Dr Jekyll meets Mr Hyde
The new BMW M5 is a truly schizophrenic car. In a nice way. After all, with 600 horsepower, who wouldn’t be crazy?
Muhammad Ali once famously said that he would “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Unfortunately, on a cold morning around the Estoril racetrack, outside Lisbon, Portugal, I got stung first. The latest iteration of BMW’s super sedan, the M5, is a vehicle that makes the term “wolf in sheep’s clothing” a truism. It is a direct product of the horsepower wars between the German car giants, and even though the previous afternoon we had driven the other bookend to BMW’s performance car lineup, the electric i3s, which are a vision of the future, the new M5, based on the latest G30 generation of the 5-series, is a vision of the present. Packed with 600 horsepower, seriously, absorb that number for a second, six hundred horsepower. I have driven very fast and very powerful cars, but never something so brutal, yet so comfortable.
Around Estoril, one of the classic racetracks in the world, the M5 was brutal. The new car has so much power that BMW’s mad engineers in the ‘M’ division finally relented and made the M5 an all-wheel drive car. However, there exist two “MDM” switches on the steering wheel, which stand for “M Driving Mode.” The first MDM1 makes the car sporty by making everything just that little sharper but retains the four-wheel drive aspect. The second mode, MDM2, should be called the “MAD” switch, as it limits traction control and makes the M5 a primarily rear-wheel drive car. To ensure that you do not turn it on accidentally, BMW makes you confirm the input with a second tap.
That said, even on MDM1, the tight turns of Estoril, which is far narrower and tighter than modern F1 tracks, the M5 can be a handful, particularly in the hands of an amatuer like me. But with so much computing power analysing every single input that you make and the levels of grip on the car, it is almost impossible to take the M5 anywhere near the edge of its performance envelope. Sure, there were a couple of times I managed to get the tail to wag a little bit, more because I’m not the best racetrack driver rather than a deliberate move, but even then, there was no soiling my underwear moment.
While the MDM2 button does make the car a lot looser, think of it like an average person after two glasses of wine, it is just two glasses of wine and not two bottles. The tight sequence of corners 9,10,11 and 12 caught me out and I did go sideways, but given the massive amounts of grip from the Pirelli tyres, I was nowhere near the gravel. Unlike an older M5, which would have almost certainly spun me around, the new one just shrugged off the incompetence of the person behind the steering, me. But because, even in the “MAD” settings, this car is so forgiving that despite sweating at the end of six laps, I was never uncomfortable. My Fitbit heart rate tracker showed that my heart rate peaked at around 130 beats per minute. I do track this quite regularly and my heart rate has never been higher than driving in the higher numbered sectors of Noida.
Later, we went around a spin with the M5 on the beautiful hill roads and highways around the towns of Cascais and Sintra. The narrow roads that wind up and down the hillsides were a breeze in this car. The acceleration on the new M5 is utterly brutal, you have to keep an eye on the speedometer because you will exceed the highway speed limit of 120 km per hour in just over five seconds. For the record, the new M5 can theoretically exceed 300 km per hour (I touched 275ish on the racetrack) and hit 100 km per hour in under four seconds and hit 200 km per hour in 11 seconds. But when you put your right foot down to the floor you are ensconced in a luxurious leather, listening to, in my case, Pink Floyd on an excellent Bowers & Wilkins audio system. I was partnered with noted auto journalist Hormazd Sorabjee, who took the turns hard, but it was comfortable, there was never the fear of getting car-sick, let alone ever worry about falling into the Atlantic.
Every once in a while, if you took a corner hard, when you knew there was no oncoming traffic, the new M5 rewarded you with a little itsy-bitsy wag of its tail. Just enough slip, to remind you that you’re driving something stupendous. But while on the racetrack you might get close to the limits of this car, on public roads even you drive like a hoon with no regard for anyone else, you will not get to the limits of this car. I loved it to bits, but not as much as another M5 I drove.
You see, BMW had decided to be very nice to us “motor noters” and brought along all five previous generations of the M5. After all, the Bavarians had invented the concept of a “super sedan” when they mated a lot of power into a regular executive sedan. The very first M5 was on the second-generation 5-series, the E28, and sitting inside that car was like a time warp — the negligible A-pillars, the thin steering wheel, very thin compared to the modern cars muscular steering wheel, no electric seats, no steering mounted controls and a regular, plain-Jane five speed manual gearbox. Around the hills of the central Portuguese Atlantic coast, the E28 M5 was a skittish car because it was 30 years old. But what a joy it was to drive, even though it had less than half the power of the modern car. Primarily because you knew you had to be careful, not just because this was a priceless classic, but because you knew any mistake and that would be it. There was no supercomputer running things underneath. In a modern-day hatchback, the tyre-pressure sensor would have more computing power than this car. I also drove the second-generation E34 M5, spent far too much time on the 400 horsepower E39 M5 with its superbly responsive recirculating ball steering system as well as the 500 horsepower V10 equipped E60 M5 (the one designed by Chris Bangle), the last naturally aspirated BMW M5 with its odd-firing sequence.
These were all fine cars and great fun to drive but the new M5 is a product of its time. Yes, it is overpowered, but so is the Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG now, and the next-generation Audi RS7. The average driver, and most people who buy these cars are average drivers, just a lot richer than you or me, will never need so much power. But they will always know that they can call upon fire and brimstone if they want. Lord only knows if there will be another petrol-powered M5 given the inexorable shift to electric mobility, even by BMW, but this is a great way to bow out.
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