BY AARON ROBINSON
Quicker? Yes. More sophisticated? Yes. More fun in a hairpin? Yes. Is the new BMW M5 what we’re accustomed to expect from BMW’s M division? Um, well, as we discovered during a session in southern Spain, the future of M is big, blustery, red-hot, torque-gushing turbos fitted to smaller engines with mass-production roots. The days of bespoke, high-revving track-bred screamers under the hoods of hopped-up BMWs are probably over. Is this a bad thing? We’re not sure yet.
This fifth-generation M5, known internally as the F10, is due to arrive in the U.S. late next summer, likely as a 2013 model, and at an expected base price of around $90,000. BMW wants this M5 to be more flexible and everyday drivable. So those hoping for a twitchier, more involving adrenaline-generator than the outgoing E60 M5 may go away disappointed. The M5 remains unapologetically a heavyweight, an executive express, a velvet-wrapped hammer, a shark in whale’s clothes that should bolt its comfortably well-off owner to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds or so, roughly a half-second quicker than the old M5 with the SMG single-clutch automated manual. It might not be a four-door Elise, but this new M5 can scoot.
We further estimate that the M5 will rocket over a quarter-mile of pavement in a hair over 12 seconds when using the automatic gearbox’s launch-control system, which shaves a little time by dropping the clutch at around 3000 rpm and shifting for you. Radially mounted six-piston front monoblock Brembo calipers on drilled bi-metal rotors with iron discs and aluminum hats scrub speed quickly, although the M5 is saddled with a couple hundred more pounds than before. (Despite employing aluminum doors and an aluminum hood, the new M5’s mass creeps to 4300 pounds or so.) So it may not eclipse its predecessor’s 158-foot 70-mph-to-0 braking figure.
Hydraulic Steering is Better, but Not Perfect
As is the M way, all that performance is disguised by rather understated mods to the basic 5-series, including squarer front and rear fascias, the requisite four tailpipes, new sill skirts, a trunk wing, fender vents, and special 19-inch wheels (20s are optional). Inside, there are a thousand buttons and dancing needles and digital readouts, including a head-up display projected on the windshield that disappears if you wear polarized sunglasses. Upholstery is a sea of stitched leather, and the rest is soft-touch plastic accented by an unusual band of vertical-striped metal trim that recalls the corrugated roof of a Quonset hut.
In the new M5, you cannot select a gear, push a pedal, or turn the wheel without assistance from the many watchful computers monitoring your every bodily twitch. BMW goes to lengths to make the electronic layer between you and the machine transparent, or at least subject to an off button, and they are largely successful. But a slight fog of artificiality remains, especially in the steering, converted from electric assist in the base 5-series models to a more natural-feeling hydraulic boost in the M5.
Smokes If You Got ’Em
Thanks to the M5’s sharper camber and caster settings, the helm quickly executes your commands and does everything you could desire—everything, that is, except talk back with those little organic tugs and sags that make lively cars feel, well, alive. But the suspension of forged control arms, links, and knuckles, which share virtually no part numbers with the current 550i’s, is more neutral than the old M5’s and more easily and progressively throttle-steered through corners. It may be heavier, but the new M5 felt lighter on its feet at the 3.4-mile Ascari circuit south of Seville, pea-shooting from corner to corner with blazing power, turning in smartly without noticeable roll in the body or squish-down in the tires, and then oozing out in one long, lurid, and controllable drift.
Along with three driver-selectable stability-control modes, three settings for throttle response, three firmness levels for the shocks, and three shift-speed options, the have-it-your-way M5 offers you three steering modes, which progressively reduce boost. With Mercedes improving its game in this department, especially on the new CLS, we think Benz and BMW are going to meet in a middle that feels an awful lot like the new M5.
Power delivery from the 560-hp, 4360-cc twin-turbo V-8—yes, 560 horses from only 266 cubic inches!—is a blast, literally, from about 1500 rpm to 6000, during which the two Honeywell turbines nestled into the valley of the engine block blow their strongest breezes. There’s so much torque steaming aft that even with an electronically locked clutch-plate differential and larger 295/35 Michelin Pilot SuperSport rear tires, the back end easily breaks grip from a standstill under wide-open acceleration.
The tach needle will swing all the way to 7200 before it hits red, but it doesn’t need to. The stated reason for the 4.4’s lofty redline is track lappers who may want to hold gears longer, but we suspect the real reason is to pay tribute to M’s heritage of lofty top ends: The old E60’s V-10 spun to 8250. In this engine, Elvis pretty much leaves the building at 6000 rpm, and he shuffles out quietly, as the engine’s fierce guttural blat is heavily muffled by the turbos.
Manual Transmission in Limbo?
Dubbed the S63 TU for “technical update,” the oddly configured “reverse flow” V-8—in which the intake manifolds feed from the outside and the exhaust exits into the vee—has large and small changes from the S63 in the BMW X5 M and X6 M. The basics remain the same, but BMW’s throttle-less Valvetronic induction control is deployed on the S63 TU, as are larger turbos and intercoolers, different injectors and control electronics, and a higher compression ratio of 10.0:1.
The power delivery is—dare we say it—almost diesel-like. Sure, it revs faster and sounds a lot better than any diesel, and the delivery is lumpier as the boost comes on or blows off, but the S63 TU’s 502 lb-ft reach full force just off idle at 1500 rpm and stay until 5750 rpm, figures that would make Herr Diesel blush. The Getrag seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, a reinforced version of the M3’s optional unit, is geared tall, with a double overdrive and a 3.15:1 final drive, both to save fuel and to take advantage of the engine’s power curve, or relative lack of curve, as it were. We’ve been told that the U.S. will again get a six-speed stick-shift manual, but officials at our drive weren’t willing to confirm the plan.
“There are days you can hear it clear across the Atlantic Ocean: ‘We need a manual transmission!’ ” says Albert Biermann, vice president of engineering for BMW’s M division. “Some days the guys in Munich hear it, some days not.” Solution: scream louder.
One thing BMW did hear were the complaints about the E60’s small fuel tank. The F10’s holds an additional 2.6 gallons, or 21.1 in total. When EPA testing is completed next year, average mileage could land somewhere in the low 20s, we’re told, a substantial gain over the old M5 automatic, which was rated at 11 mpg city/17 highway.
The M5 is a quantifiably superior car to its predecessor. Some things can’t be quantified, however, such as the sublime joy of a sky-high redline and the sound of an expensive precision instrument winding up to reach it. And therein lies BMW’s conundrum, and ours. We’re all for more-efficient, more-powerful torque monsters, but perhaps not at the expense of personality.