“Poor man’s M5,” snorted the bloke on the table next to me at the café, not realising he was sitting adjacent to the guy with the BMW M550i xDrive’s keys in his pocket. I probably shouldn’t have ordered that extra side of bacon, because if I only had a paltry $152,900 to spend on a sports sedan, I was clearly on skid row.
That the M550i is a very different proposition to the full-fat BMW M5 is apparent just by looking at it. Despite his halfwit assertion, I had to give old mate a certain begrudging respect for even noticing the thing in the first place. By the standards of a) modern performance sedans and b) BMW’s contemporary styling direction, the M550i is almost invisibly subtle. Its low-key looks don’t suggest a car that BMW claims will accelerate to 100km/h in 3.8 seconds.
That crucial first fifty metres where you sense what the car is exuding cops a big dose of nothing too. The steering is gloopy and dull, with the Sport steering mode just adding weight rather than feel. Switch the suspension to Sport and it retains a distinctly elastokinematic feel. That M on the badge feels like marketing.
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Then you remind yourself that it’s packing the N63 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8, good for 390kW and a monster 750Nm. That’s deployed via an eight-speed ZF auto to all four Bridgestone Potenza S007 tyres; 245/35R20 up front and 275/30R20 out back. The thought slowly crystallises. If the movie Ronin was being remade today, this would be the perfect getaway car for the streets of Paris: discreet, wickedly accelerative in all conditions and possessed of a certain antihero sang-froid.
On a decidedly warm day, we failed to match BMW’s acceleration claims, registering 4.3 seconds through 100km/h, but even that is quicker than the last of the rear-drive M5s, so it’s no slouch. Ride quality is plush on road, and body control respectable, although it’s never quite as playful as you’d hope.
That’s perhaps understandable, given that BMW needs to justify the extra $90k-odd to the M5. But were you committed to solely driving on road, the M550i xDrive might just be the better car. It rides better, it’s more discreet, it’s plenty quick enough and the steering, which initially seems disappointing in a dynamic context, is beautifully relaxing for long distance journeys.
The ZF eight-speed transmission is a known quantity and its drive logic is smart enough to make clicking the paddles an academic exercise. Just about the only ingredient of the M5 that I do miss are the dedicated wheel-mounted buttons to switch the car into a pre-defined custom setting.
Given the choice, I’d probably live without the active roll stabilisation and rear-wheel steering and save $12k by buying the M550i Pure model, but the big Five offers stacks of capability, a winning impression of quality and a lot of car for the money. It demolishes the $179,000 Mercedes-AMG E53 in terms of pace and power, and we suspect that it’d do the same to an Audi S6.
Showroom appeal is another matter, but the BMW’s discretion could be a drawcard for some. On the quiet, it’s one of Munich’s most impressive offerings. Now if we can just convince them to sell us a wagon version…
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Q-car appeal; barrel-chested V8; interior finish; ride quality; value
Steering not up to the dynamic expectations of the M badge; no wagon
BMW M550i xDrive Specs
Engine: 4395cc V8, DOHC, 32v, twin-turbo
Power: 390kW @5500-6000rpm
Torque: 750Nm @ 1800-4600rpm
0-100km/h: 4.3sec (tested)