Los Angeles Gerhard Richter, the development chief of BMW's M division, practically gnashed his teeth in frustration when he told us last spring that the BMW M5 would be made available with a six-speed manual transmission in 2007. He knew that rabid BMW purists in America had forced the M division to make the six-speed available as a no-cost option for the U.S. version, even though this transmission makes the M5 slower than the car with the standard, seven-speed, electrohydraulic-activated, sequential-manual gearbox (SMG).
And Richter is right: the M5 is slower and even clumsier with a conventional six-speed manual gearbox and a clutch pedal. But the six-speed M5 is also better to drive in almost every way.
When you stab the clutch, pull the lever, and hit the gas, you get what you want, when you want it. The predictable sequence of events gives you confidence, unlike the annoying electronic delay as the SMG thinks to itself and then makes its move. Surprisingly, the six-speed's clutch action is as light as you'll find in a BMW 3-series, despite the burden of coping with the M5's fire-breathing, 500-hp, 5.0-liter V-10. And the action of the ZF-built six-speed's long-throw shift linkage is equally light, although the gear engagement is notchy in that characteristic BMW way. In giving us the six-speed manual, however, BMW took away the ability to fully disable the stability control system. Many enthusiasts will find that unacceptable, and there will be no Ford Shelby GT500-style smoky burnouts at stoplights.
The M5 is a fearfully intimidating machine, and we've found that the SMG transmission (eleven shift modes and all) makes you feel like a victim of speed, not its master. With the six-speed, you become more confident that you can sort out this bastard, even if the stopwatch ticks away while you do.
Herr Richter, a sport sedan might be about speed, but it's also about command and control.