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km : First Drive

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13 October 2011

“Dude, you missed some crazy driving this afternoon. This thing could barely hold onto the road!” Four flights and twenty-four hours after leaving Chicago, I arrived in Spain, jet-lagged and frustrated. It wasn’t supposed to be this way; like all my other colleagues, I was scheduled to arrive by mid-day to spend a little get-to-know-you time with BMW’s latest ‘bahn-burner, the 2012 M5. But the travel gods had cursed me on my very first leg and sent me through the first four rings of Hell — Chicago, Newark, Lisbon and Madrid — before I eventually arrived in Seville. While the others reviled in the day’s heroics on the olive-oil-slicked and dust-coated Andalusian roads, I just tried to gather my sense of place and time over a cool glass of the local sherry.



I had missed the first day of driving, which my colleagues assured me was among the most treacherous they’d experienced on dry, warm asphalt in a long time. The culprit wasn’t so much the roads — admittedly slicker than most, they’re hardly impassible — as the raw, instantaneous surge of torque laid down upon them by Munich’s newest power-sled. M5s of the past have always dealt their healthy output in a linear march to the far side of the tach; but that was then. We’re entering a new age now, the age of turbocharged Ms, and that means a groundswell of thrust on a moment’s notice, from engine speeds just above idle. That’s the real reason everyone was having a hard time staying between the lines.



V8 + 2 Turbos > V10



The essential formula for the M5 has always been to start with the basic 5-series form and give it the most powerful engine possible, — preferably hijacked from the current motorsport program — balanced with a more athletic chassis and just enough visual drama to sell the effect. The last M5 was a prime example, its V10 inspired by BMW’s contemporary Formula 1 effort back when it debuted in 2006. Getting the most from that engine required using the full sweep of the tachometer. Redline was at 8250 rpm, though it produced its peak of 500 horsepower at 7750 revs; torque was a scant 383 lb-ft at the lofty speed of 6100 rpm. Linear though it was, the high-revving temperament of that engine made it virtually impossible to enjoy on the streets without feeling like a criminal. Or a social deviant, at the very least.



We could see the writing on the wall with this motor, starting with the debuts of the X5M and X6M, which both eschewed the naturally aspirated V10 for a V8 and a pair of turbos. Smaller displacement and forced breathing mean less weight and more efficiency, especially for the 90-plus percent of the time most of us aren’t flat-footing it from stoplight to stoplight.



For the new M5, BMW set out to make “two cars in one,” a message we started hearing as early as last summer when we spoke with Dr. Kay Segler, then in charge of BMW’s M division. A more civilized daily attitude was part of the equation from the outset, but with definite Jekyll-and-Hyde potential in reserve.



And so the F1-derived V10, with its menacing full-tilt howl and 8250-rpm redline, has been put to rest, a victim of legislative realities (lower emissions and higher efficiency mandates) more so than its fickle power band. In its place the new M5 uses a 4.4-liter V8 (designated S63TU)with a pair of turbos tucked in the valley between the cylinder heads — atop the engine instead of below it — just as on the X5M/X6M WünderTwins, cranking out 560 horsepower from 6000 to 7000 rpm and 502 lb-ft of torque across an even wider plateau from 1500 to 5750 rpm. Paired with the standard seven-speed M-DCT gearbox (a six-speed manual will be offered when the car arrives Stateside next August), the 4279-pound sedan catapults to 60 mph in just 4.2 seconds. These figures flat-out obliterate those of the former M5. And so should the fuel economy when it’s finalized; BMW figures a 30 percent gain compared to before, enough to pull the M5 out of the Gas Guzzler bracket.



Team M unloaded what amounts to BMW’s entire arsenal of engine technology to make this all possible. Lightweight, low-friction block construction — check. Direct injection — check. Intercooled twin-scroll turbochargers — check. Variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust — check. Hell, they even broke with tradition and ditched those old, inefficient individual throttle bodies (sacrilege!) in favor of Valvetronic-controlled breathing. The lubrication system has been beefed up to deal with extreme lateral loads, with an extra return pump for the wet-sump setup. A pair of electric water pumps handles the cooling system, with a cool-down cycle to bring temps down steadily, even after the engine has been shut down. This engine may not be homologated for competition, but certainly all the wizardry it employs is the direct result of an active motorsport development program.



Velocity = Force x Vector



Converting all this technical goodness into asphalt-shredding mechanical work demands a stout driveline, and here again the boys in Munich (well, Garching, technically) pulled out all the stops. Power goes exclusively to the rear axle of the M5, which features an active differential to manage the cannon-shot of thrust coming from the engine. With input from stability control, throttle and steering sensors, the active diff can actually pre-lock the two half-shafts together before the torque tsunami arrives to deliver maximum power to the rear tires.



The intermediary is the seven-speed M-DCT transmission, the only self-shifting ‘box in the BMW inventory capable of handling the turbocharged V8’s torque. It’s an incredibly good transmission, with lightning-quick shifting and a clutch action that can be either smooth and seamless like an automatic or brutally direct and grabby like a true race clutch, minus the sore left leg. Paddle shifters let the driver do his own decision making, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where he’ll do better than the car. The DCT is so good, such an ideal match for the character of the M5, that we wonder how a six-speed manual could possibly be more fun. It’s admirable that BMW will still offer that option, but the rational decision is to stick to the two-pedal setup, for so many reasons.



M Drive x 2 = JOY2



The concept of two cars in one isn’t entirely new to this M5. Its predecessor introduced M Drive system, giving the driver the ability to alter such parameters as throttle response, shifting speed, traction aids and suspension firmness electronically to his personal taste and current conditions, as well as to pre-program a singular setup as his ultimate state of tune, called upon by pressing the otherwise inconspicuous “M” button on the steering wheel. If one M button is good, two must be better, as the new M5 now sports a pair of them inside its thick, leather-wrapped rim. By doubling up, two different drivers could each own a setting, or, perhaps more likely, the primary driver can set up, say, a street setting and a track setting.



The suspension setup is essentially the same as that of a standard 5-series, but with revised geometry. Electronically controlled dampers, as featured on other recent BMW models, allow for a very comfortable ride in the softest setting, or an exceptionally stiff chassis on the other end of the range. Steering is likewise tuned via electrons, with M-tuned speed-variable hydraulic power steering. Big brakes are required to keep 560 horses reined in, and the M5 makes do just fine with gigantic (15.7-inch front and 15.6-inch rear) compound rotors bitten by bespoke six-piston Brembos at the front and single-piston calipers in back. Sticky, M5-specific Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires measure 265/40 and 295/35, respectively, on nine-inch-wide 19s all around.



Style = X Factor



Since BMW has always let the M5’s performance do the talking, its styling has always been more functional than pretentious. The new M5 upholds this long-standing tradition, adding just enough muscle to conceal and aid the upgraded mechanicals. A unique front bumper with revised lower ductwork and aprons makes for a more menacing face than a standard 5er, and the foglights have been deleted to allow for improved airflow to vital cooling components. The front fenders feature the now-signature M gills with functional air intake ducts, and deeper side skirts lead to a deeper rear bumper with two pairs of twin exhaust pipes poking through the lower valance. A slim spoiler rests on the trailing edge of the trunklid, adding necessary downforce at high speeds.



Inside, the styling treatment is similarly modest, with only a handful of major changes to the otherwise well-equipped 5-series cockpit. Unique sport seats are the major highlight, though M-branded door sill plates, pedal covers, gauge faces, shift knob and steering wheel serve as constant reminders that this is not your wife’s 535i. A head-up display is standard on the M5, and it features such boy-racer-oriented trickery as a multi-color tach graphic and shift light. In place of wood, the M5 features its own specially patterned aluminum dash trim, resembling perforated metal from a distance and adding to the racy ambiance inside.



All these changes, both inside and out, are subtle individually, but add up to a seriously more athletic looking performance sedan. It doesn’t so much scream for attention as it commands respect. Those in the know will know, and that’s all that really matters.



But Does it Compute?



The first M5 really cemented BMW’s identity as the Ultimate Driving Machine, and every generation since has had to live up to that standard. There’s no doubt the new M5 packs a ton of performance and a boatload of technology. But while specs on paper mean a lot of things to a lot of people, for us it’s all about the actual seat-of-the-pants driving feel.



The strength of the M5’s twin-turbo V8 is undeniable; quite simply, there has never been another M engine with so much power and torque available across such a wide range of engine speeds. Use of the right pedal constitutes possession of a deadly weapon, as it seeks to destroy when pressed hard. Even at the spotless Ascari racetrack, the private motorsport playground in Spain where BMW turned us loose on day two, the M5’s rear tires clawed to break free from the restraints of friction coming out of every corner with the throttle down. It’s damn fast. Period.



Dynamically, the new M5 is a far cry from the analog simplicity of the original 1988 M5, which we recently rediscovered on the Pacifc Coast Highway in a practically virgin 16,000-mile museum example. The overall tuning of the chassis is ideally suited to BMW’s stated mission of being two cars in one, handling day-to-day exploits with serenity and yet still managing to be entertaining at the track. Poor cornering decisions can still be met with understeer, though proper setup rewards more often than not with a very neutral attitude. And as you can imagine, with the traction devices on lockdown, it’s no problem at all to make the rear end step out.



All of the electronics do make their presence felt, however. There’s a thin layer of latency between the inputs and the reactions at the steering and in the suspension, but not nearly to the extent that we’ve experienced in the physics-defying X5M and X6M, which feel more video game-like at the limits. The upside is that the M5 can be driven safely at very high speeds with all of the handling aids in effect, and a driver can gradually peel back the helpers as his skills and/or comfort level grows. The downside is that a highly skilled driver will never feel like he’s in total control, no matter how many buttons he pushes. But then again, that’s what sports cars are for, and few sports cars can even come close to the M5’s level of daily-use comfort and practicality.



The new M5 is on sale this fall in Europe, but America will have to wait until the end of next summer to experience it as a 2013 model. By then, the six-speed manual should be ready, and it’s likely BMW will offer its first-ever carbon ceramic brakes option then as well.


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