Welcome to the latest instalment of the M5 versus E63 battle for the title of world’s hottest sedan.
However, this duel now plays out with revised terms. BMW, like Mercedes-AMG did before it, has decided to join the four-wheel drive fraternity where its 441kW and 750Nm must be converted into sure-footed progress. Bavaria and Affalterbach are on an equal, twin-turbo V8 footing.
Visually, the team within the M Division have created a subdued fighter. Wider wheels, mildly flared shoulders, more intakes, myriad aero aids, LED eyes and four sizeable tailpipes sum up the mean, but not menacing visual DNA. The M5 is still more sleeper than boisterous brawler, unlike the 450kW/850Nm E63 S, but it’s easy to spot the details that reveal the sixth-gen F90’s intent.
First Drive: BMW F90 M5 prototype
However, and it’s been well documented, the biggest difference between the old and new M5 is the M xDrive system, which introduces four-wheel drive to the once Master of Slide. With the exception of the X5M and X6M, this is the first M-car capable of pushing and pulling you out of trouble. However, don’t think that’s resulted in a softening of the formula. The company says it makes the F90 “faster, sharper and safer”.
Allaying our fears is the fact that you can send all the grunt rearwards, it’s just that the front axle is there to help assist getting all the oomph to the road more of the time. Transitioning between four- and two-wheel drive modes is progressive, smooth and imperceptible.
While a transfer case takes care of the fully variable north-south torque split, the M Differential masterminds the distribution of forces east-west. Those who prefer an extra portion of tail-happiness are invited to connect the M Dynamic Mode (MDM) with 4WD Sport, casting a wider-meshed safety net. The next step to oversteer nirvana is triggered by a stab of the DSC button. You’re afforded three choices: 4WD, 4WD Sport and 2WD. Yes, it all seems a bit complicated – and that’s before you start playing with the steering, suspension and drivetrain settings.
However, it’s time to put the theory into practice. Due to a long absence of rain at Estoril Circuit in Portugal, the dusty, dry tarmac is sanded down to primer, so grip is limited. Even with all the stability nannies at full alert, the rear ends of these super sedans on steroids keep wriggling, fidgeting and twitching under pressure.
The lack of traction is somewhat aided by the ultra-high-performance tyres. After all, both the Pirelli P Zeros on the BMW (275/35 ZR20, 285/35 ZR20 front to rear) and the Continental SportContact 6s on the AMG (265/35 ZR20, 295/30 ZR20 front to rear) need a hot, grippy surface to demonstrate their superglue talents.
With no DSC and 4WD in Sport, the new M5 is at its very quickest. The exit speed out of fast corners is absolutely mind-boggling, the underlying rear bias remains a factor all the way into triple-digit territory, while traction and grip is epic. When all the M5’s might is sent rewards, the tyre-frying show returns.
Satisfying the urge to play appears to be the number-one priority. However, in order to burn rubber in these two wild things, we must first select the correct settings. The more hardcore your ambition, the deeper you must dive into the menu underworld. To satisfy the child inside, pulling out all stops in either steed is eye opening. After all, children like toys. Even if these toys happen to need a fresh set of rear hoops after only six hot laps of Estoril.
This anything-goes philosophy is the driving force behind new features like Drift mode introduced into the E63 S. Despite the fact that every previous AMG sedan back to the E55 could go sideways without electronic intervention, the latest creation uses every new trick in the book to power oversteer. Like in the M5, a carefully composed choreography takes you through the sideways action in different stages (Sport, Sport Plus and Race).
In Race mode, with the ESP switched off and the transmission in manual, all the power and torque is diverted to the rear wheels only – which in turn makes them yell for help and send smoke signals into the Portuguese sky. Up to 120km/h, it’s on the driver – and only the driver – to tame the 450kW beast. Beyond that marker the front axle rejoins the party. In contrast to the mega Merc, 2WD is not speed governed in the M5.
BMW claims that the new eight-speed automatic matches the shift times of the previously used seven-speed DCT. This may be so, but my mind misses the whiplash upshifts in the fastest of the three gear-changing velocities. While the AMG employs a wet take-off clutch to shoot out of the starting blocks, the solution applied by the M wizards locks the converter clutch immediately after launching for maximum momentum and minimal slip. No surprise then that both four-door rockets accelerate to 100km/h in just 3.4sec.
In the 0-200km/h dash, the M5 edges the E63 S, claiming just 11.1sec as opposed to 11.5 for the Merc. How come? Because the longer-legged nine-speed transmission fitted to the AMG makes one more upshift.
Given the stonk underfoot, it’s a good thing both combatants are fitted with carbon-ceramic brakes – despite them being dispensable for on-road use. Especially in colder months, they rarely operate in the desired temperature window. And the performance in the rain tends to be ambivalent with not enough initial bite being typically followed by sudden deceleration. They are often quite noisy, too. However, on the circuit, the composite stoppers are a significant confidence-inspiring asset.
It’s not only the absolute stopping power that makes a big difference, but the constant pedal pressure and travel as well as the complete absence of fade. As far as the brake balance is concerned, the blue car performs on the same high level as the grey car. In the final analysis, it’s primarily the tyres which limit the deceleration potential, not the rotors or the calipers.
The latest E63 S is a fine piece of kit, but in certain areas it’s not quite as well-honed as the new M5. One important point in favour of the BMW is the steering. The variable-ratio rack operates with commendable precision, balance and agility. Steering angle and effort work in harmony, even when you start changing the settings from Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus. The AMG’s steering feels meaty and switched on, but the self-centring motion is somewhat exaggerated and it takes a more conscious turn at the wheel to dial in lock.
Wind on progressively more, and the feedback starts to blur a touch. When the tail eventually swings round, the steering response is quite light. In a nutshell, it’s a system that, sometimes, seems to be a bit too clever for its own good. Ultimately, the tiller in the M5 is more linear, and its response has more depth. Advantage BMW, but not by much.
So let’s quickly check the score. While it’s a dead heat in terms of engine, transmission and brakes, the M5 wins the steering sweepstakes by a narrow margin. And it further extends this lead in the chassis department. A brief glance at the well-used rear tyres provides the first explanation.
While the BMW’s Pirellis are evenly worn down to the indicators, the AMG’s Contis show an asymmetrical degeneration from the crown area all the way to the outside shoulder; more so at the rear than the front. This is allegedly down to the more aggressive suspension setup, which spices up toe-in and negative camber.
In theory, such an arrangement allows higher cornering speeds. In reality, the advantage expires at the breakaway point where grip lets go rather promptly. You can of course overdrive this peculiarity by stepping hard on the loud pedal.
Mind you, these are only first impressions which need to be backed up by more laps on other circuits with different variations. But here in Portugal, the 20-inch wheels fitted to the M5 seem to sit flatter on the road, and when they let go, they do so in a more progressive fashion, fusing car and driver to a confidence-inspiring whole. We’re not talking about what’s happening in full drift here, but about the difference in on-the-limit attitudes.
Even though the Mercedes is equipped with new triple-chamber air suspension, any trace of cushiness is being absorbed by the firm dampers – and that’s before you select Sport or Sport Plus. The BMW offers a broader span of calibrations from reasonably comfortable to positively firm. It is the slightly less radical of the two contenders, sharp yet more accessible in varying conditions.
When it comes time to sign the cheque, you may be surprised to find that the two differ on price. The E63 S is the heavy hitter at $239,611 and the M5, a comparative bargain, is $199,900 if you’re lucky enough to get one. Conversely, you can step down to the 420kW/750Nm E63 for $209,611 or step up to the $229,900 M5 First Edition (no power upgrade).
While BMW will charge extra for the M Driver’s Package, which lifts the maximum speed to 305km/h, the AMG does 302km/h without additional fees. Deep pockets afford you just about every conceivable luxury item, numerous driver assistance systems and a level of connectivity that will make an adolescent passenger chortle with amusement. Competitive spirits should enjoy the in-dash track apps which only need a smartphone or a GoPro and a lap timer to sift heroes from zeroes.
The E63 S is crammed with features – some nice to have, some thinly disguised gimmicks. Both boast about assistance systems which allow you to take your hands off the wheel, however, it’s only briefly. In more ways than one, these two would be a case for less equals more. That’s less as in distraction, complexity and choice. BMW and Mercedes-AMG try to bundle all your preferred settings into one button (M1 and M2 buttons on the steering wheel for the former and an Individual mode for the latter). However, both are far too complex to get ‘just right’.
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Now we come to the question everyone wants an answer to – which is best? For a start, both hyped four-seaters are very good cars. That’s in terms of being fast, entertaining and communicative. Although the F90 M5 is the new kid on the block and comes decorated in plenty of laurels, its German compatriot, the E63 S, puts up one hell of a fight. And it has a lot going for it. The Merc’s design, loud voice and its brutal way of addressing all things dynamic all stack up; you can even get it in a cool wagon in other markets. The E63 S is about as rough and raw as the sub brand wants to go.
In contrast, the M5 looks less menacing – because it is. It comes across as the more pragmatic (if an M-car ever could be) driving machine that’s also sweeter at the limit, always tactile and composed as well as being a tad more compliant. Surprisingly, it is pleasantly relaxed at five tenths, yet totally switched on when it really matters most. It wins, but only just.
|2018 BMW M5||2018 Mercedes-AMG E63 S|
|BODY||4-door, 5-seat sedan||4-door, 5-seat sedan|
|ENGINE||4395cc V8, DOHC, 32v, twin-turbo||3982cc V8, DOHC, 32v, twin-turbo|
|BORE/STROKE||89.0 x 88.3mm||83.0 x 92.0mm|
|POWER||441kW @ 5600-6700rpm||450kW @ 5750-6500rpm|
|TORQUE||750Nm @ 1800-5600rpm||850Nm @ 2500-4500rpm|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed automatic||9-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION||double A-arms, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (f); multi-links, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (r)||four-link axle, air springs, adaptive dampers (f); multi-links, air springs, adaptive dampers (r)|
|TRACKS||1626/1595mm (f/r)||1649/1595mm (f/r)|
|STEERING||electrically assisted rack-and-pinion||electrically assisted rack-and-pinion|
|BRAKES (f)||395mm ventilated carbon-ceramic discs, 6-piston fixed calipers||390mm ventilated carbon-ceramic discs, 6-piston calipers|
|BRAKES (r)||380mm ventilated carbon-ceramic discs, single-piston floating calipers||360mm ventilated carbon-ceramic discs, single-piston calipers|
|WHEELS||20.0 x 9.5-inch; 20.0 x 10.5-inch (f/r)||20.0 x 9.5-inch; 20.0 x 10.0-inch (f/r)|
|TYRE SIZES||275/35 ZR20 (f); 285/35 ZR20 (r)||265/35 ZR20 (f); 295/30 ZR20 (r)|
|TYRE||Pirelli P Zero||Continental SportContact 6|
|PROS||Performance; handling; steering; value equation||Crazy straight-line pace; epic sound; defies hefty weight|
|CONS||Doesn’t sound/look as angry as Merc; limited numbers||Tech overload (so is M5); ultimately not quite as sharp|
|RATING||4.5 out of 5 stars||4.5 out of 5 stars|