It's 11:41 pm and I've just returned from dinner with BMW executives after spending 125 miles behind the wheel of the new M5. I have nineteen minutes until my midnight deadline for this story, so what you're going to get is whatever I can type in the next couple of minutes.
First thing's first: the M5 uses a hydraulic steering rack. No fancy active steering, and no electric assist. What does that mean? Well, driving down the cobblestone driveway of our Spanish hotel, I let out a big "it's alliiiiiiiiive!" Steering feel, even at 10 mph, is alive and well in the M5 - which is in distinct contrast to the rest of the 5-series lineup. BMW, I don't care about the 0.001 mpg saved by switching to electric power assist: clearly, this is the right solution. Bring back hydraulic steering on all 5- and 7-series, please.
Better yet, the steering is adjustable to three levels of weight: Comfort, which feels like a normal M product, Sport which is slightly heavier than, say, an M3, and is just plain perfect, and Sport Plus, which makes the steering wheel feel like it's attached to a bowl of split pea soup. It's way too heavy, and I say this not because I'm a weakling, but because the effort is so high but the self-centering tendency isn't: let go of the wheel around a corner and the car keeps turning. It feels unnatural.
The suspension, too, is adjustable in three settings. Comfort is stiff but comfortable, Sport is slightly stiffer, and Sport Plus should only be used by trained chiropractors. It's actually not that bad (on the standard nineteen-inch wheels) but it does come across as unnecessarily harsh. Hey, if you like that kind of thing, go for it. I'm fine with Comfort -- it does everything it needs to without beating you up.
The third adjustment is throttle response, and there are also three modes. Pick which one you like.
The engine, code S63TU B44, is an evolution of the 4.4-liter V-8 S63B44 that debuted in the X5M and X6M. The biggest change, philosophically, is the addition of Valvetronic, which, you'll remember, is BMW's infinitely variable intake valve lift system that eliminates the need for a conventional throttle. This is especially interesting, since M's trademark was always to have individual throttle butterflies for each cylinder. As BMW's brilliant American PR team points out, having Valvetronic on the sixteen intake valves is like having sixteen throttles. Kinda true.
The V-8 also wears two turbos, like before, but revisions to the intake allow higher flow. That, combined inexplicably with higher boost pressure (1.8 bar instead of 1.5) result in no significant power boost: the M5's S53TU makes 560 hp and 500 lb-ft of torque. (Those are provisional numbers; final U.S. tuning hasn't been done yet.) That's five more horses than the non-Valvetronic motor. Or less than one percent more.
The only transmission for us to drive today was the European-specification seven-speed twin-clutch automated manual. An engineer did confirm that a conventional six-speed manual will be available for the U.S. market when the M5 goes on sale in the summer of 2012. It's an existing transmission that's been beefed up for the M5's gargantuan torque. The twin-clutch auto tranny is exclusive to the M5 and it's a good one. Shifts are immediate, and depending on which mode you're in (there are three each for automatic and manual), they're either silky smooth or outrageously harsh. Or in between.
Helping put that power to the ground is a new electronically controlled locking rear differential that can steplessly vary lockup between fully open and fully locked. Strangely, the X6 M's torque-vectoring differential didn't make it into this application. I'll try to find out why. But suffice it to say that you feel the diff in a number of ways: one, no inside wheelspin, ever. Two, you feel the rear of the car shuffling around looking for traction. I love that feeling.
(Uh oh, 9 minutes left.)
How's it drive? Well it goes like stink, that's for sure. It feels even faster than the factory's quoted 4.4-second 0-to-62-mph time, but that number is clearly very traction-limited. On Southern Spain's slippery roads, the M5 easily roasts its tires in first and second and third and sometimes fourth - and it sure feels like the engine computer doesn't even bother to allow full boost in first gear. It'd be pointless anyway. It's very, very fast.
Thanks to the ingenius exhaust port routing from the regular S63 (for details see) the F10 M5 doesn't sound like a normal, burbly, cross-plane-crankshaft V-8. The exhaust note is similar to that of a flat-plane V-8, or a four-cylinder. That means no lope, but a lot of boom at very low (2000 and fewer) revs, and a staggering bark under load. It sounds incredible, especially at startup or at full throttle.
Inside the car, it's a different matter. The engine is quiet and refined, especially when you're off the gas and the exhaust noise subsides. Under full throttle, you're treated to some of the V-8's staccato intake music. Strange music, that is -- it almost sounds like the last M5's V-10.
Which is really, really strange.
Here's something you'll be shocked to learn: when I unplugged the factory stereo amplifier, the engine's note inside the car changed considerably. It was all but inaudible over two grand, becoming more audible but distant as the revs increased. Somebody call the "Ultimate Driving Machine" police: BMW is actually using the car stereo speakers to pipe in engine music? Hmm.
Eh, whatever, so what, the M5 sounds awesome inside or out. The steering is probably the best of any M5 yet (overall, the E60 M5 left us cold, and as much as we loved the E39, that M5's steering used a recirculating ball setup. It was good, but the F10 M5's rack and pinion system is more communicative.)
The biggest disappointment with the M5 is turbo lag. Yeah, yeah, how typical that I'm complaining about a turbocharged M5. Actually, I'm not complaining about the fact that the M5 wears turbos: I'm complaining that the S63TU engine has so much more lag than the non-Valvetronic S63 did. In that silly X6M (and the slightly less silly X5M), the turbos were among the most responsive I've ever experienced. Not so in the M5 - the lag is significant enough that you have to drive around it.
And it seems that M's engineers aren't fully using their arsenal of tools (Valvetronic, Double VANOS, direct injection) to mitigate lag. Case in point, drive at highway speeds, and the transmission is in seventh gear. Floor the throttle and you get a fairly quick downshift into third: revs in the top half of the tach, all is well. The problem is that there's no boost, so you get a clutch engagement, followed by no power for a second, followed by massive thrust. Boost should have been built by the time the downshift was done. VW does it and has been doing so for years. What gives?
Oh, and remember: a full second of lag is one thing in a slow car, but think of the opportunity cost in a car like this! A second of lag is means you've missed out on probably some 15 extra mph. Seems like a small problem, but it got old very quickly when trying to pass slower traffic on country roads.
The M5 has a standard start/stop system, and it works flawlessly. The engine is vocal enough that you really notice it turning off, but it starts immediately the second you start pulling your foot off the brake pedal. We've seen some claims from BMW that the new car is a full thirty percent more efficient than its predecessor, but later documents tone that down a bit. EPA numbers probably won't be out until this summer. It's safe to say the 4.4-liter V-8 will use less fuel overall than the outgoing 5.0-liter V-10, but how much of a savings will certainly depend on how hard you drive it.
For the record, I got 10.8 mpg, which is not bad at all considering how I drove. Which was like a jerk, obviously. Don't look at me like that you would have done the same!
Speaking of that kind of driving, I'll be on track tomorrow, and will be able to report more about what the M5 does on grippy surfaces. I can say that once you hit moderate speeds, this M5 is delightfully neutral, and will happily exit any corner butt-first should you ask it to. The long wheelbase makes drifts slow and controlled, and the brilliant steering reduces your stress factor to zero.
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There's a bit of lost isolation in the rear of the M5 compared to the regular 5-series: the subframes are rigidly attached to the body, which means you hear the differential working, and the ride is a bit more gritty. Bad thing? Not to me. This is an M5, if you want super refinement you can buy a 550i. And the whole point of an M5 is skirting along the compromise of packing sports car moves into a luxury sedan body.
And in that sense, this M5 is a far better M5 than the last one (which was always a bit too high-strung and sterile for its own good.) It's got almost all of the refinement of the current 5-series, all of the tech features, gorgeous styling, and elegant interior. And then it's got razor-sharp handling and the best steering we've seen in a 5-series in a long time, if not ever. And then it'll rip that smile off your face with outrageous acceleration. And if you're in Germany, and you buy the driver's pack, you'll be able to test out the raised 190-mph limiter. 190! In a sedan.