2018 BMW M5 First Drive: The King is Dead, Long Live the King

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There was a time when the alpha-numeric “M5” held transcendental place in our automotive consciousness and struck fear in the hearts of AMG drivers. Unfortunately, this car’s immediate predecessor, the F10 M5 (2011-2016), was roundly criticized for being a luxury car with a big motor—a rather large, distant-feeling speed instrument and not much else. In a comparison test against the last-generation Mercedes-Benz E63 S AMG, of the fortified, overboosted 2014 M5 Competition Pack, senior features editor Jonny Lieberman wrote: “…the M5 feels like a bank vault with the speedometer always reading 100 mph.” That car, and others since, linger as reminders that the M Division, perhaps only temporarily, had lost its way. Even Cadillac has driven a supercharged V-8 wedge into the super sedan battlefield with its underappreciated and highly capable CTS-V. BMW had to react in a big way. They did.

Of course, some will argue the V10-powered E60 M5 (2005-2010) was a technical marvel, sprung from the last time BMW was participating in Formula 1 racing. Yet, that high-strung low-torque engine operated within too narrow a window to be an effective all-around super sedan. It was a car that was alternatively at five-tenths or 10/10ths with little between. Arguably, it’s not been since the first V-8-powered E39-generation M5 (1998-2003) was on the prowl that BMW held a winning hand in this uber-sedan war. We were reminded of just how special the E39 remains when BMW supplied one to drive during this program in Portugal. In fact, they brought an M5 from each era—and even a 1981 M535i progenitor—for us to drive on the road when it wasn’t our turn on track in the 2018 M5. This fact made us ponder if BMW and, more specifically, the M division were, in fact, reminding themselves of the unique magic that the M5 should contain and supply. It should be more than a fast 5 Series. It should, like that E39 did, have us asking, “Wait. BMW are actually going to sell this car? To anybody who can afford it? This thing is completely bonkers. No way.”

Hair-on-Fire Great

Well, guess what? The BMW M5 is once again, completely bonkers, hair-on-fire great in its current F90 form. Not only does it once again sound like a proper ne plus ultra sedan, but it is also scary fast yet has the poise and feedback it so lacked in the F10 era. It’s once again the proverbial ballerina body builder able to balance on one toe while holding a two-ton weight over its head with one hand behind its back. Technical director Frank Markus wrote a terrific deep-dive into all the nuts and bolts of what makes the 2018 BMW M5 work when he drove a prototype earlier this year. Suffice to say that one lap of the Estoril circuit in the new M5 thrashed and dashed any misplaced preconceptions about the first use of all-wheel drive in an M5 and the shift from a dual-clutch automated manual (or a honest DIY manual) in favor of a well-tuned ZF eight-speed automatic. This M5 is alive, eager, and ready for a fight. A highly revised and more powerful version of the previous 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 now makes 592 horsepower (officially 441 kW) and 553 lb-ft (750 Nm) of torque. By Frank’s count there are 270 combinations available with driver-selectable options for engine responsiveness, transmission, chassis, M xDrive (4WD/Sport 4WD/2WD, so, yes, a “drift” mode), stability control (DSC), etc. That’s still too many. Luckily, there are two prominent red steering wheel “preset” buttons (M1/M2) where you can store your favorite configurations for easy retrieval. Seated in the car on the track, we were asked to start with M1 that BMW reps had programmed.

Out Lap

The M1 was conservatively set with the engine/exhaust at full song but with the transmission in the second-most aggressive mode, non-Sport AWD setting, and full DSC for introductory laps. BMW claims a 0-62-mph (100 kph) time of just 3.4 seconds. That seems about right because the car was insanely fast out of the paddock and down to the first corner. What’s more, unlike the muted F10, this car sounded stupendously good—like that old E39! Besides having control flaps in the exhaust system, we’re told that a “Helmholtz” resonator fitted between the two branches contributes to it. Some of that glorious sound is, of course, “enhanced” with the car’s audio system, as well. BMW horses have always felt bigger than their numbers suggest, but the way the M5 lifts its nose and puts the power to the ground on throttle hints at the all-wheel drive working effectively. At that there’s a deep reserve of torque (553 lb-ft) from a mere 1,800 up to 5,600 rpm.

Arriving at the first several corners, the turn-in was crisp and accurate like a rear-drive car, but the eager, aggressive M5 suddenly went lazy and stubborn midturn. Despite the driveline defaulting to 2WD until the computer-controlled transfer case deems it necessary to allot power to the front wheels, the heavy hand of DSC was obvious. In this mode, the first corners were agonizingly, artificially slowed. Any attempt to alter the car’s conservative line and speed by frantically (or gently) manipulating the throttle to shift the car’s prodigious weight (estimated to be about 4,250 pounds) or yaw rate was met with a dead go-pedal until the front wheels were pointed straight. About half way around the 2.6-mile lap, I pressed the M2 button (ushering Sport 4WD and M Dynamic DSC) and ensured the shift protocol was the most aggressive available. As if I had loosened the car’s bridle and let the reins go, the M5 came alive beneath me; it began to shrink around me. With more power being directed to the rear wheels, the tail of the car was easily coaxed into gentle, measured oversteer. The steering (which I had switched to Comfort to get rid of unnecessary weight) began offering me genuine information about the front tires’ impending lack of grip. The car was so predictable that when I’d lift off the throttle, weight would transfer to the front, and I’d quickly flick the steering the other way to catch the slide and meter it with the throttle and/or the laser-precise steering. Despite its wheelbase growing an inch, overall length by 2, and width by 0.5 inch, weight is down by 50-90 pounds compared to the rear-drive F10 M5—and this is how an M5 should behave on a track.

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The first time down the half-mile straight, the M5 piled on the speed as if it were in a vacuum without wind resistance. In what felt like a never-ending surge, and with each seamless, belching upshift, it just never stopped accelerating. All I could say to myself on that first lap and throughout that first sessions was: “Whoa. What. A. Motor!” For me, it defined the car in the morning, making the M5 feel like a uncaged beast that was ready to pick up asphalt and throw it at the cars following—which it did, and BMW reportedly replaced 10 windshields during the event.

On the Road

I was just getting comfortable. My hands had stopped sweating, and I had learned the track and just how much tail-out was allowed or discouraged by the car. I hadn’t yet dared look at the speedometer at the end of the straight. Too soon, however, the out lap, three hot laps, and one cool down were now behind us. We were assured that because it had rained on a previous group’s track day that there were plenty of M5-bespoke Pirelli P Zeros in the garage and that there would be afternoon hot-lapping. As we had planned, my co-driver for the afternoon road drive was none other than Jonny’s new Head2Head co-host, Jethro Bovington. And waiting for us in the parking lot was an identically equipped 2018 M5: Optional carbon-ceramic brakes (reducing corner weights by 50 pounds collectively), the M Driver’s Pack (raising the speed limiter from 155 to 189 mph), and 20-inch wheels with 275/35R20 and 285/35R20 tires.

The first order of business was to get out of town by negotiating a single roundabout then charging down an onramp onto the A16 headed north. Jethro wasted no time pressing the M2 button, and we blasted down the highway with the sat-nav system gently giving us guidance. It wasn’t long before we had arrived at the first toll station, and I asked Jethro, “If we were to arrive at the next one ‘too soon,’ would you expect to be fined for speeding?”

“I think that’s an urban myth meant to keep people from speeding,” he replied. “I’ve never heard of anybody getting nicked like that in all these years on European A roads. The speed cameras are real, but I don’t believe they time you between toll gates.”

At the first highway transition, Jethro really leaned on the car, and it just stuck to the line. “It’s really good at hiding its weight, isn’t it?” he asked. “The grip is tremendous, and it truly does feel rear drive. And this motor! Gawd.”

After a time we’d gotten off the A-routes and switched seats for the country road portion. At the first corner, I dabbed the brake and only the seat belts kept us from slamming into the dashboard. “Wow, these brakes take some getting used to, right?” I said.

We were going a good clip between towns, and interestingly, the nav system lagged behind so often that we missed several turns by the time we reached junctures. Besides that, the M5 that felt all-conquering on track and on the highway it suddenly felt all knees and elbows; the proverbial bull in a china shop. “Boy is this car big,” I said. “It takes up the entire width of this little road, and I don’t like those game-over drainage troughs one bit.”

The ride quality, too, suffered a great deal on broken pavement and even a short stretch of Belgian blocks through a small Portuguese hamlet. “Yeah, you really, really have to want this M5 to put up with the ride out here in the real world—even on the softest settings, it’s sports-car firm,” Jethro added. “Pretty punishing.” We both wondered why BMW hadn’t ventured into magnetorheological dampers yet. This would seem the perfect candidate for them. Licensing? Hmm.

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The conversation continued. “I think most people will be more satisfied with a less-mental M550i xDrive,” Jethro added.

“Agree, but I’m glad they went all in with the M5,” I said. “Let’s get back to the track and queue up.”

Session Two

With the morning’s wisdom, new-found confidence in, and respect for the new M5, we took our place in line for a second opportunity to really probe the car’s limits on fresh tires behind two pro drivers, a DTM champ and Blancpain GT competitor/rising star. No sooner were we belted in our cars, M2 button pressed, than the pros leading the group of three chase M5s at a time wooded the throttle and did a glorious burnout in pit lane. Oh, it was go-fast time alright. The lead M5s were the liveried version of the Moto GP pace car that was curiously shod with Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S tires—not Pirellis. At any rate we were off and hell bent for leather.

If the morning session was all about appreciating the motor, then the afternoon was devoted to the chassis and driveline and finding the perfect line. The pro drivers were goading us to go faster and faster, and finally, we were at the limit of the car. I finally caught a glimpse of the speedo right before I got on the brakes into Turn One. It read, “270 kph” or 168 mph, to us yanks. No wonder the cars’ top speeds were raised for the event. We would’ve been on the 155-mph limiter well before the first turn. With all three lights indicating the most aggressive transmission mapping, it ripped matched-rev downshifts like a twin-clutch. It’s utterly indistinguishable in shift speed and intelligence. Turn after turn, I grew more confident in adding throttle sooner and sooner coming out of the corner. I found the less-strict limits of MDM mode (still not enough yaw to be truly fun) and switched it off completely. I didn’t delve into 2WD drift mode, but the incongruous thing, however, was that even with DSC shut off, it was so easy to dance the car around the track—clipping curbs, drifting wide on the exits, positioning the car inch-perfect, finding the ABS threshold, and backing off slightly to modulate the brakes into corners. The M5 simply does everything you want it to do and nothing you don’t. The M xDrive system is so fluid that a driver can scarcely detect its carbon-clutch pack shifting power to the front, and the Active M Dynamic differential out back effectively shifts torque side to side without using brakes. The harmony of all of this is astounding and what makes the new M5 deserving of the old, highly revered badge. What a car. What a supremely entertaining and capable super sedan it is.

OK, it’s great and all. So what’s the tariff?

How much would you expect to pay for all of this? At this point, only base pricing has been announced at $103,595, or precisely $1,800 below a comparable 2018 Mercedes-AMG E63 S 4Matic. Tantalizing, isn’t it? Adding the historical cost of the M5’s carbon-ceramic brakes ($9,250) and the Competition package (now M Driver’s pack) that includes the 20-inch forged aluminum wheels and specific tuning ($7,300) would indicate we were driving M5s that would easily exceed $120,000 before interior options. And it’s worth it. The last E63 S 4Matic we tested cost $145,160. Rest assured, however, that we will line up the next Head2Head with these two cross town rivals in a few months. Their on-paper credentials are startlingly close, and it’ll be a cage match for the ages. Watch this space.

2018 BMW M5
BASE PRICE $103,595
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, RWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan
ENGINE 4.4L/592-hp/553-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT 4,250 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 117.7 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 195.5 x 74.9 x 56.8 in
0-60 MPH 3.2 sec (MT est)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 15/21/17 mpg (MT est)
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 225-160 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 1.13 lb/mile
ON SALE IN U.S. Spring 2018

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