I remember the time I drove an F10 BMW M5 in the wet. This was a car that somehow felt offended to have you driving it and did everything it could, mostly by way of its power delivery, to scare you from ever sitting in the driver’s seat ever again.
In 30 Jahre spec, the two rear-driven wheels struggled to transmit the full 441kW to the tarmac and in damp conditions, in the reduced-DSC MDM Mode, would burst into wheelspin in all the wrong gears at all the wrong times. You were just as likely to get out of the car looking pale, as you were grinning.
So for this road-tester, it was with curiosity to be climbing into the newly all-wheel drive F90 BMW M5 for the first time, for MOTOR’s first drive on Aussie soil.
The sixth-gen M5 – the latest in a much-worshipped dynasty stretching back to the original E28 in 1985 – is the first to be fitted with front driveshafts in an attempt to tame the 441kW/750Nm twin-turbo 4.4-litre V8 brooding behind the kidney grilles.
By way of refresher, this is a brand-new car on a new, seventh-generation 5 Series platform. Thanks to increased use of aluminium in its construction, M Division has been able to offset the weight increase of the new all-wheel drive system. Actually, it’s been able to reduce weight entirely, for an overall saving of 15kg compared to the outgoing F10, 1855kg versus 1870kg.
Engine-wise, the F90 M5 uses an evolution of the S63 V8 from the previous car. DCT is out – a new eight-speed torque converter auto is in. You’re looking at 0-100km/h in 3.4 launch-control-assisted seconds.
While it’s all-wheel drive, a “two-wheel drive” mode is available, turning the new M5 back into a rear-drive sedan again. And perhaps never in the history of performance cars has such an almighty machine looked so unassuming – or so many things to so many people.
Some will like its executive discreetness, that without badges there are merely clues that it’s an M5. Some will think it looks like a 540i with big wheels and an M Sport bodykit. All we know is, anyone fooled by the chrome strip around the glasshouse will quickly realise their error as they cop an eyeful of those quad exhausts and give-away bootlid badge.
Us? The new M5 is a navy blue powersuit to the Mercedes-AMG E63 S’s leather jacket.
Comparison review: M5 v E63 S
Sitting in the pit lane at Sandown for the Australian launch, the interior, too, channels similar levels of modesty. It’s a classy, luxurious place to sit, beautiful soft leathers in abundance, with piano blacks and TFT screens, with only a few small M badges scattered about.
At normal speeds, the restrained theme continues, the M5 as comfortable and docile as, well, a 540i. It’s quiet when it needs to be and rides pretty well, with great seats. Press a few buttons (which we’ll get to) and you can summon the devil within.
The power is so breathtaking that you have to carefully plan all excursions into full-throttle territory. It is an eye-wateringly fast machine with a new explosive ability in first and second gears. Beyond that, there are supercar levels of torque-rich turbocharged acceleration.
But hit a few corners, drive the new M5 up to about seven tenths and you might wonder what all the hype is about. Particularly as the V8 note is quite behaved – suiting the demure presentation of the car – but in contrast to something like the sinful, naughty V8 burble of an E63 S. It’s not until you push beyond seven or eight tenths that the M5 begins to really strut its stuff.
In Sport Plus, a satisfying snarl develops about its higher rpm. The M5 revels as you push it harder, revealing proper handling talent. Accurate steering guides an eager front end, with prodigious grunt, powerful traction off corners and – this is important – the suspension performance to match the mighty engine.
The damping gets better with speed and gives the M5’s body an incredible, confidence-nurturing composure on bumpy back roads. The M5 feels as clever – with the new eight-speed automatic also as responsive as it needs to be, up and down the gears – even if you do have a sense that it has a big computerised brain and it’s doing lots of thinking.
Is it fun? Absolutely – this is a satisfying car in which to attack a twisty road. It wants you to get stuck in. It’s agile; it forgets its size and weight. The all-wheel drive system and electronics, in the right modes, permit small, addictive, controlled powerslides from the apex to exit.
And although we drove the M5 on track at Sandown – where, humorously, we had to lift on the straights so as to not drill the back of Steven Richards in the pace car M4 GTS, and he was going as hard as he could – it was more fun on the road. It felt a bit soft, heavy and unhappy at Sandown, although in fairness we didn’t get much time to learn what it wanted.
On the topic of modes, there are lots and lots of them. Within the steering wheel spokes, left and right, red M1 and M2 tabs give you two custom combinations of all the settings. Programming them will be one of the most fun exercises you will ever have in your new F90.
The settings start with DSC, fully on giving you maximum traction and a strong all-wheel drive personality. The reduced-DSC MDM unlocks ‘4WD Sport’ for a heavy rear bias with enhanced traction. And DSC Off is your only option if you want the pure ‘2WD’ rear-drive mode. There will be crazy people who make this their M2 button.
Then there are three settings each, mild to wild, for the engine, chassis (dampers) and steering, as well as another setting for shift speed and aggressiveness. Oh, and also two settings for the bi-modal exhaust. There is the potential to completely change the car depending on how you configure your modes.
We didn’t drive the M5 long enough to play with all of them, but for a blat, our experimenting would begin with MDM, 4WD Sport, Sport Plus engine, comfort dampers, Sport steering, open exhaust, manual mode and maximum shift aggro. Phew.
Overall, we are very impressed with the new M5. All-wheel drive – while there is something oddly unattractive about it in an M5 context – has injected a bit of sense into the ever-more-powerful M sedan equation.
MOTOR History: BMW M5
M Division has never been afraid to revisit its own DNA in the name of progress; the M5 has had six, eight and 10 cylinders at different points in its life, whatever has been most appropriate for its time. And for the M5, it was time to move on from rear-wheel drive.
2018 BMW M5 SPECS:
Engine: 4395cc V8, DOHC, 32v, twin-turbo
Power: 441kW @ 5600-6700rpm
Torque: 750Nm @ 1800-5600rpm
0-100km/h: 3.4sec (claimed)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Like: Supercar acceleration, handling talent, traction, luxurious interior, relative value
Dislike: Executive styling not to everyone’s tastes, could sound better at lower rpm
The Nemesis - Audi RS6
445kW/700Nm, 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8, all-wheel drive, 0-100km/h 3.7sec, $244,827
Mercedes-AMG E63 S is the obvious rival, but Audi’s quattro war wagon is also a consideration. Although it’s a lot pricier and a totally new RS6 is just around the corner