Take the blue pill
The 2018 BMW M5 performance sedan embodies the idea that fun does indeed exist in midlife – crisis or not
Do you even know what you're dealing with here? If you think this is some basic luxury boat, you're about to get shaken. The BMW M5 is one bad Bavarian.
It looks like a mid-level bureaucrat of a car, but it flings itself at the horizon like a madman drawn by some larger cosmic, magnetic nihilism. It's a practical family sedan that rips a hole in spacetime, throttling up to 200 km/h – double our usual speed limit – in 11 seconds. It's big and heavy enough to have a gravity of its own. From far and wide, BMW's M5 has always drawn speed freaks into its orbit.
Expectations are running high. A new M5 is kind of big deal, a fact that is admittedly hard to understand if you're not yourself a speed freak. (Honestly, it's an expensive habit and you should avoid it if possible. Take up something more sensible, such as gambling.) M Division's new heavy hitter will end up gracing the covers of all the glossy car magazines in your local grocery store. It and the other great performance sedans of this world – namely those from AMG, M's archrival – promise deranged supercar speed to otherwise sensible, responsible people.
These cars embody the idea that all fun need not end when you turn 35; they're a semi-respectable way to channel midlife angst about getting old. At a time when having it all means making the best possible compromise, these cars have it all.
At best, they can make a mundane trip to the grocery store feel like a roller-coaster ride. At worst, a car such as this is a wildly expensive bad decision. In the case of the 2018 M5, the price has jumped up $10,000 since last year, bringing it to $113,300. Eek.
While the M5 was once the benchmark, this sixth iteration has something to prove. Its predecessor didn't quite live up to our expectations.
On this sunny Saturday in southern Portugal, the local police seem to have taken the day off. The towns around Sintra are empty. The day before was a national holiday and this morning the whole country has apparently slept in. We've got the streets to ourselves.
On the steering wheel are two red buttons – M1 and M2 – that let you create two favourite setups from the myriad of available adjustments to suspension, steering and drivetrain. The red buttons are among the many small race-y flourishes on the M5, along with blacked-out 20-inch wheels, quad exhaust pipes with a switchable loud mode, a bare carbon-fibre roof and a subtle spoiler on the trunk that's as slight as a teenage mustache.
Over the winding roads that creep through the fairy-tale forest to the west of Sintra, the M5 proves it's not just a one-trick pony. It's very fast, yes, but it offers more. That was the old car's problem. It had 560 horsepower; it, too, was fast, but that speed didn't often translate into fun. It felt clunky and brutish, heavy and lacking finesse, a bit of a blunt instrument.
"In the past, when the road was slippery, of course, the car was controllable, but you had the stability control blinking all the time," says Frank van Meel, head of BMW M. "It was edgy."
Driving all of M's back catalogue reveals what was wrong about that last car. BMW brought its old M5s out of the museum to stretch their legs. Driven back to back, they're each quite different, but the best years, the vintages, all have a perfect sense of balance. Mechanical grip is evenly matched to engine power, as ride comfort is to performance. Handling dynamics are transparent. Oversteers are predictable, controllable. These cars are big-boned but with the grace of a prima ballerina.
For 2018, the M5 is bigger than ever, but it has all-wheel drive for the first time. Speed freaks: I know you're thinking this news spells the end of the M5 and that AWD means understeer, which means it'll handle like a Corolla, but no.
"That was one of the challenges, to keep the driveability in a car with 600 horsepower," van Meel says. "When we had a look at the first M xDrive prototype, we were really rocked."
The new all-wheel-drive system was adapted from BMW's xDrive, but here it's paired with M's clever electro-mechanical rear differential and a new computerized brain that ties everything together. Unlike a typical AWD setup, power is sent to the front wheels only when the computer brain predicts the rear tires are about to run out of traction. That's quite a regular occurrence when the engine puts out 600 hp and 553 lb-ft of torque from 1,800 rpm.
Miraculously, the all-wheel-drive system has given the M5 its balance back. There's a deftness to the steering once again. It feels lighter on its wheels and more nimble. There's some delicacy and nuance to the steering that was completely missing before.
To fully experience the M5's potential, you'll have to find yourself a racetrack. Today, we've got Estoril, south of Lisbon. Jacques Villeneuve won the last Formula One race here in 1996. On the long main straight, the M5 easily reaches an indicated 245 kilometres an hour. From the pit wall, it looks like someone sped up the footage of a car whizzing past. Inside the cabin, it's weirdly silent. Other noises fade until there's only the soft roar of air washing over the car.
Slowing down from such speed lap after lap, the brake pedal got a little mushy, but the stopping power of the carbon-ceramic brakes never faded.
Go into a corner a little too fast and you'll get mild understeer, telegraphed through the steering, and easily recovered by easing off the throttle. Then jab the accelerator and you can have oversteer, in which the back wheels swing around. If you're not gentle, the car's computer will send power to the front wheels, slowly bringing the car back into line. In the previous M5, the car didn't have that option and so would have abruptly cut engine output and/or used the brakes, violently correcting your sloppy driving.
Making a pig fly is easier than making a big car such as this handle well. At 1,855 kilograms, the new model is 15 kg less than the outgoing one, but it is still a big luxury car. Changes over the regular 5 Series are extensive: wider track with extra chassis bracing front and rear, new adjustable aluminum dampers, new suspension with more camber and caster. The 4.4-litre V-8 has new turbos, new intercoolers, new intake systems, a lighter exhaust and new 350-bar high-pressure fuel injectors.
Despite its intimidating spec sheet, the M5 is easy to drive at the limit, but that's not to say the experience isn't rewarding. It will scratch any speed freak's itch.
Van Meel is used to the skepticism every time M Division does something new, but he enjoys it. "If there was no discussion and people just bought whatever you built, then I don't think it's emotional. But that's not the case here. People have an attachment."
It was the same when the M3 went turbocharged, when automatic transmissions were introduced and now, as the M5 goes all-wheel drive. "This discussion from generation to generation, was always the same.… But the technology has to be used to fulfill your philosophy, not the other way around." And van Meel is extremely confident in his engineers. "If we do something, you can trust us, even though it sounds strange in the beginning. It is right, and if you drive it, you'll find out it is right."
It remains to be seen whether the new M5's suspension can comfortably handle Canada's rough roads. And while the M5 is once again a strong contender for best in class, so is Mercedes-AMG's E63. It will be a duel for the ages when the new M lands in Canada in March.
The M5 is back. Bring on the midlife crisis.
- Base price: $113,300
- Engine: 4.4-litre twin-turbo V-8
- Transmission/drive: Eight-speed automatic/all-wheel
- Fuel economy (litres/100 kilometres): TBA
- Alternatives: Mercedes-AMG E63 S, Audi RS7, Porsche Panamera Turbo, Cadillac CTS-V, Jaguar XJR
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.
History of the BMW M5
- Engine: 3.5-litre straight-six
- Power: 286 bhp
- Weight: 1,430 kg (unladen)
- Codename: E28
- Engine: 3.8-litre straight-six
- Power: 340 bhp
- Weight: 1,670 kg (unladen)
- Codename: E34
- Engine: 4.9-litre V-8
- Power: 400 hp
- Weight: 1,795 kg (unladen)
- Codename: E39
- Engine: 5.0-litre V-10
- Power: 507 bhp
- Weight: 1,830 kg (unladen)
- Codename: E60
- Engine: 4.4-litre, twin-turbo V-8
- Power: 560 hp
- Weight: 1,870 kg (unladen)
- Codename: F10