The BMW E39 5-Series was lauded the world-over as BMW's best car ever - and many still consider it so - and justifiably went on to take the SA Car of the Year title in 1997, along with a remarkable string of international titles. Indeed, it was consistently voted the top executive car by numerous motoring publications around the world between 1997 through to its run-out phase in 2002 - a remarkable feat in anyone's terms.
The range was bolstered by the rapid 540i Auto in the first half of 1997, offering the might of a characterful 4,4-litre V8 with respective outputs of 210 kW and 420 Nm. It was pitched some R100 000 up on the 528i at R350 000 at the time, but offered an extremely attractive performance proposition.
With enthusiasts around the world lamenting the demise of the sizzling E34 M5 (a six-cylinder screamer), and with the anticipated V8 replacement on the cards, BMW attempted to placate the growing demand in the second half of 1998 with a spirited six-speed manual version of the 540i, sporting an aggressive body kit, large wheel-and-tyre combination and several unique high-tech features - and carrying a R10 000 premium over the auto version.
The 540i's V8 engine had also been tweaked slightly to produce peak power and torque at slightly lower revs.
The lower end of the market was also catered for with the 523i, using a modified 2,5-litre straight-six with 125 kW and 245 Nm, and a price tag of R221 000 - more than 30 grand cheaper than the 528i. It was initially only offered with manual box, but the option of a five-speed auto was subsequently added. This wasn't a particularly sprightly performer, but the refinement and high specification level couldn't be faulted.
Next up, in December 1999, came the car everyone had been eagerly waiting for - the almighty 5,0-litre V8 M5, which was credited as the fastest production car in the world. Its performance credentials were impressive indeed: a massive 294 kW of power at 6 600 r/min and 500 Nm of torque at 3 800 r/min, sufficient to produce a 0-100 km/h of a mere 4,6 sec which put it firmly into supercar territory.
Here, for the first time, you had a luxury, comfy five-seater sedan that could challenge exotic sports cars in outright acceleration for a fraction of the price (R530 000 compared to R995 000 for a Porsche GT3 and R1,6-million for a Ferrari 360 Modena) - no wonder it attracted such as strong following.
And many enthusiasts still consider it a more rewarding and entertaining car to drive than the latest V10-engined E60 M5 which is a technological marvel or an over-complicated gadget-filled nightmare, depending on your affinity with high-tech.
The entire range received a mid-life makeover for 2001 with revised styling centred around new light treatments - including the trademark fibre-optic headlight surrounds or 'rings' at the front and LED lights at the rear - along with comprehensive colour-coding and new wheel designs and larger sizes.
As the first luxury brand to launch diesel power in the premium class, BMW has to be credited for pioneering this segment. And although diesel has its detractors, you only need to drive a 530d to be bowled over by its awesome all-round drivability, startling overtaking performance and impressive levels of refinement.
It took BMW a long time to get into the estate car segment though, and the practical 525i Touring only made its debut towards the end of 2001 in manual and auto forms, with pricing starting at R290 000.
Other than the addition of minor changes, and the option of the striking M5-derived M Sports styling package across the range, the 5-Series continued largely unchanged until it was replaced by the controversial E60 model range at the end of 2003.
The lukewarm initial reception for the new model may have played a part in sustaining interest in the E39 5-Series, but even several years down the line, it still hasn't really dated and looks the upmarket part, offers superb refinement and comfort and delivers an underlying essence of performance that sets it apart.