Road & Track editor-at-large Sam Smith recently traveled to Portugal for the launch of the all-new 2018 BMW M5. In addition to a 600-hp twin-turbo V-8, the model features the first all-wheel-drive system fitted to a production M car. It represents a significant departure for BMW’s M performance division, which has for decades focused on rear-drive sport sedans.
Smith's drive of the M5 will appear in a future issue of R&T. In the meantime, for a clinical look at the car’s abilities, check out at our sister magazine, Car and Driver. For a broader view, here’s a list of things he learned while driving the car. —Ed.
1. Chill out, purists: All-wheel-drive doesn’t ruin BMW’s super sedan.
On the contrary! It helps it do what M5s are supposed to do. This is a good car. Not a great one—it’s a little too heavy and distant for that—but a very, very good one.
Maybe it’s silly—caring about whether your M car is all-wheel drive. But we live in strange times. Performance is now a commodity; you can buy sport sedans that will run with late-model supercars, and supercars designed to run for years with minimal maintenance. For automotive engineers, speed is no longer an edge-of-the-envelope, rare-air environment, with open questions and production cars that eat themselves under hard use. Decent build quality—at least for the duration of a lease term—is everywhere.
This wasn’t always the case. Decades ago, a dedication to design and performance set manufacturers apart. People cared about these qualities, because a poor choice of new car could greatly alter your life. Slow cars were often dangerous and ill-handling, even in the hands of grandmothers; reliability meant the difference between driving to work every day or calling a tow truck for your 5000-mile-old family sedan. But in the absence of massive, obvious flaws, new cars sell far more on branding than they ever have. What people think about what they’re buying.
And so for most people, new performance cars come down to what they represent. BMW’s M division made its bones on a few ideals: high-revving, naturally aspirated engines; motorsport heritage and a genuine legacy of big-league wins; simple solutions to complex technical problems; and rear-wheel drive. That last bit especially. This philosophy was born decades ago, when fast cars were rear-drive because they had to be—there was no lighter, more efficient, faster solution.
All-wheel drive has several advantages, but mainly, it helps a car put power to the ground. By doubling the number of driven wheels, you double the amount of tires putting torque to pavement. After the prompted the birth of the practical, modern all-wheel-drive car, things like computer-controlled differentials and torque vectoring arrived to help the traction problem. By the turn of the century, all-wheel-drive was basically agreed to be The Answer when it came to making a fast car work and be approachable.
The M division stuck with rear drive long after the rest of the industry followed the sea change. They did so for reasons of momentum, but also because it helped BMW engineers build the machines they wanted to build. High-powered rear-drive cars are usually more demanding to drive quickly. They generally want to pirouette on throttle, and if you’re not on top of the wheel and your right foot, you can back yourself into a ditch.
But more importantly, rear-drive cars react with a clarity rare in front- or all-wheel-drivers. Curb weight is generally lower with the former, which pays dividends for everything from feedback to suspension and brake happiness. Weight transfer feels different, often more engaging. You’re more in the picture, and working with a simpler, more transparent set of tools.
This is where the 2018 M5 comes in: It effectively straddles both worlds. The car’s all-wheel-drive system is nominally rear-drive—100 percent of torque sent to the rear axle—until the car’s chassis computer sees slip at the front wheels.
On top of this, you can essentially turn the all-wheel-drive system off. The M5 has five basic drive modes, accessible through its digital chassis management system:
1. Stability control on, four-wheel drive.
2. Stability control off, four-wheel drive.
3. Stability control in the more permissive/slip-friendly M Dynamic mode, with the four-wheel-drive system in Sport configuration. (The latter raises the slip threshold past which the front wheels are sent torque.)
4. Stability control off, four-wheel-drive system in Sport.
5. Stability control off, two-wheel drive, front axle engagement blocked.
In that last situation, the M5 is a honker. It’s also a honker in conditions 2 through 4, where the car live-wire moves and dances and shivers underneath you. The steering is reasonably direct and communicative. Even with stability control on, you play little games with the rear tires, slipping and hucking them under throttle. As with a lot of all-wheel-drive cars, slides can be fixed by planting your right foot, but it takes subtlety—countersteer, balance. Corner exits at full blat are a rumba of minute steering corrections and body motions and work. You have to dig in for a fast lap, and when the M5 is honest-to-God moving, you never settle down.
It reminds you of the way M cars used to be.
Still, an all-wheel-drive M car is an all-wheel-drive M car. The package will inevitably be heavier and less involving than a properly sorted, rear-wheel-drive version of the same machine. Faster, sure. But when you drive enough genuinely fast cars—and around here, we see literally hundreds every year—you get tired of the speed rush. You grow to need the rush, but only if it comes with a car that pumps feedback into your fingers and spine. Because the feedback is what keeps things interesting, compelling, alive. What turns a piece of scenery into a live wire, instead of a video game.
Will the purists (and for the record, I consider myself one) be happy about the philosophical shift on display here? My guess is hell no, even given the wonderfully interesting and entertaining result. It is somehow different from M’s move to turbocharging, or the division's general move away from manual transmissions, or toward lower-revving engines. All of those changes are synonymous with the modern fast car, necessary in order to move with the tide of the car business. Rear-drive is something else. I grew up around rear-drive BMWs, started my (obnoxious, irrelevant, joyous) club-racing career with rear-drive 2002s and M cars. I believe in the greatness of machinery that forces you to develop skills in order to get something out of it.
But the world is moving away from that sort of thing; bemoaning the matter won’t change it. Do I want some notions, stuff I’ve loved and long respected, to remain sacred? Of course. But the F90 M5 is genuinely involving and—chiefly—can be driven in two-wheel-drive mode, if you want. And I’d rather have this than the last M5, which was rear-wheel-drive, fast, demanding, and… kind of a dead fish.
2. The 2018 M5 fulfills the promise of the previous M5.
Let’s look at what the two cars have in common. The most important bit is the engine—the 2018 M5 uses the same basic powerplant as the 560-hp 2011–2017 M5, mildly updated. It is now a 600 hp, twin-turbo, 4.4-liter V-8 as the S is the typical designator for production M engines (ordinary BMW motors use the prefixes N, M, or B). The second number is displacement—the M5’s engine is 4.4 liters. The T bit represents a technical update—this is the fourth major update the S63 has received since the design was launched, in the 2010 X5 M and X6 M. (The changes for the ’18 M5 are in detail: new turbochargers with larger compressors, a new oil pump, and so on.)
The S63 is a neat mill. Its layout is colloquially referred to as “hot vee”—the engine’s exhaust manifolds rest inside the vee made by the the cylinder heads and block, as opposed to outside it. The engine's intakes live on the side of each head—the place where a traditional vee engine puts its exhaust. This sort of setup is occasionally referred to as “reverse flow,” because it mirrors how the majority of vee engines, automotive or not, have operated for the past century. BMW chose it to maximize responsiveness; the layout allows for a clever (and patented) exhaust manifold that would be practically impossible in a cold-vee setup. Along with a nontraditional firing order, the arrangement allows the engine’s turbochargers to be fed exhaust pulses . Which results in more linear power delivery—and less turbo lag.
Short version, made palatable for people who aren’t tech doofuses: The S63 is built in a cool, nontraditional way, chasing linear response, a BMW hallmark.
Like its predecessor—like every S63—the new M5’s engine produces torque everywhere. Virtually any point on the tach, in buckets, great flowing gobs of the stuff. It is a firehose of violence. In terms of power delivery and character, it is one of the great modern engines, a shocking combination of linear thrust and willingness to rev. There is lag, but it is so minimal that you barely notice.
This is all relevant because the last M5 (F10 chassis, in BMW parlance) was dominated by its engine. The car was rear-wheel drive, and in the F10, that layout felt like a handicap. The steering didn’t have much to say, and neither did the rear axle. The car tended to feel excessively reigned in on a public road; you fought it and were perpetually attempting to stay ahead of the rear axle’s slides. (This can be good, but it isn’t always. The line between fun and pain usually comes with how friendly the car is, as it’s sliding. How much it wants to work with you, not against.) Hammering around in the rain with stability control off—or even in the car’s permissive M Dynamic Mode—was an invitation for even talented drivers to make costly mistakes. In the dry, the car could feel abrupt and spastic, rarely special. Like many modern turbocharged wondercars, it often gave you the sensation that the cart was leading the horse.
This was partly setup choice on the part of BMW’s engineers, partly a function of physics. On one hand, you can only do so much with gobs of power routed through two driven wheels. On the other, there are currently several new rear-drive cars that make more than 600 hp, and more than a few of those are so easy to drive, they feel underpowered. This isn’t exaggeration. It is, however, what happens when you combine suspension compliance with engineers who prioritize feel and forgiveness as much as they do lateral grip and horsepower. Chassis and engine intangibles over raw grunt.
Contrary to what you’d expect—the company’s name is Bavarian Motor Works, after all—this is not how M cars have typically worked. In the modern era, BMW’s fast cars have tended to minimize suspension travel and compliance in favor of track prowess and stability-control computers that play watchdog, keeping the car under control. But even as late as 20 years ago, the company’s vehicles were known for their approachability and feedback. An old German line holds that the chassis of a classic M car should always be “faster” than its engine. The magic came from the cars’ breadth of ability and friendliness—even an average driver would be made to feel like the car wanted you to find the limits of its talent.
Some of that comes back in the 2018 M5. The engine is still ridiculous overkill, but its character has been shaped a bit. Power isn’t that much different—the F90’s 600 hp was essentially matched by the 600 hp in the —but its delivery seems to have been massaged to be smoother, and the steering and chassis appear to have more to say. You have a better idea what’s going on at each end of the car. The 2018 car's eight-speed ZF automatic, the only transmission available, feels far more suited to the M5’s character than the seven-speed, twin-clutch automatic it replaces. It’s smooth and subtle and BMW claims it shifts even quicker than the old gearbox. (Shed a tear for the F10’s optional six-speed manual, dead due to low sales figures and an ever-increasing German-carmaker indifference toward the clutch pedal.)
It feels about like you’d expect a modern, 600-hp, twin-turbo, eight-pot BMW supersedan to feel. Nuts, but reachable.
That said, it’s difficult to drive the 2018 car without wondering how different the thing would be if it weren’t such a porker. We haven’t had a chance to weigh this car yet, but early estimates . Even the M5, not a light car, clocked in at .
3. Call it the fifth-best M5 in history.
Now is probably a good time to run down the M5s we’ve seen in this country. Conveniently, BMW provided a handful of vintage M5s—and one 1981 (E12) M535i, the first sedan to wear an M badge—for test, on the Portugal launch. I was once a professional BMW mechanic; save the M535i, I had driven all of these cars before. I’ve tracked several of them. But the refresher helped put the F90 in perspective.
1988 (E28): 256 hp. Blocky brickbat. The first M5. Used a modified version of the twin-cam, six-throttle straight six found in BMW’s M1 supercar. The engine block featured the same basic geometry and construction used in everything from the 535i to the Daytona-winning 3.0 CSL. Famously a 150-mph four-door at a time when that sort of thing was far from common. Sold here only in black, with tan interior, blacked-out window trim, and hideous federally mandated impact bumpers.
In Europe, you could get your E28 M5 painted like a taxi, in a host of boring colors, with chrome on the window frames. The car was perhaps best like this, because you could rip around dusting Lamborghinis and looking like a dork in a 518i with no one the wiser. Hilarious to rail on, hilarious when sliding, felt like a small airplane.
1990–1993 (E34): 315 hp. Understated cruise missile. Offered an updated, more powerful version of the engine from the E28. The E34 M5 was based on the third-generation E34 5-series, which was generally more aerodynamic, comfortable, and grippy than its predecessor. Its interior was built from the same semi-durable but anonymous stuff used in the E36 3-series. This was a sedate car with a Jekyll-and-Hyde vibe. It was also amusing to rail on, in the sense that you always felt like you were committing blue-collar crimes in a $5000 suit you robbed from your dad’s closet. Felt like a dentist’s chair gone mental.
2000–2003 (E39): The V-8 One. 400 hp from a four-cam, naturally aspirated, 7000-rpm V-8. This isn't the only V-8 M5, but it was the first, and the only naturally aspirated one, which makes it the eight-pot everyone remembers. When this car was new, it just seemed deeply improbable. People moaned about it being the first M5 without a straight-six, BMW’s signature engine, but its V-8 was genuinely special and endearingly complex, and the car went sideways everywhere. It sucked up highways with prejudice. It felt like a four-door Camaro built by Germans who wore calculator wristwatches and loved cheap beer. Like every previous M5, it was not sold with an automatic. A nice cross between complex and simple, with electronic stability control but an otherwise analog chassis. (The car used a 1960s-style, trucklike steering box, not a rack, for some reason.) These never got cheap on the used market, and with good reason. If you don’t want one, you probably A) know how much it costs to fix one, or B) have one already.
2006–2010 (E60): The V-10 One. 500 hp. The first and, to date, only , inspired by the company’s F1 engines. The first gasoline V-10 to be found in a production sedan. (Fun fact: The V-8 in the 2007–2013 M3 is descended from this engine.) The E60 offered an electronically managed chassis, with a zillion possible adjustments (varying levels of aggression for chassis and driveline), and a console-mounted button that would neuter the car to 400 hp. Presumably for valets or teenage daughters or something. This car was famously sold only with an automated manual (SMG) transmission, no clutch pedal, outside America. Here, the car got an optional six-speed manual, ported in from V-8-powered E60s.
That gearbox itself was a begrudging admission that BMW needed the American market—the Germans really didn’t want to put it in the car, but the North Americans protested. Still, it was great. A 500-hp sedan with a V-10 in it. If you haven’t , you haven’t lived.
Your author’s subjective ranking, based on a highly fungible, gut-based algorithm of emotion, feedback, practicality, and cool factor: E39 above all. Then E28, E34, E60, F90, F10.
Also, click on that link in the E60 M5 paragraph above. YOU COULD MAKE A SEDAN SOUND LIKE THAT BY HANGING ON AN EXHAUST. A SEDAN.
4. You can still drift the hell out of it. (But you probably knew that.)
BMW wants you to know that. At least, they do if you go by the official photography, where every third picture shows the car sideways, smoke billowing off the rear tires. Or the bet-hedging unveil announcements that referred repeatedly to the car's “M-tuned” all-wheel drive. Or the constant assurances from manufacturer representatives that the F90 would offer, as one engineer told me, “an all-wheel-drive system compatible with our values.” Possibly because hooliganism is part and parcel to M5 legend. M5s have always sold in small numbers—generally mid- to high four figures—but the model trades on being something of a goon.
“There are people,” the car’s powertrain chief, Carsten Wolf, told me on the launch, “who like oversteer. Yes! And they’ll get it.”
Regardless: Half the point of an M5 is the ability to A) run 150 mph all day long with no pain or undue stress, B) fit car seats or two grown adults in the back, C) look like you’re a respectable citizen, and D) feel like you’re driving around in a quiet supercar. The other half is some slidey-funky-schnitzel drifts. With the nannies off, this car does that. It even does tidy little side-slips in all-wheel-drive Sport mode, with stability control on. You just grab the car by the scruff, and goofy things happen.
You have to wonder how many customers will take advantage of that. The truth, of course, is that it barely matters. Cars like this sell on possibility and fantasy. What normal person finds the limits of a 600-hp sedan with 10.5-inch-wide rear tires? What normal person even goes looking? If you track an F90 M5, you are a rare dude. If you track the car and slide it enough to catch bugs on the side windows, you’re even more rare. And good for you. Good for BMW for making this happen.
I mean, if they didn’t, we’d probably make a big deal about it. A small of customers would make a big deal about it. It would possibly be a repeat of the E60 manual-transmission thing, or the . And BMW’s brand image would be even further diluted and probably take the kind of small hit that means little in the moment and a remarkable amount, for a small group of people, in the long run.
But still. In a world increasingly populated by hybrids and cars that drive themselves, to say nothing of a sea of electronic devices designed to remove both risk and skill from accessible joy, it’s nice to see.
5. Prepare yourself: Going forward, BMW’s M division might not look the same.
Two more quotes from Wolf. The first, on hybrid technology working its way into the M lineup: “Some people might have imagination borders, some don’t. Let’s see.”
On sea-change technology moves in general: “As long as we stick to our principles… these things are always possible.”
The automotive industry is currently undergoing one of the largest social and technological shifts in its history. The next ten years will almost certainly provide you with machinery far more shocking than an all-wheel-drive M car.
Watch this space, and in the meantime, start watching the prices of older M5s. A free market tends to reward the rare and good. Five bucks says those cars won’t be affordable for long.