First Drive: 2018 BMW M5

ESTORIL, Portugal – Being fast was never a problem for BMW’s M5 super sport sedan. And with more power and (slightly) less weight, eye-watering speed isn’t an issue now either. What has changed greatly for the all-new 2018 BMW M5 is that it has finely polished the comfort and security side of its pricey luxury sedan equation – security at the limits of adhesion on the track, and now on the road in winter too.

On relatively fresh tires and brakes early in the session, the M5 clung to corners as if for dear life, with just a hint of body roll, its 4.4-litre V8 singing a refined yet mighty bellow right up to redline.

Yes, the ’18 M5 now comes standard with all-wheel drive, or will once this sixth generation arrives in the spring of 2018. As much as hardcore rear-wheel-drive purists may howl, there’s certainly plenty of evidence pointing to all-wheel drive as a welcome addition to what has traditionally been BMW’s sportiest sedan.

BMW Canada sells 93 percent of its vehicles equipped with all-wheel drive, said Marc Belcourt, director of corporate communications, at the M5’s launch event in and around the Estoril circuit in Portugal. The M go-fast brand already includes a number of SUVs that feature a performance-focused version of the German firm’s xDrive AWD system. It’s no coincidence that its prime market competitor, the Mercedes-AMG E63 S, has had standard all-wheel drive for many years now.

M xDrive standard, with unique rear-wheel drive mode optional

So this car clearly has one car and one car only in its sights. Okay, mostly, because the Audi RS7 is also a super powerful, all-wheel-drive German four-door performance machine that plays in roughly the same low-six-figure-ish ballpark. The 2018 M5 will start at $113,300, and will launch with an exclusive First Edition version that’ll be limited to 400 models worldwide.

What the RS7 doesn't offer but its Mercedes-AMG nemesis does is the ability to engage a fully rear-wheel drive mode. Yes, the M5 fully disconnects the front wheels from its monstrous 600 hp twin-turbo V8 engine, sending all that power back to its rear two Pirelli PZero tires, in a 2WD mode accessed by pressing and holding the stability control system button for five seconds.

From there, it’ll offer you various combinations of diminished all-wheel drive and stability control oversight, culminating in a tail-sliding, rubber-shredding, everything-off setting for maximum drifting and lurid power slides meant for the race track – perhaps ideally timed for when you’re ready to replace its low profile 285/35ZR20 rear tires, and likely the hard-counter-steered 275/35ZR20s up front as well.

BMW stresses that this mode “has been designed with the experienced and highly skilled driver in mind.” But it is also a very convincing (and expensive) response to those rear-wheel-drive purists who would scoff at BMW’s first-ever all-wheel-drive M5.

Bruno Spengler says AWD in this M5 is actually faster than RWD

That standard all-wheel drive system, its torque-converter-equipped “regular” automatic eight-speed transmission, and lack of manual transmission option may all be seen by cynics as proof that the M division has lost its hardcore enthusiast edge. Which it has, but in a good way.

See, the new M5 is quicker in its sportiest AWD setting than in its pure rear-wheel drive mode, vows Bruno Spengler, former DTM racing champion, current BMW factory German touring car and sports car racer, and who grew up near Montreal. Sitting with him over dinner the night before our day of track and on-road driving the M5, he didn’t confirm any specific lap times that were logged over his earlier days of leading the international motor press around this former F1 track, Spengler driving a multi-coloured 2018 M5 pace car in a high-speed game of “catch me if you can”.

From our seat, that is. From his seat, it was more a task of keeping us in his mirrors, whereas his fun was in showing us the possibilities of rear-drive mode in all its tail-out, smoking rubber glory.

Even with adding all-wheel drive, the M5 is still 15 kg lighter than before, at 1,855 kg, and is available with a carbon-fibre roof that saves a hefty 20 kg of weight.

Notable historical footnote: the last Formula 1 race held at this Estoril track back in 1996 was won by a Canadian, when Jacques Villeneuve took the checkered flag for Williams. The team now features another young Canadian driver, Lance Stroll, who finished 12th in the standings in 2017 as one of the youngest drivers ever in F1 after competing most of his rookie season at 18 years old, and is also from Montreal, like Spengler.

One surprising aspect I noticed while adjusting my driver’s seat for the first session was that it still felt wide and comfortable, with no bolsters digging into your back or thighs to anchor you in place for when the going gets track-y. Knowing what was in store, I actually looked in vain for more adjustable bolstering, wondering whether that was the first time I had hoped for a less comfortable seat.

Chasing Bruno in an M5 at Circuito Estoril

The BMW team had conveniently programmed two levels of performance settings into the red and highly visible M1 and M2 buttons on the steering wheel that look like bright-red pint-sized shift paddles. As we had found out in our earlier road drive, the M5 doesn’t have a simple toggle for Sport and Sport+ settings near the shifter. No, there’s an expectation that the M5 driver will want to tailor their preferred driving parameters for steering, engine response, and suspension damping, as well as exhaust and stability settings (including rear-drive mode) into one of those little red fun buttons.

So your luxurious and comfortable all-wheel-drive luxury M5 could snap right to attention and into instant racy-road-hunt mode with the push of a button, with no time-wasting or hunting through menus.

The first was a sporty but safe mode engaged with the red toggle on the left, while our next button switch was a performance algorithm built into the AWD system that allowed for a little more tail-out fun, but also kept the rear end in check. Your chosen three main performance parameters (engine, suspension, and steering) show up prominently at the top of the two digital gauges, while the electronic shifter has buttons along its side where you can finely tune how aggressive you’d like the shifts to be.

Heading out of the pits on relatively fresh tires and brakes early in the session, the M5 clung to corners as if for dear life, with just a hint of body roll, its 4.4-litre V8 singing a refined yet mighty bellow right up to redline, which came quicker than expected in a few corners because this engine is just so smooth. The paddles are eager to instantly shift up and down the gears, though it’s a shame that the head-up display doesn’t play nicely with polarized sunglasses.

You can see the speed, nav directions, radio station, and other useful info there, including a rapidly expanding redline, but you have to concentrate on it to see them, which is the kind of distraction from the road it’s supposed to address in the first place.

The M5 is not the most powerful vehicle in this super small and even exotic-challenging target market, but the 600 hp and 553 lb-ft are still massive numbers, and worthy improvements of 40 and 53, respectively. BMW says the 0–100 km/h benchmark can be toast in 3.4 seconds, while its top (track) speed is 304 km/h, if you go with the M Driver’s package, which prevents the electronic limiter from kicking in at a mere 250 km/h. Compare this to 603 hp in the 2018 Mercedes-AMG E 63 S, and 605 for the top Performance trim of the Audi RS7, and it’s clear that BMW is now in the upper echelon of exotic-baiting four-door performance machines.

On the road, the luxury sedan side of M5 shines through

But what about the aforementioned other side of the equation? With the M5 defaulting to the most relaxed of its performance settings, the first thing I noticed was how light the steering was, and relatively devoid of feel. It was as if someone had supplanted a luxury-focused Audi steering rack into this M5, and I quickly looked for a setting to firm it up – and there are two, Sport and Sport+.

Both of these add some actual road feel to the direct steering response, so although it can be programmed in for easy steering-wheel-button access, there’s no way to set it to default to a Sport setting, for example – for any parameter. BMW folks say even M5 customers prefer to be comfortable in most driving, with easy access to all its performance.

The ride is another key clue to this car’s newly enlarged luxury mission. The M5 used to be the clear sharpest of the super sedans, but the few bumps we encountered on these roads were handled with unruffled confidence. Long gone are the days of lurch-y but super quick transmissions and loud engines that clearly prioritized speed over all else. That philosophy is no more.

What we had to get used to first though was the busy electronic shifter, which doesn’t actually move down to access Drive, but across to the right: once for normal Drive, again for an overall Sport mode. Reverse is left and up, with the aforementioned separate engine, transmission, and steering icons allowing the driver to carefully fine tune their preferences to the road at hand. The shifter itself was easy to use once figured out, but seems likely to give valets or significant others at least momentary (or longer) pause.

This car is super quiet, even at 200 km/h, which is fairly common behaviour on the largest highways in Portugal, which also tend to be spectacularly curvy and scenic too – most of the crowd stays on busy but free roads, while we spent a good chunk driving on toll highways. This refinement is not a surprise, as it shares its Cluster architecture (CLAR) with the 7 Series and even Rolls-Royce, said BMW executives at the event, though the British carmaker that’s now under BMW’s wing has come out and stated its products are on an architecture unique to the brand.

Either way, this car has deep luxury-car roots, and it shows.

Conclusion

It’s a fascinating coming together of worlds in the mid-size super sedan space these days, brought about by a melding of consumer expectations and improving technology, but still with the competition burning bright between each manufacturer. While BMW has been busy increasing its luxury, comfort and power, Mercedes-AMG has gone hard after the hardcore enthusiast crowd, with the two now trending very much closer to one another.

The M5’s innovative drivetrain does take a step forward in an area most of the competition doesn’t, however, while adding the AWD security that would appeal to folks who may have been interested in an M5, but opted for an M550i xDrive instead.

Hopefully BMW dealers will insist that M5 owners who plan to drive the car in the winter put on good winter tires come the fall, because no AWD system will be able to compensate for tires this aggressive and with this much power in any form of white stuff. But whether in rear-drive mode or just regular AWD mode with the stability control off, there’s a ton of potential fun in empty snowed-in parking lots with this car.

So you could say the M5 is moving faster towards a more secure future. One which still offers enough driver-focused features to not betray its enthusiast roots.

Faster, now super-luxurious, and all-wheel drive – if desired. 12/4/2017 6:30:00 AM