One could argue that BMW hasn’t made a truly great M5 since the E39-generation. The E39 M5 is considered by many to be the absolute best M5 ever made and possibly the finest sport sedan ever made. Many also believe that the E60 BMW M5 which succeeded it was also one of the all time greats, though some will say that it’s just a brilliant engine wrapped in just a merely good package. Since the E60 isn’t unanimously loved, even if its engine is, It’s not considered as great as the E39-gen that preceded it. Following the E60, there was the F10-generation M5, which was brutally fast and very well-rounded but was never truly special. Now, though, the new F90-generation BMW M5 has just debuted and, after driving it, we think it’s BMW’s return to greatness.
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We just spent some time in the stunningly beautiful Palm Springs, at BMW’s M Performance Driving School. There, BMW had several cars for us to test, including the new X2, the 6 Series GT and the newly facelifted MINI JCW Hardtop. None of that mattered, though. All we cared about was the Marina Bay Blue F90 BMW M5 that sat glistening under the Californian sun.
What is the new BMW M5?
This new F90-generation M5 is a car of many firsts for BMW. The big news is obviously its drivetrain. For the first time ever, the BMW M5 is now all-wheel drive. It uses a standard eight-speed, torque-converter automatic gearbox, rather than a seven-speed dual-clutch unit, which is also a first. And, it’s also the first ever BMW to break the 3.0-second barrier from 0-60 mph (for Car and Driver at least), making it the fastest BMW of all time. So it’s a very important car in the history of BMW’s famed M Division.
Under its hood lies a heavily revised version of BMW’s 4.4 liter twin-turbocharged V8, which now makes 600 hp and 590 lb-ft of torque. And it’s brilliant. The M5’s new V8 seems as if it was developed by Zeus himself, as every prod of the throttle feels as if the sky is opening, unleashing all of the ancient Greek God’s thunder. That monster engine is mated to the aforementioned ZF-sourced eight-speed auto and powers all four wheels. According to BMW, the new M5 can accelerate from 0-60 mph in 3.2 seconds, a time no BMW before has even been able to reach.
Now, there’s actually a bit of controversy surrounding the M5. Being the first all-wheel drive M5 ever, purists were naturally a bit uneasy. They felt that the M5 would lose its way, become too heavy, bloated and more about straight-line speed, rather than balance and precision.
That M-tuned xDrive all-wheel drive system, though, isn’t just your average setup. It can switch from “4WD”, which is a safe all-wheel drive setup, to “4WD Sport”, which is a more aggressive, rear-biased all-wheel drive system, or “2WD, which is completely rear-wheel drive. In 2WD mode, traction and stability control are switched off and it’s 100 percent rear-wheel drive until you tell it to be otherwise. Which means it can shred tires for as long as you’d like or your tire budget will afford.
On the Track
My very first experience in the new M5 was on the race track at Thermal Club. Even though it was lead/follow, where we followed an instructor in an F80 BMW M3, we were able to really push the M5 and see what it could do. And I learned quickly.
The first lap was basically a warm up lap, to get the tires warm and to familiarize ourselves with the track. After that, though, we were instructed to press the newly styled red “M1” switch on the steering wheel, which was pre-programmed for the following drive settings: 4WD Sport, Sport Suspension, Sport Throttle and Sport Transmission with the traction control set to MDM mode. In this specific setup, we were able to get a good feel for the M5 without killing ourselves.
However, accidentally widowing my wife wasn’t a concern once I started to lean on the M5 and learned I could trust it. While that all-wheel drive system might frustrate purists, it makes the new BMW M5 astonishingly capable. Grip is immense and cornering speeds boggle the mind. For such a big, heavy car, the new M5 can carry speed through corners like a hot hatch and you can back on the power far earlier than in any previous M5. Don’t think that the M5 has become a big, fast Audi, though. While grip is tenacious, it will break loose eventually. But, when it does, it’s natural and progressive. While many all-wheel drive cars have a tendency to snap on you, as it feels like it has all the grip in the world until, suddenly, it doesn’t, the M5 breaks loose smoothly and the tail is easy to catch and reign back in.
Though, with that much furious power on tap, it takes a try or two to get the hang of it, as I learned after a few butt-clenching moments. On my first few aggressive laps in “M1” mode, I got on the power just a bit too early on corner exit, as I was unaware of just how explosive the M5’s power is. That resulted in a few slides that caught me a bit off guard and, when you have a 600 hp super sedan that costs almost as much as your condo, sliding at supercar speed can be a bit frightening. However, despite never having driven the new M5 before, it was easy to sort the slide out, even hold it a bit, and get back going in the right direction. After a few laps, I learned how to lean on the M5 to the point of sliding a bit on purpose, just to let it squirm on corner exit, and it began to feel incredible. It’s such a fun car to drive quickly and it has thrown any worry of all-wheel drive ruining its balance or precision in the garbage.
On the track, damping is near-perfect in Sport mode. While the track is admittedly glass smooth, hitting the rumble strips isn’t uncomfortable or unnerving. Body roll is also kept in check, with just enough to feel what the chassis is doing. Though, if there’s a minor complaint, a small driver like myself needs the side seat bolsters as tight as they go, as the M5 takes corners with such velocity and g-force that there were some moments where I was hanging on for dear life from the steering wheel mid-corner. There’s also no understeer to speak of, unless you push it far too hard, which as a potential concern for many enthusiasts, as the new M5 does gain all-wheel drive and more weight over the nose as a result.
However, front-end grip is exceptional and turn-in is razor sharp. On a track, you’re not really looking for steering feel. You just want it to be accurate, to point the car in the direction you’re asking it to. And it does that brilliantly. Its weighting is also near-perfect for the track, as it’s light enough to toss around but weights up as you add steering lock. Though, it never feels artificial, just accurate and progressive. This is the best steering M car on the market right now, for sure.
Its balance and handling are hard to pay attention to on the track, though, as the only thing you can think about is its violent, explosive power. Its power and performance figures simply don’t do it justice on paper. I sampled it on the track twice, both times as the car immediately behind the instructor. Every time the instructor would signal me through the radio to go full throttle on the straights, I’d always have to back off because the M5 would easily catch his F80 M3, which flat-out didn’t have a chance. As all of its fury unfolds, there’s a thundering V8 bellow that fills your ears. Some of it is likely augmented through the speakers but I didn’t care a bit. It’s a thrilling, intoxicating noise that makes mashing the go-pedal that much more exciting.
At the end of my track experience, I had to cool down just as much as the car did. Blood pumping, sweat dripping and hands shaking from excitement, driving the M5 is exhilarating. It’s just such a satisfying car to drive hard. Yes, it has enough power to launch it into orbit but it’s never scare, it never bites you. Instead, it works with you, as if it’s asking “Let’s see how fast we can go and how much ass we can kick.”
On the Road
A BMW M5 is supposed to be better on the road than it is on the track. It is, after all, a four-door sedan with leather seats and a big trunk. So while the M5 has historically been capable on the track, its true greatness is measured on the road.
So after several laps on the track, we had the opportunity to take the BMW M5 out on the roads outside of Thermal. We drove through Box Canyon in Mecca, just outside of Palm Springs, which featured a superb blend of tight, twisty turns, long sweepers and longer straights than we had even experienced on the track. It was the perfect place to test the new M5 on the road.
Once in the canyon, this new F90 BMW M5 could be in the conversation for the best M5 yet. That’s not hyperbole and it’s not just kiss-assery. On public roads, especially ones as great to drive on as Box Canyon’s, this new M5 is an absolute joy to drive.
Its steering is excellent; with nice weighting and razor-sharp accuracy. Its weighting a bit on the lighter side but it is a luxury car too and it feels appropriate. To make up for that, there’s a surprising amount of feel and feedback. No, you can’t feel every nook and cranny in the road, like you can in an E39 M5, but it provides you just enough information to let you know what the front end is doing and to have confidence in it. And thanks to its tenacious front end grip, the big M5 is astonishingly easy to place on the road and drive quickly.
But the best part of the way the new M5 drives is how it feels. It’s fluid and balanced, feeling more like a willing dance partner than something that’s just been designed to go fast. It’s delicate and up on its toes. It goes down a twisty road like liquid mercury. While the old F10-generation M5 was more of a sledgehammer, this new one is far more of a scalpel. And it feels great. I always like the metaphor of a “glove fist in a velvet glove” for luxurious super sedans. However, that is far too crude to describe the M5. It truly is delicate and precise, with a balance that’s astonishing in something that’s so big and heavy. If I said “balance” a lot, that’s because it’s the my main takeaway from the M5’s handling and that may the be highest praise I can give it.
When you combine all of that handling brilliance with the fact that it’s also comfortable, spacious, practical and now all-weather capable, the new F90 BMW M5 could make a case for itself as being the best M5 ever made.
A Return to Greatness
For the past few years, it really has seemed as if BMW had lost its way. Technically, modern BMWs are far superior than older ones in every way. However, they’ve lacked that sort of driving engagement and enjoyment that we’d come to know and love from BMW. Now, though, the new M5 proves that BMW is back. And it’s better than ever.