It’s true, there’s no manual transmission in the 2018 BMW M5. What made the original super-sedan so unique is now gone. And you know what? Good. It’s an uncommon opinion, but I didn’t think the previous generation’s manual transmission did anything to stir the soul or reward drivers who wanted an engaging manual-transmission experience. BMW didn’t attempt to fix the manual, but killed it instead. For 2018, the M5’s 600-hp, twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8 makes 40 more horsepower than its predecessor and sends power through a conventional eight-speed automatic, not even a fancy dual-clutch transmission like the BMW M3 or previous M5. One more thing: The new M5 is all-wheel drive instead of rear-wheel drive. What the heck is happening in Bavaria?
Craziness, that’s what, because BMW says the M5 is now capable of zero-to-60 mph in 3.2 seconds, down from 4.1 seconds with the previous generation’s dual-clutch automatic transmission; the old six-speed manual did it in 4.3 seconds. The new automatic transmission, all-wheel drive and launch control make for pin-your-head-to-the-seat starts when the engine spins up and fires off like a shot from a cannon.
The M5’s engine is so smooth and refined that there’s not much excitement from the tailpipes, even with the M Sound Control button that changes the flap-controlled exhaust system’s sound in the most-aggressive Sport Plus drive mode. Most of the auditory experience comes from inside with electronic augmentation that’s less artificial sounding than in the previous M5. If subtlety is your style, that’s cool, but I wanted a bit more bark with the BMW M5’s enormous bite, like the voluminous bellow that comes from a Mercedes-AMG E63. The new M5 has a great tone, but the volume isn’t there in the driver’s seat; apparently, the M5 is just too good of a luxury car to let any exhaust noises inside. If this bothers you as well, the accessory BMW M Performance exhaust for the M5 might be up your alley. The M5 Competition version at an extra cost includes a unique exhaust.
The M5 has an overwhelming number of driving subsystems with adjustable settings — engine, transmission, suspension, steering, stability system, all of which have various intensity settings for casual commuting or corner carving. The M5 and pretty much all competitors can be used as perfectly comfortable daily drivers with broad ranges between Comfort and Sport modes. The Cadillac CTS-V, Audi RS 7 and AMG E63 can rattle your fillings or take grandma to brunch. BMW wins this game because of the M programmable buttons on the steering wheel. They’re not just buttons any longer, but red paddles atop the left- and right-hand spokes that save settings of the driver’s choosing into umbrella modes. The paddles are not any more useful than regular buttons on the wheel that some competitors and the previous-generation M5 have, but they’re different and cool (and red).
I programmed M1 as the Comfort mode but spent most of my time in M2 with Plus Plus Plus settings, where the engine is as responsive as a naturally aspirated V-8 with minimal lag between hitting the pedal and a rush of acceleration. Previously, the supercharged CTS-V was the standout in this class for immediate power delivery, but the M5 — even with its twin turbos — is impressively not at a disadvantage for a turbocharged engine. For a conventional transmission, the eight-speed in the M5 is quick and responsive, and the paddle shifters click off gears like a dual-clutch transmission, though there’s a certain finesse to the way BMW’s dual-clutch shifts in the M4 that’s lacking in the M5’s bang-shift-bang gear changes at wide-open throttle.
Rear- or All-Wheel Drive — You Pick, Carefully
The M5’s all-wheel drive is selectable, but not like an old-style four-wheel-drive truck where you yank a lever to go in and out of rear-wheel drive. Drivers can use the control screen to choose what BMW calls “4WD,” “4WD Sport” (with more rear bias) and “2WD.” It’s called 4WD in the car, but the system itself is named M xDrive all-wheel drive. For marketing purposes, all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive may be interchangeable, but if you ask us, four-wheel drive means a transfer case with a selectable low range.
I digress. Two-wheel drive kills the stability system, so make sure you’re on your toes when barnstorming with only two wheels getting 600 hp. I didn’t notice a huge difference between rear- and all-wheel-drive modes when driving spiritedly. The system is so smart that I feel it was already distributing torque between front and rear wheels to get the car around the corner as proficiently as possible — as if the M5 determined rear-wheel drive was the right way to go anyway.
Choosing two-wheel drive doesn’t magically remove the weight of the all-wheel-drive hardware, so I question the mode’s inclusion. What’s nice is that it can be programmed into the M buttons so, for instance, the left button is 4WD and the right button is 2WD, which saves digging into the menus. The two-wheel mode best used if you’re on a track and can slide around, because the BMW M5’s limits are so high that it takes a lot of work to get that tail to wag. The tires have plenty of grip, and when the adaptive suspension is turned up to max stiffness the M5 is a confident-handling machine.
Fast, But Fun?
That depends on your definition of fun. Is the M5 a lightweight, tossable sedan? Not really. The steering is heavy and the car feels heavy like the previous generation, though there’s more precision in the steering and it’s sharper overall. The Cadillac CTS-V remains champ of giving the weighting and feedback I want from a steering wheel, and that was also true when the M5 was rear-wheel-drive only. Nothing in this class of 4,000-pound-plus, 600-hp-plus sedans bounces from corner to corner at the flick of a slight steering input; for that, you’ll have to downsize to an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. A 640-hp CTS-V is 4,141 pounds, a 560-hp RS 7 is 4,497 pounds and a 603-hp E63 is 4,515 pounds. These are heavy hitters that drive with a heft to them, though the new M5 is a well-balanced heft.
At 4,370 pounds, the M5 is 17 pounds lighter than the outgoing M5, which is impressive considering the extra weight all-wheel drive adds. A carbon-fiber-reinforced roof and more aluminum helped keep the pounds down. But I wonder how a true rear-wheel-drive 2018 M5 would perform without all the extra weight hanging under the car and on the front wheels. The M5 certainly wouldn’t be capable of the lightning quick 3.2 seconds to 60 mph with only rear-wheel drive; the E63 does it in 3.4 seconds and both the CTS-V and RS 7 do it in 3.7 seconds, according to their respective manufacturers. And the fun in driving the M5 is mostly that, at any speed, it unleashes a blast of acceleration, so maybe it’s OK that it’s all-wheel drive.
Also fun is the M5’s attention-hogging Marina Bay Blue exterior. Part of the appeal of a luxury sedan is to show off (c’mon, you know it), and it’s easy to get lost gazing into the deep blue paint. Combined with the sharp lines, wider stance and gaping air intakes, the M5 draws in curious neighbors from blocks away. With this blue, the car has a presence sitting in the driveway that it doesn’t have with any other color, because its other colors are another shade of blue, gray, black and white (zzzzzzzz). Perhaps what’s most surprising is that this blue doesn’t cost any extra — very un-BMW-like. On the inside, backlit M5 emblems on the seats and front and rear doors pop for an extra bit of “sahhhweeet” at night, along with rave-like ambient lighting. I found all of the above wholly entertaining.
Driver’s Car That Needs Minimal Driving
The regular 5 Series’ impressive suite of semi-autonomous driving features are must-haves for those who live in congested areas. BMW’s Driving Assistant Plus Package is a collection of features that center the car in the lane and can slow, stop and restart in traffic by following the car ahead using radar. They work just as well in the M5, but I was conflicted because here’s a 600-hp sedan that can disappear in a cloud of its own tire smoke, yet I’m letting the car sort of drive itself on the highway with the bare minimum attention. It felt odd. Of course, if it didn’t have those requisite features, I’d be asking, “How could this $100,000 car not have adaptive cruise control and lane centering?”
In the Market
The 2018 M5 starts at $104,695 with destination charge and $1,000 gas guzzler tax, but the $129,000 M5 we tested commanded a big premium with optional packages and equipment, including a noisy set of $8,500 carbon-ceramic brakes — amazing hardware on BMWs I’ve track-tested, but for street use, were characteristically grabby and squealed at low speeds. While $129,000 may seem out of control, it’s in line with what you can spend on a Mercedes-AMG E63, Audi RS 7 or Porsche Panamera Turbo; the CTS-V is the bargain buy of the class, though with an appropriately bargain interior. The old M5 wasn’t much less expensive at a little less than $100,000, but with only rear-wheel drive, it couldn’t keep up with the acceleration of competitors and felt a little dull compared with the 2018 model. The new M5 has more liveliness than its immediate predecessor and is more competitive with powerhouse super-sedans. Plus, the new M5 with its selectable all-wheel drive (if equipped with the right tires) is certainly a more drivable car year-round for those in wintry climates.
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