2000 BMW E39 M5
and 2001 Porsche 996 Turbo

A Comparison

Preface

I am quite fortunate to be able to own and drive both of these fine cars. I've had the M5 since March 2000, and I received the 996 TT on October 19, 2000. Although anyone is welcome to read this page, its intended audience are the M5 and 996 owners and enthusiasts who are curious about how these cars compare. Some of my comments presume knowledge of one car or the other - for example, to relate the relative experience of acceleration in each car.

Nobody would dispute that these are two world class automobiles. They were clearly designed with different purposes, and each is amazing not only at achieving its purpose, but at crossing the boundaries and excelling in other areas as well. No car can match the Porsche's performance, for example, while claiming with any credibility to be suitable as a "daily driver." And no 4-door sedan can carry people, groceries and luggage with such stunning performance as the BMW M5. Both cars go about their business with good looks, world class quality and safety.

Don't expect to find an answer to "which is better" here. I don't believe that question has a legitimate answer unless you are willing to say "at what." Still, it is interesting to compare and contrast the cars.

Update: I periodically revise this document as I get more experience with the cars. Today is March 22, 2001. My M5 is exactly 1 year old and has 13,000 miles. The Porsche has 4500 miles now, and last month I drove it at Laguna Seca!

A Little Background

Many moons ago, when I was still in my "automotively formative years", my father had an '86 911SC in which I logged a number of miles. I've loved 911's ever since. A friend has a '96 993TT that I had the privilege to drive once. That sums up my prior Porsche experience, but I've always loved them. My BMW experience was even lighter. I had driven a 3.0CS back in those same formative years, and later a friend's 2002. I fell in love with Bimmers. I dreamed of owning both marques, but until fairly recently, I didn't have the means. After a 20 year career in silicon valley doing technology marketing and 5 start-ups later, I got lucky. Very lucky. I had promised myself a 540i if the company did well - it did great. The M5 was my first reward.

Getting over the psychological leap of owning more cars than I could drive at once took some time. It wasn't the money, it was everything else. But I'll make a long story short. I got over it. Believe it or not, I was thinking of buying a Boxster S as my first "second car." But the old 911 synapses fired up and I thought "hmmm - those Cabriolet's aren't that much more..." And then I fell into this Turbo. From first contact to delivery, I had a 2001 996TT in my driveway in 4 days. I'm still reeling (and I can't stop looking at it. See the pictures.)

Relevant Specs

These are the specs I feel are most important in understanding each car's performance. The specs are taken directly from the owner's manual when possible. The numbers don't always compare apples to apples - for example, BMW publishes a torque figure at a specific RPM, Porsche specifies a range. I've made comments where appropriate to help clarify.

Spec /Model
Torque 368 ft-lb @ 3800 RPM 415 ft-lb @ 2700-4600 RPM
Horsepower 394 @ 6600 RPM 415 @ 6500 RPM
Cylinders 8 6
Displacement 4.94L / 301.5 cu. in. 3.6L / 219.7 cu. in.
Weight 3739 lbs (BMW publishes a weight of 4024 lbs, called "curb weight", which includes 1 person and a full tank of gas. Correction deducts 165 lbs for the person and 20 gallons @ 6 lbs per gallon.) 3400 lbs (Porsche calls this "empty weight")
Valve train 4 overhead camshafts; "VANOS" continuously variable valve timing 4 overhead camshafts; "VarioCam" continuously variable valve timing; variable valve lift
Red line 7000 RPM 6500 RPM
Transmission 6-speed manual 6-speed manual
Tires - Front 245/40 ZR18 (my car has Dunlop SP8080s) 225/40 ZR18 (my car has Pirelli P-Zero's)
Tires - Rear 275/35 ZR18 (big ass tires) 295/30 ZR18 (even bigger ass tires)
Performance By the Numbers

Porsche publishes top speed and 0-60 figures in the owner's manual. BMW doesn't publish performance figures, so I have used the March '00 Motor Trend review numbers for the M5, and to supplement the 996TT data; the latter coming from their 11/00 "High Speed Shoot out" article.

Comparing these numbers, one can see the Porsche is faster in every dimension. What is harder to see is that the M5 numbers are still way ahead of most other cars. It generates more cornering force than  a Ferrari 355, accelerates faster than a '00 Corvette, and makes it way through the slalom faster than a Lamborghini Diablo. To top it all off, it brakes shorter from 70mph than a Porsche 911C4. Not bad for a luxury sedan...

Spec / Model
Top Speed 155 mph (limited); ~181 mph (limiter removed) 189 mph
0 - 60 mph 4.7 sec. (MT) 4.2 sec. (MT got 3.98 sec.)
0 - 100 mph 11.4 seconds 9.68 seconds
0 - 100 - 0 mph 15.8 seconds 14.2 seconds
Quarter Mile 13.2 seconds at 107.4 mph 11.92 sec at 116 mph
Braking - 60 to 0mph 129 feet 116 feet
Cornering 0.90g (300' skidpad) 0.97g (200' skidpad)
Slalom 64.7 mph 68.6 mph

Driving Impressions

OK. Here comes the subjective stuff. This is one man's opinion. Please take it that way!

After hearing all of the remarks about the "dumbing down" and "numbing down" of the new 996, I was expecting a very different car from those I remembered. It is indeed a more civilized car, but two seconds behind the wheel and there's no doubt you're driving a Porsche. It has that same heavy-centered steering feel, that characteristic flat-six sound (despite the water cooling - it sounds like a Porsche.) The brakes are pure Porsche too - once they're engaged there is almost no pedal travel between light braking and hard - one modulates the pressure, not the distance. The clutch is the same way. Although the pedal feel is only slightly heavier than the BMW's, the distance for actual modulation is very narrow.

Both cars are geared very similarly. 1st gear is good to about 40mph; 2nd is good to 60, etc.

The M5 is the easier of the two cars to drive. Steering feel, clutch, brake and shift efforts are all lighter and smoother. (The Porsche shifter felt quite stiff to me at first, but has loosened up considerably in the first 500 miles.) The Porsche's shift throw is considerably longer, but the BMW's shift pattern is "notchier" around neutral - so that the 2-3-2 and 4-5-4 shifts are actually easier in the Porsche - almost a perfectly straight throw. From a driving position standpoint, the M5's stick is closer to my body - just right. The Porsche's is a bit too far forward - even though I'm fairly short and sit very close, my arm is full extended at the top of the throw.

Visibility out of both cars is good; the BMW has headrests over the back seats and a fairly large "C Pillar" which interfere with rearward visibility a bit.

Acceleration

The acceleration of both cars is simply stunning. Each is so far ahead of the average car, you just grin each time you put your foot in it. The Porsche has both power-to-weight and torque advantages over the M5, and is definitely quicker. However I think the difference feels even more pronounced. Both cars have virtually flat torque curves from 2000RPM on up, which makes for a constant pressure on your back. (In fact, guests in the M5 are routinely surprised at how fast you're going after a little acceleration demo - because it feels so smooth. This is attributed to the flat torque curve.)

The difference is that in the Porsche there is turbo lag. Put your foot to the floor, and one second later the power really comes on, then continues to build until maximum boost is reached. It isn't like the famous older Turbos where more severe turbo lag combined with a peaky torque curve to snap your neck when you hit 4000 RPM. Thanks to variable valve timing, both cars have amazingly flat torque curves, and the 996 develops near maximum torque way down near 2000 RPM. You just have to wait for it a bit. In the 996TT, I accelerated from 2000, 3000, 4000 RPM in 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th. In every case you feel the delay, and then a huge rush of power. Even in 6th gear the thing pulls like a beast.

As an added bonus, in the last 500RPM of the Porsche's scream to red line, it emits a special growl under full throttle - so acceleration sounds like rrrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRRRRALPH!

The M5, by contrast, has instant-on torque. This is the biggest advantage of pure displacement over turbocharging to pump more of that fuel-air mixture into the jugs. When you step on it, it just leaps, right now! And it has considerable torque at 1200 RPM! The car has a "Sport" switch. When on, the eight fly-by-wire, individually activated throttle-body butterflies are moved instantly, and the car jumps. The switch also affects the steering, which in Sport Mode requires a bit more effort in exchange for better feel. When off, the computer actually decreases throttle response and steering effort to make the car more driveable around town and slightly less sensitive on center. The differences are subtle, but definite. I use and enjoy both positions.

Acceleration in the M5 is like being shot out of a cannon; in the 996TT it is like being launched from a slingshot. Both are just delicious!

Handling

Before I drove the M5, I had never driven a car that felt so completely planted and secure at triple-digit speeds. There is no float, no harsh noise - just calm. You could cruise in the M5 all day long at extremely high speeds and arrive at your destination without feeling exhaustion. With those huge tires, the car is capable of generating some pretty amazing cornering forces, and it even changes direction with an amazing lack of roll or overshoot. When pushed to the limit, the M5 has a small amount of body roll and pronounced understeer. If your definition of "tossable" is a Miata, the M5 is not. On the other hand, the car did manage 64.7mph through Road and Track's slalom test. That's better than a boatload of supposed sports cars. Remembering that it is a 4000lb sedan, its handling is truly amazing.

The Porsche, on the other hand, is pure handling nirvana. It handles like a slot car. There is no roll. I mean zero. It corners flat, turns in quick, and begs to be tossed around. A little throttle in the turn transfers some of the power to the front wheels and it just flat grabs the road. When pushed, the handling is stunning, bordering on brutal. Closest thing to a race car I've ever driven. Purists will argue that it understeers at the limit. This is true and is probably bad for an excellent driver on the track. But it is SO much safer, and gives me confidence to push the car harder than I otherwise might. It is not onerous - the car is still beautifully balanced and drift inn a neutral-throttle sweeper. You can easily control the line with the throttle. This car handles and communicates beautifully. I am in awe.

I took the Porsche to a two day Tracquest event at Laguna Seca in February 2001, fulfilling yet another lifelong fantasy. This was my first time on a track, so I was a little intimidated as to how I might fare. The car was simply amazing. So much power I just swallowed lesser cars (and they all were lesser cars) whole on the straights, such incredible brakes I never ran out of room, and such tenacious grip I never went off the track as I increased my speeds and decreased my lap times. The PSM never got in the way but watched over me with a reassuring hand. This truly is an easy and forgiving car to drive fast. I turned very respectable times for a beginner, and I want to go back!

DSC = PSM

Both cars have advanced dynamic traction control systems that look at G forces, yaw, wheel speed and steering wheel position and more. The systems correct your faults (or those induced by the road, such as uneven surfaces, unweighting in corners, or poor traction on one side) with decrease in throttle and if necessary, application of individual wheel brakes (usually at opposite corners of the car.) At the BMW's "M5 Driving Experience" -a program at their Spartanburg, SC facility that comes with the purchase of an M5 - I was able to stress this system under controlled conditions and it is indeed amazing. Circling a 300' wet, polished concrete skidpad (as a southern friend of mine would say, "slipperier than deer guts on a door knob"), with traction control off took a very delicate throttle foot and a quick counter-steer input when the tail started to come around. (A skidpad is NOT 100% perfect - conditions are slipperier in some parts than others - so you can't just employ steady-state throttle and steering inputs.) Engage the traction control, however, and all you have to do is put your foot to the floor and steer. You simply cannot spin the car.

The BMW system called "DSC" is more conservative than the one in the Porsche. Although it is actually pretty subtle in corners, it will trounce on you under hard straight line acceleration. If you get a bit of wheel spin (easy to do in the M5) - it will retard the throttle and won't add it back for longer than you'd like. However in an emergency lane change maneuver, the DSC stayed completely out of the way on the 1st half (jerk the wheel to the left to get out of your lane.) As I increased the speed, I could feel it correct my line on the second half of the maneuver (jerk the wheel to the right to wind up straight in the new lane.) Here the extra sideways momentum and residual body roll from the first swerve could bite you, but the DSC puts you straight.

Porsche's Stability Management system "PSM" is a little different. Its inputs and ultimate actions are the same, but it comes in later and less aggressively. You can have a slight drift without it kicking in, and as long as you don't do something stupid, it will stay out of your way. The opinion of people who have raced the car on a track vary, but most believe that all but the fastest, professional race drivers would actually be faster around the track with it left on. Interestingly, if you switch it off, it will still come on if you touch the brakes. Although I think I'm a pretty good driver (doesn't everyone?) I'm confident that, like the BMW system, it will basically keep me from swapping ends, and that there is no reason to switch it off.

Of course, neither system can defy the laws of physics. If you are going too fast for a turn, you'll drift wide without spinning. If you run out of room before regaining control, you're still going to be toast. But both systems will save your life, and really don't detract much from the fun. And, when you just have to make lots of smoke and power-slide like Tiff Needell, you can always hit the off switch.

In the Wet

One of my first trips in the Porsche was to Lake Tahoe. It was raining and dark in the mountains. Not the greatest environment in which to learn how a new car handles. Unless it is the Porsche, of course. Between the traction control and the 4-wheel drive, I was able to carry considerable speed with a great feeling of security - the car communicated everything it was doing through the steering wheel. I was able to carry ridiculous speeds with full confidence. As for braking, another Spartanburg exercise was maximum braking in the wet - full-on ABS while maneuvering through cones. The M5 seems to defy the laws of physics. Its stopping power is truly awesome, wet or dry.

Long Cruises

There was a gusty cross-wind in the Sacramento Valley on my return from this particular trip. The Porsche was tossed around a good bit - definitely more than the M5 gets moved, and more than I would have expected from the Porsche. Which leads me into the "fatigue" factor. The crosswind and hypersensitive-center steering demand more attention to stay mid-lane in the Porsche. Road noise is considerably higher, especially on rough pavement. This in turn makes it impossible to listen to music except at volume levels that are high enough to drown out the road noise, which is ultimately too loud - for me, any way. The Porsche has a great ride for its performance, but it is not nearly as quiet or comfortable as the M5. All of this combines to make the 996 more tiresome to drive for long distances. For pure fun, I'd drive the Porsche. If I had to arrive at a business meeting fully refreshed after a 4-hour drive, I'd take the BMW.

Features

Both cars are loaded with many features as one would expect of cars in this league. I'm not going to comment on all of them. However a few features are worthy of discussion.

High-intensity Gas Discharge Headlights

The M5 has 'em on low beam only; the Porsche has both high and low beams. The system is called "Litronic". Porsche has solved the "flasher" problem by adding a standard "instant-on" bulb for the flasher - this way the high beams don't have to power up instantly. Although this is probably the best system out there, as far as I'm concerned, the law still prevents us from having bright enough lights.

Retractable Side-View Mirrors

The Porsche's mirrors can be manually folded in. The Bimmer's mirrors fold in and up at the touch of a button, reminiscent of an airplane folding its wings on an aircraft carrier. Although I thought this was a silly feature at first, I've come to really appreciate it. The entry to my garage is a bit narrow, and the walk-by space on both sides of the car is constrained when in the garage. That space is increased considerably when the mirrors are folded up. (Porsche fans would be completely justified in arguing that hey, this is a sports car - weight matters - lose the motors and fold them yourself.) Still - a nice feature.

What - No Dipstick?

Seriously - the 996 ain't got one. In order to check the oil, you must warm the car up, sit on a level surface at idle, and maneuver through the on board computer (mysteriously named "BC") to perform the oil check. It runs for anywhere from 5 to 20 seconds (seems to depend how recently you stopped if you were driving) and then presents you with a bar graph - one line for every 1/4 of a quart. Interestingly. Capacity between full and low is about 1.5 quarts. Now this is all well and good, but I sure miss the simple security of a dipstick. I like raising the engine lid when I fill up. I like to look around and make sure everything is in its place. Incidentally, both cars burn large amounts of expensive oil while breaking in.

What - No Spare Tire?

Believe it or not, the M5 doesn't have one. After adding the heavier duty suspension and quad-exhausts to the E39 body, there just wasn't enough room left. And, since there's no spare, you don't get a jack or lug wrench with the tool kit. This is just ridiculous in an $80K car! Even if I don't get a flat, I still need to jack the car up and remove the wheels! What you do get is BMW's "Mobility System" - a can of puncture sealant and a compressor.

Porsche has a much better solution - a collapsible spare. This is a real rim with a collapsed mini-tire on it. A compressor is also included to pump it up.

What - No Glove box?

Not in the 996. I have some gripes with both cars on the cockpit storage front. The 996 doesn't have a glove box - it also has no place in your forward visibility area where you can even stash a cell phone or your sunglasses. The M5 has a little tray beneath the center control, ahead of the shifter. The Porsche does have a lockable storage bin at the rear of the shared center armrest - something the BMW can't claim. (The BMW takes up the center armrest space with a sliding armrest that can take the hands-free phone - but inexplicably does not open up to reveal the storage space below. A travesty.) Both have a little storage in the doors; the BMW adds seat-back pockets - something the Porsche should have too, but doesn't.

What - No Cup Holders?

The Porsche doesn't have them. I'm sure many feel that introducing any beverage in either of these cars is sacrilegious - but this comes back to doing many things well. I, for one, enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning after taking my son to school. Of course you can't corner or accelerate briskly - no cup holder manages to overcome the laws of physics as they relate to liquids - but I still wouldn't mind having a cup holder in the car.

Seat Heaters

They are available as an option on the 996 - but my car doesn't have them Wish it did. I love them in the M5. Another feature I would have written off as silly - until I tried them.

Stereo

My Toyota Camry had a better stock stereo than either of these cars. Both are OK, but both have some hard-to-identify flaws that interfere with the clear, balanced sound I expect. Both have a DSP which allows you to set an "echo" and corresponding "room size" - the goal of which is to make it sound like you're in the actual environment in which the music was performed. Used sparingly these are OK, but the echo can make the DJ sound like he's talking in a tunnel. The biggest problem for the Porsche system, however, is simply that there is too much road noise to overcome.

The FM reception on the Porsche is abysmal. The BMW fares much better - on one particular 7 mile route I travel frequently, there is only a 1/4 mile stretch where my favorite station comes in less than perfectly in the M5. In the Porsche, there is only about 1/4 mile where it does come in cleanly.

Turbo Boost Gauge

What can I say. It's cool. And you can only have one in the Porsche.

Porsche Design

If you haven't looked, next time you see a TT, look at the design of the inside door handle. It is a thing of beauty. In fact, the entire door panel is a work of art. On the other hand, they should have spent more time on the steering column controls, which feel disappointingly cheap. The turn signal lever is the worst offender. The BMW controls are all elegantly smooth.

Security System

Both cars have security systems operated wirelessly from buttons on the key. These are smart cars - the key not only locks and unlocks the car and turns the alarm on and off, it also remembers your seat position for you, raises and lowers the windows - you get the idea. One gripe - the Porsche's system is so quiet I often don't know if I've succeeded in locking or unlocking the car. This is aggravated by a terribly short range. If I press the button while walking directly behind the car, it often fails to trigger the system.

Completely Useless Department

The shift pattern in the M5's shifter handle lights up when you turn the lights on. Cool, huh? Hey, and the leather case for the BMW's owner's manual (and all the other zillions of manuals each company seems to feel you need) is embossed with the M5 logo. I ain't got no damn Turbo logo on my Porsche leather case. What's up with that?

Problem History

Both cars have had no major problems and what has occurred has been taken care of under warranty with no questions asked. The M5 brushed aluminum trim had some issues early on with peeling of the protective clear coat, especially on the gear shift knob. This was replaced. The Nav system got slower and slower - a software upgrade fixed that. Finally there were a few minor oil leaks; once again the dealer found them and fixed them without complaint. The Porsche had a couple of build quality issues - a bolt was loose on the rear sway bar as it came from the factory, making a thunk when going over bumps at an angle. After 3000 miles the engine lid wouldn't pop up when you hit the release button so it re-latched before you could get back to lift it. It was a two-man job until that was fixed. And there were a couple of recalls on the car which were handled at its last service.

Conclusion

I still can't get over the fact that I am so lucky as to be able to own both of these cars. I know some readers are long time collectors and have owned/own many exotic cars, but multiple exotic ownership is new for me. And I'm grinning ear to ear. To all of you who are fortunate enough to own either one of them, I hope this little comparison has helped you appreciate what you have, and understand what you don't.

Both of these cars have awesome power, amazing handling and amazing brakes. Both make very good noises. Both have exceptionally high interior and exterior fit and finish. Both are reliable enough and tractable enough to drive every day. But they are very different animals.

The M5 is indeed a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing. It simply breezes by, unnoticed, as it goes about its daily business. The only people who recognize it for what it is are rare enthusiasts. The M5 is all about stealth. It is also about comfort, room and general purpose use. It is easy to drive - I would let anyone drive it. I can haul kids, grandparents, shelves from Home Depot, my radio controlled airplanes - you name it. Yet when you ask it to scream, it is more than happy to oblige and even surprise. 4-door sedans just don't handle this well or go this fast! I love the car, and it isn't for sale!

The Porsche, on the other hand, is a beautiful wolf with no disguise at all. Not exactly practical - almost no storage and back seats big enough only for monkeys. And it certainly isn't stealth - I cannot tell you how many people have stopped to ask me about the car already. I don't mind this too much, but there are negative side effects. Drivers bob and weave to get near the car. I constantly have to maneuver away from tailgaters and hangers-on. (Of course, the car is pretty good at that!) Also, I feel like I'm the one who is going to get pulled over, even if I am going 5 mph slower than the rest of the traffic. This car doesn't escape notice. But oh, is it gorgeous. What a thrill to look in the side-view mirror and see the beautiful curve of its "hip" in the reflection. And when it comes to performance, it makes no concessions to anyone. It is absolutely amazing, and I am intoxicated. No, you can't buy my 996TT either.


Questions? Email me! Sorry, you can't click here. You'll have to write this down. I did this to prevent SPAM. (Sorry, you can no longer click my email address. I've changed it to an image to reduce SPAM.)

My M5 has its own web site! Click here to go there.

My Porsche has a web site too! Click here to go there.

Here are a few more pics of the Porsche.

There are wonderful resources on the web for both cars:

For the M5, check out BMWM5.com

For the Turbo, check out FunCarsOnline and 996TT.com.

/Greg