 came in wagon “Touring” configuration, but unfortunately it was never sold in Canada. To date, it is only the second generation of M5 to come in wagon form. Given the mandate of the car (practical performance) it’s actually surprising BMW doesn’t do a wagon model every time.

2012 M5

Generation: 5th

Handbuilt: No

Engine: Twin-turbo V8

About: Sleeker, more fuel efficient, and more powerful than the old V10 car. M division is taking a surprising turn and moving to smaller, turbocharged engines. Instead of a V10 engine, this car will have a V8, plus a pair of turbos. Proof that BMW reached just a bit too far with the old model. Will this be the best one yet? We’ll find out soon.

560 horsepower, 502 lb-ft of torque

It’s the same motor found in the recent X5 M and X6 M SUVs. The bespoke, handmade motor in the original M5 that was bred for racing, but this engine was built to haul large SUVs around suburban streets. Is it just us or has some of the romance been lost there?

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