BMW M5: The power and the glory

By Deon Schoeman 6 October 2011

What makes BMW’s M-cars so special? Well, they epitomise the motorsport heritage of the brand and show how race-bred technology can be applied in a road car context. Right now, the newest M-car on the block is the fifth-generation M5 – and DEON SCHOEMAN flew to Spain to drive it on the road and on the track.

It may be autumn in Europe, but in Seville, the mercury has hit 30degC – and it’s still rising. The heat haze fills the dips in the road with a silvery shimmer, and the sky is a pale, bleached blue.

None of this really matters, though. As we turn into the entrance of the swanky Hacienda La Boticaria, on the outskirts of Seville, I’m keeping my eyes peeled for a first glimpse of the reason why I’ve spent much of the past 24 hours in aircraft and at airports: BMW’s new M5.

There’s been enough coverage of the Frankfurt Motor Show, where this latest M-car made its first public bow, to know what it looks like: effectively a 5-Series saloon with a muscle-toned exterior, big wheels and a certain menacing road presence.

And yes: there it is – as we round one of the hotel driveway’s sweeping curves, the low-slung, blue-hued BMW approaching us at a fair tack could be nothing but an M5. First impressions are more 5-Series than M: the Five’s silhouette is instantly recognisable, and the distinguishing details are discreet, even understated.

That briefest of glimpses as the BMW flashes past sets the scene for much of what is to follow: a high-speed encounter with a super saloon that’s supposed to be prodigiously talented in dynamic terms, while also meeting the expectations of discerning buyers as far as comfort and luxury are concerned.

I have to wait for the next morning before a friendly BMW hostess hands me a set of keys and a route map. “Don’t drive fast,” she admonishes. “The local police are serious about enforcing the speed limits.” Yeah, right: driving slowly in an M5 is about as easy as beating Usain Bolt in the 100m sprint.

Parked in the rosy light of an early morning, there’s no denying this latest M5 is a head-turner. Not that it comes as much of a surprise: I’ve always maintained that the current 5-Series, codenamed F10, is the most attractive Five in years.

It follows that the M5 is one of the most handsome expressions of the M-car art. It finds just the right balance between athletic elegance and understated aggression. And it is unmistakably an M-car.

The styling cues are subtle but emphatic. The M5 builds on the standard sedan’s visual attractions, but adds larger air intakes, wider fenders and bigger wheels with fatter rubber. Four cannon-like exhaust tail pipes are further proof of the car’s performance purpose.

Much effort has gone into managing airflow for the sake of cooling and aerodynamic efficiency, so there’s a pronounced front splitter, a subtle rear wing and a deeper rear apron, complete with diffuser.

Add the lowered suspension, and the M5 takes on a crouching, almost feline attitude that suggests road-hugging performance and lightning-fast reactions.

Time to step into the cabin. For all its athletic intentions, this is still a fair-sized sedan so the interior is roomy and inviting – a refreshing change from the cramped confines of most sports car cabins. And that goes for both front and rear occupants.

But there’s more than a whiff of testosterone here. Everything oozes dynamic intent: the form-hugging sport seats, the grippy steering wheel, the instrument dials calibrated to display high revs and high velocities.

But all those M-specific switches and buttons mean you also need to be a bit of a techno-boffin not to be initially intimidated. There’s a high-resolution screen for the iDrive system, a menu-driven control interface which manages everything from the Satnav to the sound system.

It also displays views from cameras mounted at the rear and the sides of the car, which is useful for parking a big car in narrow spaces. Buttons on the steering wheel allow further hands-on control of aspects such as the dynamic cruise control system.

The M5 bristles with technology, much of it aimed at safer driving. There’s a lane departure warning system that triggers a vibration in the steering wheel if you stray over the white line, and a blind spot warning system that triggers a warning light in the mirror if you start moving into the path of a vehicle coming up from behind.

Not that there are too many cars out there that will be able to haul in the M5 once it gets going. Despite its imposing presence – 4.91m long, 1.89m wide – and a kerb weight of 1.87tons, the M5 harnesses the kind of dynamic capabilities usually associated with small, lightweight, high-powered sports cars.

It follows that the heart beating under the bonnet of this Munich Express is something special. The previous M5’s normally aspirated V10 has been replaced by a high-tech TwinPower Turbo V8 that delivers 10% more muscle and 30% more torque than the bigger lump it replaces. Maximum output is now 412kW, with a massive torque peak of 680Nm. And it’s supposed to be 30% more economical too.

Well, we’re about to find out just how fast, and how thirsty, the new M5 is. The day’s route is a 280km circuit of the surrounding countryside, including some promising, twisty bits between La Puebla de Cazalla and Almargen.

The first stretch of highway is a good familiarisation opportunity, especially since we spot several representatives of the local constabulary, who watch our progress with more than passing interest. It could, of course, just be the M5’s road presence – but for now, I’m sticking to the 120km/h speed limit.

Driving like this, the M5 feels docile enough. It’s content to tootle along, the V8 barely ticking over and the M-DCT dual-clutch gearbox functioning as a civilised automatic transmission. The ride is smooth and refined, with just enough tautness to remind you what the chassis is doing. And, almost disappointingly, you can hardly hear the V8.

But all that’s about to change. We leave the A92 at La Puebla, and find ourselves on a near-deserted stretch of twisty country road that seems to slither its way into the distant mountains. It’s time to unleash the beast.

The M5’s dynamic behaviour can be tailored to suit driver preference and road conditions. Pushbuttons on the centre console adapt the suspension, throttle mapping and steering heft between three settings – Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus. You can also select between three gear shift response grades, and select a sportier setting for the stability control.

Best of all, you can store two sets of settings, and then recall them via two M-mode buttons on the steering wheel. In effect, it allows the driver to change the personality of the M5 at the push of a button.

The next 85km are driving heaven: narrow and undulating, the road twists and turns its way past dusty olive groves and through narrow gorges, with the odd blind rise and off-camber hairpin thrown in to keep the driver guessing.

The ribbon of tar is almost too narrow for the juggernaut BMW, but to the sedan’s credit, it displays a nimbleness and finesse that is at odds with its physical dimensions. The steering has just the right heft and precision to turn the car into corners crisply, and the cog swaps are rapid and percussive – almost like the sequential box of a race car.

Indeed, in this hell-for-leather mode, the M5 does feel more race car than road machine. For all its luxury appointments, its high-tech execution, there’s an underlying rawness and purity of purpose that challenges the driver’s skill, and can even be intimidating.

The car is devastatingly quick. It gathers speed so rapidly that you initially arrive in corners far quicker and at a much higher speed than anticipated. It’s a bit like getting out of a Cessna 172 and trying to pilot a jet – everything just happens much quicker, and much more emphatically.

We arrive at Almargen breathless and exhilarated. The big Michelin gumballs are so hot they’re starting to slide on the heat-hazed tar, and if it was dark, I’m sure the brake discs would be glowing. Yes sir – this M5 is the business. As super saloons go, this one has to be one of the best.

Afternoon traffic means the remainder of the route, now on busier roads, has to be covered at a more sedate pace. The M5 seamlessly reverts to its grand touring role, happily cruising at what now feels like a pedestrian pace, but always ready to unleash the full might of the V8 if a rapid overtaking manoeuvre is needed.

It’s a good time to check fuel consumption on the on-board computer. BMW is particularly proud of the new V8 engine’s efficiency, which it claims sips fuel at a rate of 9.9litres/100km in the combined cycle.

But our experience suggests that you need to drive this car like a granny to get anywhere close to those figures. And let’s face it – granny’s don’t buy M5s. In the twisties, we’ve seen far higher figures, while the highway sections have yielded between 11 and 12 litres to 100km. Realistically, 13 to 14 litres/100km is what you can expect in mixed driving conditions.

Day two dawns bright and breezy. The wind has picked up, and when we arrive at the Ascari racing circuit near Ronda, it’s gusting hard enough to topple the unwary off their feet. You can feel it tugging at the BMW as we wait for our turn to exit the pit lane.

There aren’t too many public roads where a car like the new M5 could show off its true potential. Which is why a visit to a racing circuit like Ascari is a must if you want to get to know the dynamic capabilities of the car better.  The 5.4km circuit has 26 corners and two long straights, as well as undulating and off-camber sections, allowing every facet of the car’s capabilities to be evaluated.

Ascari is smooth and wide, with plenty of run-off – and yet, the M5 makes it feel tight and intimidating in places. Again, it’s the way the BMW gathers speed that catches one unawares: before you know it, you’re on the apex, steering like mad to keep the car on line.

It’s here, where all the dynamic parameters are concentrated in lap after thrilling lap, that the M5 shows its true performance class. Yes, you sense its weight and girth in the inertia under turn-in and when braking hard and late, but the car’s depth of talent is astounding – it retains a finesse and a controllability that is usually the preserve of thoroughbred racing machines.

Even Ascari isn’t big enough to fully exploit the straight-line potential of M5. The quoted 0-100km/h sprint time is 4.4 seconds, and accelerating from zero to 200 takes only 13 seconds. Top speed is traditionally limited to 250km/h, but that limit can be upped to 305km/h – at added cost, of course.

However, for me, it’s the BMW’s tractability, its ability to punch from near standstill to blur speed with a single bootful of throttle, that is its most impressive straight-line trait.

Almost too soon, it’s time to hand the keys back to the smiling hostess, grab our bags, and head for the airport. It’s mid-afternoon, and the siesta means there are virtually no cars on the road. Even the Guardia Civil have retired. 

Time then to reflect on my time behind the wheel of the M5. I’ve driven it on narrow, twisty country roads, on smooth highways, and even in stop/start traffic. And in all those situations, the BMW has delivered emphatically on its super saloon promise.

It’s surprisingly easy to drive, supremely refined, but with the urge and aggression that is at the core of every M-car only a push of a button away. It’s that aggression, together with an appetite for speed, that becomes apparent when you attack a track like Ascari behind the M5’s wheel. It’s unequivocal proof that the M-spirit is alive and well in this latest M5.

In short, the new M5 delivers everything you’d expect of a car wearing the badge. But perhaps more importantly, it offers a breadth of talent that makes this M5 the most complete car of its kind to date. DM




4,395cc V8, twin-turbocharged


Seven-speed M-DCT


412kW @ 6,000 – 7,000rpm


680Nm @ 1,500rpm

0-100 km/h    

4.4 sec

Top speed    

250km/h (governed)

Fuel consumption    

14,8 l/100km (tested)

CO2 emissions    


Retail price    




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