YOUR brain harbours a bizarre psychological quirk known as the Proust phenomenon. An anatomical anomaly involving the olfactory pathway and its proximity to the amygdala and hippocampus means that a certain smell can trigger a vivid autobiographical memory. And I’ve just experienced it, after opening the door to an old BMW.
Inhaling a lungful of the gently ageing petrochemicals inside this 1990 M5 feels to me like coming home. I learned how to drive in an Alpine White E34 5 Series similar to this one. It was owned by my dad, and had exactly the same cosily familiar, sun-ripened scent when he bought it as a 10-year-old car. The fact it was second-hand didn’t matter to him. Having it in the garage was the fulfilment of a dream, and I felt like a Saudi prince at 17 with my provisional licence in one hand and the key to the BMW in the other.
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This old M5 is supposed to be a sideshow in today’s proceedings; a retro counterpoint to the brand-new F90 M5 we’re about to drive for the first time on Aussie soil. In its day, almost three decades ago, this boxy super sedan was something genuinely fierce. It represented the ultimate tool for moving five people and their luggage quickly and comfortably, and in order to understand what the M5 has become, beginning with the first generation to be officially imported to Australia seems to makes sense.
Its starter motor pulses quickly with a hard metallic clatter that vibrates the whole car. The 3.5-litre in-line six turns over more times than any modern engine before it eventually fires, and a lumpy baritone idle resonates from its tailpipes. This race-derived powerplant is a development of the engine found in the back of the legendary BMW M1 supercar. Enthusiasts consider the E34 M5 to be the last proper M car as BMW Motorsport technicians hand-built each one at its Garching facility, independent of the regular production line that has built every M car since.
Everything inside the E34 is exactly as I remember it; switchgear that clicks and clacks with an old-school tactility, period fonts and selfishly driver-focused ergonomics. My hands rest in the curves of the flat-faced steering wheel, feet offset beneath it on pedals that sit to the right. The long, light clutch pedal is mounted centrally in the footwell and its friction point grabs high in the release action. There’s a thrill in just making this car move, in the flickering to life of long-dormant muscle memories.
Nothing much happens down low. Opening the throttle via the sticky, floor-hinged pedal is a lesson in delayed gratification. Peak torque of 360Nm arrives at 4750rpm, and you need to work up to a sky-high 6900rpm for the full 232kW to hit. This highly strung worker needs revs.
I flatten second gear to the top of its range. Instinct has my left foot and hand ready to shift when there’s another 1000rpm still to climb. The rev-counter puts redline at seven grand, but the needle keeps spinning halfway to eight. Wide open there’s a furious induction hiss from the individual throttle bodies that paints a childlike grin across my face. A modern turbocharged hot hatch would’ve overtaken us by now, but that’s the furthest thing from my mind. Saturating yourself in the M5’s sweet mechanical responses is an utter joy.
But 1990’s finest is about to provide a stark, unbiased reminder of what three decades of progress looks like. Almost 30 years of development have moved the game on to an arena of performance that’s barely recognisable from here.
Parked side-by-side, the F90 makes its ancestor look like a delicate scale model. The E34’s 2761mm wheelbase is shorter than that of a current M3, and its overall width narrower than an M2. There’s more fastback rake on the rear glass of the F90, but its three-box proportions are roughly the same. Near-identical chrome window surrounds on both models arc from the wing mirror to the C-pillar’s Hofmeister kink, but that’s about where the carryovers end.
The E34 is categorically plain in this company. It’s quaint to think this unadorned sedan was once the pinnacle of four-door performance; something so intimidating it would sweep a clear path on autobahns. Its once-polarising aero wheel covers, designed to optimise brake cooling, hide 17-inch alloys, now too small for a mid-spec 1 Series.
In a similar vein only bumpers and guards have been changed in the shift from current 5 Series to M5, but understated isn’t a great word for the F90. Brutish is perhaps more appropriate. Its aggressive front-end asserts itself with an oversized kidney grille and huge ducts that funnel air through heat exchangers, cooling vents, wind diffusers and other aerodynamic aids that only Formula 1 engineers were thinking about in 1990.
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The F90 turns its back on more than 30 years of rear-driven M5 history by adopting a version of M’s xDrive all-wheel-drive system. BMW’s first all-wheel-drive 5 Series was, in fact, an E34 called the 525iX. Additional weight blunted that car’s performance dramatically, but in the F90’s case its 0-100km/h sprint is slashed by a massive 0.8sec over the last-gen F10 M5. It launches to the metric tonne in 3.4sec – an exact match for AMG’s E63 S, though the M5 does it with 9kW and 100Nm less.
Erase the E34’s endearing accessibility from your mind at this point. The F90’s 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 is barbaric, and devastatingly effective. Outputs increase by 29kW and 70Nm for this generation to intimidating totals of 441kW and 750Nm. Other revisions upped fuel injection pressure to 350 bar, added bigger turbochargers, and lifted the rev limit to 6700rpm.
Key to its accelerative ability is its relatively low mass. At 1855kg the F90 isn’t a featherweight, but it’s 15kg lighter than its predecessor even with the added AWD hardware, and 100kg lighter than an E63 S. Optioning the carbon ceramic braking package fitted to this car ($16,500 for front and rear) slices off a further 23kg of unsprung mass while adding motorsport-grade stopping hardware and glossy gold calipers.
Further weight was stripped using a carbonfibre roof and a lighter bi-modal exhaust system that links the bent eight to quad tailpipes. Tapping the loud button on the centre console opens the channels, then pinning the throttle to the bulkhead triggers an ear-splitting blare of white noise from the back-end that’s loud enough to make pedestrians wince. It’s not a particularly sweet noise, but it’s bloody dramatic.
BMW has discarded the F10’s seven-speed dual-clutch transmission for this generation of M5. Moving to xDrive brings in a model-specific eight-speed torque converter auto and a transmission cooler to ensure consistent performance on track. It’s exceptionally good, and at the rate of acceleration this car is capable of there isn’t a moment to spend missing the homely throw of the E34’s five-speed manual.
The F90’s drivetrain is a development of that in the X5 and X6 M, but with a rear-wheel-drive party mode for those brave enough.
By default the car operates in AWD with a relatively even torque split front to rear that focuses on stability, and it’s rock solid without a hint of slip when hustling. Single tap the DSC button to enter M Dynamic Mode. This puts the drivetrain into 4WD Sport, a heavily rear-biased setup that allows for more exploration of the car’s dynamic ability while retaining a moderate safety net. It’s here that the new M5 comes alive.
Exiting tight, low-speed corners with a heavy right foot sets the M5 into mild, graceful powerslides that maintain forward momentum. In faster, open curves it’s harder to adjust the car with the throttle, with the front end preferring to pull the car into line or washing out into understeer if asked to do too much.
I would hate to be this car’s front tyres. Taking a job away from them and feeding all power to the rears is, in some respects, a bit of a stunt. The F90’s RWD mode is great for big, tyre-frying drifts but it’s effectively a track-only affair. To activate RWD, all stability assistance must be turned off, meaning a circuit is really the only place to exploit it. At vaguely road-legal speeds there’s enough shove on tap to break traction in almost any gear.
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Much like the M3, there are no catch-all drive mode options for steering, engine and suspension. Each parameter is set individually between Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus, which makes cycling through the options fiddly at first. In the long run, two user-specified modes linked to a pair of red tabs on the steering wheel take a lot of the button pressing away. You can specify a soft touring setting on one, and a go-fast mode on the other.
Skilful tuning of the sportier set-ups renders an impression of lightness and agility when pressing on. Something this broad and heavy will always be challenged in terms of scalpel-sharp precision, but there’s deftness to the way it changes direction. The quick steering is intuitive, accurate and hugely improved over the F10 M5. Smart engineering and an open front diff means front-end functionality is untainted by the all-wheel-drive system, other than an enormous 12.6m turning circle.
There’s something all of a piece about the way this new M5 operates. The electronics it relies on so heavily seem to function in synchronicity. The F90 has a duality of personality that’s subtly different to the E63 S, which could make it a better long-distance weapon.
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Up front the F90’s generous front seats are brilliant. There’s a familiar, rudimentary feel to the architectural dashboard design, but the build quality is exceptional. Illuminated M5 logos on the headrests and door sills, a huge head-up display, and M-stripes on the seatbelts and steering-wheel stitching add a smattering of feel-good.
With the systems dialled down and the exhaust silenced, it’s not an overstatement to call this hushed cabin serene. The M5 doesn’t boast with the histrionics of AMG’s rowdy equivalent, and in some ways that makes it feel like less of an event to drive on first encounter. It’s closer to the spirit of the E34 M5 than I thought it would be, and I suspect it might be a car with enough layers to grow on you over time, rather than losing its sheen.
There will be people who want to burble up and down boulevards and be seen in one of the BMW’s rivals, but the F90 M5 feels like the thinking man’s mega sedan. Its execution is so detailed and thoughtful. There’s no fluff. Everything is as it is because of the deliberate focus on function that BMW M built its reputation on.
Three decades have put us worlds away from the mechanical keenness of 1990’s E34 M5, but the M5 of today is better by every measure. We’ll find out come comparo time whether that’s enough to rule the class. For now it’s sating to know that a whole new generation of kids will soon be climbing into their parents’ F90 M5 and, three decades hence, will surely find 441kW stately and quaint. Ferocity might have a finite shelf life but, right now, it’s hard to believe anyone will ever feel short-changed by BMW’s box-fresh M5.