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2018 BMW M5 First Drive Review: Truly Two Cars In One

First Drive / 21 Comments

Supple and compliant on the road; a monster on the track.

While the hot hatch phenomenon began in 1976 with the debut of the Golf GTI, it was not until 1981 that BMW gave birth to the medium-sized high performance sedan genre with the M535i (E12). This first M recipe simply entailed shoehorning the 218-hp big-block 3.5-liter (M90) six from the 735i into the 5-Series shell, resulting in a car that was rapid in its time if only lukewarm by today's standards.

It was not until the arrival of the (E28) M5 in 1986, powered by a 286-hp version of the 3.5-liter 24-valve twin-cam six from the M1 supercar that BMW M really began to cook with gas. However, the further developed version of this engine was not man enough to make the larger and heavier E34 generation M5 of 1989 a really convincing autobahn stormer. Even though it debuted with 315 hp, BMW soon had to stretch it to 3.8 liters for 340 hp to stay competitive against the Porsche-developed Mercedes 500E, which arrived in 1991 packing a 326-hp 5.0-liter V8 and loaded for bear. In 1998, the third generation M5 (E39) forsook the iconic twin-cam straight six for a brand new 4.9-liter naturally-aspirated V8 (S62) motor, which came with a full fat 400 hp.

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This was the first M5 to be built on the regular 5-Series production line at Dingolfing instead of at the BMW M GmbH factory in Garching near Munich. The fourth generation M5 was more radical all round, adding new panels with wider arches to Chris Bangle's controversially styled E60 5-Series. But the biggest surprise was its 507-hp 5.0-liter V10 (S85) motor whose warbling soundtrack quickly won many fans, even if its SMG gearbox did not. Ironically, a six-speed manual was made available for the US market only. This was the best selling M5 of the lot, with 19,564 sedans and 1,025 estate car versions sold over five years.

In 2010, its final production year, the E60 model celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the M5. In an environment where manufacturers usually improve efficiency of their new models by shedding excess fat, the F10 M5 of 2011 shocked enthusiasts by debuting with 90 kg more dead weight than its V10-engined predecessor. With tightening emissions standards looming BMW chose a 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 to succeed the V10, and uniquely placed those turbochargers inside the Vee in what they term a 'hot side inside' configuration. With 560-hp and 502 lb-ft of torque, the S63 T2 motor made for the most powerful M5 ever, but at 4,288 lb (1,945 kg), also the heaviest.

Although based on the latest G30 5-Series, the new M5 that goes on sale in spring 2018 is internally designated F90. Go figure. Power comes from the heavily revised S63 T4 version of the V8 twin-turbo good for 600 hp and 553 lb-ft of torque. This is dispensed to all four wheels through a new ZF eight-speed torque convertor automatic gearbox that replaces the seven-speed Getrag dual-clutch box used before. BMW realized at the start of the F90 M5's development that it would have to use every trick in the book to stay competitive with forthcoming rival super sedans from Mercedes-AMG and Audi.

Since they had already used all-wheel-drive to good effect in the M550d, an M fettled version of BMW's xDrive system was the logical missing link in the M5 chain. The good news is that despite the extra weight of the front differential and driveshafts the engineers managed to shave around 40 kg off the curb weight of the outgoing F10 model. Apart from its weight, a serious bugbear of the F10 M5 was the totally unnatural weighting and feel of its hydraulic power steering, which became unnaturally heavy and lacking in feedback in its Sport setting. It felt like one of those early force feedback set-ups for PlayStation that gave you lots of resistance, but no feeling of being connected to anything.

Thankfully the engineers have got it right this time round and the EPS (Electric Power Steering) works a treat both in its normal setting on the road, and when all systems are on full alert on track. In design terms, BMW has always applied a mandate of one generation of styling revolution followed by one of evolution. This has not changed, but the differences between the similarly proportioned F10 and F90 generation 5-Series models are subtle enough that non-enthusiasts would struggle to identify them as they drive past. The same goes for their M5 derivatives, whose lights, grilles and bumpers are the real giveaways to car enthusiasts.

However, there is no getting away from the fact that the latest M5 is a handsome car in the classical sense. It is arguably crisper looking than the more organically styled E63 AMG, which also features 4WD as standard. The RS6 derivative of the forthcoming new Audi A6 is still some way off, so for now the new M5 is safe from an Ingolstadt challenge, which will once again likely be only made in its iconic Avant form. While it may appear superficially similar to its predecessor, the sixth-generation M5 is in fact an all-new car under the skin. Based on a new platform that BMW terms their CLAR (Cluster Architecture) structure, the new M5 has a lighter and more rigid monocoque, which makes it a potentially more stable platform for its suspension.

Although the fact is well disguised by its fine proportions, the new M5 is larger all round. It has grown 55 mm to 4,965 mm, width is increased by 12 mm to 1,903 mm, and it is also 16 mm taller at 1,473 mm. The weight reduction despite these larger dimensions and the addition of xDrive is thus commendable, and is helped by the use of lightweight high strength steels in critical areas, an aluminum hood, carbon-fiber roof panel, lightweight exhaust system and a lithium-ion battery in the boot, which incidentally has a 530-liter volume.

With less weight to carry, more power and torque, and the means to apply it to the tarmac effectively in all weather conditions, the new M5 is at last a complete high performance sedan, at least on paper. What has not changed is the phenomenal twin-turbo V8. Billed as the fastest and most powerful M5 ever, the new car blasts to 62 mph in 3.4 seconds and on to an electronically limited 155 mph top speed. This becomes 190 mph if you tick the box for the Driver's Package option. Dubbed M xDrive, the 4WD system is essentially a marriage of BMW's xDrive hardware with the Active M differential.

The M engineers developed a proprietary software application to control these components in such a way that traction and balance are optimized for conditions. It can even send power to only the front or rear wheels if required. Naturally, the M5's handling bias is rear-wheel-drive but the driven front wheels impart greater stability and safety at speed as well as on low friction surfaces. The M5 has always had a fine reputation as a good drift car, so trackday junkies will obviously question the impact of M xDrive on their ability to drive while looking through the side window. The good news is that M Dynamic mode sends 100 percent of the power to the rear wheels to satisfy these hardcore drivers.

Other modes are 4WD, 4WD Sport, 2WD, and as usual if you switch off the traction control you are on your own. Clarity is always a virtue and BMW has now made loosening of the electronic nanny easier and more transparent with the adoption of red painted MDM1 and MDM2 levers on the steering wheel. These two stages increase the amount of oversteer a skilled driver can adopt on track, the latter making full use of the M Differential to hang the back out whether in four or two-wheel-drive. MDM1 is activated with one push of the button; the selection of MDM2 requires a second push to confirm your intentions.

The complete disabling of the all traction control systems and driver aids is carried out by a separate button on the center console, while the selection of rear-wheel-drive only requires delving into the on-screen menu. With limited track time at Estoril, I set up my Drift Ghost video camera on the top of the front windscreen and went for a half-dozen lap burn up behind my buddy, Martin Tomczyk, BMW's DTM ace. MDM2 mode allows you to hang the tail out with the responsive new electric power steering working perfectly in sync with the chassis, and this made it a cinch to follow Martin around the technically challenging but familiar bends of Estoril.

Choreographing Martin's drifting M5 Pace Car meant power sliding my own car just as a fighter pilot sideslips to keep his guns on an enemy plane. Using my right foot with minimal steering to adjust my line I was able to keep the camera centered on Martin's car, in the process proving just how user friendly and instinctive the handling of the latest M5 is. The uprated engine and lower weight gives the car bombastic performance, and it eats tarmac between the bends with a voracious appetite, the M xDrive providing the traction to slingshot the car out of bends in a way alien to a rear drive only M5.

The counterpoint when you dial things back for the street is a supple secondary ride for a sporting sedan, and a civilized drivetrain that provides a smooth town driving experience, and seamless gearshifts when the new auto box is left to its own devices. On the highway, the compliant suspension and low cabin noise on a light throttle mean that the M5 falls comfortably into the role of a cosseting long distance cruiser with supercar levels of go hidden just below the surface. BMW wasn't kidding when it said the new M5 is really two cars in one. So there you have it. The new BMW M5 is everything its flawed predecessor was not and then some.

The good news is that the addition of xDrive has not eroded the pure driving experience, as some diehards were afraid it might. If anything 4WD has made the on limit driving experience even more accessible for drivers who lack the raw talent of Martin Tomczyk. And if you think your drifting skills are up to it, you still have the option of removing the front axle from the equation. Trust BMW M to do it right.