They say there's a fine line between genius and madness, and that no great genius ever existed without a touch of madness.
Madness in 1984, would have surely constituted lifting an engine out of a purpose-built racecar and placing it into a relatively sedate luxury sedan. Yet, 34 years later, here we are at the paddock of the Estoril Circuit in Portugal, witnessing the launch of the latest generation of that very model, which took a concept too far and inadvertently created a superstar of a car and a concept that has been emulated by virtually every premium automaker in the business.
Just beyond the pit building, sonorous exhaust notes are punctuated, for a millisecond or so, by throaty booms, as the gearbox hunts down the next gear; the noise alone stands the hairs on the back of my neck, as I'm sure they would any warm-blooded petrolhead. In its sixth-generation, BMW calls this the ultimate distillation of a "four-door business sedan with a taste for the race track", to you and me, this is the all-new BMW M5.
But, with a drivetrain formula that is different from every M5 that came before it, and more electronics than the Apollo 11 space shuttle – has the BMW M5 gotten a bit too soft, too safe or moved away from its raw, unbridled ancestry?
The all-new M5, codenamed the F90, was launched in August 2017, carries over the 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 from the outgoing (F10) M5 with a raft of new enhancements - newly developed turbochargers and injectors, improvements to the lubrication and cooling systems, and a fully variable, map-controlled engine oil supply system which is designed to handle very high levels of longitudinal and lateral acceleration.
The net effect is 600 hp between 5,600 – 6,700 rpm, and a peak torque of 750 Nm (up by 70 Nm over the F10 M5) from just 1,800 rpm, all the way up to 5,600 rpm.
Power is channelled through an eight-speed M Steptronic transmission, which for the first time in an M5, is sent to all four wheels via the company's M xDrive' all-wheel drive system. The nimble rear-biased set-up only calls on the front wheels when additional traction is needed. Additionally, the Active M Differential (also found on the M3 and M4 models) is responsible for precisely distributing drive torque between the rear wheels.
This gives rise to three main M xDrive settings:
- 4WD, DSC Normal – Optimised traction, predictable drivability, limited rear wheel slip allowed.
- 4WD Sport, DSC - MDM – M Dynamic Mode (MDM) distributes more drive torque to rear axle, permissible rear wheel slip is increased, playful handling.
- 2WD, DSC Off – Pure rear-wheel drive, classic M5 oversteer driving characteristics.
The transmission has been optimised for lightning-fast gear changes, while the torque converter lock-up clutch activates almost as soon as the car starts moving. The drivetrain has been further reinforced for greater rigidity and strength to make allowance for the high torque, the rear-biased configuration, and the 2WD drive option.
The M5 is fitted with M compound brakes discs which are significantly lighter than conventional cast iron items. Six-piston fixed calipers feature at the front, while the rear is fitted with a single piston floating caliper.
While the (F90) M5 does not adopt the Carbon Core technology available on the flagship 7 Series, it is still lighter than the outgoing M5 (even with its AWD drivetrain components) courtesy of a carbon fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) roof section and lightweight exhaust system. The (F90) M5 tips the scales at 1,855 kg, some 15 kgs less than the predecessor.
Globally, the fiercest competitor of the all-new BMW (F90) M5 is the Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG 4Matic+, which also uses an AWD system with torque vectoring. In terms of power, the E63S pips the M5, producing 612 hp at and 850Nm from its 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8. The all-new Audi RS6 is believed to be slated for a 2019 launch and as such, the steed from Affalterbach remains the M5’s biggest adversary for now.
The exterior design of the M5 is an exercise in bold sculpted lines – the analogy of a triathlon champion in a three-piece suit and running shoes comes to mind. The redesigned front bumper, side skirts, rear bumper, and snazzy wing mirrors demarcate the M5 from the rest of the 5 Series range. The M5’s front track is 21 mm wider than a regular (G30) 5 Series, which it cloaks with wider front fenders and a reshaped front hood – both hewn from aluminium.
The aforementioned CFRP roof section contrasts the deep hue of the Marina Blue metallic colour – which does a superb job of highlighting the muscular bodywork without being overly gaudy. Note too that the car you see here is equipped with optional 20-inch seven-double-spoke wheels, wrapped in 275- and 285-series tyres front and back respectively.
In typical BMW fashion, the cockpit is driver-orientated, highlighted by the M specific digital instrument cluster, central infotainment screen, and tactile steering wheel which places all controls within easy reach of the driver.
Two small red buttons on either side of the central portion of the steering wheel marked M1 and M2 engage the individualised drive modes, and help create this purposeful fighter jet fighter like aura in the cabin.
The M1/M2 driving modes are customisable through the “M Setup” menu, allowing drivers to configure two individual set-ups; one can augment the M xDrive, DSC, engine, transmission, damper and steering characteristics.
Additionally, switches on the centre console right next to the gear lever are another useful way of controlling the car’s settings on the fly.
Needless to say, all these functions are also easily controlled through the iDrive rotary controller, which is quite possibly the best kit in the business. It is comparable to the latest version of Mercedes-Benz’s COMAND system, but in terms of the overall execution and menu layout, the iDrive system gets my vote.
The M5 is trimmed in Merino leather as standard, which proved to be very supple over the longer on-road driving stint, yet supportive enough when carving up corners on the circuit; an embossed M logo on the head restraints again highlights that this no ordinary 5 Series sedan.
Coming back to the inquest of whether the M5 has, through all its new drivetrain configuration and thousands of algorithms that control almost every aspect of the car's performance invariably, turned it into a machine that is sterile and much less rewarding to drive than its unbridled forebears – we were given a chance to take to the busy streets of Lisbon, twisty backroads that overlook and finally the Estoril Circuit for the ultimate test of character.
On the road, the M5 still manages a beautiful duality of being a serene cruiser as well as a track ready beast, with the active exhaust in its "quiet" mode, there's little indication that this is anything other than a regular 5 Series, NVH levels within the cabin are superb. The steering is light, and with the AWD intelligently varying torque between the driven wheels, the M5 light and maneuverable at low speeds in the city.
Regardless of its massive brakes – beefed up for track use – it's easy to modulate in traffic and at low speeds. There are certain instances where the adaptive suspension – even in its comfort setting – can feel a tad stiff, especially over Lisbon's many cobblestone roads, but it never feels harsh or abrupt. Again, this where its rigid body frame helps spread road forces, and reduce unwanted body movements.
Heading out of the city, onto more open back roads, the M5 starts obliterating small straights between corners, as if just released from a giant rubber band at the exit of every turn. The power is almost instantaneous, from around 1,800 rpm, building exponentially until about 5,000 rpm when the engine hits its second wind and flies to the redline in every gear.
Also, the resulting mechanical grip is immense, this is to say, you’d have to be pretty nutty to get it to understeer in the start or mid-point of a corner – and there’s almost no oversteer regardless of how hard one jabs at the throttle at corner exits. Due to the seamless power transfer across the four wheels, the M5 exits every corner with extreme composure.
It's much the same on the highway, simply flick the paddle shifter to drop a gear, and the car explodes with pace, forget about overtaking; plant your foot down in 5th and 6th gear for more than five seconds and you'd be pushing past 220 km/h with ease.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say this again: the ZF eight-speed M Steptronic transmission is the best in the business, smooth and fluid when cruising along, assertive and rapid once you start blasting around. The up and downshifts are trigger quick, with almost instantaneous response to the paddle shifter’s commands.
On the track though, every response is heightened. The Estoril Circuit is made up of 13 corners but it isn’t as wide as newer, larger tracks. Its highly technical track layout requires being spot on in braking zones and carrying the correct line in and out of a corner – thereby maintaining the car's momentum. Up ahead is Bruno Spengler, 2012 German Touring Car champion who is sharp with his commands, and even sharper behind the wheel. And he wastes no time getting up to speed.
Our group would have roughly five laps in total, inclusive of the warmup and cool down laps, which takes through the various MDM setups, but for good measure, given its ever ready 750 Nm of torque, we won’t be allowed to get into its 2WD mode, which shuts off the DSC system.
Within the first few corners, one thing becomes immediately apparent, the M5 feels lithe, if I didn't know any better I would think it weighed 200 kgs less than the outgoing model. It handles direction changes with aplomb, surefooted turn-in, and brilliant mid-corner body control through the first three corners quickly helps build my confidence in the car. Clearing Turn 4, I'm told to go flat-out through Turn 5, the aforementioned torque vectoring is hard at work, to keep the car centred on my chosen line, I'm pinned into the seat bolsters, the G-forces are huge here, but so is the M5's mechanical grip.
Braking hard for Turn 6 proves just how powerful the M Compound brakes are, the car remains steady, and tracks true right up to the late apex clipping point before unwinding the wheel and adding power. Turns 7- 13 come in very quick succession, with the one corner exit leading up to the entry of the next - momentum is key here. Again the M5's AWD system shines, as does the steering system, which is precise and communicative, building load progressively through the turn and unwinding with ease at the exit.
The brakes are monstrous, remaining powerful and predictable even after four hot laps, resisting even the slightest amount of brake fade.
Switching into M Dynamic Mode augments the DSC and AWD systems into its sportier setup, by now allowing playful angles of slip at the rear. For the most part, through the first few corners, it’s pretty much the same as before – predictable and rapid.
It wasn’t until Turn 6 again, when I got off the brakes and jabbed the accelerator; the rear end gracefully stepped out of line on the long ascending left-hander. Imagine that, a novice like me, and pulling a stylish drift coming out of a corner at 120 km/h. After which, small inputs of opposite lock are all it takes to straighten the car back again.
The trick is to get the braking correct though, too little and not enough weight is transferred to the front axle, and abrupt throttle application simply causes understeer.
If the default setting made you feel like a pretty fast driver, the dynamic traction mode made you feel like you were part of the cast of the next Fast and Furious flick. Up ahead, Mr Spengler, who is visibly in 2WD mode by now, is drawing black lines, 60 feet long at the exit of every corner.
I keep coming back to the thought that the BMW M5 is more than just a high-powered version of the regular BMW 5 Series model. This became profoundly true when I was granted three short 5-minute drives in the E34, E39, and E60 M5s respectively.
Regardless of the technology – from a 5-speed (E34) to a 6-speed manual (E39) to the ‘SMG’ 6-speed auto (E60) – or from an inline-six, to a V8 and finally a high-revving V10, the sense of character is transcendent. It’s that sense of communication between man and machine, any M5's brilliant handling, and superb performance few other cars can match.
There's no denying the AWD system and all its electronic witchcraft have made it safer, but the M5 hasn't lost one bit of its edge and appeal. If anything, the real magic is how these systems homogenously integrate with one’s natural style of driving and manages to amplify that driving style in a safe yet fun manner. Allowing the car's massive performance to be accessible and exploitable to a larger audience, without losing its raw and organic spirit.
Essentially, what one begins to understand is any M5 is a carefully crafted driving experience, and the latest M5 is no different. The original super sedan has well and truly returned.