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BMW’s first M5 may still be their best

A black BMW M5 parked on gravel.

The best BMW? Probably.
image: Kyle Hyatt / Jalopnik

I hate the saying “the grass is always greener on the other side,” it’s often true. Things are always better when you don’t (or can’t) have them. As a former owner of a BMW 535is E28, I have always assumed this was the case with the M5. Of course, I could never have afforded an M5, not with the meager wages of the BMW Seattle parts division at the time, so that’s up for debate anyway.

Fast forward 12 years. My E28 is long gone, but I miss that car fondly. The straight-six M30, with only 3.5 liters of capacity, is pretty shallow, but it produces decent power and sounds good. The chassis is great and I will always love the styling of the E28 – shark nose, off-centre exhaust and lots of glass. It was the pinnacle of the 1980s for me. So when BMW invited me to drive some historic machines from their collection at Monterey Car Week, I jumped at the chance to slip behind the wheel of the original M5.

Now, the BMW E28 M5 is a special American car. This means that, when new, it’s available in any color combination you want, as long as it’s black with a tan interior. It is powered by the S38B35 3.5 liter inline six, instead of the M88/3 spicier engine they have in Europe. Our version makes 254 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque – better than the 182 hp and 214 lb-ft of the US version of the 535. But the European M5 annoyed our Wheaties with 282 hp and 251 lb-ft due to the lack of emissions controls like a catalytic converter. The M5 is only available with a five-speed manual transmission.

BMW M5 engine.

The S38B35 is a spectacular engine and produces unreal noise.
image: Kyle Hyatt / Jalopnik

At the heart of the first-generation M5’s driving experience was the six-legged inline car. It doesn’t do anything particularly fast; The build-up of revs takes longer than you might expect, and so does reducing them, but that makes for a smoother ride of the M5. The gearshift is also extremely long. You don’t have to flick through the gears with your wrist as much as using both your arms and shoulders to competently cycle through them, but that use is rewarding, and while it’s not exactly Honda’s, you can hardly miss a shift.

The exterior of the M5 does little to give away its underpinnings. There’s a single M5 badge on on the grille, and another out back; the squishy foam trunk-lid spoiler and blacked-out trim are the only clues that this isn’t a run-of-the-mill 5-series. Inside, basically everything is clad in hand-stitched tan leather, which highlights the E28’s fantastically airy greenhouse and excellent visibility.

The front seats are power-adjustable, with the controls placed next to the emergency brake handle. If you’re unfamiliar with E28s, they can take a bit of a hunt to find. The E28’s instruments are some of my all-time favorites; the check panel on the headliner and the computer to the right of the gauge cluster evoke the cockpit of a fighter jet (cliche, but this is my review, so deal with it). Everything in BMW’s well-preserved example works, including the air conditioning, and it’s a very nice place to spend time.

Rear end of BMW M5.

I’m betting a lot of people in very expensive exotics saw this view of the M5.
Photo: Kyle Hyatt/Jalopnik

When it comes to everyday usability, the E28 M5 set the standard for all M5s to come, because despite its wild drivetrain, it’s still a 5-series. This means that the ride is excellent, if a little soft by modern standards.You need to be careful with throttle lift-off mid-corner, thanks to the yuppie-killer semi-trailing-arm rear suspension, but everything is predictable, and thanks to big, soft tires and communicative steering, you can play at the limits of grip without too much fear of careening off a cliff and into BMW valhalla.

Braking is good, particularly for a car from the 1980s. The pedal is firm and easy to modulate, and stopping power is consistently impressive. The fact that the M5 isn’t an especially heavy car at just 3,153 pounds definitely helps. The E28 was the first BMW 5-series to get ABS, too, which is always nice, even if by today’s standards it’s not the most sophisticated system.

Top-down view of BMW E28 M5 interior.

Luxurious by 80s BMW standards, but still no frills.
Photo: BMW

Unlike CSL I 3.0 drive car in Monterey, M5 can be used as a normal car. It’s perfectly comfortable cruising at 25 to 40 mph, thanks to modern amenities like power steering and a five-speed transmission. The clutch is also much easier to adjust.

The duality of this 1988 E28 M5 is still very impressive in 2022. It acts as a regular transport as it does at sports sedan speed. It’s unbelievable, and it makes my old 535s feel like a giant tractor by comparison. In fact, the M5 makes every other sedan I’ve driven since then – Audi 200 Turbo Quattro and Mercedes 190E included – feels like a tractor. The fact that the E28 M5 has maintained its magic over the years makes driving it all the more special. With prices starting to rise rapidlyI doubt there’s an E28 M5 in my future, but holy shit, do I ever lament that.

Black and white photo of the interior of the BMW E28 M5.

A lovely interior, but you know it’s old because the press photos are black and white.
image: BMW car

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