Road Tests

2018 BMW M5 vs. 2018 Mercedes-AMG E63 S: Battle of Titans, Part 4

A question of attitude answered rudely

Welcome to round four of the BMW vs. Mercedes fight for the Hottest Sedan crown. This time, it’s the 2018 BMW M5 vs. the 2018 Mercedes-AMG E63 S, in Portugal. Unlike past throw-downs between the M5 and E63, this one features not just upgraded stats, but a new approach: BMW has finally decided to join the all-wheel-drive craze. It’s not that the M5 customer suddenly forgot how to handle all this power. No, it’s down to BMW’s marketing department, which has been pushing for all-wheel drive as a must-have at the top end of the premium segment for years.

Fact is, the rear-drive aficionados have long been in the minority, and the M boys should have seen this coming. But unlike the parent BMW brand, which jumped on the xDrive bandwagon years ago, the M division refused to adopt this crucial enhancer of safety and controllability (and, some might say, fun-killer) until Frank van Meel, CEO of BMW M and the former head of Audi Sport, took over. The Mercedes-AMG E63 went all-wheel-drive-only with the launch of its latest version in 2016, sporting the upgraded 4Matic+ system with variable torque split (previous AMG all-wheel-drive systems featured fixed torque split).

The sixth-generation M5 is definitely no longer your father’s go-faster four-door BMW. The biggest difference between old and new is the M xDrive system. With the exception of the sub brand’s X models, this is the first M car capable of pushing and pulling you out of trouble. An M5 for wimps? “Not at all,” says Van Meel, the man behind project F90. “All-wheel drive makes the new M5 faster, sharper, safer. Thanks to improved traction and stronger lateral grip especially on low-friction surfaces, it allows you to carry more momentum out of corners.” To avoid disappointment, all-wheel drive overrides rear-wheel drive only to correct arising instabilities, and one can lock the system in RWD for a family-sized serving of power oversteer. The transition between the AWD and RWD is nearly imperceptible.

While a transfer case takes care of the fully variable north-south torque split, the M differential masterminds the east-west force distribution. Those who prefer an extra portion of tail-happiness are invited to connect the M Dynamic Mode (MDM) with 4WD Sport, thereby casting a wider-meshed safety net. The next step on the way to your doctorate of oversteer is triggered by a stab at the DSC button. As soon as the yellow warning light comes on, the M xDrive menu offers three choices: 4WD, 4WD Sport and 2WD. Yes, things are beginning to get a bit complicated now—and that’s even before you start playing with the customizable steering, suspension, and drivetrain settings. With DSC off and 4WD Sport engaged, the new M5 is at its very quickest. The exit speed out of fast corners is now absolutely mind-boggling, the underlying rear bias remains a factor all the way into triple digit terrain, and traction and grip are simply extraterrestrial. Says Van Meel: “What sets our system apart is the single ECU which controls both diffs and the DSC/ASR/ABS algorithms. This application is so much quicker than the usual CAN-BUS convoys.” In rear-drive mode, old habits come through loud and clear.

Due to a long spell of dry weather on the sunny Portuguese Atlantic coast, the tarmac we’re traveling on has gotten dusty and offers grip reminiscent of a puck on an air-hockey table. Even with all the electronic overlords on full alert, the rear ends of these sedans-on-steroids keep wriggling, fidgeting, and twitching under pressure—a problem only made worse by the ultra-high-performance tires. After all, both the Pirelli P Zeros (BMW: 275/35 ZR20 front, 285/35 ZR20 rear) and the Conti SportContacts (Mercedes: 265/35 ZR20front, 295/30 ZR20 rear) need a hot, grippy surface to demonstrate their superglue talents—like what you’ll find at the Autodromo do Estoril, where you can brake car-lengths later and step back on the gas seconds earlier than on any backroad or interstate.

According to the official data sheets, the E63 S weighs 4,515 pounds, about 145 pounds heavier than the new M5, which itself has shed 33 pounds thanks in part to its carbon fiber roof. Subjectively, the all-in BMW feels a tad lighter and thus a tick more agile than the fully loaded AMG. While the BMW’s Pirellis are evenly worn down to the wear indicators after a hard day’s use, the AMG’s Contis show an asymmetrical degeneration from the crown area all the way to the outside shoulder, in the rear more so than in the front. This is allegedly down to the more aggressive suspension kinematics which spice up toe-in and negative camber. In theory, such a setup allows higher cornering speeds. In reality, any advantage ends at the breakaway point where grip lets go rather promptly.

Mind you, these are only first impressions, which need to be backed up by more laps on other circuits. But here in Portugal, the 20-inchers 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 pre-climax attitudes. Even though the Mercedes is equipped with a new triple-chamber air suspension, any trace of cushiness is 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, still sharp yet more accessible along the boundaries of the laws of physics.

Irrespective of the fact that the M5 and E63 S aim primarily at older, wealthy, image-conscious customers, neither BMW nor Mercedes seems to put a particular emphasis on classic luxury car values like comfort or amenities. Instead, satisfying the urge to play appears to be the No. 1 priority. But before these two wild things can burn rubber, we must first punch in the correct settings. So while the left hand holds tight to the wheel, the right hand is busy pushing, twisting, scrolling, touching, and zooming, thereby diverting the driver’s attention from the road to the center stack. The more hardcore your desire to liberate the smoke trapped inside your tires, the deeper you must dive into the menu underworld. Just be prepared to need fresh rear tires after only six hot laps at Estoril, for it to suck the tank dry in record time, and very nearly deafen your audience in the process.

This “anything goes” philosophy is the driving force behind new features like the drift mode introduced in the S version of the E63. Even though all previous AMG sedans back to the E55 would, on demand, go sideways in full Technicolor without any electronic incentive whatsoever, the latest creation by the Affalterbach power brokers uses every trick in the hacker’s handbook to celebrate the fine art of power oversteer. Like in the M5, a carefully composed choreography takes you through the drift action in different stages. The sport handling mode is a relatively tame prelude, but there are three more steps to climb, labeled Sport, Sport Plus, and Race. In Race, with ESP switched off and the transmission in manual, all the power and torque are diverted to the rear wheels, which immediately yell for help and send smoke signals to the Portuguese sky, but to no avail: Up to 75 mph, it’s on the driver—and the driver alone—to master this 603-hp beast’s hunt for traction. Beyond 75 mph, the front axle rejoins the jam session, and the band begins to play a faster tune again (rear-wheel drive is not speed-governed in the M5).

BMW claims that the M5’s new eight-speed automatic matches the shift times of the previous seven-speed DCT. This may be so, but the memory chip inside my head misses the whiplash upshifts of the older gearbox. While the AMG employs a wet take-off clutch to shoot out of the starting blocks like greased lighting, the solution applied by the M wizards locks the torque converter immediately after launch for maximal thrust and minimal slip. No surprise then that these four-door rocket ships take just 3.2 sec (BMW) or 3.3 sec (AMG) to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph. In the 0-124 mph sprint, the M5 edges the E63 S by four tenths, running 11.1 sec against the AMG’s 11.5 sec. Why the widened gap? Because the nine-speed transmission fitted to the car from Stuttgart makes one more upshift. Since the observed fuel economy of either car would make champagne corks pop in OPEC circles, let’s just say that both cars can drink you under the table.

Both test cars were also fitted with optional carbon ceramic brakes, which are pointless on the road. Especially in autumn and winter, they rarely operate in the desired temperature window, and performance in the rain tends to be poorer than standard brakes, as low initial bite is typically followed by sudden and extreme deceleration. Chafing and squealing noises can also be an issue. On the circuit however, the composite stoppers are a major boon to driver confidence. It’s not only the absolute stopping power that makes a big difference but the absolutely constant pedal pressure and travel, the complete absence of brake fade.

The latest E63 S is a very fine piece of kit, but in certain areas it is not quite as well-honed as the new M5. Take the steering, for example. The M5’s variable-effort rack operates with commendable precision and response. Steering angle and steering effort work in total harmony, even when you start changing through Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus modes. The E63’s steering feels meaty and switched-on, but the self-centering force is somewhat exaggerated, and it takes a more conscious effort to dial in lock. Wind on more, and the feedback starts to blur just a touch. In a nutshell, the AMG engineers, the software specialists, and the suppliers came up with a 110 percent solution that is, in certain situations, too clever for its own good. The steering of the M5 is more linear, and its response has more depth. Advantage: BMW, but not by much.

When the time comes to write the check, you may be surprised to find out that these pod-mates are less than two grand apart to start. Although the standard equipment leaves little to be desired, the option list is in both cases almost as long as the local white pages. Paint, trim, and seats alone can add a five-figure sum. While the BMW dealer will charge extra for the driver’s package which lifts the electronically controlled maximum speed to 191 mph, the AMG does 188 mph free of charge.

In more ways than one, these are two less-would-be-more cars. That’s less as in: less distraction, less complexity, less choice. The E63 S is crammed to the headliner with features—some nice to have, some thinly disguised gimmicks. The M5 tries to generate revenues and reputation by boasting assistance systems which allow you to take the hands off the wheel, however briefly, at up to 130 mph. If there’s a surefire way to trigger a heart attack behind the wheel, this must be it. There is little doubt that the best days of Comand and iDrive are over, but it’s only the BMW that wraps up the two preferred dynamic configurations and lets you tap them at will via the red M1 and M2 steering-wheel buttons. Add in decent voice control, and you have everything it takes to be fast and safe. The E63 S features Dynamic Select, a choice of automatic and manual modes, and a direct-access damper adjustment, but the corresponding controls are not particularly intuitive to use.

Decisions, decisions. Both of these hopped-up four-seaters are very good cars. That’s good as in fast, entertaining, and communicative. Yet the humble exhaust-mode button is the fundamental difference between the cars in microcosm: Hit it in the E63 S, and the tone changes from Tarzan to King-Kong; hit it in the M5, and you’re greeted with greater peace and quiet.

Although the M5 is the new kid on the block, the defending champion AMG puts up a hard fight. And it has a lot going for it, like mean looks and a brutal growl, a more excessive way of addressing all things dynamic, and the fact that it is also available as a wagon. The E63 S is about as rough and raw as the subbrand wants to go. In contrast, the M5 looks less butch and is less butch. It comes across as the more refined machine, sweeter at the limit, always tactile and composed, a tad more compliant, pleasantly relaxed at five tenths yet totally switched on when it really matters. It wins, if only by a head.

2018 BMW M5 Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $103,595 (base)
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
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
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
WHEELBASE 117.4 in
WEIGHT 4,255 lb
0-60 MPH 3.1 sec
TOP SPEED 155 mph (189 mph w/M Driver’s Package)

 

2018 Mercedes-AMG E63 S Specifications

PRICE $105,395 (base)
ENGINE 4.0L DOHC 32-valve twin-turbo V-8/603 hp @ 5,750 rpm, 627 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 9-speed multi-clutch automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 23/29 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 196.4 x 75.1 x 56.6 in
WHEELBASE 115.7 in
WEIGHT 4,515 lb
0-60 MPH 3.3 sec
TOP SPEED 186 mph

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