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Sometimes, but not often, a car comes along that blows your expectations into another orbit entirely. Like, all the way to Mars. That would be the 2018 BMW M5.
It could easily have been just another high-powered, four-door M-car with the same understated Q-car looks, a bit more grunt, and all the latest gadgetry and safety tech you’d expect of a new-generation model. And frankly, that’s what we half-expected of this sixth-generation M5.
Don’t get me wrong, the BMW M5 has been a celebrated icon for decades, ever since the company came up with the simple but nonetheless effective idea of transforming its standard mid-size luxury sedan into a high-powered giant killer.
The first car to get the M-treatment was the M535i based on the E12-series car and the precursor to the original and full-house M5. It was based on the E28 series and hand-built off the 535i chassis, but added a modified version of the BMW M1 engine to become the fastest production sedan in the world at the time.
Its bloodline now stretches across six generations with the arrival of this latest F90 iteration. But frankly, the outgoing F10 iteration has been a bit of a disappointment – let down by a chassis that didn’t really measure up to what was expected of a new-gen M5. The ride wasn't great and the gearbox finicky, were too such negatives.
So, understandably, knowing a new model was just around the corner, it wasn’t really having the effect on me it might have otherwise had. But that’s before I got chatting with a BMW insider, and self-confessed M-obsessive, at an industry event we held earlier this year. He quietly made mention of the fact the new M5 was going to be, well, “the mother of all M5s”.
What he meant to say was the new M5 is lighter, faster and can go from 0–100km/h in a supercar-rivalling 3.4 seconds, completely obliterating the previous car’s best efforts by a full second. That’s actually a big number in the world of production car sprints, and only possible thanks to the added traction from its newfound all-wheel-drive system.
And if optioned with the M Driver’s Package, the electronic speed-limiting shackles come off for a claimed top speed of 305km/h. These are serious numbers for a mid-size sedan with room for five adults and some luggage.
You’ve got to understand this fellow. By his very nature a conservative chap, who generally doesn’t show a lot of emotion. But this time he couldn’t quite cloak his enthusiasm, instead grinning from ear-to-ear like a kid on Christmas morning with a new toy at hand. And this before he’d even seen the car, let alone driven it.
He also strongly suggested I might want to save a certain date for the international launch, which he indicated would include both road and track components. The latter at the famed Estoril race circuit in Portugal. That being the case, I was of course reluctant to share this newfound intel with any of my CarAdvice colleagues – an action that goes totally against company protocol, you understand.
Naturally, I was all-in for this event, even before he went on to mention it would also be the first ever four-wheel-drive M5, having decided to ditch the DCT (Dual-Clutch Transmission) of its predecessor in favour of a traditional auto with torque converter. In this case, an eight-speed ZF box with a few tricks up its sleeve.
But that’s also the moment when the panic started to set in. After all, the fastest-shifting gearboxes are still DCTs, so why would BMW want to dumb it down? Moreover, the M5 has always been a rear-wheel drive with a hugely powerful petrol engine under the bonnet – because that’s what buyers want, don’t they?
Well, yes and no, according to the head honchos at M-division charged with turning out the new game-changing M5. Because you can still have all that, and more. You see, the new M xDrive is a switchable all-wheel-drive system, which can (if you’re game enough or good enough) completely decouple the front axle, sending all 750 Newton-metres to the rear wheels and making power-oversteer slides a given.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to the new M5 that despite its still rather understated looks, this is a car that borders on revolutionary rather than just an evolution of a previous model. It’s underpinned by a truly exceptional chassis from the current G30 5 Series – stiff enough, light enough and beautifully balanced, and a perfect platform for the M-lads to go to work on. And work on, they surely did.
Even after adding the sophisticated four-wheel-drive system, heavier auto transmission and beefed-up suspension, bracing and brakes, the new M5 is still 15kg lighter than the outgoing model. There’s also a bucket-load more kit on board too, as well as every conceivable active safety system available today.
But first, the engine.
It’s a reworked version of the previous 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 powerhouse, only with bigger turbines, more boost and a 10.0:1 compression ratio that all-up makes 441kW from 5600–6700rpm – up from the 423kW of the previous M5 fitted with the Competition Package. Better still, torque is also up by 50Nm, topping out at 750Nm from just 1800rpm and all the way to 5600rpm.
Thankfully, we kicked off our first behind-the-wheel experience in the latest M5 with a 120km road loop that included a well-thought-out mix of beautifully smooth motorways and challenging Portuguese B-roads – some a lot tighter than we might have expected given the car has grown in every dimension.
There’s a multitude of different modes (too many, we’d suggest) accessible via the latest iDrive system’s rotary controller or touchscreen. But all that can effectively be simplified by using the two red buttons on either side of the steering wheel labelled M1 and M2. Both can be individually customised and called up at the touch of each button. Once to call it up, and twice to confirm. The starter button is red, too, but you’ll find that to the right and partially hidden by the wheel itself.
Everything can be adjusted, from suspension settings to shift speed and everything in between, but we kicked off in the default 4WD, which offers a fixed rear bias and smooth shifts. I mean, really smooth shifts.
In this auto-shifting mode, the M5 simply wafts along the motorway like a genuine luxury limo, absorbing the multiple heavy-duty steel expansion joints in these parts as if they weren’t there in the first place. Never before can I recall an M5 that rode so comfortably. We know that because we also got to drive every model that came before it. That’s the M 535i E12, M5 E28, M5 E34, M5 E39 (our fav) and M5 E60.
Of course, it wasn’t long before we ramped things up with stints in Sport and Sport Plus, as well as periodic bursts using the paddleshifters, even on the motorway. One thing is for certain, this is a seriously fast car, perhaps even more so than the numbers suggest.
And it’s quick from the very instant you’re on the throttle. There’s no lag, or if there is, it’s not something you’re ever conscious of, not even on-track. And believe me, Estoril has a few very tight corners that truly test a car’s accelerative potency, and the M5 nailed it.
Power comes on super smooth and linear, while torque is relentless, even when you’re punching it from 200km/h in sixth. And those shifts are much faster, but still with a level of refinement you simply can’t get with a DCT.
This, folks, is as good as it gets when it comes to an automatic transmission offering such duality in performance and refinement in one collective unit. In Sport Plus, though, with the right pedal mashed against the firewall there’s a decided nudge with each upshift – saving this setting for the track would be our recommendation.
There’s no great shift in ride comfort, though, regardless of which suspension setting you choose. Even in the hardcore mode, the M5’s adaptive damping is astonishingly adept at maintaining bump compliance and chassis balance while tackling the worst of the B-road sections.
For a car that tips the scales at a still hefty 1885kg, the M5 feels remarkably light on its feet, even on the tight twisty sections around Sintra of WRC (World Rally Championship) fame. But frankly, there’s no better place to properly prove that than a fast-flowing circuit like Estoril, with its mix of high-speed straightaways and super-technical turns.
You seem to sit lower in this M5 than in previous iterations, and the seats, which are an entirely new design, look more substantial and feel more comfortable than ever before. Good thing there’s plenty of bolster, too, because the speedo is showing 240km/h down the main straight before hitting the anchors at the 150-metre braking marker for turn one.
The odd thing is, the twin-turbo V8 almost feels lazy yet the mid-range pace is ballistic. It’s the same story with the handling. Somehow, the front end feels light and catlike in its ability and willingness to change direction – and it goes exactly where you point it. It’s astonishing, really, considering its weight.
With only a few sighting laps and even fewer solo laps under my belt, I was still more than happy to dial up the 4WD Sport setting via the M Dynamic mode switch, which not only reduces drive to the front wheels, but also allows for a decent degree of rear-axle slip.
Never before have I had so much fun in an M5, and it’s not like it demanded more of the driver either. I’d like to think my skill level is on the rise and my fear of high-speed drifting diminishing with each lap, but the truth is it’s all down to a superbly engineered car in perfect harmony with its myriad on-board technologies.
That said, you’d need to be braver than I to turn off the DSC completely, though a few more laps and I reckon I would have had a crack with the 2WD mode. That’s the sort of car this is. It’s hugely inspiring and nothing like its predecessor in that regard. So much so that you tend to start inducing power oversteer at any given opportunity, and controlling the slide is a piece of cake.
By now I had everything ramped up to Sport Plus, except the steering, which I left in Sport – sensing this to be the perfect balance between weight and speed for this kind of track. The other felt slightly too manic for my liking, but that’s the beauty of this system – you can customise all this stuff depending on the conditions at the time, or indeed your skill behind the wheel.
Despite the oversteer antics, there's still a ton of mechanical grip on offer despite dropping tyre widths by 10mm from 295/35 to 285/35 down back and 285/35 to 275/35 up front. That said, we'd love to see some seriously fat tyres on the rear for the visual appeal alone.
Stopping power on all the M5s we drove (road and track) was courtesy of a set of massive M Carbon Ceramic Brakes (a $16,500 option), and as expected they worked brilliantly, even after scores of laps and repeated abuse by a wide variety of driving styles. The laps continued non-stop for hours on end, but unlike other carbon we’ve tried, these also had great pedal feel, much like you get from a good set of steel rotors.
But for all its supercar-slaying ability, the latest M5 is perhaps the most legitimate marriage between ballistic performance and everyday useability and comfort ever devised – and we mean that. BMW’s M Division has created a genuine tour de force in what is a highly competitive automotive world with billion-dollar brands continually chasing bragging rights by building cars with ever more power, kit and technology.
Its arch rival is the Mercedes-Benz E63, a similarly powered 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 juggernaut with 420kW and 750Nm of torque that claims a 3.5-second sprint time and priced from $209,611.
The new M5 will hit local showrooms from Q2 2018, and be offered in two special launch variants: the First Edition and the Launch Edition. The Launch Edition actually represents the first allocation of just 50 units for Australia priced from $199,900 plus on-roads, whereas for those looking to make more of a statement with their new M5, there is the First Edition limited to just five only and priced from $229,900.