New cars: BMW M5

Setting a new standard

The M3 may have captured the imagination of enthusiasts the world over through its racing exploits, but in the new M5 BMW Motorsport is staking a claim to an altogether higher plane …

As with the older M5, the new version remains dramatically understated. In fact, it tries to blend into the scenery so much that it is highly unlikely that anyone will recognise it for what it is and that it’s not a normal 5 series car. It does have a front spoiler, rear apron, side skirts and an optional rear spoiler, but they are so low key as to be almost invisible. This accords with the stated aim of Thomas Ammerschlager of BMW Motorsport that it’s up to the car to prove itself for what it is rather than be adorned with cosmetic bits. In other words be dynamite as a discreet mistress rather than a disappointment as an overdressed tart.

Naturally the engine has been the subject of a great deal of attention with the target being an improved performance, better torque curve, better throttle response, reduced noise, all with a new to emissions control. Even though its origins are rooted in the M1, it has undergone such a variety of modifications over the years so that it is now almost a completely new powertrain. In its latest guise it comes with a catalytic convetor and yet the power output of 315 bhp at 6900 rpm is significantly up on the 286 bhp at 6500 rpm of its non-catalyst predecessor. The torque peak has also increased to 266 lb ft at 4750 rpm from 246 lb ft at 4500 rpm in the earlier M5.

A number of reasons account for this improvement including an increase in the engine stroke from 84mm to 86mm thereby bringing the cubic capacity to 3535cc, making it the largest 6-cylinder engine ever built by BMW. The camshafts are new and the crankshaft has been stiffened and balanced with 12 counterweights while the flywheel has been carefully balanced. The compression ratio has also been increased from 9.8: 1 to 10.0: 1.

Volumetric efficiency has been increased with the installation of a new, flow-optimised air filter, a hot-wire air mass meter, and intake ducts and trumpets developed on a racing engine. The inlet tract in the manifold has an additional throttle butterfly, electronically controlled, which varies the inlet tract according to the engine speed and load.

A new generation Digital Motor Electronic brain controls all aspects of the engine’s behaviour and offers a whole host of benefits including the facility to self-diagnose itself for any faults.

Although the Motorsport engineers deny that there was much that could be done to improve the 5-series production car, they have altered the suspension. To allow for the M5’s greater weight, the shock absorbers have been modified so that it now has a 50/50 front/rear weight distribution. The whole car has been lowered by 20mm which, with the other aerodynamic modifications, ensures that the drag coeffiency remains at a respectable 0.32 despite the use of wider 235/45 ZR 17 tyres on 8J x 17 rims and optional 255/40 ZR 17 tyres on 9J x 17 rims on the rear.

It is the wheels which are the easiest way of differentiating the new M5. Not only do they look different, they also fulfill a purpose, being so designed as to cool the brakes as they revolve.

The diameter of the anti-roll bars has been increased, the installation of an automatic self-levelling system, more direct and communicative steering and uprated brakes are all other modifications from the standard 535i.

On the road, all these changes, and some others that space dictates are omitted, ensure that the M5 becomes one of the most exciting, yet civilised, cars to drive. Its performance seems to belie its staid exterior. A stunning 0-60 mph time of 6.3 seconds puts the car into the supercar league, but the performance does not stop there, for it just goes on and on. The top speed is electronically controlled so as not to exceed 155 mph, but on its way to there, it will pass almost every other make of car with the exception of just a few exotic, and very expensive, supercars.

Impressive though the grunt of the vehicle is, it is not sheer speed which delights most, but the way the chassis and suspension can cope with that power. The grip is unbelievable as was proven to me on a very wet test drive around Munich. Unless you are being very stupid, it is virtually impossible to put a wheel out of line despite some my efforts to the contrary just to see where the limits were. If anything the tendency is to understeer through a comer, those 320 horses always pushing the car in a longitudinal direction rather than laterally. The only complaint that could be made was that on some of the rougher roads, there was a slight tendency to tramline.

While the handling remains excellent:, it is not at the expense of ride, which remains superb, even on the roughest of roads, and it is here, as well as on cross-country A roads, that the car comes into its own. Unable to prove itself on the motorway, where traffic flow is the dictator of speed, other roads show up its superiority over all other cars. We could not turn off the autobahn quick enough to savour the delights of crosscountry motoring in this car.

The gearchange is precise and the ratios beautifully correct, the steering is nicely weighted and it is totally devoid of wind noise. It is also very manouevrable for urban conditions. Although this is a car that few others will outperform, it must not be overlooked that this is a four-door family saloon and not a sports car. This means that there is room for a family of four (the two back seats are divided by a central console which is aother stowage area) and it has the capacity to accept the luggage accordingly.

The interior is according to taste, and can be ordered to taste. Everything is readily available to the driver and laid out in one of the best dashboards around.

With a price tag likely to be in excess of £40,000 when right-hand drive models finally reach this country in February, it is going to be out of reach to a large proportion of the population, but its dull looks will not appeal to everyone.

This is a pity for not only is it one of the best cars to have left the Munich factory, but to have left any factory anywhere at any time, whether as the fastest production four-door saloon, as BMW claims, or as anything else. The only problem now facing the BMW engineers is just how the hell do they follow it up, for they have now set themselves a standard which will be a hard act to follow. WPK