In at least one respect, BMW has taken an important step to recapturing the essence of the original M5. Naturally this all-new model has more of everything in general (and power and weight in particular) except that visually it is far more discreet than the car it replaces.
This is exactly as it should be. M cars never should – and once never did – brag about their power: the more subtle the appearance, the more discombobulating the performance.
The original M5 was leaving the scene just as I arrived on it but our careers coincided for long enough for one unforgettable drive. I was Autocar’s most junior road tester in the summer of 1988, my job prospects so shaky that my editor refused to put my name on the masthead because ‘I’d only have to take it off again’. But working late one night in a futile attempt to show willing I noticed an M5 that had come in for testing was still in the car park. I can’t remember why – I expect it was meant to have been collected – but I do remember finding its keys on the hook. Borrowing it was a dismissable offence, but as I reckoned I was heading out of the door anyway I figured there was not much to lose.
Two hours later I was back, an ever so slightly changed man. The fastest car I’d been allowed to drive up to that point was a Lancia Prisma and if you don’t know what that is, I envy you. It wasn’t just the amount of performance the M5 had to offer, but the sheer class with which its 3.5-litre straight-six motor delivered it. It scarcely seemed possible.
You could say as much about the performance of this new M5. With 560bhp, it has almost twice the power of the original but the devil is in its small print: namely the 501lb ft of torque it develops at 1500rpm. That’s twice the torque at one third of the revs.
Seen in the context of a large four-door saloon, it is explosively fast. Indeed driving one on winter roads while wearing summer tyres makes you realise that the electronic systems, such as traction and stability control are not simple safety nets whose purpose is to save you as a last resort, but a fundamental, essential and integral component of the car’s design. Now developed to the point where, if you choose the most defensive (and default) strategy, your greatest awareness of their operation is a small, blinking light on the dashboard. But if you turn them off and play fast and loose with the power you soon realise that cars like this could never have been brought to market without so many effective checks on their performance.
Locking it in gear I found it would happily spin its wheels in second, third and, once, even fourth gear on wet and slippery roads. It felt like you were battling some immense force and one that, unaided, you did not possess the tools to tame. Through the right kind of corner, and if you took care to blend in and bleed off the power correctly, it would drift quite nicely, but most of the time the tricks-off entertainment it offered on cold, wet asphalt was altogether too X-rated for me to enjoy on public roads. How different to that old M5 which had so little power and even less torque, yet in which mild oversteer was easily achieved and an eagerly awaited component of any drive in any weather on any quiet and open road.
Of course this is symptomatic not only of BMW’s attitude to its M cars but the way almost all car manufacturers build performance machines today. The development of electronic stability programmes may not be responsible for the arms race that has led to engine power outputs doubling in recent years, but it has facilitated it. It serves as a further reminder of how susceptible the motor industry is to the law of unintended consequences. Designed as an active safety system to help drivers maintain control of their cars in unexpected emergencies, ESP has proven just as adept at providing manufacturers with the ability to sell four-door saloons with Ferrari-rivalling power while keeping drivers safe from themselves.
The question is whether the M5’s power and the manner in which it is delivered makes it more or less of an ‘M’ car than the car it replaces. Despite the huge gain in performance something has been lost. The sound of the twin-turbo 4.4-litre engine doesn’t stir the soul like the old normally aspirated 5-litre V10 routinely would, nor is its throttle response so sharp. This V8 delivers maximum power before that V10 even delivered maximum torque. It may be far faster and massively more frugal, but much of the drama and occasion has been lost.
Yet this is a far less flawed car than the old M5 whose clunking robotised manual gearbox alone provided grounds to avoid buying one. By contrast the double-clutch transmission used by the new M5 is as good as any I can recall.
The new M5 is a soothing and sensible way to pass a few hours on the road, which you’d never say about the last one. A little more spacious, a lot quieter and incomparably more comfortable, it is a car best seen not as a supercar saloon, but more as an unusually practical GT. Witness, for example what has happened to its range. A full tank of fuel would take the old M5 just under 300 miles, but the new car is capable of extracting nearly 10 extra miles from each gallon and being furnished with 10 more litres of tank capacity can go a little over 500 miles.
Whether all of the above makes the new M5 a good or bad choice depends on the buyer’s expectations. Despite the welcome return to more conservative styling, this is not a traditional M car, where driving pleasure in its purest form is pursued, often at the expense of too much else. It is the most powerful car ever to be produced by the M division, but it is also the most pragmatic.
One measure of accomplishment I use when assessing cars is the three Rs: Ride, Refinement and Range, and in all these regards the M5 doesn’t just improve on the old, it wallops it. Problem is, this measure applies far more to pure luxury cars than to overtly sporting ones. Were this a Rolls, a Bentley, a stretched Jag, an S-class Mercedes or even a 7-series BMW, these improvements would count strongly in its favour. But this is an M5, and while it is undoubtedly less flawed, it is equally apparent that it is also less fun.
I just don’t like the idea that it’s okay for an M5 to weigh almost two tonnes. Nor does the notion that you can just bludgeon the performance out of it by using ever more power strike me as anything other than inelegant and inappropriate for an M car. The drive for this generation of M5 should not have been to add more power, but to remove weight. It should weigh 100kg less than the old M5, not over 100kg more. Had BMW done that, a sharper, better driving machine would have resulted that would have used even less fuel while still improving performance. As it is, BMW have created a far more broadly capable car, and a far less engaging driving machine. From an M5, I know which I would have preferred.
Engine: 4.4 litres, eight cylinders
Top Speed: 155mph (limited)
Power: 560bhp at 5750rpm
Fuel/CO2: 28.5mpg, 232g/km