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Three years ago, we compared an outgoing rear-drive F10-gen M5 with the Competition package against the AWD Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG S. In explaining why the BMW lost, we established a wish list for the next-gen car.
Senior features editor Jonny Lieberman said that although the M5 could do what the E63 could, it required more skill: “Confidence is a key factor. I was simply more confident behind the wheel of the Mercedes than I was when driving the BMW.” He found the BMW driving experience too isolated, and he begged for a simpler launch control and a less dizzying array of chassis and powertrain adjustments—none of which offered a just-right feel, especially the rock-hard steering-assist settings.
Now, as M Division is wrapping up development of its sixth-generation (F90) M5, the team invited Motor Trend to BMW’s Miramas test center in southern France to sample the new car. Many key details, such as horsepower, torque, and turbo boost levels are being withheld until the car’s official launch at the Frankfurt show this fall, but here’s what we know for sure: The bodywork will be better differentiated from lesser 5 Series and will include a carbon-fiber roof panel. The engine is a further development of the S63 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8. The only transmission offering will be a ZF 8HP75 eight-speed automatic with a torque converter that locks for good after about 3 feet of travel. Power flows to all four wheels via an M-tuned all-wheel-drive system. And despite the addition of those extra gears and shafts up front, the AWD car should weigh about 200 pounds less than its rear-drive predecessor.
At dinner the night before our drive, BMW M’s VP of engineering, Dirk Häcker, said his group’s new M xDrive system not only boosts driver confidence and acceleration performance but also enhances the car’s dynamic handing feel. Wow! Does it also melt fat and increase virility? Nein. His magic involves a single M-designed central intelligence unit master controller that consolidates functions normally handled by several controllers in other BMWs. This yields faster decision-making about how to actuate the Active Differential, transfer case, transmission logic, and throttle and brake intervention. Häcker said this feed-forward control will drastically reduce my perception of any stability intervention. BMW factory team driver Timo Glock agreed. “The car drives you to the limit without scaring you,” he said. “You can still do much of what you want to do with a rear-wheel-drive car.”
The next morning’s tech talk confirmed all of that in detail, pointing out the many new M-specific control arms and links that alter the front and rear suspension geometry. Then there are the new bushings that sharpen the ride/handling characteristics and the next-gen ZF variable dampers that feature revised valves gliding inside aluminum (formerly steel) tubes. The front halfshafts and rear prop shaft are reinforced, and an X-brace and cross-car beam stiffen the rear suspension locating points. The carry-over transfer case gets strengthened output flanges, and the variable-locking M Active rear diff with carbon clutch plates replaces the molybdenum ones in the similar M3/M4 unit. From under the car, the price differential from the next-best 5 Series model seems well spent.
Then the discussion veered off in a disappointing direction: Jonny’s plea for simplified powertrain and chassis controls has been denied. Five control modes for the M xDrive were added to the three settings each for engine responsiveness, damping, steering effort, and shift speed (plus automatic or manual shifting). Although this might seem like overkill, BMW field research indicates owners do twiddle all those switches.
On startup it defaults to DSC on and full all-wheel drive. M Dynamic mode is programmed for near-neutral handling, permitting modest drift angles while providing a safety net. Switch DSC off, and you get three more choices, dubbed 4WD, 4WD Sport, and 2WD. These step the front-wheel assistance down to zero.
The electric steering assist effort levels are more appropriate. This alone makes it feel lighter.
Tech talk complete, I slid behind the wheel to sample an M5 shod in Michelin Pilot Alpin 55 winter tires on a wet track to feel the M xDrive working in slower motion. In just a few turns, I noticed the electric steering assist effort levels are more appropriate. This alone makes the car feel lighter and more agile. I started in M Dynamic mode, and as I probed the throttle, the rear stepped out ever so slightly with no noticeable nanny intervention—just increasing front drive to pull the car through at a neutral attitude.
Next I switched off DSC, tried the full 4WD mode, and discerned little or no difference in behavior, which suggests DSC wasn’t doing anything in the first few laps. In 4WD Sport, similar throttle inputs resulted in greater slip angles, but with prudent throttle control the bigger drifts were easy to initiate and maintain. Take the front wheels out of the equation in 2WD mode with no DSC safety net, and any throttle jab will spin the car. My final lap was in the default everything-on mode; this arrested any incipient spin tout de suite. Just what you want when a slip surprises you on a snowy commute.
At the end of the day, I sampled an M5 wearing Pilot Sports on the dry track. As a gray-haired engineer, I’m far more mechanically sympathetic and far less eager to hoon a car than Mr. Lieberman. I also had Häcker riding shotgun and my BMW PR host in the back. It would be poor form to spin. Yet as I chased Glock in his M4 GTS with my co-pilot gradually removing safety nets, I found myself comfortably stepping out the rear in each mode while we all smiled. The exhaust sound was exhilarating, and the transmission, set to D3 (automatic, quickest shifts), felt like the old DCT—complete with blip-throttle downshifts and split-second keister-kicking upshifts.
Anyone who felt intimidated by the knife-edged demeanor of the wilder, woolier rear-drive M5 is going to feel a lot more comfortable dicing with AMG Hammers in this savvy all-wheeler—and for the masochists who liked that sort of thing, there’s a RWD setting. There are still too many drive-mode variables, but the steering effort has been tamed and the launch mode mercifully simplified. With our wish list mostly granted, the M5 feels poised for a rematch with AMG.
|2018 BMW M5 (prototype)|
|BASE PRICE||$98,000 (est)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||4.4L/600-hp (est)/520-lb-ft (est) twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,200 lb (est)|
|LNGTH x WEIGHT x HEIGHT||194.6 x 73.5 x 58.2 in (est)|
|0-60 MPH||3.4 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||Not yet rated|
|ON SALE IN U.S||March 2018|
What about an M550i xDrive instead?
Itching to drive a twin-turbo V-8 AWD 5 Series but can’t wait until next March for the M5? Try the all-new M550i xDrive. Already on sale, the price starts at $73,095, to which any M5 intender will want to add the Dynamic Handling package (Adaptive M suspension, active steering, and roll stabilization for $3,500), the 20-inch M double-spoke wheels ($950), and the head-up display (sold in a $1,700 Driver Assistance package).
M division established the car’s dynamic performance targets, designed its interior and exterior trim upgrades, and signed off on the final package, but BMW’s mainstream car team engineered it. Its similar drivetrain components are just slightly downrated to suit the 456-hp, 480-lb-ft engine output, and there’s no CIU or M Active Differential. You’ll also have to do without the adjustable M sport seats and carbon roof, but you’ll save almost 19 grand and own bragging rights to the quickest 0–60 5 Series. Until March.