Miramas is BMW’s Area 51, a top-secret test facility where all of its cars have been honed since the eighties. A heavily camouflaged prototype of Toyota’s new sports car – co-developed with BMW – is out being tested against a Porsche Boxster. Several new BMW motorbikes are buzzing around. And there’s the M5, three heavily camouflaged prototypes of the next-generation model, waiting to be driven.
This is the sixth iteration of the M5, a sacred cow of M Division. It’s BMW’s fastest, biggest sedan, a trophy of great business acumen or vast inherited wealth. I’m among the first outside of the company to drive it.
The car’s not finished yet – it’s about 90 per cent done, says Dirk Haecker, vice-president of engineering at M Division. Bags cover the seats, felt blankets most of the dashboard. Bundles of exposed wires litter the passenger footwell.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: the M5 is fast, devastatingly so.
The engine is a revised version of the current 4.4-litre V-8, upgraded with new turbos and better cooling. BMW isn’t providing an exact power figure, or 0-100 km/h time yet, only saying it’ll be around 600 horses and will do the usual sprint in less than 3.5 seconds.
Also obvious: the M5 is big, luxurious and expensive. Even hastily wrapped like a last-minute Christmas present, that much is obvious. The outgoing model starts at $105,300 and the new one is unlikely to cost any less.
What is new is all-wheel drive, a first for the M5. Other firsts: electric power-steering and no manual transmission option. The automatic gearbox is a ZF torque-converter unit instead of the old dual-clutch.
For most customers, these changes will make the M5 easier to live with day-to-day. For M devotees, however, they are potentially apocalyptic. It was a similar story when M introduced throttle-by-wire, automatic transmissions, turbochargers, V-8s and driving “modes” in previous models. It’ll be similar when M introduces hybrid engines.
But diehards need not panic. All-wheel drive hasn’t ruined anything. Besides, the M5 needs it to compete against the equally powerful, luxurious and all-wheel-drive Mercedes-AMG E63.
“Our philosophy is more, I think, to get the complete package, the complete car,” Haecker says. “Most of the team members and colleagues own M cars by themselves.” They have “a very high emotional connection to the products. I think you need this feeling, because I think you can feel in the products the heartbeat of every man and woman working on the cars.”
A few laps on the track at Miramas is all it takes to prove the M5 will still drift and slide like it should. This is the big fear of M fanatics, that the nanny-state AWD will kill their tire-smoking buzz. The M xDrive system has three modes: 4wd, 4wd Sport and 2wd. The latter is a pure rear-wheel-drive mode, only available with the stability control switched off, so you’d better have control over your right foot.
BMW considered offering separate rear- and all-wheel-drive versions of the M5, but realized in 2014 it could develop one system that does both. The weight penalty for the all-wheel-drive system is less than 80 kilograms and the new car is lighter over all than its predecessor. BMW won’t say yet by how much.
The 4wd Sport mode is surprisingly tolerant of hooliganism, allowing significant slip at the rear wheels before sending power to the front. It makes it easier – less intimidating – to push the M5 to its limit. On the wet-handling track in 4wd Sport, the M5 power-slides smoothly with modest jabs of throttle while still providing a safety net for when such showboating goes wrong. It’s more playful than any all-wheel-drive car I’ve driven. There’s hardly any understeer, ever, in any mode.
From the first corner, there is a lightness to the steering, a delicacy that is surprising for such a big, heavy car.
It’s not a heartbeat, but I can feel that Haecker and his colleagues have built this car with keen drivers like themselves in mind. Anybody can appreciate the new M5 for its speed and luxury, but that misses its depth of ability.
It, for example, has a black box called a Central Intelligence Unit not found on other 5 Series models. Its job is to integrate all sensor information in an effort to predict what the driver intends and to help make it happen. It’s seamless, unnoticeable, except that it explains how such a heavy car can feel so delicate as it edges toward its limits.
Similarly, the blades of the clutch inside the active rear differential are now carbon fibre, as is the roof, which lowers the car’s centre of gravity. The suspension has new kinematics and is upgraded with beefier aluminum wishbones, wheel carriers and hubs. The track is wider. Under the car, you can see air scoops that cool the lightweight lithium-ion battery in the trunk and extensive bracing so the rear subframe can better handle the engine’s torque.
M cars are sent to the track early in their development and rack up more racetrack miles than mainstream BMWs. Haecker says his team will complete around 60,000 kilometres of testing on the Nurburgring alone before it signs off on the M5.
The outgoing M5 was a bit of a wrecking ball. It was fast, but often felt heavy, clunky and brutish. The new M5, however, has a delicacy about it. The lighter steering helps the car feel lithe, more balanced. The new one has regained some finesse that previous models had lost.
The new M5 won’t be properly revealed until the Frankfurt motor show in September. Questions remain. How will it handle real roads? How will it handle crappy Canadian roads? Just how quick will it be exactly? Has BMW finally managed to make a turbocharged engine sound great? And, will this sixth-generation M5 beat the E63 AMG?
We’ll find out later this year, once the camouflage finally comes off.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.