Mind blowing. That’s what I thought of the second-generation BMW M5 in a time when the Ferrari Testarossa still captivated teens watching "Miami Vice." Even though it looked almost indistinguishable from a run-of-the-mill 535i, it had a straight-line acceleration nearing a Ferrari, and only came in a manual.
Why now? Here are six reasons:
1. Because racecar (engine).
Part of the early S38’s charm is its rawness, thanks to the single-mass flywheel and individual throttle bodies — the lumpy idle and neutral rollover chatter tells you the engine would rather be roaring above 3,000 rpm than resting at a stop light. It’s got one of the best sounds for a straight-six, and doesn’t need to pump fake noises into the cabin.
2. Blast to rev.
3. The last hand-assembled M car.
4. Style that blends the classic and modern.
So what’s better, classic versus modern? Take a look below and decide for yourself —note the size difference with the new BMW 550d:
Newer M cars also announce their presence to the world with M badges slapped on every panel and flashy aero bits. In contrast, older ones have a Euro-snobbish appeal where those that know, know.
5. The resale value bottoming out.
Pristine examples fetch around $20,000, whereas high-mileage but well-maintained cars go for about $12,000. Due to stance bros and naïve 20-somethings beating on them expecting the reliability of a hand-me-down Camry, clean examples get rarer by the day--especially considering BMW brought less than 1,700 of them to the North America to begin with. They don’t dip much lower than $10,000 unless it’s beater, which you’ll want to avoid (more on that later.) While they probably won’t inflate to obscene E30 M3 prices, it means I won’t take a haircut should I decide to sell down the line. According to Hagerty’s price guide report, it looks like the value is starting to trending upward, though I'm not holding my breath.
6. More DIY friendly.
That said, owning these machines have their heartaches, and here are three reasons you may want to avoid an old M5:
1. Resale value dropped, parts/labor prices haven’t.
If your 10-grand Bimmer breaks, you’re not getting repair quotes of a used Honda Accord, or even a standard 5-er. You become familiar with the dreaded acronym “NLA,” or no longer available, forcing you to scavenge on forums, Craigslist or eBay. And woe to the M5 that has worn synchros; most shops can’t rebuild those Getrag 280 transmissions due to the difficulty in getting parts.
2. Routine maintenance adds up.
Even though the E34 enjoyed a rep as one of the more reliable BMWs, parts still fail with more frequency than your average grocery pusher. Cooling is a weak point due to the company inexplicably crimping plastic bits on key components like the radiator, or the water pump impeller. Ignore those components or a valve adjustment for too long and you’ll have a blown engine. Since very few have wrenched on these machines, you can’t take it to your local budget mechanic for serious work either.
3. A “mechanic’s special” will suck the non-DIYer dry.
Fixing a beat-up M car can easily match the price of a pristine one. Even a well-maintained example will have wear and tear, so be prepared to spend a couple hundred bucks a month on maintenance. Neglect it and see repair prices quickly skyrocket. As conventional wisdom goes, regardless of the purchase price, it will be a $17,000 car.
Is it worth it? There’s a love-hate relationship with the car, though it’s mostly in the former. Although I grimace at the bill when replacing a guibo or leaking seals, those woes vanish when romping on the throttle, and seeing the M5 effortlessly build speed when the rpm crests 4,000.
With hopped-up press cars like a new M6, I’m accustomed to getting revved at, but sitting at a red light I’m invisible in this car. The usual race-happy culprits—like V-6 Mustangs with American Racing wheels, or slammed BMW 330i’s with random M3 bits—ignore me when the light turns green. In their eyes my car might as well be a champagne-colored Camry.