We're at Frstenfeldbruck airfield, a stone's throw from the famous Munich Hofbrauhaus. We're number three in a row of silver M5s, waiting to try out launch control, one of the many techno toys on BMW's latest bersedan. To get into LC mode, you need to select S for sequential, dial in the fastest of six shift speeds, deactivate stability control, push the shift lever forward, and hold it there. Now floor the throttle, wait until the tach needle hovers around 4000 rpm, release the lever, and brace yourself for a stunning launch. The BMW lifts its nose, squats on its haunches, and spins the rear tires in a relatively controlled mix of grip and blue-gray smoke. Before you can breathe out, the computer whips into second gear at 8250 rpm sharp, then third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh. That's right: seventh. This is the first car in the world to have a sequential manual transmission with seven forward ratios. About two-thirds of the way down the airstrip, the M5 closes us down at an indicated 168 mph. Although it could exceed 190 mph easily, BMW decided to stick to the German industry's voluntary restriction of 155 mph, although the speedometer reads a bit optimistically.
Against the stopwatch, the 500-horsepower M5 is in the same league as the Audi RS6 and the Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG, because the makers of all three quote a 0-to-62-mph time of 4.7 seconds, and all three bump up against the limiter at 155 mph. But the BMW is different, because it involves you and feels as if it was built by people with passion. Putting the M5 through its paces is a spine-tingling and pupil-widening experience. This is a high-performance five-seater that can be fine-tuned to meet individual preferences and driving styles. The new M5 invites you to calibrate the engine, transmission, steering, traction control, and damper characteristics. The 5.0-liter V-10 offers three performance programs: P400, P500, and P500 S, denoting 400, 500, and 500 horsepower in sync with an ultrasharp throttle action. The transmission wants to be told whether to operate in sequential or automatic mode and at which shift speed. The Servotronic steering can be quick or very quick. Stability control can be fully active at all times, set to allow a certain amount of tire slip, or switched off altogether. The EDC (electronic damping control) button chooses among three levels of suspension tautness: comfortable, normal, and sporty.
The only bad news is that you access the systems via iDrive, the onboard mouse that will turn into a poisoned rat following a wrong twist or push. Although most options are individually accessible via buttons in the center console, P500S, Servotronic S, and dynamic traction control require deep dives into various submenus. Alternatively, you can store a feature on the star button in the multifunctional steering wheel. Right above it is the even more significant M button. Push it, and the power output automatically jumps to 500 horsepower, the skid control system (DSC) switches to M Dynamic Mode (MDM), EDC stiffens up the dampers, and Drivelogic sets your preferred shift speed. Then you can forget all the confusing secondary controls and concentrate on what matters: driving the socks off this truly awesome fourth-generation M5.
Although it looks like a 545i on steroids, the M5 is plenty different beneath its gung-ho skin. Vogueish innovations such as active steering, Dynamic Drive, ceramic disc brakes, and run-flat tires are absent. The two-stage Servotronic steering seems more involving than the Active Steering fitted to the regular 5-series and can be either relaxed and nicely weighted or immediate and very precise. In both modes, the power assistance is determined in relation to engine and road speed. Through the cones, this relatively conventional rack-and-pinion device is more fluent and better balanced overall, feels more positive and less artificial, and is beautifully progressive in terms of gearing and effort. We did not really miss Dynamic Drive, either. In the comfort setting, EDC occasionally struggles to keep body movements in check, but the tauter the damping, the flatter the cornering attitude, the more stable the chosen line, and the more immediate the feedback.