A car for all seasons
BMW has found a rich seam of form over recent years, but can the newest M5 be all things to all men?
I didn’t like the last BMW M5. It was the first of its kind to be turbocharged and compared to the normally aspirated six-, eight- and 10-cylinder M5s that came before it felt heavy and remote – a blunt instrument, not the sharpened scalpel I’d hoped for and, to some extent, expected too.
So, I was sure BMW would have spent the intervening seven years honing the edge of its brand new M5, returning it to its days as the ultimate driving machine.
I had good reason to think it would be achieved. While BMW’s product remains patchy on the market fringes where cars like the old X4 and X6 exist, not to mention the rather odd front-drive 2-series Active Tourer, its more traditional offerings are better today than at any time in the last 30 years.
The 3-series is rivalled only by the Mercedes-Benz C-class despite the fact that, unlike the Benz, it’s about to be replaced, while the far newer 7-series is so far and away the best full-sized BMW I’ve driven that the others might as well not count. As for the 5-series, when it made the shortlist for the Car Of The Year award (on whose jury I sit), I only didn’t place it first equal with the Volvo XC40 because the rules do not permit me to have two winners.
So the raw material from which the M5 would be derived looked promising to say the least. But it retains its old 4.4-litre twin turbo V8, modified to produce 592bhp (600PS in Euromoney), though even that is no more than the 30th-anniversary model of the old M5 managed. Even so, the car is a little lighter than before, and while we should perhaps not get too excited by a 15kg saving in the context of a near two-tonne car, it’s a pretty impressive achievement given that this is the first M5 – the first proper M-saloon indeed – to come with four-wheel drive. The other major departure from the specification of the old M5 is both interesting and informative: BMW has given up its seven-speed double-clutch transmission in favour of a conventional eight-speed automatic.
Neither the addition of all-wheel drive nor the change in transmission would appear be indicative of a rampant desire within BMW to return to the M5’s thrill-seeking roots. I like the discreet appearance and that has always been part of the M5’s DNA, but nothing I read about the car suggested it was going to be any more exciting than the last. Indeed rather less so, it seemed.
Settling behind the wheel, the interior reminded me of the moment a textbook called ‘The English Legal System’ thumped onto my desk during a shortly thereafter aborted attempt to become a lawyer. ‘How the hell am I going to learn all this?’ was my first thought in what would be only a brief drive before the car’s official UK launch. But unlike ELS, it did soon start to make some kind of sense. There are three settings for each of the steering, the dampers and the powertrain and you can combine them any way you like and, indeed ask the car to memorise two of your favoured settings via wheel-mounted ‘M’ buttons. You can then also choose three different maps for the gearbox, each pushing the part-throttle shift point further up the rev range than the last. You can even choose a more rearward bias for the four-wheel drive system by summoning its ‘Sport’ mode, or indeed switch it off altogether and enjoy correct-wheel drive all by itself. It looks and sounds bewildering at first, but if you know BMWs and M-cars in particular, you’ll learn it fast. If not, you’re going to need some time.
Barely had I left the car park when my fears about the car’s true agenda blossomed. The car rides beautifully in its comfort setting, the V8 is quiet too, far quieter than the snorting equivalent Benz parks under the bonnet of its rival E63 saloon. Easing up to speed on the motorway, listening to how well tyre and wind noise has been isolated, I thought what a lovely daily driver this would make, and as that’s probably the first priority of any BMW saloon – even one with this badge – perhaps the M division considered that job done.
I did not. The car is clearly quick – though remember the extraordinary 1.0sec improvement in claimed 0-62mph is almost entirely a factor of four-wheel drive – but the engine never emits more than a polite V8 woofle. No blood here, and not much thunder either. Where was the spark?
The good news is that it’s there: you just have to go and look for it. On the right road and with all those myriad settings turned up to 11, there is indeed something of the older M5s about this car. While I found its immediate predecessor actually became less lovely to drive the harder you pushed it, this one is the complete reverse, revealing levels of balance, poise and precision you’d never expect if you only drove it with everything switched to comfort. And not once did I miss the double- clutch gearbox because the auto locks up almost immediately and shifts as fast as I can think while the four-wheel drive system is really pretty unobtrusive
But put it into rear-drive only and it becomes another car all over again, one where there is genuine joy to be had teasing it right to its traction limit and indulging in the entirely good natured oversteer that results when you overstep the mark. On the right road, it’s as much fun as you could imagine a two-tonne four-door family saloon could be in 2018.
In the end I returned to base with just two proper complaints: the brakes are needlessly over-assisted and you can only select rear-drive if all the safety systems are disengaged. Why? Surely if you allow the car to be driven in a mode where it will slide almost at will, would it not make sense just to keep a low level of electronic intervention in the wings for those moments when enthusiasm outstrips talent?
I don’t think when we’re all in autonomous pods and looking back at the cars that most moved us, that this will be recalled as the greatest of the six generations of M5. It’s still too heavy and its engine too muted, but it is a step back in the right direction.
When you consider that for every die-hard enthusiast who absolutely wants the M5 to be BMW’s ultimate driving machine, there will be at least 100 who actually just want a very rapid, comfortable and quiet saloon with a badge that marks them out to be the adventurers they probably are not, then this car probably makes sense. And I’ll say this for the new M5: there has never been one that tries harder to satisfy both camps.
This is an entirely pragmatic car, but if you take the time to choose the correct settings, it is also a proper driver’s car too. And it’s been too long, seven years in fact, since I have been able to say that about an M5.
Price £89,645 Engine 4.4 litres, 8 cylinders, turbocharged Power 592bhp@5600rpm Torque 553lb ft@1800rpm Weight 1930kg Power to weight 307bhp per tonne Transmission eight-speed auto, four-wheel drive 0-60mph 3.4sec Top speed 155mph (limited) Economy 26.9mpg CO2 241g/km