BMW's M5 is understated enough to fly under the radar of the general public, but those in the know, familiar with its capabilities and the legacy it carries, grow silent with reverence if you pull up to them at the gas pump. Who can resist a vehicle that can stop conversations mid-sentence, and accelerates strongly enough to extinguish candles on the next block? We certainly couldn't, and thus began our week with the mighty M5.
Photos copyright ©2008 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.
Mighty cuts both ways. The engine is mighty impressive, but the transmission leaves a lasting impression, and it's not a good one. With 507 horsepower snarling forth from an alloy V10 the M5 pins you into the seat, which is fine, because you'll be comfortably smiling as your skull flattens against the headrest. Wipe that grin off your face, quickly, or else you'll be bouncing the tachometer's needle off its redline somewhere north of 8,000 RPM. Leaving the transmission in auto will avoid the rev limiter, but that's not the proper way to drive an SMG-equipped BMW.
Normal automatic transmissions shift quickly; they shift smoothly, or crisply. Manual transmissions shift as well as the driver's skill allows. Some automated manual gearboxes crack off gear changes faster than a Ramset sinks nails into concrete. But SMG may be just as quick as DSG, e-gear, or Cambio Corsa, its action is wholly unsatisfying. Twiddling a rocker on the center console adjusts the shift's ferocity, but equipped with the sequential manual, the $92,000 M5 is less satisfying than a $25,000 GTI with DSG. Acceleration runs start with promise, but all of a sudden it's anchors aweigh! before you're slammed back into the seat again. An ancient TH400 would be a welcome improvement, but manual mode is the only way to extract some pleasure from this electrohydraulic transmission.
The V10 is sensational in both specification and performance. Upon startup, the promise of performance crackles underhood, with pistons effortlessly sliding inside a linerless block. Electric oil pumps make the lubrication system impervious to lateral g's, ten individual throttles ensure snappy response, a bedplate keeps the forged crankshaft in place, bi-Vanos tweaks the camshafts, and a 12:1 compression ratio is integral to extracting 100 horsepower per liter. Once underway and churning along at speed, the exhaust pulses like a header-equipped hotrod, which the M5 is, straight from the factory.
But there's more to the M5 than an engine. Being based on a middleweight Euro family sedan makes the M5 well suited to carting offspring around... rapidly. The accouterments of everyday life are present. Details like built-in sunshades for rear seat occupants balance out the M5's exclusive frills like the vents on the front quarter panels that look perfect on the lines of the 5 series. The front seats feature automated bolsters that tense up when the M5 is flung enthusiastically and shock the Hell out of you the first time they activate. With all the subtlety of an elbow to the ribcage, we found the seats distracting and unnecessary, and thankfully, they come with an "off" switch. Once the overzealous chairs have been disabled, typical Bayerische comfort is served up.
Our M5 tester was outfitted with white leather, a choice that would require frequent attention to stay clean and beautiful. Extra spiffing is worth it for the airiness the light-hued accents and touches of brushed metal lend to the cabin. The look inside is clean and stylish in an almost Bauhaus fashion, even the center stack doesn't suffer from buttonphilia. iDrive helps in that regard, though it hinders vehicular ease of use for drivers that don't like GUIs in their cars, but it's been revised to the point where it's easy enough to use without hitting the manual with a highlighter. M-badges grace the gauges, shifter (which feels just as flimsy here as in the X6) and steering wheel, the latter benefitting from blue and red stitching surrounding its chunky circumference.
Driving the M5 can be thrilling. Reflexes are sharp, though the firm ride never gets harsh. That astonishing aplomb is one reason BMW's reputation for balance precedes it, and the things the M5 can do without breaking a sweat or over-agitating its occupants truly amaze. Electronic Damper Control manipulate the shock absorbers obsessively and the rear differential locks so that all the thrust can meet asphalt; press the angry pedal too far with stability control disengaged and the M5 will render a clear demonstration of snap oversteer. Keep your wits about you, and the car is mild mannered -- it's useful as a family car, albeit one with a supercar engine underhood. It is, after all, a 5 series underneath all the bombast.
If it seems like we're fixated on the M5's drivetrain, we are. The rest of the car is mostly superb, but it's a supporting character in a tale where the V10 is in the spotlight. The chassis tuning is well oiled and masterful, though the ever-creeping weight of cars in this class has dulled the edge. Steering is deft, though ten minutes in an E36 will have you wondering what the M5's doing at the contact patch. iDrive works as well as it's probably ever going to and it will remain a polarizer, but that shouldn't stand in the way of purchasing an M5 if you want a sedan capable of awesome performance, for an equally rarefied price. Our gripes about the SMG's herky-jerky behavior remain the sole issue, but a manual version is available, though it comes with a performance penalty. SMG or six-speed stick, the M5 is still very quick, and the traditional 'box may be the savior from the seven-speed automated suckfest that is SMG.
We can't help thinking that perhaps a pleasantly optioned V8 5 series would be more satisfying than its uber-sedan counterpart. It's no E39 M5, which will probably mean good things when this generation starts hitting the pre-owned market, as long as you can learn to love the robot in the transmission.