On a curving, aggressively inclined portion of the famous Pines to Palms Highway just outside Palm Springs, California — the scenic route stretches nearly all the way to the Pacific, in San Juan Capistrano — the BMW M5 positively glows. It reels in each turn like it’s ravenously devouring lunch, and powers up the mountain like a true Pikes Peak hillclimber. Which is to say, it’s more than a little scary. This is BMW’s sixth-generation M5 -—predictably, the fastest and quickest yet, blasting to 60 mph in just 3.2 seconds on the way to a cool 189 mph.
The Good: BMW’s holistically designed performance profiles bring a lot of engineering muscle to whatever mode you choose. The default setting is all-wheel-drive mode with stability control engaged. As you work through the different options, the car’s character changes. In fact, I’ve never heard or felt a car change so dramatically in character and performance as the M5 does at the moment you tap the little red “M” button to switch it into Sport Plus mode. I experienced this particular thrill at the Thermal Club racetrack outside of Palm Springs. After a brisk familiarization lap with the default settings engaged, the car felt perfectly fine and at home on the track. But when you enter Sport Plus mode, the exhaust note changes to a higher-pitched and more menacing growl as everything else about the car tightened up.
It was as much a Jekyll/Hyde transition as I’ve ever felt, and the car’s next-lap performance was both astoundingly brisk but also astoundingly precise. In the 2WD mode, with the stability controls dialed down, the car was even further separated from its docile street mannerisms, injecting a fun bit of rear looseness to the car that kept me on your toes while at the same time rewarding me for keeping things under control — though the car’s enhanced suspension and chassis engineering likely contributed at least as much to the equation.
The new engine and the eight-speed Steptronic transmission, of course, help get you there in the first place. The engine’s responsiveness matches the driver’s settings, with new twin-scroll turbochargers with higher boost pressures that allow for improved fuel burn, and thus faster response. The transmission’s shift logic is now better optimized for faster getaways, thanks to a lock-up clutch that engages the moment the car moves, and equally fast gear changes. Also, when in manual-shift mode, the car won’t upshift automatically at the rev-limiter — something that annoys drive enthusiasts who want to retain control of the shift timing even when pushed up to the edge.
Who It’s For: Grown-ups who want to go fast in relative stealth. This M5 is a ticket to instant street-cred no matter who’s beside you at the stoplight. Whether it’s a Lamborghini Huracan or an unrecognizably modded STi, they’ll all nod out of respect to the honorable M badge.
Watch Out For: There’s very little to complain about vis-à-vis performance, but the car does have a somewhat disappointing lack of visual energy. The design differentiators between the M5 and the standard 5-Series are largely performance-driven, including larger air intakes, a wider track to enhance cornering stability, a carbon-fiber-reinforced roof to reduce weight and a rear diffuser and side skirts to boost aerodynamics. But despite all this, the look still feels lacking in edge, the kind of aggressiveness that will make people do double-takes. Indeed, when encountered on the street, you’d have to know the M5 to recognize it as something special. Nobody wants the M5 to have a boy-racer aura, but a little bit of a darker, more serious vibe would serve the car extraordinarily well.
All that said, the interior provides quite a bit of edge that the exterior may not. The two-tone leather bucket-style seats have plenty of interesting curves and bolsters, in addition to being more than adequately supportive. They’re the elements, more than anything, that truly remind you of the car’s — as well as your own, presumably — mischevious character during your daily commute.
Alternatives: There’s a great deal of overlap in the pricing and features of competitive performance sedans, but generally speaking, the M5 compares most directly with the Audi RS7 and the Mercedes-AMG E-63 S. Of course, the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio and the Cadillac CTS-V are no slouches, either. All are racetrack-engineered stealth supercars.
Review: Cut canyon walls sling past in frightening proximity and with alarming quickness, courtesy of the M5’s prodigious 553 lb-ft of torque. Masked hairpins reveal little of their intentions, such as whether their radius will suddenly vary to accommodate some terrifying dropoff, avoided only thanks to the 15.7-inch ventilated front discs. At Pikes Peak, the cars may or may not outpace the skills of the driver, but either way, both had better know what they’re doing. Similarly, you tackle the twists and turns of Pines to Palms with willful abandon at your peril.
The car most definitely outpaced my own capabilities, but it also helped me stretch them out, thanks to its challenging-when-necessary but also forgiving-when-necessary engineering. This is BMW’s sixth-generation M5 — predictably, the fastest and quickest yet, blasting to 60 mph in just 3.2 seconds on the way to a cool 189 mph. In Palm Springs, if you had any hope at all of stitching together the perpetual esses in respectable time you need speed; the sprint to 60 mph is a distant fantasy only approached on closed desert straights. BMW’s renowned engineering backs it all up, offering sharp, precise handling and plenty of power when you want and need it, but it also offers quite a bit of white-knuckle fun for those who like to feel the limits of their machines. It’s far from quintessentially robotic, and is, in fact, quintessentially thrilling.
Verdict: BMW infused the car with enough fresh engineering to make it easily worthy of the brand’s reputation. First, there’s the trick new suspension, dubbed the M xDrive system, with both 2WD and all-wheel-drive capability, a pioneering feature. It also has a revised V8 with a 40 horsepower and 53 lb-ft power boost over the previous M5, an improved chassis for more dynamic stability and plenty of weight-reduction strategies, via a carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) roof, optional carbon-ceramic brakes and a new exhaust system that’s been optimized for weight.
The M5 has always been the flag-bearer of hard-charging, track-ready performance sedans. With these changes — which of course merely add onto the changes present in the new 5-Series — it retains that title.
What Others Are Saying:
• “This new M5 can be rear-wheel drive, too, although you’ll have to fully disable the stability control before you can access that setting in the iDrive system. BMW calls it 2WD mode, but it just as accurately could have called it Drift mode—as Mercedes-AMG does with the E63 S.” — Eric Tingwall, Car and Driver
• “Will the purists (and for the record, I consider myself one) be happy about the philosophical shift on display here? My guess is hell no, even given the wonderfully interesting and entertaining result. It is somehow different from M’s move to turbocharging, or the division’s general move away from manual transmissions, or toward lower-revving engines.” — Sam Smith, Road & Track
• “This M5 has rediscovered the magic: It’s more aggressive, the ride is busy and uncompromising, it has simply sensational performance, and the all-wheel drive system is wonderfully fluid and playful. And if you really must exit every corner with a full turn of opposite lock? Just stick it in rear-wheel drive mode and enjoy the sort of over-the-limit balance that has always been an M5 hallmark.” — Jethro Bovingdon, Automobile
2018 BMW M5 Key Specs
Engine: turbocharged 4.4-liter V8
Transmission: 8-speed automatic; all-wheel-drive
Torque: 553 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 3.2 seconds
Top speed: 189 mph
Weight: 4,370 lbs
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