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BMW’s legendary performance saloon takes the plunge into fast 4WD territory

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Long histories are, by and large, eventful ones. The history of the BMW M5, arguably Germany’s founding example of the modern super-saloon (as well as permanent fixture in our Top 10 super-saloon list), has certainly been both of those things,stretching back fully five model generations and almost 35 years.

It has encompassed race-derived and race-inspired six and 10-cylinder engines, mould-breaking sequential transmissions and plenty of talking points besides. But it has never brought us greater controversy or a bolder departure from established convention than it has just now, in the shape of this week’s road test subject: the sixth-generation BMW M5 (F90).

Like so much else about the M5, the car’s tiny lip spoiler speaks discreetly of the performance within. We really like it.

Partly in response to an identical move by the rival Mercedes-AMG E63 but mainly in recognition of consumer demand for greater all-weather usability in North America, M division has switched its firebrand executive four-door from one driven axle to two. In doing so, it has adopted technology that it might have told you not so long ago had no place in a saloon car whose numerical identification was prefixed with ‘M’.

Indeed, despite production winding up only eight years ago, the naturally aspirated V10 of the rear-driven E60-generation M5 now seems a sweet but distant memory, not least because its contemporary successor uses a smaller V8 engine of forced induction and, for the first time in an M5, a driveline that sends torque to all four wheels via a standard torque-converter automatic transmission.

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However, as you’ll soon read, it’s a marriage that has yielded an all-weather turn of pace for this car that can, without hyperbole, be described as ludicrous for an object weighing nearly two tonnes. For the many owners who’ll never explore the capabilities of their car beyond what it can do on a straight stretch of road, that sheer pace may be all that’s required to keep the car competitive, and to keep it on their driveway.

Those with longer memories, ones familiar with how BMW M set the super-saloon standard for handling purity and dynamism during an unbroken run lasting decades, will expect more, as do we. So can this generation of go-faster BMW 5 Series reassert the dominance of the super-saloon niche that its uninspiring predecessor surrendered?



BMW M5 2018 review hero rear

The principal reason you might fear for this new BMW M5 is weight, with its four-wheel drive system, but M division has been very canny.

The mixed-metal underbody construction of the current 5 Series, together with the adoption of some lightweight body panels (aluminium bonnet and front wings, roof in CFRP), has allowed the firm to bring the F90 M5 in at a kerb weight that’s 15kg lighter than that of its immediate predecessor.

An unbelievably good package, this M5, although I’m unconvinced by the steering. The 275-section front tyres are easily distracted and the rack weights up inconsistently.

By doing that, BMW neatly escapes accusations that it is wilfully adding dulling heft to this car, although it won’t reveal how much lighter the M5 might have been if it had retained its traditional drive layout. Still, a four-wheel-drive saloon car coming in lighter than the two-wheel-drive one it’s replacing is sufficiently clever engineering to get a big thumbs-up from us.

The car’s M xDrive four-wheel drive system is rear-driven as a default, sending torque to the front axle as needed via a chain drive and electronically actuated clutch. Between the rear wheels, meanwhile, is BMW’s Active M differential, which can vary from 100% open to 100% locked in a split second. And conducting the interactions and combinations of those systems, together with those of the adaptive damping and dynamic stability control systems, is a new electronic ‘chassis brain’ that has the power to overrule the ECUs of each individual system to ensure the M5 is behaving as its driver intends.

The 4.4-litre V8, meanwhile, is in receipt of new turbochargers, a higher-pressure fuel injection system and a new exhaust since its adoption in the last M5. And putting customer preferences to one side, the engine’s new peak outputs (591bhp and 553lb ft – both likely to rise a little for the M5 Competition coming later this year) were enough to convince the car’s chassis engineers that a four-wheel drive system has become an absolute necessity.

The chassis engineers have totally respecified the 5 Series’s double-wishbone front suspension right down to the metalwork and bushings, adding track width up front while they were at it. At the rear, the M5’s multi-link set-up gets new toe links, new lower wishbones, stiffer anti-roll bars and stiffer bushings. Bracing has been added to both subframes and mounting points reinforced.

You can upgrade the car’s standard steel and aluminium brakes to larger carbon-ceramic stoppers, which save 23kg in unsprung mass – and our test car had them fitted.


BMW M5 2018 review cabin

The ambience within the M5 entirely befits one of our favourite supersonic executive saloons. The architecture is leaner and cleaner than you’ll find in a Mercedes-AMG E63 but no less luxurious-feeling, and yet more welcoming than any RS-badged Audi.

It remains ostensibly BMW 5 Series, of course – albeit with red switchgear, illuminated logos in the headrest, optional ceramic-finish switchgear, tight-knit Aluminium Carbon panels and seats that could have been plucked from the fertile mind of Syd Mead. It’s a wonderfully lit environment at night, too, and you can select the colour of the luminescent piping that encircles the cabin. (The choice extends further than blue, purple and red.)

It’s amazing to me that this car can have so many luxury features and yet still so plainly be the default committed driver’s pick in the super-saloon niche.

Aesthetics aside, the expectation of an M product is ergonomics bordering on perfection, and if you’ve not driven the current M3, you might think this M5 does exceedingly well in this regard. There’s adjustability enough to place the thick-rimmed steering wheel just where you like it, and BMW’s admirable tradition of slanting the dashboard towards the driver doesn’t go unnoticed.

However, the driving position is a fraction too high. It feels as though it has been tailored for imperious touring on an autobahn rather than getting down and, at this time of year, exceedingly dirty on a British B-road; which, you may think, is fair enough. Those of this parish would also welcome a more dramatic tactile feel from the gearshift paddles.

The M5’s dashboard is topped by a floating 10.25in touchscreen that’s paired with the rotary controller found in all 5 Series models. BMW’s iDrive software is superbly intuitive. Not only are the graphics sharp and menus clear but there are also web-based services in the form of BMW Connected and ConnectedDrive. We suspect you’ll use your smartphone to access much of the functionality these apps yield, though real-time traffic information is a boon.

Two displays you’re likely to use often – out of curiosity, if nothing else – are the performance dials, which show the power and torque generated in real time, and the M-configuration menu, which allows you to set your preferences for the BMW's stability control, four-wheel drive, engine, suspension and steering.

The car’s standard on-board audio set-up is great for quality and power, but can be upgraded to a premium system from Bowers & Wilkins for £3090. Rear seat entertainment screens are a £1995 upgrade. Apple CarPlay costs £235 – although that shouldn’t be an extra on a £90k car.

Elsewhere, the M5 is just about as conducive to easy living as it’s possible for a 600bhp car to be. The 530-litre boot is cavernously deep, and the rear bench is generously accommodating of even taller passengers.

Curiously, you do have to pay for split folding rear seats, which shows German manufacturers haven’t lost their knack for giving features that should come as standard a cameo on the options list.


Even when operating through a launch control system that struggled somewhat to put down 553lb ft (multiplied through the car’s lower gears, of course) onto wet tarmac through all four contact patches, the BMW M5 was blisteringly fast.

It recorded a quite staggering standing quarter mile time of 11.5sec on a thoroughly damp surface. In like-for-like conditions, that is 0.1sec quicker than a Mercedes-AMG GT R. It lops more than a second off the preceding M5’s pace and is barely half a second slower than a Ferrari 488 GTB was on a bone-dry day. Through the gears from 40mph to 80mph, the BMW is precisely as fast as the Porsche 911 Turbo S we tested in 2013.

Just half a second slower than a Ferrari 488 GTB and as fast as the Porsche 911 Turbo S we put through its paces in 2013 – not bad for a two-tonne executive saloon.

And it’s a two-tonne executive saloon, remember; a reality for which, it seems, super-saloon customers need no longer make any allowance, or accept any real-world performance compromise. Perhaps the most profound illustration of this car’s versatility is that you wouldn’t know such shattering performance lurked within unless you went looking for it.

Ramping the engine map up to its Sport+ setting yields exhaust crackles and a frenetically responsive throttle pedal, but in Comfort, you’re indulged with a fluency that makes this M5 no more tiresome to pilot along any kind of road than a BMW 520d.

If there’s any disappointment to the M5’s showing here, it’s the relatively muted sound of its 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8. The howling atmospheric V10 of the E60 M5 casts a long shadow, but even had it never existed, there’s no doubt this engine is lacking in genuine aural charisma, principally because the imitation engine noise played through the car’s stereo speakers remains singularly contrived.

Also, the brake pedal – on those optional carbon-ceramic brakes, remember – can feel grabby and over-assisted at times, although the problem seems to come and go.

However, neither bugbear puts much of a dent in the appeal of performance as elastic, responsive, free-revving and hard-hitting as this. The way the M5 devours the road ahead of it is breathtaking.


BMW M5 2018 review cornering front

With so many operating modes for the steering, damping, engine, gearbox, four-wheel drive and stability control, this M5 takes some getting to know.

If you find a particularly complex driver-configurable experience a turn-off, this is not the super-saloon for you. But even if you do approach it with a degree of scepticism about the amount of button fiddling you’ll need to do to really enjoy the car – and several testers did – the M5 is ready to dismantle your cynicism a piece at a time.

4WD Sport mode puts enough torque through the outside rear wheel to cue up power oversteer out of the hairpin in lower gears.

In addition to the Comfort, Sport and Sport+ settings for many of its systems – with which BMW M regulars will be familiar – the M5 adds three new ones for its drivetrain: 4WD, 4WD Sport and 2WD. The last of those only works with the stability control system deactivated completely.

Even so, you can, in short, have as much or as little four-wheel-drive security at play in the car’s handling mix as you want. And, moreover, if you want to combine a drift-happy rear-drive set-up with Comfort suspension and steering, unlike in an Mercedes-AMG E63 S, you can: there’s little sense of prescriptiveness about the set-up combinations.

But having created a super-saloon with an unprecedented dynamic range, and handling more malleable than almost any other performance car we can think of, BMW’s masterstroke was to make a greater feature of the M5’s ‘M1’ and ‘M2’ driver preset buttons, to be found on the spokes of the steering wheel.

Without these, switching the car between your favourite modes would require far too much button pressing to avoid maddening frustration. But with them, transforming the car from a secure, compliant, fluent and reassuring executive express to something more tightly controlled, agile, interactive and poised for a favourite B-road is the work of a flick of your thumb.

The M5’s more aggressive drivetrain modes – 4WD Sport and 2WD – feel like they’ve been optimised for the dry. The active differential seems to work particularly hard for its keep in the former setting, making the car feel superbly poised and balanced on turn in, and allowing you to accelerate neutrally, even into the beginnings of oversteer, without needing to deactivate the stability control system entirely.

‘M Dynamic’ mode allows you an enticingly delicate degree of rear-drive handling adjustability, which makes the car feel playful but never lairy. In ‘2WD’ mode, alternatively, the M5 can adopt drift angles every bit as lurid as you intend.

In the wet, the car doesn’t quite conjure the remarkable, unequivocal traction and security of, for example, an Audi RS6 Avant. Nevertheless, its blend of balance and stability is a compelling, although not always an entirely predictable, one.

What ultimately marks out the M5 as exceptional among fast saloon cars is its remarkable agility, cornering balance and handling adjustability. There is poise and delicacy to the chassis that few cars of this size really approach and neither seems at all blunted by the four-wheel-drive system.

Select 4WD Sport mode and you’ll find that the M xDrive works as a remarkably good de facto stability control system, in fact, at times when you don’t want the intrusiveness of the DSC system. You could certainly level the charge that the M5 ought to be gentler-riding, where the average super-saloon settles into a more relaxed touring gait.

You could also criticise the steering, which is heavier than it needs to be and doesn’t always feel predictable or natural in your hands. But both failings can be mitigated by perfecting the car’s systems set-up and both seem like small prices to pay in the context of the car’s remarkable broader dynamic capabilities.


BMW M5 2018 review hero front

Even without the BMW carbon-ceramic brakes, carbonfibre engine cover and M Sport exhaust system of our £101,900 test car, you’re almost certain to spend more than £90,000 on an F90-generation M5.

That’s a healthy wedge but, given this car’s demonstrably broad range of talents, you’d struggle to convince us that it represents poor value for money.

Relatively poor showing against the E63 and RS6 is surprising. Later Competition Pack may fare better.

With such a voluminous engine to feed, the chief concern for many will be range, although a 68-litre fuel tank and a touring economy that hovers around 30mpg bodes well: you’ll put at least 400 miles between motorway stops. Using anything like the car’s full performance potential can cause that to drop below 20mpg, but one of the delights of owning an M5 is that you’re at least given the choice.

Indeed, if you’re after a one-size-fits-all machine, there’s a good chance the search ends here. Six-hundred horsepower or not, this is after all a 5 Series and therefore a supremely practical, useful device.



BMW M5 2018 review face on

For anyone whose last drive in a four-wheel-drive performance car came a decade or so ago, the handling of the BMW M5 will be little short of a revelation.

Even after the likes of the Ford Focus RS, Audi R8 and Nissan GT-R, the M5’s agility, balance and playfulness seem remarkable for a car that can also offer all the traction and stability you’d expect of a two-tonne, four-wheel-drive super-saloon.

Supreme handling dynamism and versatility take the M5 close to perfection

The car’s outright damping authority and body control, meanwhile, are truly unequalled among its direct rivals. So how could we deny it the ringing endorsement of a five-star score?

Only because of a handful of shortcomings: slightly irksome steering weight, inconsistent brake pedal feel, that synthesised engine noise and an occasionally restless ride. However, the M5 has a dynamic versatility and poise that no other rival can equal, and it goes straight to the top of our super-saloon rankings.

If BMW M history is any guide, (think F10 M5 ‘30 Jahre’, F82 M4 CS and others), the very best version of this M5 may be yet to come – and when it does, it ought to be something very special indeed.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

BMW M5 First drives