BMW's latest M5 is blisteringly fast and extremely well built, but Kevin Hackett still prefers the M3.
Road Test: BMW's new M5 is a powerful autobahn stormer
It wasn't all that long ago when 560hp was a power output reserved for only the most extreme racing cars, and the generally accepted interpretation of "sports saloon" was a Ford Cortina Ghia with go-faster stripes and a chrome exhaust pipe. The very thought of a family car with more firepower under its bonnet than a Porsche 911 Turbo was, frankly, preposterous. How things have changed.
The supercar doesn't really exist anymore. Lamborghini gave up referring to its models as such years ago, coining the phrase "super sports car", and it's easy to see why when you consider the power output of machines like this one, the latest BMW M5. Because it produces 560hp and sends those horses stampeding through the rear wheels while providing refinement, comfort and electrical gadgetry aplenty for five adults.
When BMW launches any new M car, expectations are justifiably high. Since the first M5 emerged in 1985, there has been a succession of models, each more powerful than the last and the army of devotees worldwide has grown ever stronger. When it was announced that the previous generation's crazy V10 engine was to give way to a twin-turbo V8, fans were nervous. Could the wild M5 be turning into a bit of a softy? No way, not even slightly. Even on paper it's completely barking mad and I should love it for that reason alone.
In the metal this fifth-generation M5 is the embodiment of understatement and only the quad exhaust pipes and some discreet M badging tell onlookers what lies before them. That said, it sits with a purposeful stance, while also maintaining an elegance about it. It's a massive improvement over the previous 5's awkward lines and is especially beguiling in this example's lovely blue paint. Inside it's all very business-like, with acres of light grey leather upholstery. The cabin design is pretty much faultless but also instantly forgettable and everything feels like it's been finely honed with no penny pinching evident anywhere. This is an expensive car, don't forget, and BMW's customers rightly expect this sort of quality.
However, the really interesting stuff is beneath the skin. The M5 tips the scales at a considerable 1,945kg, so it's never going to feel like a true sports car, but BMW's expertise in making cars for enthusiasts of the long-lost art of actual driving should make up for its weight. Run-flat tyres put in an unwelcome appearance, though, so I'm expecting my teeth to fall out at the first sign of a poor road surface, especially as the M5 is more stiffly sprung than its more mundane brethren. Naturally, there's a whole heap of electronic trickery constantly working flat-out to make sure the M5 is actually driveable by mere mortals such as myself, but the source of its formidable power is also worthy of consideration.
It's the first BMW to be fitted with the 4.4L twin-turbo V8 and it develops its full 560hp between 6,000 and 7,000rpm, with peak torque of 680Nm (30 per cent more than the previous one) sweeping in all the way from just 1,500rpm. Top speed is normally limited to 250kph, like many cars of its ilk, but there's an optional "M Driver's Package" available which raises the (still electronically limited) speed to 305kph. See, I told you the M5 is a supercar. And just in case you're wondering how it performs at the lights, 100kph from rest is available in 4.4 seconds.
So it's quicker than the outgoing model, better looking and greener to the tune of 30 per cent thanks to increased efficiency in practically every area. With these figures racing through my mind, it's time to see how it all translates into an actual driving experience.
Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. The M5's speed warning chime is a constant intruder with even the slightest flex of the right foot. It's astonishingly fast - as well it should be with only 2hp less than a Ferrari 458 Italia. The transmission is a seven-speed, dual-clutch, paddle-shift affair, and it's quite brilliant. It starts in auto mode and stays in it until you decide to take over. With a tug at either of the wheel-mounted shifters, you're driving a manual and it will hold on to every ratio until you shift again. And the way this thing gathers pace, it isn't long before you need to select the next cog.
There's a problem, however, in that the M5 really has to be driven on the ragged edge for you to feel the majesty of all this engineering. A Jaguar XFR, however, feels more compliant at more reasonable speeds and less like it wants to rip your head off when you mash the throttle. This big BMW feels big all the time, while an XFR seems to shrink around its driver and let him or her feel more at one with it.
The suspension, while more stiff than a regular 5, doesn't make for uncomfortable proceedings - far from it. In Comfort mode it's quite relaxing, so long as you've put the cruise control to work, and even Sport mode keeps things nicely refined. Sport+, however, ruins the recipe and makes the steering feel heavier but there are so many different settings for the driver to select that after just a few days in one, you can adjust it to your preferences and keep it there. I'd still prefer a car to be simpler, though, with a feeling that there are substantial pieces of engineered metal keeping me on terra firma, rather than a bank of computers.
And this, for me, is the rub with the new M5. As impressive as it is as a whole, it all feels too contrived for my tastes. BMW has undoubtedly done an amazing job of making the M5 the best car it can be, but the experience of driving it is, for me, instantly forgettable because the power is only exploitable if the electronic nannies are switched on.
Turn them off and the M5 will liquidise its rear tyres in an instant before executing you and your loved ones. An M3, on the other hand, feels more delicate, more manageable and, crucially, more fun both on the straight-ahead and through the twisties. In fact, the latest M3 is one of the few cars I've handed back in recent times that I dearly wished I could have kept - something I doubt I'll ever say about its big brother.
Base price Dh595,000
Engine 4.4L twin-turbo V8
Gearbox Seven-speed DSG
Power 560hp @ 6,000rpm
Torque 680Nm @ 1,500rpm
Fuel economy, combined 9.9L/100km