As much as I hate the saying “the grass is always greener on the other side,” it’s usually true. Things always look better when you don’t (or can’t) have them. As the former owner of an E28 BMW 535is, I always assumed this was the case with the M5. Of course, I could never afford an M5, not on my meager BMW Seattle parts department salary at the time, so it was moot anyway.
Fast forward 12 years. My E28 is long gone, but I remember that car fondly. The M30 straight-six, just shy of 3.5 liters, was pretty agricultural, but it made decent power and a good sound. The chassis was great, and I will always love the E28's styling — shark nose, off-center exhaust and lots of glass. It’s peak 1980s for me. So when BMW invited me to drive a handful of historic machines from their collection at Monterey Car Week, I jumped at the chance to slide behind the wheel of the original M5.
Now, BMW’s E28 M5 is a U.S.-spec car. This means that, when new, it was available in any color combo you wanted, as long as it was black with a tan interior. It was powered by the S38B35 3.5-liter inline six, rather than the spicier M88/3 engine they got in Europe. Our version made 254 horsepower and 243 lb-ft of torque — better than the U.S. 535’s 182 hp and 214 lb-ft. But Europe’s M5 pissed in our Wheaties with 282 hp and 251 lb-ft thanks to its lack of emissions controls like a catalytic converter. The M5 was available exclusively with a five-speed manual gearbox.
The heart of the first-gen M5 driving experience is that long-legged inline-six. It doesn’t do anything especially quickly; building revs takes a little longer than you’d expect, and so does dropping them, but that makes it easier to drive the M5 smoothly. The gear shift is also incredibly long. You’re not flicking through gears with your wrist so much as using your whole arm and shoulder to transition through them authoritatively, but it’s rewarding to use, and while it’s not Honda-precise, you’re unlikely to 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.
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.
Unlike the 3.0 CSL I drove in Monterey, the M5 is usable as a normal car. It’s perfectly comfortable cruising around at 25 to 40 mph, thanks to modern conveniences like power steering and a five-speed gearbox. The clutch is much easier to modulate, too.
The duality of this 1988 E28 M5 is still impressive in 2022. It works as regular transportation just as well as it does sports sedan speeds. It’s incredible, and it makes my old 535is feel like a big dumb tractor by comparison. In fact, the M5 makes every other sedan I’ve driven from that era – Audi 200 Turbo Quattro and Mercedes 190E included – feel like a tractor. The fact that the E28 M5 has held onto its magic in the intervening years makes driving it even more special. With prices beginning to climb rapidly, I doubt there’s an E28 M5 in my future, but holy hell, do I ever lament that.