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Storm Warning

ANDREW FRANKEL RECKONS THIS BMW MS IS THE FINEST SALOON HE HAS DRIVEN. HE ALSO CANNOT RECALL ANOTHER MORE LIKELY TO CHALLENGE YOUR GRASP ON YOUR LICENCE A WHILE AGO I WAS STUPID ENOUGH TO SPEND SOME TIME LEARNING

about a curious philosophical theory. My recollection of this odd and abstract phenomenon is more than a little hazy so, please, if you happen to be an authority on the subject, please don't be offended by the Philistinian explanation to come. It does not affect the point I am trying to make. The basis of the theory is that no principle is indefinitely extendible; they all have in-built and invisible parameters within which they work. Pursue one beyond any one of these points and something untoward will happen, the least of which will be it will gradually start to change course and, consequently, no longer hold true. Under some circumstances and if the breach of protocol is severe enough, a principle can actually do a complete about turn. The upshot of all this is simply that the results of anyone trying to outstay a principle's welcome are rarely pretty. And this, I feared, would be the undoing of the new BMW MS.

The MS principle is as well known as it had been blindingly effective for nearly 15 years. You dress down the car, pump up the power and tune the chassis to suit. The results have been not only fantastically and uniformly effective, they are also responsible for a greater number of motoring journalist's cliches than almost any other car. If it's not a wolf in sheep's clothing, it's the ultimate Q-car and, failing tHe above, it can always be the good old iron fist in the velvet glove. My fears were founded from experience gained in the last MS, a 340bhp, six speed family saloon looking like butter wouldn't melt in its mouth (to lean on yet another MS-friendly cliché) yet

went so fast and handled so well it made you wonder why any one would want to spend money on a cramped sports coupe when you could have one of these instead. I drove one quite recently and was captivated not simply by any one aspect of its ability but, rather, the entire, extraordinary envelope of excellence within which it worked. Which has always been the key to the M5's magic. Conceptually, I think it's still probably the best balanced car I've driven.

My first few miles in the new MS were not like this. This third generation M5 is a world away from all the others which were, in fact, related by the same engine and, save the very first, the same body shell too. Not only has the engine now gone, but the principle which drove it has gone too. Old M5s had small capacity, chiffon-smooth straight six motors, highly tuned and with an addiction to revs. The new MS has, without wishing to sound uncharitable about it, a big banger under the bonnet. It's a 5-litre V8 with 400bhp and a much sunnier disposition at low to medium revs than it does near its 675Orpm red-line. And it doesn't even sound that great. But it is terrifyingly fast and I use the adjective advisedly as I spent more time being frightened during my first serious drive of the MS than in any car in recent memory. I'll explain. Usually I have very little time for those who are unable to relate a car's perceived performance to the readout on the speedometer. If you think you're doing 70mph when in fact you're doing 100mph, you are a menace. Yet the MS had me duped a number of times on roads I know backwards. Come out of a corner at no great

effort in fourth gear and squirt up the short, uphill straight beyond. Because its a road I drive along every week I know to expect the speedo of a conventionally fast car to read about 75mph at the end. In the MS, it said 94mph.

In itself, this is fine as the car's chassis is more than capable of reining in the excesses of its engine. The fear comes from the law. On a motorway it is horrendous if you are someone who, like me, enjoys harmless little squirts of acceleration either to dispatch some traffic or to alleviate the tedium of a long journey. The MS doesn't do harmless little squirts; it just chucks you at the horizon and God help you if one of Her Majesty's finest just happens to be pointing an electronic hair-dryer at you.

The result of this is I returned to the office and announced that the world had got this car wrong and that the 328Ci coupe you will be seeing with increasing frequency on these pages in the months to come did, in fact, possess 90 per cent of the usable performance of the MS and cost just half the price. It seemed utterly clear that the MS principle was starting to turn.

As it turns out, however, the M5 is one of those rare beasts that you cannot simply take for a short blast and return confident in having discovered its secret. Do that and you will believe the principle of principle reversion is alive, well and living in BMW Motorsport, the wing of the Munich marque responsible for all the M-series cars. It was as if each successive M5 until this one had been a slighter larger, more tasty bar of chocolate. But this was like being handed the keys to the factory and being told to help yourself Eventually you'll throw up.

How pleased I was to have had the M5 for a few days rather than a few hours for I discovered that beneath its mildly pumped up Five Series lines is a car whose ways really need extended learning, understanding and research. It won't just show you. Drive a brand new Ferrari and you expect this; but a four door BMW saloon? You'd better believe it.

Believe too that, once you have wormed your way under the MS's skin, the car will have a profound effect on you. What you learn first is that you adapt quickly to its ludicrous performance. It's like the driver who drives his first F I car and is overwhelmed by the power who, within a month, suggests he's ridden mopeds with more guts; so you get used to MS power and, when its taken away, you miss it.

You miss a deal more besides and, here, we are back into more familiar M-territory. You miss the sheer facility of the thing: the fact you could collect your most puritan relatives in it, take them on a tour of their top ten war graves and return them home without it once occurring to them that this car's dynamic abilities were in the tiniest bit overspecified. You miss the space, the nuclear fallout shelter construction, the ergonomics of the dashboard, the perfect driving position and the fact that not one single luxury has been sacrificed in the pursuit of performance. Leather, climate and cruise-control, electric everything... the MS has it all. Perhaps this should be less important than it is but then the times when such cars can be enjoyed to the full should be more uent than they are. What the M5 does as capably as anything else is fill in the gaps between the open roads. 1.4

So what is its secret? If you could ask the MS, it would point the finger at its parents, the not-so-humble standard Five series. You couldn't make a car this much better than anything else in its exclusive class without your start point being a car with a similar margin of excellence over its rivals. Nearly five years on and I have still to read a credible test of a Five Series with a conclusion other than that it is the best car in its class. And that is an astonishing achievement, particularly when you consider how tiny is BMW compared, in particular, to DaimlerChrysler owned Mercedes, and Ford-financed Jaguar.

Drive the MS as most will, in towns and on motorways and all of this holds true. There is no other saloon at any price, let alone under £60,000, which is better suited to resolving the conflict that perpetually exists between the mundanity of everyday driving and the enthusiast driver. But this is not really the point, as drivers of other M5s will confirm.

The MS is about what happens when motorways run out of junctions, when the country turns primitive and the roads no longer run straight. I do not know, but my guess is that the toughest task tackled by the MS engineers wasn't that mighty engine (which, after all, has a lowest specific output in the history of the MS) but persuading the chassis to cope with its torque and the car's weight in such a way that the driver was both kept safe and convinced he or she is aboard one of the great driver's cars.

In my view, given the size of the task, I found it staggering that they came so very close to pulling it off. Evidence of how hard the engineers thought about this can be found on the dashboard.

Next to the predictable (though gratifyingly effective) traction control switch, is another simply labelled 'Sport'. Press it and not only will the dampers tighten up (a fairly routine trick these days) but a chunk of the power assistance to the steering is cut and, most radical of all, the throttle response time is cut from pleasantly responsive to electrifying. Left in this mode on the motorway it feels nervous, every toe-twitch being in danger of being translated into forward motion but, on the good roads, where an immediate response to any instruction is imperative, the throttle possesses Porsche 911-like reactions.

So good is it, you could be fooled into thinking it's going to handle as well as a 911, a preposterous notion for a 1756kg saloon. But the truth is, it gives very little away. On its stiff dampers and riding on 275/35 ZR 18 tyres, grip is never a problem and body control over camber changes is unrivalled among four door cars. Turn the traction control off and it will oversteer at the twitch of your foot and snap cleanly back into line with an equal and opposite reaction from your wrists. Take it to a test track and you could drive it on the opposite lock-stops until you ran out of tyres if such behaviour equates with your idea of having am.

What, then, stands between it and the supercars? Simple agility and necessarily dulled steering, that's all. It is unable to change direction like a mid-engined car, nor does it communicate with the driver like some cars which do not carry their powerplant on top of their steered wheels. Then again, to hope for more from a car this big, this heavy is, frankly, unrealistic. So, despite the different approach, has this BMW MS stuck w?

to the same brief as its predecessors, did it see the principle approaching the outside of its envelope and adopt a fresh route of its own before circumstance fOrced it into compromise? Or is it simply an over-engineered, over-the-top bruiser trying without success to disguise its lack of charm with a flood of power?

Certainly not the latter. Once used to it, and I'll say again that the process takes more time than you would imagine, the MS has charm in abundance. It doesn't sound as good as its forebears and while its handling is technically better, it lacks more than a shade of the delicacy of earlier M 5s; but this is replaced by an overall capability which, while less easy to enthuse about in print, is easier still to first recognise and then swiftly fall for in reality. More than anything, it is a car with an almost eerie ability to have an answer for your every mood. Steve Cropley told me "When they built that car, they were thinking of me" and I could spend the rest of my life failing to express more succinctly how at one you feel with it. You are with your mates, having the most fun of your life because you just hired the Niirburgring for a day and the MS will do just fine. Then it's dark and raining, you're tired, the traffic is backed up for miles and home is 400miles away;

have an MS please. You're taking the family for a fortnight in Tuscany to instil some culture into them? Same again.

Best of all, such words have been the battlecry of the M5 since it first appeared and in them, therefore, we find confirmation that, though the execution may have changed, the spirit of the MS lives on in a way that that of the M3 never did. Here, at least, is proof that the principle still has a fair distance to go.