The last M5 super saloon to be powered by a normally aspirated engine - a manic 500bhp 5.0-litre V10

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Fortune favours the fast. There we were, somewhere south of Munich plodding a route back to BMW’s test centre at the airport. Heavy traffic, stifling 75mph speed limit and the BMW M5.

Dampers set to full soft, gearbox in the slushiest of five possible automatic shift speeds and a squawky Bavarian folk ditty from the radio competing against the tyre noise. Nothing to do but settle and enjoy the cruise.

Until a silver grille rushes upon us and spills over the sides of the rear view mirror. Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Two big vents and a pair of low-slung metal grilles mean only one thing: it’s no lightly AMG’d E320 CDI. We have ourselves an E55.

Then comes the fortune. The derestrict sign flashes past, the gear selector is dabbed right to give the seven-speed sequential mode, adjust the shift speed to Montoya-plus-some then shift back to fourth. BMW v AMG, game-on.

No point in catching him unawares: we want to know who’s faster. So I power-on gradually, give him time to pin his auto ’box into kickdown mode and just as he begins to close the gap and grin at his false advantage, BMW’s epic V10 opens for business.

Instantly the Merc stops gaining, then recedes marginally. Into fifth the process continues, 10 car lengths stretching to 15. Shifting to sixth sends a bolt through the rear axle and as we brush the 155mph speed limiter the Merc is no longer recognisable as an E55. It has been reduced to the silhouette of a basic E-Class.

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‘This car was always going to have 500bhp, nothing less,’ said Gerhard Richter, head of BMW’s M division, over dinner the previous night as he pulled hard on a Camel filter.

Richter is the type of boss who avoids direct questioning, but has to balance that against an enthusiasm for M cars he simply can’t contain. The perfect man to front the M division. He either says nothing or issues priceless pearls that send his PR entourage into cardiac arrest.

Asked why the M5 doesn’t have the regular 5 Series’ electronic steering he simply replies that ‘we don’t need gimmicks’, with the faintest flicker of a grin as he sparks another Camel and the PR man scrabbles to ‘clarify’.

But on the matter of power he’s unequivocal, refuses to be drawn into the question of how much is too much. He’s right, too. The big Five-double-oh had worried me for a while simply because I couldn’t understand why a car needed 107bhp more than the outgoing E39-model.

Driving one in the wet the previous week was instrumental in this. It was so brutally, sideways fast. But having driven the new M5 (codenamed E60) for two days, there’s nothing to question. It’s an amazing achievement, largely because it almost never allows you to be drawn into the power debate.

The key is how well realised the whole M5 package has become. Because it now steers better, has such fine mechanical refinement and suspension, because everything surrounding that engine is so competent it feels entirely contained, correctly managed. Perfectly acceptable.

A coded way of saying that it doesn’t actually feel 500 horses-strong? No. Developed and built at the same engine plant used by BMW’s F1 team, this is another demonstration of what BMW knows about power plants. Had Lamborghini not launched a motor so similar in capacity and configuration last year, it would seem far more radical than it does today.

Cast in the same foundry as the F1 motors and using a 90-deg V to join identical five cylinder banks, the M5’s engine produces 500bhp at 7750rpm and 383lb ft of torque at a surprisingly high 6100rpm.

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We could dedicate two issues of this magazine just to the engine spec of this car, but these are the highlights: bi-vanos variable valve timing (which allows both exhaust and inlet valves to vary their opening times), the most powerful ECU in the known car world, 10 individual computer-controlled throttle bodies and a full stainless steel exhaust. It’s a powertrain engineer’s dream, one of the finest road car engines yet built.

And it’s linked to an SMG gearbox, making its first appearance in an M5. No manual will be available. It has seven gears and more functions than you’d believe possible, but the basic options are an auto without the benefit of a torque converter, or a manual with paddles behind the steering wheel and a rather grab-able lever between the seats.

Part of the reason for the SMG-only policy lies in the quest for longevity: the two cogs that handle the greatest torque should ideally be placed on the outside of the gear-set, but that leaves you with a shift-pattern unworkable with a regular manual lever. Hydraulically actuated sequential shifts are the answer. A believable explanation, but there’s still a whiff of ‘we’ve just had enough of manuals’ about it all.

Both steering and suspension are modified over the standard car. The M5 will roll off the regular production line at Dingolfing, but there are some bodyshell differences.

Underneath, pretty much everything beyond the basic architecture is uprated; the rear floorpan is modified to fit a huge exhaust system, the rear-subframe mounting points are beefed up to cope with the extra loads, bushes, links and joints are changed. There’s no Dynamic Drive; instead a more basic Electronic Damper Control (EDC) function offers three damper positions.

Is there a more telling indictment of how BMW rates the dynamic benefits of its own Active steering system (the one that alters the ratio according to speed) and run-flat tyres (that have an adverse affect on the ride quality of all BMWs they’re fitted to) than the fact that neither make an appearance on the company’s performance flagship?

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Don’t laud it too much though, just be thankful that the M5 has a bespoke set of Continental Sport Contact 2s (Michelin Pilots will come later), lovingly crafted for this car, and a conventional steering rack with conventional servotronic assistance.

It’s a disappointing car at idle, this M5. Twist the key and it fires instantly with a thrum so distinctive you wonder if there aren’t four rings on the bonnet and an Ingolstadt registration plate. Then it settles to a dreary, rattly idle. Stationary, it could be a standard 530d.

There are controls everywhere. It would seem that BMW’s move to i-Drive simplicity has been rather ignored by the M division. The i-Drive’s familiar aluminium rotary control remains but everything else seems to have migrated to the steering wheel and gear lever surround areas.

There are six buttons on the wheel, one of which is marked M and controls an encylopaedia of toys we’ll come to in a minute. And instead of integrating M5-specific functions into the i-Drive software, BMW has sprinkled five more buttons by the gear lever.

EDC selects damper settings, the shift-speed adjustor will be familiar to any M3 SMG owners and the traction/stability control functions are fully removable with the DSC button. There is also a button marked ‘Power’.

Undoubtedly this is The Gimmick of 2004, but it’s rather wonderful all the same. Start your M5 and its ECU automatically sets to a 400bhp default function: for the full beans you must press Power. Allegedly this is to ‘help in wet conditions’, which roughly translates as the ultimate show-off activity for the delectation of selected mates.

So, engine rattling, Power selected, auto ’box chosen, we nose off. Just 100rpm above the engine’s idle speed it sounds immeasurably better. A little quieter than a Gallardo, less raspy and yelpy than a Porsche Carrera GT, but incredibly distinctive all the same.

The gearbox shifts cleanly enough, but it’s immediately obvious that SMG can’t match the versatility of Audi’s DSG system. That’s not a big problem, because you learn to feather the throttle and smooth shifts accordingly, but it’s a long way behind the best autos.

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There’s a character issue here, too. After those first few miles, I didn’t use the automatic function again, even in traffic. Everything else about the M5 is so clearly focused towards not just having but savouring total command of all its controls that to do anything else seems plain wrong.

What’s more, I opted for the lever over the steering-wheel paddles. The M5 gets its own thick-rimmed steering wheel, but the thumb rests are in an awkward position and I found the paddles difficult to operate. That doesn’t matter though, because the stick itself snicks forwards and back with a lovely action, and it also makes the car feel like more of a conventional manual.

Straight-line performance is phenomenal, but also quite subdued in its delivery. Despite the big power figure, the M5 never clouts you down the road, rather it accrues speed at an unprecedented rate for a car in this class, but for those brief moments of accelerative brutality an E55 offers greater punch.

Torque is the key: compared to rival forced-induction motors the M5 has ‘only’ 383lb ft and that means BMW has carefully altered the final drive and individual gear ratios to make the best of it. The idea is to make the M5 use its power, rather than suffer from its relative lack of torque.

It works. The V10 just chews through gears and the 8200rpm limiter seems very pessimistic. Mechanical refinement is superb, far better than the current M3 and old M5, and that’s the key to the car’s everyday potential.

Despite the claimed 4.7sec 0-62mph run, the faintly ridiculous 15sec 0-124mph time, and the fact that were it not limited to 155mph it would stroll on to 205mph, this car is entirely docile and has a chassis better suited to exploiting that breadth of ability than its predecessor. Which, let’s face it, was better than the competition from the day it was launched to the day BMW stopped building it last year.

First, the steering. Servotronic assistance gives it a touch too much weight at very high speeds, but otherwise it’s more accurate than before, and at 2.4 turns lock to lock it’s considerably faster, too. The subsequent increase in agility is there at every turn because the front wheels are directing a car that doesn’t weigh any more than before.

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Okay, 1830kg is still very heavy, but the M5 is so well sorted that much of the mass disappears in all areas – other than braking. It may have 374mm front and 370mm rear discs, but they’re only gripped by twin and single piston calipers respectively and they fade surprisingly quickly during consecutive high-speed stops. 

The pedal feel’s fine, but we’ve come to expect brilliant stoppers from cars with this much performance, and the M5’s fall well short of that.

Usually at this point I’d imply that any sane driver would never reach the car’s limits on the road, but with 500bhp, an evolution of the M3’s M-Variable differential, 285-section rear tyres and a button to kill the nannying electronics, the M5 is itching to drift.

Interestingly, it takes more provocation than the old model, and therefore feels more surefooted. Torque from the V10 doesn’t arrive in great lumps as it did with the V8, the suspension kinematics are clearly superior and the new Continental tyre is a real improvement. Overstep the mark and you’ll find that in terms of throttle adjustment and corrective lock this is the best drift car ever.

And you know what, it rides better than a 530d on 18in wheels with Dynamic Drive suspension. In fact, you could say that this car is the greatest beneficiary of the cooking 5-series’ ride shortcomings. With the dampers set to soft it has ample compliance and rides expansion joints pretty well.

It’s never fully supple, but combined with excellent front seats it’s fine for everyday use. The middle damper setting reduces roll a little but sacrifices a similar percentage of ride and the hard setting is too much, even in Germany. We’ll have to get one in the UK for the final verdict, but first impressions are of a car with great long-haul potential, if only the fuel tank held more than 70 litres.

This car has some very amusing toys. Launch Control fires the M5 off the line at exactly the right engine speed for the perfect squealing getaway, and there are no fewer than 11 different gearbox shift speeds (five for the auto and six for the manual).

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All of this is controlled in the aforementioned M mode. Effectively it allows you to select your perfect ‘Sport’ setting for fast road-work from the damper, gearbox and DSC settings. It’s pretty complicated, but will provide hours of amusement, as will the standard head-up display.

As with any other M car, there’s a set of bespoke instruments with the obligatory oil temperature gauge, but the M5 also has gear-in-mesh (BMW’s phrase for which gear you’re in), speed and a rev indicator reflected onto the screen. Again, a gimmick because the rev-counter’s a bit slow, but fun nonetheless. I just left it showing the sat-nav prompts and in that role it works brilliantly.

In fact almost every aspect of the M5 works to that same standard, with just one exception. In the raw, I prefer the old car’s styling. This one’s a bit forced and the rear three-quarter’s not as delicate, but I’m sure I’ll be in the minority on that count.

Otherwise, for just under £66k this is an exceptional effort; perhaps the first genuine super-saloon car. When UK sales began in May 2005, the 450-500 units BMW is planning to import each year won’t cover half the demand. Which is a good way to conduct business.