In 1985 the M5 wasn’t unveiled to the public so much as howitzered at it. BMW capped a run of Seventies racing success by aiming its motorsports arm at road cars. First came the M1 supercar; then, at the Amsterdam Motor Show, the Bavarians unleashed fresh hell. The M5’s specs were ferocious. Sixty arrived in six-and-a-half ticks as the 5er hauled up to a 153-mph top speed. There was a limited-slip diff for days-long drifts and a 282-horse straight-six ripped from the M1 itself.

This is an excerpt from our recent article, "The Search For the Greatest Sports Car of All Time," where we rounded up eight of the most important enthusiast cars ever made, track-tested them at Lime Rock Park, and declared one ultimate winner. Enjoy this chapter on the BMW M5, but be sure to read the entire eight-part story.

Peak sport sedan: a leather-lined shift console alongside aggressively bolstered thrones.
Syd Cummings

But the most impressive number: four doors. Sedans were simply not allowed to go that fast. Consider one of this M5’s contemporaries: Ferrari’s sharp-edged, mid-engine 328 GTB, with two fewer doors, two more cylinders, and 16 fewer ponies under the hood. The M5 would hand the Ferrari its shorts on an arrow-straight interstate, and Enzo’s best couldn’t shake the Bimmer on a winding two-lane. If it seems like supercar-quick sedans grow on trees these days, it’s because they’re rooted in this slab of Bavarian bedrock.

The 3453-cc M88 engine (we got the catalyzed, slightly detuned S38) was central to the M5 ethos. The mill offered the same four-valve, crossflow heads from the M1 but with unique pistons and connecting rods. With a 10.5:1 compression ratio and equal-length headers, the M88 kicked out 251 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm. Peak power arrived at 6500 rpm, just a sneeze away from the M88’s lofty 7000-rpm redline.

Of particular note: the sophisticated Bosch electronic fuel injection mated to an already competent engine. The system was so advanced for its time, it lured mechanic (and later TV presenter) Steve Matchett from Ferrari to BMW, kick-starting his career in Formula 1.

On Lime Rock’s Sam Posey Straight, the M5’s engine shines. But mostly purrs.
DW Burnett

That gemlike engine still sparkles; it’s the soul of this M5. The S38 surges away from Lime Rock’s pit lane with a silky yet urgent thrum, content to hum just above idle for the moment. A stomp of the throttle reveals a smooth, insistent powerband from an engine always willing to spin faster.

“The engine felt eager to rev well past 7000 rpm,” I wrote after the first laps in the M5. “I wonder what lives above 8000?”

Even before the engine starts shouting, steering feel leaps down your wrists. Every cliché about The Ultimate Driving Machine comes to life through a three-spoke wheel packed with a lively omniscient energy. There’s more firm-wristed effort in the corners than you expect, but somehow delicacy, too. Mid-corner, the wheel delivers a silken slithering sensation, as if the sidewalls and tread blocks are nibbling snacks from your fingertips.

1988 BMW M5

3.5-liter inline-six

256 hp/243 lb-ft

five-speed manual

3420 lb


The word “friendly” comes to mind. At Big Bend, Lime Rock’s sweeping first turn, the M5’s body leans in for a kiss against the chassis then feels unfussed from apex to corner exit. Absolutely neutral. The front end doesn’t push or gripe even a millisecond before the rear tires give. If anything, this car was meant to be thrown loose into every corner, coaxed forward by bootfulls of throttle into each apex.

The M5’s cabin ergonomics allow that play. The tall greenhouse feels airy and open, its thin, delicate pillars adding to the sense of ease by allowing in acres of light. The hood dives away from sight. All the bells and whistles are present: a powerful stereo, onboard diagnostic computer, and headrests that adjust with the touch of a button.

You sense this M5 could deliver 1000-mile interstate trips with couch-cushion comfort. But the engaging chassis and engine wouldn’t allow any slacking off. You’d rather bomb the back-road route in an M5.

It's a joy. So damned good. Now I get it.

“It’s relentlessly German,” deputy editor Bob Sorokanich said. “You want to buy a pack of cigarettes and a Kraftwerk cassette and run the autobahn W.F.O.”

Comments about the car’s German-ness—its BMW-ness—filled our notebooks. We owe so many of those perceptions to the baseline this M5 established. The way this E28 blends ease with intensity, quality with style, and versatility with focus, won over more than a few converts on the R&T staff.

Syd Cummings

“Here’s a car I had zero expectations for; I just don’t have a frame of reference for Eighties BMWs,” senior editor Zach Bowman said. “But it’s a joy. So delicate, so damn good. Now I get it.”

When a surprise rain fell in sheets, as it does at Lime Rock, owners and editors scampered into the other cars. One by one, engines coughed to life as rolling icons scampered under the eaves by pit lane, too finicky, too beloved, or simply too valuable to sit out in the weather. I leaned the M5’s seat back instead and watched the squall pound against my 153-mph living room.

At this moment, I thought, you could drive this car—and only this car—away from our test, content.

For 35 years, ever-faster supersedans have been tearing at the envelope this M5 established. None have matched this Bimmer’s tactility, character, class, and charm. And they likely never will.

To find out which vehicle won our eight-car shootout, click here.