The previous BMW M5 was a disappointment. Sure, it was supercar fast, but it wasn’t supercar fun. The fact BMW had to feed artificial engine noise into the cabin from a sound symposer says it all. The latest in a famed line of iconic cars, dating back to 1984, was a damp squib. Had BMW M lost the plot?
This criticism clearly hurt. Before driving the new car, codenamed F90 in BMW-speak, I sat with one of the chassis engineers. Little was said about its predecessor, other than that it served as the starting point for this new one. “We listen to feedback, and try to improve.” Sounds like he must have had a busy three years.
Not least because BMW is risking it all again. Part of the furore with the old one was its turbocharged V8 engine, the first M5 turbo. Replacing the V10 M5 of the 2000s was always going to be a tough sell. Revving to almost 9,000rpm, this 5.0-litre was, literally, infused with F1 thinking: BMW developed it in tandem with its period Formula 1 motor. The new engine was, by comparison, as dull as dishwater.
It was fast, though. Pretty much at the limit of what two rear wheels could handle. Which is where BMW’s latest risk comes in: the new M5 gets four-wheel drive for the first time. Will it become softer and safer as a result? This is the question that’s been occupying BMW M forums globally ever since the new car was revealed on the cover of the latest Need for Speed video game. God forbid the real one is like driving a computer.
The jury’s out over how it looks. At first glance, the M bits are all present and correct, from a carbon fibre roof to power bulges in the bonnet. There are big holes in the front bumper, quad exhausts and a diffuser at the rear, plus standard 20-inch alloys hiding either blue or, if you fork out a small fortune for carbon ceramic discs, gold brake calipers.
Does it have enough attitude, though? An Audi RS6 is a proper bruiser, oozing aggression. The M5, well… how many will instantly tell it apart from an ordinary BMW 520d M Sport? Not many. The interior is more like it, with fantastic seats, a gorgeous steering wheel, bright red paint for the starter and ‘M’ mode selector buttons. There’s a bespoke gearshifter, too, with a button on top to tailor the response of the ’box: you can hone almost every aspect of this car if you wish.
Another bit of good news: it sounds the business when starting up, with lots of V8 rort and boom. It’s soon clear BMW’s fixed the flaccid engine noise problem, particularly when you press the sport exhaust button. There’s still an artificial overlay, but you'd never know.
Like the old car, it’s quick. This time, though, it’s wickedly fast, because you can use all its 600hp, all the time. The orange traction control light isn’t permanently glowing, cutting back power, because it’s being distributed to four tyres, not just two. Thus, it just grips and goes, whatever the weather. Zero to 62mph in 3.4 seconds. Whoosh.
But while it cruises nicely, and shifts gears smoothly thanks to a proper eight-speed gearbox instead of the old car’s clunky seven-speed M-DCT, the real satisfaction comes in the corners. Sometimes, four-wheel drives can feel woolly.
The front ends starts to push wide as you push on: the dreaded understeer hairy-chested ‘real’ drivers so detest. Not with the M5. It only understeers if you cock it up. Drive it well and glorious nibbles of power oversteer are there for the taking. A few corners of this and I was convinced: the M5 is back to its best.
Later, just for good measure, BMW took us out on track. You can actually disconnect the four-wheel-drive system entirely, and have a purist rear-wheel-drive M5. It’s just for track use, winks the firm, conveniently ignoring the big black lines of rubber that journalists had been leaving all around the Portuguese drive route. Upcoming BMW Junior driver Nico Menzel even insisted he’d set a quicker lap time with four-wheel drive, not two.
Did that stop me researching just how sideways I could get an M5 before running out of talent? It did not. The only disappointment was that, eventually, BMW called me in. I could have stayed out there all day. In the old car, I’d have been clock-watching. How’s that for a transformation?
Richard Aucock works for motoringresearch.com