Road Test: BMW M5

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The thing I like most about the current range of high performance — sorry, very high performance — BMWs is their relative lack of extrovert styling. There was a time, when the CSL “batmobile” reigned supreme as the top performer in the Marque’s line-up, that BMW’s best proclaimed its arrival with all the subtlety of the Daily Herald brass band competition. During the latter part of the 1970s, the marque’s visual image softened considerably. The performance aspect became more understated, although, happily, this did not portend any dilution of the company’s commitment to the sporting motorist.

Perhaps one of the saddest BMW developments in recent years was the killing off of the magnificent M1 coupé. Even now, five years since the last of these central engined coupés rolled off the production line, BMW’s most recent pure sports car stands worthwhile comparison with any of today’s super cars. Happily, the four-valves per-cylinder 3.5-litre engine has continued to find a home beneath the bonnet of the fastest remaining BMW saloons and coupés. The most recent concoction to come our way was the shattering M5 — the fastest of all 5-series cars with a level of usable performance calculated to render the two-valves per-cylinder M535i a bit of a slouch!

With BMW Motorsport planning to produce a mere 250 of these specially constructed machines each year, would-be purchasers are guaranteed a high level of exclusivity. However, this rarity value has to be paid for and only those capable of producing over £31,000 should contemplate getting in the queue outside BMW GB’s headquarters or their local dealer!

Outwardly, the M5 looks like “just another 5-series BeEmm”. Square-cut, perhaps getting ever-so-slightly dated in a nicely conservative manner. A well-balanced four-door saloon that we’ve all come to take for granted on our roads. Trim and neat, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Don’t be fooled .

Beneath the bonnet lurks the heart of the beast in the form of the superb straight six Munich motor, its cast iron cylinder block topped by a light alloy, DOHC 24-valve head. Using the ultra-efficient Bosch Motronic injection and engine management system, the M5 kicks out a healthy 286 bhp at 6500 rpm, not only endowing the car with a genuine 150 mph performance capability, but, more importantly, simply shattering performance all the way up the range.

Our test was carried out using a pre-UK production, LHD machine which was short of a host of extra equipment which subsequently became available when the RHD cars went on sale in Britain during July. In other words, we had to “suffer” without the electric sunroof, although we did have central locking and air conditioning, the latter proving an absolute boon during the brief tropical stint we enjoyed towards the end of June.

This machine also had slightly different gear ratios which were not quite standard, but that in no way compromised the lusty performance. This five-speed Getrag unit transmits the power through a ZF limited slip differential to Michelin 220/55 V390 TRX tyres fitting snugly, yet tightly, under their non-flared wheel arches.

At first acquaintance, the M5 seems a little lumpy as you warm it up, but once on the move performs like a turbine, only a shrill — almost metallic — hum betraying the rise in rpm. The clutch engages very near the top ot its travel and the gearchange proved lumpy at the best of times, but the performance is, quite simply, beyond reproach.

If you are not very careful getting the M5 off the line energetically, it’s possible to induce quite severe axle tramp, so a little bit of finesse is required to coax the best out of this BMW under harsh acceleration. Those Michelins give quite remarkable grip, so if you let the revs drop, at the other end of the scale, you’ll find yourself bogged down and off-cam. Using around 3500/4000 rpm you can make really storming starts, and, assuming you don’t fumble any of the gear changes, this four door saloon sustains an eye-popping surge all the way to around 110 mph before it shows any signs of tailing off.

The M5 sprints to 60 mph in 6.3 sec., reaches 80 mph in only 10.5 sec. and tops 100 mph a mere 17.1 sec. after dropping the clutch. Even more impressive was its mid-range acceleration in fourth gear. From 60 to 80 mph occupied a mere 6.3 sec. and 80 to 100 mph barely any longer. Using 6500 rpm, it was possible just to top 40 mph in first, 69 mph in second, 101 mph in third and 135 mph in fourth.

To cope with this performance, BMW Motorsport has come up with a stiffer spring set-up than that employed on the M535i, along with much firmer gas filled dampers. Handling is splendidly balanced and the ride, though extremely firm, could not be termed unpleasant. Well-damped, unquestionably, but by no means coarse.

Even in streaming wet conditions, the low profile Michelins offered high levels of grip and, although their tread width made them prone to deviate over white lines or cats eyes, the directional stability was of a high order. In normal usage it is virtually impossible to induce the M5 to do anything untoward as far as breaking adhesion is concerned, its whole handling character seemingly locked into a “neutral mode”. Lifting off mid-way through a tight turn provokes a shade of tuck-in oversteer, but you would have to be mad or bad (or both) to get it to understeer, even in the rain. If you did, of course, you probably would be lucky to get out of the wreckage in one piece…

All this potential performance is kept well in check thanks to large ventilated disc brakes on all four wheels, servo assistance and ABS anti-lock facility. You can stand this medium-sized saloon “on its nose” time after exhilarating time with no appreciable diminution of the braking performance. That aspect of the car was both comforting and reassuring.

As far as internal trim is concerned, the M5 provides roomy accommodation for four — just the job for the wealthy executive who wants to have a sports car, yet still finds the kids hampering the realisation of that ambition! The test car came equipped with tasteful leather trim, in my view enhancing the comfort of the individual front seats (BMW’s own, although Recaros are also available at additional cost). I found the cockpit just roomy enough (I’m six foot two) and could have done with the three-spoked leather rimmed wheel being a little higher. It is adjustable for reach, but not for rake.

The rear seats are carefully moulded to provide maximum comfort for two occupants, and there is more than adequate rear legroom to qualify this saloon as a genuine four seater. Inertia reel belts were installed as standard equipment all round and the only real — albeit minor—criticism that can be levelled at the interior trim is the distinct lack of storage space for odds and ends.

Instrumentation is typical BMW, the driver faced by matching black-on-white 160 mph speedometer and 8000 rpm rev counter, the solid red line on which begins at 6900 rpm.  Also included on this main panel are the gauges for fuel contents and water temperature, plus an LED read-out to remind you when servicing becomes necessary.

During the time in our custody, the M5 returned an average fuel consumption of 19.7 mpg which we judged extremely reasonable, bearing in mind the energetic treatment meted out to the machine. You may blanche at the basic price tag, but if you feel you can’t be seen behind the wheel of a Ford and therefore don’t want to take the opportunity to own a Sierra RS Cosworth, then this meticulously manufactured machine from Munich might be right up your Strasse. Remember, though, it does cost virtually twice the price of the Ford. That makes it very pricey indeed in terms of perceived value for money, but as the ultimate upper-crust ‘Q car’, the BMW M5 probably has no peers. — A.H.

***

Motor Sport  Test Results  — BMW M5

Maker: Bayerische Motoren Werke, Munich, Germany. Model: M5

Type: Four door saloon.

Engine:  :Front, 3453cc (93.4 x  84.0mm) cast iron block/alloy head. DOHC. Four-valves per-cylinder. 10.5:1 cr. Bosch Motronic electronic injection and engine management system. 286 bhp at 6,500 rpm.

Transmission: RWD. Five-speed Getrag manual gearbox driving through ZF limited slip differential.

Suspension:  Front — MacPherson struts, double links, coil springs and gas filled dampers. Anti-roll bar fitted.  Rear — semi-trailing arms, coil springs and gas filled dampers. Anti-roll bar fitted.

Brakes:  Ventilated discs on all four wheels, 11.8in at front (with four pot calipers) and 10.7in at rear. Servo assistance.

Steering:  Rack and pinion, power assisted. 33 ft turning circle.

Wheels and Tyres: 165 TR390 alloy rims shod with 220/55V 390 Michelin radials.

Performance:  0-60 mph, 6.3 sec; 30-50 mph, 6.7 sec; 50-70 mph, 6.8 sec; 70-90 mph, 6.6 sec.   Maximum speed, 151 mph.

Dimensions:  Length, 181.9 in;  Wheelbase, 103.3 in; Width, 66.9 in;  Height, 55.1 in;  Kerb weight, 3153 lbs.

Price:  £31,295 inclusive of car tax and VAT.

Summary:  Shattering performance from a fine-handling and thoroughly tractable high-speed, four-door executive express. Firm ride, modest looks.