What is the sound of one piston slapping?
What is the sound of one piston slapping?
Illustration for article titled 10 Reasons The E60 535i Is Better Than The M5

In recent years BMW has somewhat muddied the water with respect to M cars. First they started making their standard cars available with option packages that made them appear nearly identical to their M equivalent. Then they started releasing M cars that bear the M badge but aren't M cars like the M235 but by and large the true M version of any car has always represented a marked improvement in performance over even the best standard version of the same car. The E60 M5 is no exception. So then my suggestion that the 535 is a better all around car might seem like sacrilege but indeed for most people a tuned (and that part is key) 535 is the better car for a myriad of reasons.


Before we get into the hows and whys let me first put out some of the fire raging in the bellies of M5 owners the world over: your car is absolutely awesome and I say this as a previous owner of a 2006. The S85 V10 M5 was probably the last true 4 door supercar made. Nobody has a bigger appreciation for the sound of the wailing V10 or the instantaneous engagement of the next cog from the often criticized SMG transmission. Then there's the sheer madness of pressing the M button while accelerating just to feel the difference between 400hp and 507. Yes, the V10 M5 is a monster and given BMW's recent direction I think it's safe to say it will go down as the best M5 in history but unless you're road racing on the weekends and driving home from the track there's a better car out there. As a previous owner of an M5 I approach this as someone that's had both cars and has an appreciation for both, not as someone trying to justify their choice of the "inferior" car. So then why is the 535 better?

1. It is insanely, stupidly powerful - In stock trim the 535 is a pretty fun car. It's twin turbo 3 liter inline 6 puts out 300 horsepower at the crank or so BMW says. Much like all BMW turbo mills the 535 tends to be under-rated from the factory and generally puts down nearly it's crank rated horsepower number to the wheels. That was fast enough to make the 550i virtually obsolete. In fact, the 550i was 200lbs heavier up front which made it noticeably nose-heavy, got worse gas mileage and came in at a $10,000 premium over an equally equipped 535, all that for a car that was marginally faster. So the 535 right out of the wrapper is a pretty stout car. Now let's add onto that a tune to get the boost up. Suddenly you find yourself with a 400hp car. Hey that's fast! Yes, yes it is.


It gets better. Let's add an intake to that and a few gallons of e85. Now you find yourself with a car that has a hair over 400 horsepower at the wheels or about 450 - 470hp at the crank and similar amounts of torque. This kind of power is obnoxious and it's in a car that doesn't suffer from the bloat of newer BMWs. In fact the 535 weighs around 3700lbs depending on how you option it. To put that in perspective, it's only about 100 lbs heavier than the equivalent 335. For some more perspective consider that at this point you're working with about 30 less wheel horsepower than an M5 in P500 mode (507hp) and over 100 more ft/lbs of torque.

2. It's a faster street car - Torque is what moves cars. Torque is the reason Audi's new 4.0T A8 picked up a mere 50hp over it's predecessor yet chopped a full 1.5 seconds off it's quarter mile time. Turbo cars have a lot of torque and they generally have it over a much broader portion of their powerband. Now to be fair, the M5 has an amazingly flat torque curve for a naturally aspirated engine but at 380 ft/lbs of torque it comes up about 120 ft/lbs shy of a tuned 535 with an E85 mix which is sitting just a tick over 500. That is a butt load of torque available almost instantaneously in a car that's nearly 300lbs lighter due to it's lighter drivetrain. What this translates to in real life is a car that's faster than the M5 in just about any stoplight to stoplight encounter and pretty much any matchup other than a high speed roll race and even then, you need to be going really fast to see the M5's diminished straight line advantage over the forcefed 535.


3. It's one of the best handling sedans ever made - This one probably requires the least selling. The E60 5 series has long been heralded as one of the best handling sedans ever, regardless of trim. The M5 takes things to a level of insanity that's best exploited on the track but a sport package 535 is no slouch. Take for instance the active suspension which gives you all the benefits of thick sway bars without any of the downsides. It accomplishes this by putting a hydraulic coupling in the middle of each sway bar. During normal driving the sway bars are effectively de-coupled and as a result you don't get the hopping over bumps or the rough ride generally associated with large bars but the moment you start slinging it through the turns the hydraulic coupler pre-loads the sway bar, effectively pushing against the forces acting on the outer side of the car. This results in a car that has almost no discernible body roll in a turn.

Demonstration of BMW's active suspension.

In addition to that the sport suspension gets you a stiffer, lower suspension and wider tires as well as seats with side bolstering aggressive enough to keep you in check but kind enough to retract when the door is open for easy entry/ exit. Stick some good rubber on there and you have a street car that far matches or exceeds the abilities of just about any other modern performance sedan. I can't think of a car I've driven that is easier to drive or more predictable than the E60 5 series. There are cars that make great drivers look just ok and cars that make ok drivers look great. The E60 is the latter and you won't care because you'll be having too much fun. The fact that this is a 4 door sedan is really irrelevant. The E60 isn't only an amazing handling sedan; it's an amazing handling car. The M5 takes those abilities to a level of insanity best exploited at the track and indeed if your plan is to regularly subject your car to sustained road racing the M5 is by far the better car.


4. It gets better gas mileage - In P400 mode (400hp) the M5 will net you about 12 miles per gallon in the city and 18 on the highway, assuming reasonable driving of course. The 535 in it's 400hp tune will result in 18 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway, again assuming reasonable driving. This is especially important when you consider the E60's painfully small gas tank. You're lucky to get 200 miles out of a tank of gas with the M5.

5. It runs on corn - Let's say you happen to be close to a gas station that serves up E85 on it's menu and let's also say that you're the type of person that's looking for an additional 40 - 60hp. Toss in a few gallons of E85, set the tuner to auto-tune and there you have it. This takes you from the standard 400hp tune to roughly 450hp (depending on how much drivetrain loss you think there is). Here's a 535 putting down over 400 horsepower and nearly 430 ft/lbs of torque to the wheels on an intake, a tune and E85. All told, that's an investment of $600 above and beyond your purchase price of the car.

6. It's more reliable - There's a few terms you learn when owning an M5: SMG and VANOS. You learn these terms because these items will fail or experience some kind of issue. It's not an if kind of thing, rather a when (at least in the case of SMG). And when they do fail your wallet will be thousands of dollars lighter. See, the M5 uses a rather unique transmission setup in that it's a full manual transmission with a traditional clutch only without a clutch pedal because you're slow and you're going to ruin the experience with your slow shifts and BMW doesn't want you ruining the experience. So every time you tell the car to go up or down a cog the computer tells a complicated hydraulic system to release the clutch, switch the gear and then re-engage the clutch and it does this in 60 milliseconds. To put that in perspective, semi-auto Ferrari boxes of the same vintage did it in 100ms.


At the heart of this system is a pump that maintains hydraulic pressure. This pump fails and when it fails you lose the ability to shift gears. Your car will inform you that you're about to be $4000 poorer by displaying a red gear cog on the driver information display, affectionately referred to as the Red Cog of Death. Then there's the clutch which costs $4000 - $5000 $2600 when replacement is required and though it can last upwards of 100,000 miles, many fail well before that, especially when driven in congested areas where the SMG system tends to ride the clutch. All of the sudden you're wishing you had that clutch pedal.

So then what about the 535? On stock turbos it's pretty much bullet proof. The most popular tuner (Burger Tuning's JB4) will default to stock boost levels if it experiences an over-boost situation and in my years of lurking on the forums I've yet to see mention of someone blowing their engine. The car isn't without it's problems though. Fuel injectors are a common failure point though not hard to replace. Carbon buildup is another easily remedied problem inherent to direct injection engines and the N54 is no exception here. Others might tell you the turbo 6 engines are notorious for failures of the high pressure fuel pump and the turbos. While it's true that early versions of the high pressure fuel pump were prone to failure, BMW has since released a revised pump with much improved reliability and they increased the warranty on the stock pump to 125,000 miles, regardless of your current warranty status. Turbos generally don't fail but the waste gates do rattle. BMW has also addressed this and again extended the warranty to cover existing cars. 83,000 miles of coverage there.


Other than that, the only consistently failing component is going to be rear tires.

7. It's cheaper to maintain - If you're daily driving your super-sedan and you're in a congested area like me (Los Angeles) you're going to eat through clutches more often on the M5 and when you do they're going to cost you about $4,000 to replace. Your rotors are going to cost you $400… each. These are the major differences but the small stuff adds up too. Differential fluid changes, spark plugs (10 of them), SMG service, the premium you pay to have someone that actually knows enough about the car to service it and basically everything that comes with owning an exotic 10 cylinder car. A lot of M5 owners get tricked by the low cost of entry (low $20,000's for a 2006 w/ higher miles) and then quickly discover that the car might cost them more to own than it did to buy.


The 535 is going to require semi-frequent carbon removal from the intake as well as spark plugs. If you get the manual transmission you'll be dealing with clutch replacement costs as well but this really isn't a car that you want to get a manual in. The Sport Automatic Transmission is amazing and you won't be bleeding off boost between shifts.

8. It's cheap to buy - Take for instance this 2008 for $16,500 or this other 2008 for $17,000, both with the necessary sport package and both with reasonable miles. If you want to get into a 2008 M5 you're looking at a premium of about $10,000. The hard part here is finding a nicely optioned 535. While the M5's are all pretty much optioned to the gils, the 535 was technically the mid-level 5 series and thus they are harder to find with all the bells and whistles. They are out there though and you won't pay much more for a loaded one than you would for a stripped one so hold out.


9. It has an awesome secret transmission - Tick the box for the sport package and you're half way there. Tick another box for the sport automatic transmission and you've gained entry to one of the best automatic transmissions out there. In auto mode the 6 speed ZF gear box is buttery soft but kick the shifter over to the left and press the sport button and you're dealing with an entirely different beast. Upshifts are firm and instantaneous, downshifts are preceded by a blip of the throttle and you have full control over the gear you're in. Want to bounce off the rev limiter in 2nd? Go nuts! I came from a 550i with the 6 speed manual gear box and want for nothing with the auto. I never find myself missing the manual transmission. Pro Tip: SAT/ Sport Auto Transmission is only available in rear wheel drive versions of the car with the sport package and is identified by the presence of a "Sport" button directly beneath the gear shifter as well as a shorter, stubbier shifter.

10. The tuner is the coolest thing ever - Most tuners are dumb. You plug them into the OBD II port, upload a flash and drive the car. What happens happens. Burger Tuning's JB4 tuner is not dumb. It installs between the vehicle's harness and computer and is left in the car. You control it through the steering wheel buttons and interact with the instrument cluster which becomes your menu system. Almost every aspect of the tuner is controllable through the steering wheel controls but that's not all. Here are a few other things.

  • It reads your codes and displays them through your instrument cluster
  • Change tunes on the fly. Go from your 93 octane tune to your race fuel tune to your E85 tune all on the fly. There's even a valet tune that disables the turbos and limits RPM.
  • It auto tunes itself. Throw some e85 in the tank, stick it in map 5 and go for a few wide open throttle 3rd gear pulls. The tuner will constantly determine what the maximum amount of boost is that it can safely run so if you couldn't get to a gas station with E85 for this fill-up don't worry. The tuner will detect this and knock you back down to safe boost levels. Seriously, how cool is that? Answer: really, really fucking cool.
  • Shift Lights! Set your desired RPM and your turn signal indicators will light up when you hit it, telling you to shift.
  • It's safe! When you start the car it will remain at stock boost levels until the oil temperature reaches 160 degrees. Go too far above boost targets and it reverts you back to stock boost levels. I can't remember seeing a stock turbo car with an engine failure and you can go far on the stock turbos.

There's a slew of other stuff but you get the point. The JB4 tuner is what makes this car a contender.


Is it always the better car? No. The S85 M5 is probably the closest you can get to driving a 4 door super car and for the prices it commands used it is a tremendous value so long as you're realistic about the cost of ownership. If you're the type of person that finds themselves taking their daily driver on a race track on a regular basis the M5 is the better car. In fact, in just about everything beyond flat out acceleration the M5 is indeed the better car. It's just that the standard E60 is such a great car to begin with that you need to consider that you might be paying tens of thousands of dollars more for a car who's abilities you'll never fully exploit.

So which is the best one to buy? Unlike the M5, the 535 can be had in many flavors. Sport and non-sport packages, a wagon, xDrive, M-Sport, etc. From a driver's perspective the best version of the car is the rear wheel drive sedan with the sport package and sport automatic transmission. Xdrive (all wheel drive) versions of the car don't get the sport suspension even if you have the sport package and drive entirely too soft. Likewise with the non-sport package rear wheel drive cars which are also too soft for really spirited driving. If you're also looking for the M5 look make sure you get an M-Sport model which gives you larger wheels, M5 style front and rear bumpers and side skirts.


Mike Kopstain is an entrepreneur, owner of a performance auto parts company for front wheel drive 3800 powered GM vehicles and serial purchaser of used luxury cars. He's also a narcissist who writes because he likes to read his own words. That's sick isn't it? Yeah, that's sick.

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