Car reviews - BMW - 5 Series - M5 sedan
Brilliant power, muscular brakes, benchmark-setting handling
Room for improvement
Price, SMG requires acquaintance
20 Oct 2006
By CHRIS HARRIS
BMW’s M5 has never been a car to approach lightly, even in the beginning when, as a variant of the 1972 to 1981 E18 series titled M535i, it was a 3.5-litre six-cylinder with a mere 162kW.
That 5 series M didn’t come here, but we did finally get an M535i in January 1986 which continued as a 3.5-litre six-cylinder manual-transmission sedan powerhouse through to 1988, when it disappeared and didn’t show up again until 1990 when the first 5 series was launched with the abbreviated M5 title.
The first M5 stuck with an inline six-cylinder, but this time producing 232kW.
It was available until May 1993, by which time the M5 had lit the fire in BMW’s belly to become one of the most desirable of all performance sedans, full stop.
Then, in 1999, Australia got its first V8-engined M5. With 294kW and 500Nm, it set the stage for a breed of hyper-performance luxury sedans that would be followed much later by the E55 Mercedes-Benz AMG in 1998, and Audi even later with its RS4 wagon (2000) and RS6 sedan (2003).
But despite the power of the 5.5-litre 260kW/530Nm V8 in the E55 and the thumping twin-turbo, all-wheel drive, 331kW V8 RS6, the M5 always remained as the benchmark.
And last year, to mark its territory with absolute authority, BMW introduced the latest, E60 M5, brandishing no less than 373kW and 520Nm of torque via a new 5.0-litre all-alloy V10 engine weighing virtually no more than the previous 4.9-litre V8.
On top of that, the M5 also offered the driver a choice of two power outputs accessible via a button on the centre console – either the full 373kW, or a slightly more relaxed and conservative 294kW.
The E60 M5 also got an all-new, seven-speed SMG II transmission boasting 65-millisecond gearshifts via either the central console-mounted shifter or steering wheel paddles as well as the option of 11 shift patterns – six in sequential mode and five in manual mode – and a launch control function giving optimum takeoff power.
Most of this is aimed, of course, at the racetrack where the M5’s potential can be fully explored.
On the road, there’s little real use for it as the BMW is an absolute projectile however you drive it.
Quite mildly presented for what it is, the M5 is identifiable by its 19-inch wheels, quad exhausts and dummy air vents behind the front wheel arches. No rear spoiler (although one can be had as a no-cost option) and only subtly reworked front and rear bumpers, and side skirts.
The interior is sumptuous, with very little to add, as you’d hope for a $226,000 outlay.
It’s more leather-wrapped than any other 5 series, with “Merino” hide used on the floor tunnel and console, as well as the lower section of the instrument panel. Even the top of the dash panel is leather-trimmed.
As one BMW that minimises – yet doesn’t entirely eliminate - the options, the M5 gets a standard sunroof, satellite navigation with TV and voice recognition, front and rear park-distance sensors, head-up display, adaptive Xenon lights with high beam assist, auto rearview mirror, 13-speaker Logic7 sound system, heated leather sports seats with "active" width adjustment, rear and side window sunblinds, all backed up by eight airbags, and every possible BMW acronym.
The M5 has Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) Cornering Brake Control (CBC) with Automatic Stability Control and Traction (ASC+T), Dynamic Brake Control (DBC), Anti-lock Braking (ABS) and Driving Dynamic Control (DDC).
About the only things missing we could think of are adaptive cruise control, key-free "comfort access", ventilated front seats and a rear ski port – all of which are available as options.
Previous experience has already told us the M5, like its predecessor, is formidable on the track, although, through its extra bulk, not as immediate and rorty as, say, a Z4 M Roadster or current M3.
Through its sheer power it is quicker than an M3 on the track, but still feels a little softer and more remote – if either of these terms really apply when you’re talking about a car that can reach 240km/h down the Sandown circuit’s main straight – or only about 40km/h less than a V8 Supercar.
On the road, the M5 is usually running well below its potential.
The fun is limited to a quick blast on deserted roads, or some G-force inducing attack of a tight, winding country road. Even here the car really doesn’t settle into its natural operating pace and can show a tendency to run wider - the nicely tactile steering is hydraulically power assisted Servotronic - on a hard-pressed bend than you’d expect.
The M5 has BMW’s Electronic Damper Control (EDC) with three customised programs and the road grip is helped by an asymmetrical tyre mix, using specially developed 255/40ZR19s at the front, and 285/35ZR19s at the back.
Ride quality is far, far better than you’d expect of a car with such potential, which partly explains why it might seem a little soft on the racetrack compared with an M3 wearing optioned-up sports suspension.
The brakes – cross-drilled and ventilated with twin-pot callipers at the front, with the disc-drying feature seen elsewhere in the BMW range to help in wet weather – are as powerful and reassuring as you could possibly want. BMW says they will haul the M5 from 100km/h to a full stop in less than 36 metres.
The V10 engine is a mix of aural experiences. On start-up it lacks the lumpy beat and immediacy of a V8, yet when even slightly pushed it gives forth a tingling – if muted – howl. Punch the power button and the response is electrifying, although not as raw and urgent as an M3.
But how more urgent do you want to be when the M5 will stop the clocks from zero to 100km/h in 4.7 seconds, and reach 200km/h in just 15 seconds?
The fact that maximum torque doesn’t come in until an astronomical 6100rpm, and maximum kilowatts at 7750rpm, indicates the V10 might be in need of some urging to deliver its best.
That’s probably true, but when you’re talking about a car as fast as this it is, even at low rpm, plenty responsive. The M5 is in a different realm to most other cars.
The seven-speed SMG transmission is said to be quite a bit faster than the system familiar in the M3 (by 20 per cent according to BMW), but it still takes some getting used to. Initially the upshifts bring a very noticeable pause that feels almost granny-like when you’re driving in traffic. The M5 rushes away in first gear, only to slow pace as the transmission casually selects second.
The trick seems to be to play with the throttle a bit, as if you’re driving a regular manual, which it then begins to feel more like. A few days of driving the M5 and an instinctive familiarity brings a smoother, more satisfying experience – although a manual M5 still might have been nice.
And of course there’s all the M5’s systems there, including the launch control, to assist you should you need to maximise takeoff efficiency, although you’ll rarely get to use these in normal – even fairly quick - driving.
That’s always the case with a car like the BMW M5. The fun is mostly in knowing what it’s capable of doing, while remaining aware you’re unlikely to regularly see it at full stretch – by which time, even despite the multitudinous electronic safety aids, it will be well beyond the abilities of most drivers anyway.
Fortunately the M5’s aural pleasures, while less in your face than the six-cylinder M cars, are almost enough in themselves.
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