LISBON, PORTUGAL — The story of the BMW M5 is a fascinating and iconic tale. It was born in 1984, when the fabulous M88 3.5-liter straight-six from the mid-engine M1 supercar was dropped into the shark-nosed, razor-sharp E28 5 Series.
Its replacement, the E34, stayed true to the first car’s formula, with more power and a chassis honed to a deliciously sharp edge. Significant changes were applied to the third M5, the E39, specifically the addition of a 5.0-liter V-8. At first, the purists cried. Then they drove it and those tears of sadness turned to sobs of joy. For the next generation BMW unleashed the wildest M5 of them all, the E60, with its howling 5.0-liter V-10 that revved to a heavenly 8,250 rpm. It had its flaws, but damn it was special.
It seemed the M crew from Munich could do no wrong with what had become BMW’s definitive super sedan.
But that was then. The car we’ve come to Portugal to drive on the face of it has abandoned every principle on which the M5 legend was founded. The all-new F90 series 2018 BMW M5 features a twin-turbocharged engine. It is fitted with a fully automatic gearbox. And–the horror–it’s now all-wheel drive.
The missing link in this story, the outgoing F10 M5, was heavy, slightly ponderous, and only really came alive at unspeakable speeds. The F10 ushered in BMW’s 4.4-liter twin-turbocharged V-8 and a greater focus on luxury. It simply didn’t feel special enough to be an M5. Fantastically capable, yes, but rather cold.
How to superheat the M5 formula once again? I can think of a million ways, but the adoption of all-wheel drive, switching from a dual-clutch transmission to a ZF 8-speed automatic, and focusing even more on luxury for $103,595 large doesn’t make the list. In fact, it suggests that BMW either doesn’t know how to recapture the old M5 magic or simply doesn’t care to do so.
At least that’s the narrative I was expecting to report. However, it pays to be open-minded, for this M5 has rediscovered the magic: It’s more aggressive, the ride is busy and uncompromising, it has simply sensational performance, and the all-wheel drive system is wonderfully fluid and playful. And if you really must exit every corner with a full turn of opposite lock? Just stick it in rear-wheel drive mode and enjoy the sort of over-the-limit balance that has always been an M5 hallmark.
Before we explore the car further, let’s go back to the makeup of this mighty machine. It features a revised version of the 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 that now produces 600 horsepower and 553 lb-ft of torque, which is mated to the aforementioned 8-speed automatic gearbox. Thanks in part to the new M xDrive all-wheel drive system, it reaches 60 mph in 3.2 seconds can run from 0-124 mph in 11.1 seconds. With the optional M Driver’s Package, it’s also capable of a top speed of 189 mph.
M xDrive essentially allows the M5 to drive the rear wheels only for much of the time, the central clutch pack only sending power forward when the rear starts to lose grip or under sudden acceleration, when extra stability is needed. The rear axle also features the familiar M Differential, although the four-wheel steering system seen on the M550i xDrive was omitted from the M5 to save weight. That seems a strange decision as it works so well on everything from a Porsche 911 GT3 to an M760Li and would surely afford the M5 even greater agility.
Of course, the M5 offers a wide range of adjustment for pretty much every aspect of its dynamic personality. There are Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus settings for the dampers, steering and throttle mapping, plus three modes for the gearbox, and you can run with full DSC in the more relaxed MDM mode or with stability control dialed out completely. On top of that, the M xDrive has three modes: 4WD, 4WD Sport, or RWD. You can only select the latter two modes when you disengage DSC, but confusingly, 4WD Sport defaults to MDM mode for the stability control, whereas selecting RWD forces you to run completely without electronic intervention. You have been warned.
If this all sounds horribly complex…well, it is. But helpfully the M5 has two preset buttons on the steering wheel labeled M1 and M2. The idea is to let you experiment with the car’s various modes and settings until you’re happy to commit to two pre-programmed and very personal setups. For the launch event held near Lisbon, M1 kept the car in standard 4WD with steering, engine mapping, and dampers in Comfort—and the gearbox in its most serene mode. M2 ramped things up to 4WD Sport with MDM mode for the stability systems, Sport for steering and dampers, Sport Plus for engine mapping, and tickled the gearbox tickled up to level two of three.
The first surprise? Even in docile M1, the M5 feels eager—aggressive, even. The engine doesn’t have the pumped-up theater of the E63 S, but it matches it for response and revs, with even more energy at the top end. The ride is taut and controlled, too. Over short, sharp bumps the M5 fidgets and thumps. Up the speed and things smooth out, but only a little. On Portugal’s pretty decent highway system the M5 feels never less than firm. Turn on to smaller, more interesting roads and the uncompromising feel of the chassis translates into real agility, excellent body control, and a feeling that this all-wheel drive system favors the rear wheels at all times.
I haven’t mentioned the gearbox yet because it took a while for me to remember it wasn’t a dual-clutch unit. Yes, it’s more mannered than the old M DCT ’box at low speeds, but it’s also more decisive and punchier when you’re exercising the twin-turbo mill.
In M2 mode, the M5 hits hard and clean, and every shift is tight and synchronized perfectly with my requests on the steering wheel-mounted paddles. It doesn’t have that super clean and almost magical feeling of the best dual-clutch ‘boxes, but it’s pretty close and beats rivals like the AMG or the Cadillac CTS-V hands down. I can’t think of an automatic that feels this responsive save the 10-speed unit in the Lexus LC 500.
So it takes just a few miles to be deeply impressed with the M5. In fact impressed is the wrong word. The old car was impressive. The new M5 is fun and exciting—and pretty uncompromising, too. In full luxury mode it, feels like a proper sports sedan; dial everything up to Sport Plus and it’s almost rabid. On these narrow, craggy roads the M5 actually works best with the dampers in Comfort, while Sport Plus feels like a racetrack only setting, which is handy as I’m following brown signs marked ‘Autodromo.’ Estoril is awaiting our arrival.
The old F1 circuit is delightfully shabby with huge, sun-bleached grandstands that reek of faded glory, but Estoril remains a serious test for any car, let alone a circa-4,250-pound monster like the 2018 M5. The M Division worked hard to keep weight down with items like a carbon-fiber roof and despite the adoption of all-wheel drive, the F90 is actually lighter than its predecessor. However, it never fulfils the old cliché of “shrinking around you” on the road. It’s a big car and it feels the part. This much mass plus AWD should mean understeer and plenty of it on the track, right?
Nope. The M5 wants to turn, though you have to be careful not to be too greedy on turn-in. Once the front tires bite and you’re on the throttle, the big sedan errs towards oversteer rather than howling push. The 4WD Sport mode really is effective and while the M5 doesn’t feel as deliberately rear-biased as the E63 S, its behavior is more fluid and natural. On the limit you tend to find some understeer on turn-in, followed by a lovely four-wheel drifting phase mid corner and a little flourish of oversteer on the way out. MDM mode allows you to experience this pretty well, but turn off all the stability systems and the easy-going nature of the M5 even when the tires are slipping and sliding is addictive.
The track also allows you to enjoy the M5’s engine at its full potential. With bigger turbochargers than the previous M5, greater boost pressure (24.5 psi vs. 21.8), and a higher-pressure and more precise fuel injection system, the 4.4-liter V-8 simply chews up straights. The noise feels a little artificial and is clearly augmented by the speakers—and if you love the gargling-with-ball-bearings and spewing V-8 fire and brimstone of an AMG, the M5 sounds a little tame—yet the work it does cannot be criticized. Its character comes not from the soundtrack but from a cocktail of precision and organ-crushing power.
It’s enough to test the optional carbon ceramic brakes to the absolute limit around Estoril. The pedal goes long after a few laps and the M5 starts to shimmy and dance as the braking performance is tested, but they’re going through an extreme and unrealistic regimen: Five fast laps with a half-hearted cool down lap, sit in the pits for three or four minutes soaking up all the heat as drivers swap, then repeat until the fuel tank is dry or the tires are worn out. On the road, there were no issues, but such is the performance on offer here. Given the weight being hauled around, I suspect the carbon ceramics would be well worth the outlay.
By the end of the day the F90 M5 has confounded my expectations. Rather than moving away from the old M5 formula, it has used new technologies to return closer to it. This is a super sedan that can be used every day yet always feels special and doesn’t compromise outright performance for a veneer of luxury.
It’s also an M5 to the core. Breaking all the rules, I tried one lap in RWD mode. The tires needed changing by the time I returned to the pit lane. Welcome back. We’ve missed you.
2018 BMW M5 Specifications
|ENGINE||4.4L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/600 hp @ 5,700-6,600 rpm, 553 lb-ft @ 1,800-5,700 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||16/23 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||195.5 x 74.9 x 58.0 in|
|0-60 MPH||3.1 sec|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph (189 mph w/M Driver’s Package)|