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Given the early Australian sales success of the Mercedes-AMG E43 twin-turbo V6, BMW’s local arm would no doubt kill to have a direct rival within its lauded new G30 5 Series range.
Surely, this must make it all the more galling that just such a car exists in Germany and the US, but has next to no chance of making it to us. That car is called the BMW M550i xDrive, and it’s the latest member of the company's M Performance division. In plainer speak, the almost M division.
Why won’t we see it in Australia? The key is in the name. ‘xDrive’ denotes BMW’s rear-biased AWD system, which the Bavarian brand rarely makes in right-hand drive form for passenger vehicles — the 3.7sec M760Li xDrive being the sole current exception.
As so, despite being tailor-made for our ravenous performance market, this exciting new entrant, and its bonkers quad-turbo M550d diesel sibling, are extremely unlikely to make it our way.
Normally this would put a line through us reviewing the car, but given we were with BMW in Europe already to get our heads around a few models that will make it here, it would have been impudent not to see precisely what we’ll miss out on.
So what precisely is the M550i xDrive? First, it’s not quite an M5 — the new-generation of which will premiere later this year for a 2018 market launch, to challenge the new E63 AMG — but it fills whatever void exists between the $136,900 540i and the full-on M version, which will no doubt sit north of $200k.
“We develop the BMW M Performance Automobiles for customers who are seeking very sporty driving characteristics yet do not wish to sacrifice any of their BMW’s everyday practicality,” says BMW M Division boss Frank van Meel.
“The experience and expertise garnered by BMW M in the world of motor sport and the development of high-performance sports cars are also channelled into the development of our BMW M Performance Automobiles.
"The sales success clearly demonstrates that we are on the right track. When you take a look at the BMW AG model portfolio, you will notice that not every model series includes a BMW M Performance Automobile.”
The model portfolio also comprises the M140i, M240i Coupe, BMW M240i, X4 M40i, X5 M50d, X6 M50d and M760Li.
The M550i xDrive sports a 4.4-litre twin-scroll turbocharged V8 making 340kW at 5500rpm and 650Nm of torque from just 1800 through to 4750rpm, matched to a regular eight-speed auto with sports mode that’s less jerk-prone around town than a racier DCT double-clutch unit. That’s well up on the E43’s 295kW/520Nm.
Furthermore, it sports the company’s xDrive on-demand and rear-biased AWD system to put power down better than the outgoing RWD M5. Thus, despite an 83kW/30Nm output disadvantage, the M550i sprints to 100km/h two-tenths faster, in just 4.0 seconds dead.
The EU6 4.4 V8 with TwinPower turbo has high-precision injection, plus fully variable valve control and camshaft timing. It brings torque on in a surging wave, muscular and moderately sonorous at the bottom end and happy enough to rev out towards its 7000rpm redline — by which time you’re well north of 200km/h unless you’re using the paddles.
The BMW xDrive AWD system splits drive power between all four wheels as the situation demands, but with a rear-wheel bias. Like the E43, it squats and bolts from the line without fuss, lends ample mid-corner grip, and shelves the M5’s oversteer-prone brand of lunacy.
The adaptive M Sport suspension (lowered by 10 millimetres) gives a plus ride even on 20-inch wheels, while the sport mode adds damper resistance for extra mid-corner stability, but never makes the car feel like a stiff track machine.
It’s more like a very, very fast GT that accumulates pace with alarming ease and moderate fuss, like the proverbial velvet sledgehammer. There’s a hint of aural drama coming from under the bonnet and through the pipes, but there’s a ceiling left for the new M5 to touch.
Standard-fit is the 5er’s electric power steering, with Integral Active Steering — BMW’s term for four-wheel steering a la a 1980s Honda but far more advanced, apparently — an option. That just must make the 4962mm M550i feel a whole metre shorter…
Thanks to a heavy use of aluminium and other light-weighting techniques — but not the 7er’s carbon-fibre core — the M550i xDrive manages to offset the heavier all-paw system to keep weight to 1885kg, about the same as the E43 which has two fewer cylinders.
Stylistically the M550i xDrive doesn’t look all that different to a 540i, though it gets a subtle M Division body kit and cabin trims. The soft leather seats, copious stitching and general cabin materials are high-end and understated. The iDrive 6 system is also benchmark.
Like other G30 5 Series models, the M550i xDrive also offers semi-autonomous tech such as an evasion aid, crossing-traffic warning system and active lane-change warning, which uses steering inputs to avert an impending collision.
The active cruise control and lane-keeping assistant now feature extended functionality, and there’s Intelligent Speed Limit Assist, which allows speed limits to be automatically imported into the cruise control system.
The cabin is otherwise familiar, brimming with the latest tech — including the fairly naff first iteration of BMW’s gesture control system — and room for five adults and their stuff. There's none of the E-Class’s flashiness, but the understated look, high-end feel and driver-focused ergonomics are signature BMW.
Obviously, it’s a shame that the M550i xDrive won’t come to Australia. It’d fill a niche for BMW here, one that the Mercedes-AMG E43 has filled so successfully. Who wouldn’t want a relaxing, everyday luxury sedan that can pin you to your seat at a moment’s notice?