BMW E39 540i vs E39 M5 Differences and Comparison

I’ve owned an E39 540i/6 and E39 M5 together for almost 3 years now. I often get asked what the differences are between the two and why I have both. Here’s a quick and dirty answer to that question!

E39 BMW M5
E39 BMW M5

I live in Canada and it gets cold in the winter here, VERY cold. Also, they salt the roads like crazy.  I store my M5 in the winter and drive the 540i instead… It’s still -13C outside today and I simply can’t wait to take the M5 out of hibernation. That should tell you all you need to know, compared to the 540i the M5 does not disappoint. The actual driving experience is just that little bit better across the board. Compared to a 540i Sport, the M5 is better in most ways.

M5 Benefits

  • More power (duh!)
  • Limited slip differential
  • Faster steering ratio
  • Interior trim options (two-tone seats, aluminum sport trim, M-Audio package)
  • Better brakes (slightly, US-spec brakes are single piston and are pretty terrible actually)

540i Benefits:

  • Dynamic thermostat (thermostat can be forced open during warm-up and for rest functionality)
  • Less Costs ~20% less to maintain on average
  • Has full size spare compared to M5 with no spare tire due to exhaust routing
  • Doesn’t burn oil like the M5 (later model 02′ – 03′ M5s have better rings though)
  • The 10W60 oil makes the M5 a bad winter car – run thinner oil in the winter if it gets cold where you live
  • The M-sport steering wheel is not heated
BMW E39 540i Interior
BMW E39 540i Interior

More Similarities than differences

Otherwise, almost all other parts are completely shared: same transmission, nearly identical suspension (M5 engine is a bit heavier so they have a slightly different spring rate to compensate), same electronics, etc.

Which to choose?

I don’t know if this is true, but one anecdote sticks with me when comparing these two beasts… At some point, an M5 owner met one of the E39 engineers at a BMW-hosted track event. He asked the engineer if he could run 5W30 oil in the M5 without any negative effects. The engineer thought about it for a few moments and replied “Sure you could if you drive the M5 like a normal car and don’t push it too hard. If you want a powerful, comfortable commuter car, we make one of those too – the 540i.” I’d say the focus between the two cars is clearly different in this way. If you want something a little sportier, the M5 is your answer. If you don’t feel you are able to ever push the handling and power limits of the 540i then I’d say it’s probably the better car for your needs.

I couldn’t choose between them so I ended up with both :-)

DIY Wheel Alignment

Have you ever wanted to perform an alignment of your car at home for free? As a general rule, I never let a garage touch any of my cars unless it’s somebody that I know and I’m giving them a very specific task.  With car maintenance I often find that if you want it done right then you have to do it yourself. How many stories have you heard of people going in to get an alignment and driving out with a car that doesn’t travel straight? Far too often.

When I replaced the inner and outer tie-rods on my E36 BMW 325is, it was important to get a proper alignment done to ensure that the tires would last as long as possible and to provide the coveted BMW “ultimate driving experience”. What’s more, I wanted to make sure it was done right for the right price. BMW wanted around $350 to do a 4 wheel alignment. Absolutely insane!

I’d to preface this method by telling any skeptics out there that this is the method we use to align our Formula 1600 open-wheel race car. In fact, it’s the established method. I also watched the Ferrari of San Diego racing team use this technique on a 458 Italia during the Montreal Grand Prix. I guarantee you that if this is good enough for the track, this is good enough for any street car. Finally, with that out of the way, here’s what you’ll need:

Required Tools

  • A thin piece of string longer than the car (dental floss works well)
  • A couple of stands to hold the string taught from front to back at wheel hub level
  • A level
  • A caliper or very accurate ruler (1mm accuracy or better)
  • Whatever renches you’ll need to adjust the tie-rods

Alignment Spreadsheet & Calculator

I’ve created a nifty Excel spreadsheet that will automatically convert your measurements into a toe angle and camber angle.

Download: Alignment Spreadsheet & Calculator

Level the Car

This shouldn’t be too hard to do. Find a flat, level surface where you can work on the car and park it there. Alternatively, I stopped at at the foot of the driveway half on the road such in neutral and rocked it forward and back by hand until it found its level. I then double-checked with the level.

Straighten the Steering Wheel

This part is quite important. If you want your car to drive in a straight line when the wheel is straight then you must keep the wheel straight through this entire process. It is possible to have equally valid alignment settings when the wheel is not set straight, but we definitely don’t want that. It’s annoying. Straighten your wheel and check often to make sure it stays that way. If your wheel gets turned once mid alignment you will absolutely have to start over.

Square your String to the Chassis

Easier than it sounds. All you need to do is run the string from the front of the car to the back at wheel hub level. Make sure to keep the string taught with your stands. These can be as simple as a piece of wood with a nail in it for all intents and purposes.

The goal is to then get the string to be of equal distance from the front wheel hub as it is from the rear wheel hub. The actual distance doesn’t matter so much, just that both distances be the same. This step assumes that the offset of each wheel is the same. For most stock cars this is the case. Once this is done, your string will be perfectly square with the car’s chassis.

Measure Your Toe Angle

This measurement is taken by lining up your caliper or ruler at string level and measuring to the outer edge of the wheel on the left and right. Measure the left side of the wheel first and write down your distance. Then measure the right side and write that down too. Repeat this for the rear wheels. Note that you should never measure to any point on the tires because they are rubber and will always have small deviations. We want the highest possible accuracy.

If your toe angle is 0 degrees then both your measurements will come out the same. Zero toe is what most street cars run on the front end, but you should Google the proper alignment settings for your car to be sure.

Make Adjustments

Now you should pull out your wrenches and adjust the tie-rods either in or out depending on your car and what you found your toe angle to be. For tie-rods connected to the front of the hub, lengthening the tie-rod will toe the car out. For tie-rods connected to the rear of the hub, lengthening the tie-rod will toe the car out. The converse is true in both cases for toeing it in.

Your goal will be make adjustments and re-measure the distance from the left and right of the wheel until it is perfectly straight when the wheel is straight.

Rinse and Repeat

Once you have gotten the alignment of one wheel correct, repeat it for the next on the side of the car you are working on. Once that’s done and you are happy with your measurements, you can switch your string to the other side of the car and repeat the same steps. Bear in mind that you have to make sure your steering wheel is still perfectly straight. If it isn’t or moves from one side to the other, your toe angle will be off.

Using this Method for Camber

A slight variation of this method also works for setting your camber angle if it is even adjustable on your vehicle. The only difference is that we have to hold a string with a weight on the bottom to droop down at the same outward distance as the string until it crosses it and forms a + at the wheel hub level. Usually you’ll want a buddy to help you hold it off the top of the tire for this part. You then measure to the top of the wheel and the bottom of the wheel and make your adjustments based on your measurements.

Typically you’ll want to Google the correct camber settings for your car as they all vary and likely won’t be 0 degrees as is often the case with toe angle.

All Electric Nissan Leaf Unveiled

I’ve actually come out of writing retirement for the summer to bring you what I think is a pretty cool story: Nissan has finally given us some details about their upcoming “Leaf” full-electric vehicle (EV).

Unlike the Tesla roadster, this isn’t designed to be an expensive rocket on wheels, but what it does aim to do is to bring electrics into the mainstream market: Nissan is going to start making this car available in Japan, most European countries and the US around 10,000 – 15,000 Euro ($15,000 – $20,000 US), a common price point in the compact market.

The Leaf is powered by Lithium ion batteries using a custom chemistry developed by Nissan which are expected to give the car a 160 kilometer (100 mile) range and are designed to be charged to 80% in about 20 minutes using a quick-charging system. If charged via a standard 220V socket, expect your standard 8 hour recharge time and even longer from a standard North America wall socket.

Nissan Leaf

The electric motor packs quite a punch at its rated 80kW/280Nm, (107-hp and 207 ft-lbs of torque) which should make it really quick off the line despite the electronically-limited 145 Km/h (90 mph). While electric motors tend provide huge amounts of torque across the entire RPM band, higher RPMs lead to higher power draw and thus less range.

“Our car had to be the world’s first, medium-sized, practical EV that motorists could afford and would want to use every day. And that’s what we’ve created. The styling will identify not only Nissan LEAF but also the owner as a participant in the new era of zero-emission mobility” said Masato Inoue, the Leaf product manager.

The Leaf will begin production in Oppama, Japan, and will soon be expanded to Nissan’s Smyrna, Tennessee plant. The company also expects to launch two more EVs in the next 3 years, positioning itself as a strong contender in the electric market.

“The Nissan LEAF is a tremendous accomplishment – one in with all Nissan employees can take great pride,” said Nissan President Carlos Ghosn. “We have been working tirelessly to make this day a reality – the unveiling of a real-world car that has zero – not simply reduced – emissions. It’s the first step in what is sure to be an exciting journey – for people all over the world, for Nissan and for the industry.”

I’m really excited about this one, kids. This is a car that most people can actually afford and once governments start installing electric charging infrastructure, stopping for 20 minutes every 160 kilometers doesn’t sound so bad. Hopefully this can be used as a significant stepping stone to a world of quiet running, quick and practical electric cars with infrastructure to back them.

EEStor Permittivity Testing: It’s a Pass!

Good old EEStor released a third-party verification of the permittivity of their insulating material – the verdict? It’s a pass and expectations have been met from -20 degrees celcius to 65C. Sorry, I know I’m here partying all on my own, so let me back track a bit and give a bit of background on this…

EEStor Cell

As most are probably already aware, batteries have always plagued the electric vehicle for a mass of reasons: they don’t offer sufficient range, are too heavy, too costly, too big, don’t discharge fast enough, don’t charge fast enough and performance degrades over time. Yeah, that’s a big list of flaws and so many may be surprised that I’m a big proponent of the development of electric vehicles. One of the reasons is because of a lot of the cool technologies on the horizon such as the EEstor EESU (Electrical Energy Storage Unit). EEStor wants to pack 52KWh of energy in these things in a small package weighing in at around 300 pounds. To give you an idea of how much energy that is, most of you can probably power your houses for a full day and the more energy concious among you for a couple of days.

Now, the reason that this is such a breakthrough is because how much energy a capacitor can store is modeled by the following equation:

energy = ( capacitance x voltage ^ 2 ) / 2

What does this mean to your life? Basically that if we can increase voltage in a capacitor, we get exponential gains in how much energy we are storing. To get those really high voltages, we need to be able to place conductive plates really close together with an excellent insulator in between. The real breakthrough is in this insulating material as the permittivity testing shows that we EEStor has created a material which is hugely better than previous known materials. The independent lab verification is a huge step forward since the company has never been forthcoming about anything they do. In fact, I’d almost say that they hide as much as they can from the public almost to the point that people are thinking EEStor is some kind of scam.

Now there is of course a lot more to this plot. Lockheed Martin actually signed an exclusive deal with them about a year ago, as did a publicly traded Canadian electric car maker called Zenn Motors. When this story broke, stock at Zenn shot way, way up. In fact, let me pull a picture off of Google Finance right now for you guys!

Zenn Stock after Permmittivity Anouncement

Zenn Motors Stock after Permmittivity Announcement

So yeah, all the scientific mumbo jumbo actually means a lot to the future of the electric vehicle. Eventually I’ll get around to posting an article for you guys which showcases some of the most exciting green automotive technologies of the future that may very well lead the way to finally replacing fuel. As always, stay tuned and subscribe to the RSS feed if you want to be updated whenever I post an oh-so-interesting article! And yes, I’ll make a bigger RSS button eventually. Peace out!