In this month's Top Gear mag, Chris Harris is your used performance car guru...
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Uh oh. Four-wheel drive? Another turbo engine? Sounds like a stats car…
Yes, yes and… no. This new M5 has got ‘xDrive’ all-wheel drive and an uprated version of the 4.4-litre TwinPower turbo V8. And it absolutely has some impressive statistics, but to write it off as ‘just another’ fast BMW is … to not have driven it.
I know I’m spoiling the end of this story, but this is a proper BMW M super-saloon, and I am extremely happy that the M Division has found its groove again. All subjective opinion, but I never really got on with the latest M3/M4 variants - too spiky and incoherent, with little character past feeling like a more potent 3- or 4-Series. This I like. A lot.
Do I need to read any more?
Sorry, but yes. There’s a lot going on here, and it requires a bit of attention. We’ll start with the styling. At first I thought the new M5 (‘F90’ in BMW codespeak, the last one being F10M in 2011) looked a bit flat.
Once you start looking properly, you notice that the new car’s front end consists mostly of gap – and it’s not just blanked styling exercises, because there’s actual radiators and oil coolers lurking. This bodes well. There are small side skirts, four exhausts and a vestigial bootlid lip. All quite subtle.
The roof is bare carbon-reinforced plastic, but you don’t really notice it with the darker colours, and the aluminium front wings and bonnet have crisp feature lines. In fact, the car itself is a decent chunk lighter than it was before thanks to that roof and a lighter exhaust, although some heft has been added back in with the four-wheel drive system. Still, at 1,855kg, it’s not bad for a big executive saloon.
Does it have the guts to be a proper sleeper?
Bluntly, yes. The 4.4-litre V8 with a pair of turbos is the most familiar thing about the M5, and it’s a good engine. Not particularly epic, but a solid, hefty powerplant that suits the car.
Some 553lb ft from 1,800rpm all the way to 5,600rpm, nigh on 600bhp from 5,600 to 6,700rpm. These are chunky but not ridiculous numbers on-par with the special edition Competition Package of the old M5.
It’s a thorough upgrade, mind: new turbos with a higher injection pressure of 350bar, giving more bang for buck and general efficiency (late 20s mpg was achievable when cruising). Better lubrication, cooling and performance under pressure.
The turbos spool quickly – something to do with modifications to the two-branch exhaust manifold that optimises the gas-exchange cycle – and it sounds pretty good too, a kind of bassy woofle at slower speeds with a decent rawness in the upper ranges. There’s a quiet running button for the exhaust for late-night arrivals/early morning starts, and when you’ve been pressing on a bit, it’ll sometimes spit and crackle in a fairly organic way – it doesn’t sound ‘engineered in’, though it probably is.
All that gives you 0-62mph in 3.4secs and a limited 155mph top speed (189 if you pay more for the ‘Driver’s Package’ raised limiter), which is plenty. although I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that I’m not sure that’s accurate: a bit of pocket dyno work had me getting very low threes from launch. With most of a tank of fuel.
So it’s fast. But is it fun?
Here’s where it gets interesting. BMW has gone all-wheel drive only for the M5, with a cheat code. It’s also swapped back from a DCT double-clutch ‘box in the F10 to an eight-speed Steptronic – essentially a torque converter auto with sequential paddle shift. And it’s all good.
The xDrive is a very rear-biased system, so the M5 generally feels nothing but rear-wheel drive. Push it, and you’ll get a touch of understeer, quickly and effectively nipped by the front axle pulling the car straight – all very natural. Be even more aggressive with the throttle and play with some of the modes (Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus), and the car will rotate a couple of degrees at the rear before going very neutral.
Which feels very agreeable when you’re cantering quickly down an unknown road. Traction is excellent, steering feel similarly transparent, and it all feels like the car is doing all the things you want it to. It’s easy, and fun, and makes you feel good. Beware though, because there’s quite a lot going on to make you look this competent.
While a transfer case punts torque fore-and-aft between axles, the Active M Differential splits torque between the two rear wheels - meaning that the M5 doesn’t head-butt the DSC systems all the time. What that means is that the M5 is eking out maximum traction for motive power, rather than reigning itself in using electronics to suit the conditions. Which is why it feels more natural and fluid. Okay, so there’s a lot going on, but the good bit is that it doesn’t actually feel like it.
How’s the gearbox?
I didn’t miss the twin-clutch DCT one bit. No, this auto hasn’t got the instantaneous response of a DCT, but it’s damn close once you’ve wound up the Drivelogic controller (it’s the rocker on the top of the gearstick), and the bonus sophistication it brings in low-speed manoeuvering and in traffic is worth the minute difference. It suits an M5 as a daily driven car, and that’s what it needs.
Similarly, knock the car back into Comfort mode and it makes a great case as an only car. It’s feels a bit less urgent, but that’s okay. And the brakes are fade-free and cast-iron reliable, though it’s wise to note that the cars we drove all had the optional (and somewhat lighter and more expensive) carbon ceramics. You can tell the difference because ‘standard’ brakes are blue, while the ceramics are gold.
Still, there are still a fair few too many modes and settings, meaning that you have to find the exact combination that you’re most comfortable with. Something BMW obviously knows, since you get a pair of red ‘M1’ and ‘M2’ buttons on the top of the steering wheel that remember your favourite pair of setups. Programme them, and you get your choice of xDrive, DSC, engine, transmission, damper and steering characteristics, as well as the appearance of M view in the head-up display.
Can one of those buttons be rear-wheel-drive only?
Ah yes. Hooligan mode. Basically, there are three settings that you can only access with the DSC switched off, and the one you want is the bottom of the three on the menu. It simply says ‘2wd’. Press the DSC ‘off’ button for a few seconds, select and confirm, and you have everything to the rear. The car also won’t auto change up in any of these modes, so you can happily stretch to the limiter.
Suddenly, muscle car. Stupidity and pointlessness. And it is glorious. No, you probably won’t use it much, but the M5 will now deliver tyre-destroying walking pace burnouts with ease. And drift? Yeah. It does that.
Full disclosure: I can make a car wiggle about a bit, but compared to the really good drivers, I’m rubbish at drifting. In the M5, I was… better. In fact, the only car that’s easier to drift was my old V8 Vauxhall Monaro. I even managed – and more than once – to change up from 3rd to fourth mid-drift. Which is ballistic.
Now part of this is down to the fact that the M5 is accurate and powerful, but also mostly due to the fact that the car is very neutral and unsnappy – the complete antithesis of a mid-engined supercar. The back end comes around almost lazily, and if you’ve got enough throttle engaged, you can hold onto it for pretty much as long as you like. Back off, and it simply winds itself back out. Now, in the hands of the ‘proper’ drivers, some of the slides they were managing at the Estoril Circuit in Portugal were ridiculous.
What if I want to knuckle down and drive quickly?
Stop showboating, and the M5 feels excellent. No, it’s not really a track car, no matter what BMW spouts about being honed on the Nürburgring, but it can definitely hold its own and put a large, hard-to-shift smile on your face.
Body control is fantastic, with that slight weight shift that allows your instincts to catch on to what the car is doing, traction is always available and power on tap no matter the gear. It’ll wriggle under hard braking, and power out on a quarter turn of lock even in 4WD mode.
Though be warned, you really do have to switch off more systems than you think, because the DSC and AWD gets quite paranoid and shuts everything down hard if they’re on. This is not a criticism as such – I’m sure I’d be glad of paranoid all-wheel drive and stability on a snowy autobahn or British B-road come winter.
This, Audi RS6 or Mercedes E63 AMG?
Time to address the elephant in the room, huh? All these super saloons are now all-wheel drive, so Audi no longer has that in its favour. And to be blunt, the Audi loses early. No, there won’t be an M5 Touring, but the E63 comes as an estate. And both the Merc and the M5 allow you to make choices as to whether you want AWD or RWD. And bluntly, they’re both better to drive than the Audi, by some margin.
The E63 is a bigger problem. For M5 money, you’re looking at an E63 S with 604bhp and 627lb ft, with the M5 at £89,640 and E63 S at £88,490. The stats are all but identical, they accelerate at the same rate, weigh pretty much the same (1,855kg BMW plays 1,880kg Merc).
Based on recent experience I think the M5 will be faster around a track. But not by much. And I’m not sure that’s the point of these cars, anyway. We’re in a little golden age of fast, big saloons, and the choice might well come down to which one you like the look of, or subjectively suits you better, than a clear choice. Whatever, it’s going to be one hell of a face off, and I cannot wait.
Verdict: The best M5 since the E39. A true super saloon with character and ability. BMW M has upped its game.