2018 BMW M5: First Drive

All-wheel drive on an M car? Heresy! Yet the new M5 marks a welcome return to BMW fundamentals.

Richard Pardon

The first one I drove was loud like a bomb. A billion miles and rusty rocker panels, and the exhaust was partly blown out, so it sounded like Le Mans. Or maybe just Le Mans as it sounds in my head, a bagful of throttles and yowl on public roads.

This was years ago, when I worked as a mechanic in St. Louis. The car belonged to a customer. It was a 1988 BMW M5, the first one sold here, and the first generation made. Black, because all 1340 American-market 1988 M5s were black, with blacked-out bumpers and window trim. BMW of North America thought it would be neat to sell a 150-mph sedan done up like Darth Vader’s Underoos. The slightly healthier European version of the car gave 152 mph and more power than a Ferrari 328. It shared a basic powerplant design with BMW’s M1 supercar and engine-block architecture with the firm’s legendary 3.0 CSL. At launch, in 1984, it was the fastest production four-door in the world.

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I don’t remember why the car was in the shop. I just remember the test drive after we fixed it, because the drive made that noise. My ears went to shrapnel.

The second M5 I met was the one BMW called E39: The first V8 M5, naturally aspirated, 2000 to 2003. Owned by a friend of a friend. It revved to 7000 rpm and felt like Detroit love in Munich pants. The third M5 I came across was an E60, a 2007 test car with a 500-hp, 8250-rpm V10. Seeing that battleship deck gun under the hood of a sedan was like finding a dwarf star in your office wastebasket. Delimited, the car would nudge 200 mph. It made even grocery runs feel quietly illegal, like broken parole. The car seemed to exist in spite of the business that built it.

Call it the M5 effect: These are big, rear-drive luxury sedans with nutball engines, driver-centric bruisers in tailored suits. They produce memories of a tweaked reality—one where you’re smarter and better-looking, where you blitz through intersections sideways, where the world feels like France on a weekend in June.

Richard Pardon
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And now they’ve changed the recipe. The M5 received a ground-up redesign for 2018. Unlike its predecessors, the new car cannot be had with a clutch pedal. The engine is a version of the twin-turbo 4.4-liter V8 sold, in the previous M5, from 2012 to 2016. Thanks to a few internal and software updates, it now makes 600 hp from 5700 to 6600 rpm and 553 lb-ft of torque at just 1800 rpm.

The last M5 felt at times overpowered; astonishingly, the new car is 40 hp and 53 lb-ft stronger. (The new car’s torque peak actually starts 300 rpm higher; BMW says this was partly a result of trying to make the new engine feel more engaging, less of an always-on sledgehammer. It is still an always-on sledgehammer.) Like every other M5, the 2018 model resembles an ordinary 5-series with fancy wheels. Save nuances of trim, the only immediate visual giveaway is the phalanx of air intakes in the front bumper, there to feed various heat exchangers. And because giant bumper holes have become car-designer shorthand for “Hide Your Kids, This One Rips Burnouts.”

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Also, oh, right, I forgot the key bit, if you have spent any time at all on the internet you knew this was coming, here is the key bit: The car is now all-wheel drive.

Richard Pardon

No M5 has ever been all-wheel drive. For that matter, neither has any BMW M car. (For our purposes, “M car” means the single-digit landmarks: M3, M4, M5, M6. Not the SUVs, M-brand trim packages, or M Sport whatevers.) Those models have traditionally been aimed at racetracks, or at least the sort of driving you do after drinking an entire pot of coffee. Most have featured more grip than power and an engine purpose-built to rev its nuts off.

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This practice mirrored the company’s racing heritage, which is largely rooted in sport sedans. Rear-drive cars are generally simpler and lighter than all-wheel-drive cars, which helps funnel feedback to the driver. In addition to being the tip of the brand’s performance-and-feedback spear, BMW’s M cars recall the driver-centric genius that built the company. Hyundai may one day make a killer 600-hp four-door, but that car won’t be kin to golden-era wins at Sebring or Daytona or multiple touring-car championships. And it won’t come from the marque whose fast four-doors helped define the genre.

Which is why eyebrows are raised anytime BMW M toys with its blueprint, stepping outside its greatest hits.

And so we return to the fact that the new M5 is different.

Richard Pardon
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Some of the evolution is due to realities of the era. All-wheel drive has become a virtual requirement to sell performance cars in America’s snowbelt; it’s also the most practical way to give 600 hp to ordinary drivers, even on dry pavement. People like the technology, and it sells.

Similarly, the M5 is no longer sold with a manual gearbox, because BMW says clutch pedals don’t sell. The 2018 car gets an eight-speed, torque-converter-equipped ZF automatic—the same basic gearbox used by much of the industry, from the Dodge Charger to the Bentley Mulsanne. In one form or another, this transmission has appeared in almost every platform in BMW’s lineup. The 8HP in the new M5 is claimed to be lighter, more reliable, and quicker-shifting than the twin-clutch seven-speed in the old car. It certainly seems to shift as quickly as that gearbox, in normal use. More to the point, it is smoother leaving a stop and slightly less fussy in ordinary traffic, where most M5s live. Call it one of the best iterations of one of the best gearboxes in the business.

The driveline change mirrors that practical bent. It’s also something of a statement about the 2012–2016 M5. That car offered blistering torque, a thimbleful of suspension travel, and dampers made of large rocks. You didn’t so much hammer it down a flowing two-lane as fight it over landscape and wonder why the rear tires seemed to hate life.

And so the new car tries to distribute the workload a little.

Richard Pardon
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The new M5 sends torque to the front axle via an electronically controlled clutch pack. The operation of the latter is grossly driver-adjustable, through five settings in the car’s iDrive system. The first setting gives you stability control on and a basic, “ordinary driving” mode for the all-wheel-drive system. The second changes nothing but turns off stability control. The third puts the stability control in BMW’s yaw-friendly M Dynamic mode and engages what iDrive calls 4WD Sport—the front axle comes in later, after more rear-tire slip. Translation: Slides that feel more rear-drive but can be fixed with more throttle, letting the front tires pull you out. The fourth option is that configuration minus stability control. And the fifth option gives you two-wheel drive, stability control off, eight turbocharged pots and fate in your hands, not a peep from the front axle, zero, zilch.

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It should go without saying that the fifth option is pretty much the jam.

This is a modern all-wheel-drive system, which makes it unobtrusive and quiet, whether engaged or not. In this guise, it’s undoubtedly the most entertaining chassis move made by BMW in years—a glimpse of the calibration genius that once defined the brand. The hardware isn’t revolutionary, but it is tuned with the kind of driver-focused subtlety that used to separate Munich’s cars from the rest of the industry.

Richard Pardon
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Happily, feel seems to be a priority. In normal use, the M5 generally hangs out in two-wheel-drive mode, zero grunt to the front wheels. Regardless of driveline setting, the car’s front diff seems to mostly work cleanup—chasing traction loss due to lumpy pavement, driver error, or a surface or situation that simply outguns the tires. The blend is mostly seamless, with none of the midslide, torque-shuffle delay of an X5 M or X6 M. More important—and unlike a lot of other high-performance, all-wheel-drive luxury sedans—the M5 feels alive under you, as docile and transparent as a good rear-driver. You don’t notice the front tires pulling unless you deliberately provoke the car to slide its rear wheels, with a whack of throttle or steering lock.

Unlike lesser 5-series, the M5 does not use active anti-roll bars, variable-ratio steering gear, or rear-wheel steering. This pays a few dividends: In addition to helping reduce curb weight, these choices help the car feel more linear than an ordinary Five, more like a simple machine, even if it’s not. Which makes the BMW easier to place while, say, hucking down a mountain road, the trees so close, you could reach out the window and grab the branches. In a 16-foot-long sedan with enough power to light Peoria and a generous blind spot, that’s no small bonus.

The dampers help. The M5’s suspension is cockpit-adjustable, with three selectable states of tune; the softest setting gives usable compliance with a minimal amount of body float. The other two settings are abusive and jarring anywhere but a track, gobs of rebound and head toss. They’re fine on perfect pavement but irritating anywhere else, where they all but force you to spend a lot of time revectoring the car and avoiding even the tiniest lumps in the road.

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Richard Pardon

Still, this makes the last M5 look like it came from a different company. The car no longer demands that you fight it. Nice, on balance, but it also makes you wonder how good the old M5 would have been with the new car’s computing power and engineering choices. (Blame progress as hindsight. For the record, I also want a Model T with a Cosworth DFV up its snoot.)

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On the track, the BMW wants to be teased and greased through corners. In all-wheel-drive mode, the car pounces into slow turns and slithers through fast ones, castering around, stable as hell. In two-wheel-drive mode, it turns slightly more aggressively—the difference seems to vary with pavement camber, driveline temperature, and tire temperature—but lacks yank out of slower hairpins. On a whole, the absence of speed limits doesn’t reveal anything new about the car, except that it likes to turn under big brake and that it loves to boogie-slither through 100-mph corners, sideways-onward-sideways, in a series of smeary little high-frequency nips.

These talents make the car, even given a few obvious niggles: The steering is a little woolly. All-wheel drive doesn’t help matters; with the front wheels on tap, the helm can go dead-fish when confronted with tight corners and big throttle. The brake pedal gets a hair softer with hard use—even with the optional ceramic rotors—and the pads on our test car smoked heavily after repeat laps of a fast track, slamming down from triple digits. And the car occasionally feels ponderous and heavy, even for a German luxotank.

Which is not to say that the M5 isn’t fast. Mass and bulk may be to blame here, but the car tends to feel slower than it is. Numbers bring that into focus. In our testing, the M5 hauled to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds—a full second quicker than the number we obtained for the last-gen, rear-drive M5, and our test version of that model was equipped with the Competition package. Context: The McLaren 720S, which produces 110 more hp and weighs about 1000 pounds less, hits 60 in 2.7 seconds.

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Richard Pardon

Credit all-wheel-drive traction but also the ferociously fat torque curve of that wonderful, glorious engine, the reverse-flow marvel BMW has offered since the 2009 X5 M and X6 M. Its exhaust note, a generic grumble-fart, does not do justice to the remarkable thrust and virtually nonexistent turbo lag. You can fix this, sort of. The center console holds a sport-exhaust button that makes the grumble-fart louder; this button also pipes a variable-rpm synthesized version of the engine’s sound through the stereo. The noise sounds neither real nor fake, just vanilla. Yes, cars are becoming quieter inside because their structures have grown more rigid and efficient. Drive-by noise regulations will probably kill the loud exhaust deader than Caesar. But if you’re going to screw around with dynamically responsive stereo noise, play something danceable. A ’73 3.0 CSL at Le Mans; BMW’s V12 ALMS prototypes; whatever. A sound with some soul.

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Which leads into the point, and a note on where we sit in the history of the fast car: On a whole, the M5 is a strange mix. The engine is old-fashioned BMW—strong, punchy, creamy. The chassis hints at the company’s vintage magic, but it comes from a new place and philosophy. The fact is both reassuring and a little sad. Reassuring because it means that emotion and a given worldview can still filter through a ubiquitous and oft-numb blueprint. Sad because it’s a reminder that a brand’s defining, beloved elements can be thrown in the gutter if the change appears to serve progress.

Richard Pardon
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Which is partly why this review has centered so much on that shift. People care about this sort of thing. The feedback-loving purist in me wants an M5 with two driven wheels. The realist in me recognizes the constraints at hand: People now pay more attention to crossovers than to fast sport sedans, because the former are trendy and seen as the most practical answer. With a fast car, numbing complexity is often necessary for safety and drivability. Thickening curb weights and regulatory needs have made feedback more difficult to engineer in a new car. Fewer than five percent of customers for the last M5—a car aimed at the vocal minority—chose a manual transmission. Most people apparently do not want to operate a machine and would instead prefer that one chauffeur them somewhere.

Cars like this are welcome and worth celebrating, but their blueprints are simply less critical than they once were.

None of which makes the accomplishment here any less impressive or fun. But it does make you think: About the nature of mechanical personality, the weight of history, the importance of totems and letting go. And while those topics are interesting, I’d be lying if I called their sum joy a patch on a bonkers V10. Or a murdered-out, supercar-engined, world’s-fastest anything.

But then, what is? With the 2018 M5, BMW is hinting at the stuff drivers used to care about. The reasons for whaling on a good car, as we inch ever closer to giving up the wheel. And how the battle between feedback and numbers doesn’t require an outright winner.

In that light, this car doesn’t quite reach the heights of its sharpest ancestors. But it does not pale in their pantheon—and these days, that’s a win.

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