The new 2018 M5 represents a big departure for BMW's M division. Sure, it's a mega-powerful sedan like its always been, but for the first time, it features a new all-wheel drive, dubbed M xDrive, and a traditional automatic as the only transmission option. Given that, it's easy to assume that all future M cars would ditch rear-wheel drive and both manual and dual-clutch gearboxes, but that isn't the case.
At this year's Frankfurt Motor Show, M head Frank van Meel told us that just because the M5 has embraced all-wheel drive and torque converters, doesn't mean all future M cars will.
"Because we have this unique system, M xDrive, we have another option for future cars, but it doesn't necessarily mean we need to do that with every car," Van Meel told us. "Each and every car is completely different. It depends on the overall concept, weight distribution, and total performance."
"[M xDrive] is good to have but it doesn't mean we're going to do that on every M."
Van Meel said that the current M3 is "perfectly positioned" with rear-wheel drive and a future M3 would only get M xDrive if he felt it made sense. In other words, an all-wheel drive M3 is a possibility at some point in the future, but it's far from being a given.
So why did BMW develop an all-new all-wheel drive system for the M5 then? For Van Meel, it was about optimizing the new M5's improved power-to-weight ratio, making performance more accessible to customers.
"If you're getting lighter and [adding] more performance, you reach a tipping point somewhere where drivability under all-weather conditions is more of a hassle," Van Meel said. BMW M had to make the new M5 a better performer than its predecessor, but not at the expense of driver control.
Van Meel is quick to point out that the new M5 is still a rear-wheel drive car in his view. In normal operation, M xDrive sends 100-percent of its power to the rear wheels, and only diverts some to the front when it detects slip. This system also offers a 4WD Sport mode for more rear-axle bias, and a 2WD mode for what Van Meel calls "spectacular" if slow drifts. Interestingly, the car will lap a circuit quickest in its regular 4WD mode.
Of course, the fact that the M5 is going auto only raises the inevitable question of whether it signals the death of manual transmissions. For Van Meel, the answer is no.
"From a rational standpoint, a manual transmission makes no sense—it's slower, and fuel economy is worse than with an automated transmission," Van Meel said. "Put that aside, it has an emotional component, which means there are a lot of people who love manual transmissions."
Van Meel noted that while manual sales decreased over time at BMW M—75-percent of M3 buyers opted for manuals; now it's just 25—those sales are currently holding steady. He also added that over 50-percent of M2s sold in the US are equipped with a manual transmission.
BMW offered a manual transmission on the previous-gen M5, but Van Meel says that very few customers bought them. But since BMW has no trouble finding buyers for manual-transmission M2s, M3s and M4s, Van Meel says that future models will likely offer three pedals and a stick.
"We see this emotional request for manual transmissions, and as long as the market is there, we will continue to offer them," he told us. Van Meel also said that BMW M hasn't given up on DCTs either, even though it developed a new ZF-based torque-converter auto for the M5. Again, it all depends on the charecter of the car, and the best technology available at the time.
Van Meel's BMW M aims to give customers choice, whether that's in a 600-hp sedan that offers two- and four-wheel drive modes, or if that's between manual and automatic gearboxes. So as long as customers keep buying old-school cars like the M2, BMW will keep making them.
Sounds good to us.