BMW could spray a cardboard box Marina Bay Blue and I’d happily spend all day sitting inside, making engine noises and sawing at an imaginary steering wheel. It’s deep enough to drown in. Deep enough fall in love with. Almost deep enough to distract us from the stinging fact that the manual-transmission 3-Series is dead and in its grave.
That news came down like the death of an artist. Not someone I knew, just loved irrationally. Bowie or Cohen, maybe. The kind of thing that sends you fumbling through the stages of grief even though you feel foolish for it. A reliable piece of your universe suddenly missing followed by the bitterness of acceptance.
We should have seen it coming. Both because nothing that good lasts forever and because BMW snuffed out the manual M5 in its quest to make the car ever faster. It was the first real loss in our unwinnable war for the clutch pedal, a flag on our automatic horizon. That car was always something of a quirk, a wink to enthusiasts who, for whatever reason, found themselves in need of a mile-eating mega sedan.
And, if we’re honest, it’s our fault. We’ve spent decades telling manufacturers that a faster machine is a better machine. Earlier this year, Brett Berk took a closer look at what that’s meant for manufacturers. For us, that line of thinking could only lead to one inevitability: a place in which we are slowly but surely deleted from the driving experience. This car is fast. No, that’s not quite right. The word “fast” is digestible. Understandable. This is something different. It is maniacal with speed.
The twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8 dumps a cool 617 horsepower to the ground through an eight-speed automatic transmission and an all-wheel drive system that does not care whether the road is dry or paved entirely with the tears of the SRT-8 driver in the lane next to you. It compresses reality, hustling the car’s 4,276 pounds to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds. It does not quit pulling, not past the speed limit, or twice that posted figure. Or three times the number on the sign.
This is what Achilles must have felt like. Drunk with ego. Content in the knowledge of his superiority. And though the car is technically spectacular, like that long-dead demigod, it is not perfect. It is proud of its M5ness, with badges everywhere. The ones in the front seatbacks are illuminated, the automotive equivalent of tattooing your own name across your chest. And then there’s the Competition trim, an aesthetics package that’s only likely to help you win the race towards bankruptcy.
BMW does not campaign the M5 in any form of motorsport. Again, I can’t help but feel like this is on us. We’ve let automakers get away with calling a badge and wheels track equipment for years. It’s not BMW’s fault that the company looked around and decided to cash in, but it does feels different. Once, when you bought an M car, you were buying a piece of the magic. You knew your M3 shared about as many parts with the DTM warriors banging fenders at the Nürburgring as it did with your lawnmower, but at least you could watch some version of your car do the dance. The M5 gave you a piece of that, too. Even if your job and your life demanded that you leave your lowered coupe behind, you could still have a rewarding drive. It felt like a secret handshake, like a flask passed between church pews.
This car does not. The steering, suspension, and the engine each have three settings, from comfort to sport , all controllable by buttons on the center console. That means there are at least nine possible configurations. Why? Do we need a one-size-fits-all M5? This car is for us, the idiots who will gladly trade ride comfort for corner grip, steering effort for feel. Let the standard 5-Series placate the masses.
It is telling that the car will remember whether you left the seat heaters on level two or three, but will always revert back to comfort mode when you shut off the ignition. That is, until you navigate a labyrinth of onboard menus to program one of the two steering-wheel mounted “M” buttons. That’s also where you’ll find a glimmer indicating that BMW knows that what it’s up to with the M5 isn’t quite right. It will let you shut off the all-wheel drive system, putting all of the power to the rear wheels in a slower, dumber, and much more entertaining display.
There’s a power meter tucked away down there, too, and watching the digital needles swing wide with each plunge of the throttle, it dawned on me that this is essentially a four-door GT-R. It’s a weird revelation, and strange to think that BMW, a company that made its bones building deeply rewarding analog machines, would follow a playbook written by a car so often derided as providing Playstation performance.
The steering gets heavier the further you go down the sport rabbit hole, but there’s not much in the way of feedback. Again, this isn’t unique to BMW, but here, it’s a sin. You can’t tell us that you’ve moved to an electric power steering system for efficiency’s sake, then put that system in a 600-horsepower, twin-turbocharged V-8 that sucks down premium fuel by the tanker. I’d gladly give up 50 ponies for a steering wheel that at least pretends like it’s connected to the front end.
The brakes are vicious, binary things, either on or off with little gradient between the two. And because this tester came with the optional $8,500 carbon ceramic discs, the system has no problem putting your passengers through the front glass. The result is something that feels like those old quarter-eating arcade games where your inputs have bizarre and sometimes laughable results.
That’s not to say there’s nothing recognizable as an M5 in this car. Like the old machines, it makes everything seem trivial. Speed. Distance. Time. None of them seem to matter from behind the wheel. It does that blissfully German thing where it is most content at 90 mph regardless of the road getting sucked beneath its headlights. It does not matter whether it is a wide and open interstate or a hook worm of a mountain two-lane, the forest a gray blur and your own mortality the farthest thing from your mind.
In those moments, I have hope that BMW will remember that faster does not always mean better. Speed was part of what made us fall in love with the M5 to begin with, but it wasn’t everything. It’s an ingredient, not a definition.