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The 2018 BMW M5 Makes Peace In The War Between RWD And AWD

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You won’t be shocked to learn that the 2018 BMW M5 is fast, comfortable and expensive. But the big M sedan’s switch to all-wheel drive has raised some eyebrows. Rest assured, BMW’s done it well. And they’ve done it much differently than you might expect.

(Full Disclosure: BMW wanted me to come and drive the new M5 so badly that it flew me out to Portugal fed me good food and drink, graciously let me drive the i3s for a whole day in Lisbon traffic, then let me lose on the Estoril circuit in this monster sedan.)

When we first heard that the new M5 was going AWD, I’m sure some monocles fell into champagne flutes at Audi’s HQ in Ingolstadt. After all, Audi’s famously been all-wheel drive all the time in his performance vehicles since forever and BMW was traditionally, well, more for rear-drive traditionalists.

I’m also confident it’s more than a coincidence the head of BMW’s M Division, Frank Van Meel, is an ex-Audi guy. Head of the quattro division that created the last-gen RS6, no less.

Van Meel’s latest creation, the 2018 M5 BMW, takes a righteous 4.4-liter V8 with two turbos, 600 horsepower and 554 lb-ft of torque and mates it to BMW’s xDrive AWD system. But there’s more to the formula than simply pushing a lot of power to every wheel.

The defining characteristic, philosophically and mechanically, of Audi’s newest quattro system is an inherent front-wheel drive bias. Audi sends more power initially to the front wheels (60 percent front, 40 percent rear), transferring power as-needed when a maneuver calls for more grip.

BMW has taken the exact opposite approach. The M xDrive sends 100 percent of the car’s power to its rear wheels by default, diverting to the front sparingly or not at all at the behest of the driver.

The M5 has a true RWD mode which excludes the front axles from duty completely, a 4WD mode that manages power most efficiently across all four paws, and a 4WD Sport which is calibrated specifically to trick you into feeling like you’re in a rear-driver, but subtly save your ass should some slippage arise. Big red buttons located behind the steering wheel make switching modes easy on the fly.

Besides ABS, all of the car’s other electronic safety systems can be turned off to let the car run wild or left on to keep you from crashing. In fact, the “M1” and “M2” buttons that control the selection of M sport modes are fully programmable, allowing drivers to configure two individual configurations of settings for the M xDrive, stability control, engine response, transmission behavior, damper and steering characteristics.

In 4WD Sport mode, BMW’s DSC stability control seems to have a soft-touch, but it’s actually working pretty hard. The system helps you haul ass by bolstering your confidence with predictability. This is not a grumpy old traction control setup that just cuts power when things start to slide. It feels like it’s working with you, not against you.

The 4WD capabilities of the 2018 M5 also allow it to accelerate from 0 to 100 kph, or 62 mph, in a hysterically quick 3.4 seconds. That’s almost a full second faster than the outgoing rear-drive M5! The extra 40 HP and a few pounds weight reduction help the new car smoke the old M5, too.

Most M5s will probably spend their lives valet parked. But on a race track, this meaty monster has more capability than any cushy five-passenger people mover has any right to.

Rolling out on a very chilly Estoril circuit behind three-time DTM Champion Bruno Spengler, I was about to learn all I needed to know about the M xDrive. Despite the ancient (it was the site of Ayrton Senna’s first F1 win) tire-chewing asphalt of the aging Estoril circuit offering a huge heap of grip, things were on the slippery side thanks to the low early morning temps.

Spengler had already spent several days showing various members of the media around the track, so he was completely up to speed already and hit the pit exit at full chat, giving me almost no chance to feel things out.

However, my initial half lap read on the car was that the new M5 was very similar to the last-gen version: Basically, a big rear-wheel drive sedan with boat loads of power with lots of weight and lots of momentum in motion.

I was rolling hard into the throttle to chase down a fast disappearing ex-DTM champ and exiting the long sweeping right hand turn coming onto the front straight, the big Bimmer’s tail stepped out with enough speed to let me know that if I didn’t make some adjustments in a hurry, it was going to do its damnedest to embarrass the hell out of me.

But the M xDrive system, sensing I could use a bit more grip than the rear tires were able to give, began sending power to the front wheels. And the Lord said, “Let there be Grip!”

Now instead of wanting less throttle, I needed more. A lot more.

It’s an odd sensation, if I’m honest. Every fiber of your being is telling you that the rear is about to come around if you don’t get out of the gas, but it never does. By the time the rear tires get to the point of no return, the fronts are already engaged and pulling like a freight train.

You can throw the M5 into a corner with the huge aggression and opposite lock of an all-wheel drive car, then use the throttle to rotate the car, like a rear-wheel drive car. But instead of having to modulate the throttle to control the amount of slip in the rear, you can just punch it knowing that the fronts are there to help you out. Once you can wrap your head around that feeling, the fun really begins.

Typically, when I do these new performance car tests, my first time in the car is at a track I may or may not know, chasing a top level pro driver who has been driving that car at that track for several days before I get there.

This means, like I said earlier, I have no time to really get a feel for the car and what it does at the limit (and lets be honest, I’m far too competitive to let another driver show me up, to drive around at three-quarter speed and figure it out). So because of how I have had to learn these cars so quickly, I have come up with something I like to call Robb’s Alternative Theory of Aggressive Speed and Stability.

My theory is that the more confidence-inspiring a car is the quicker a driver, pro or amateur, can get dialed in on it and start to approach it limits. It’s very telling then, that the new M5 was so stable and surefooted that I was hanging the tail out of every corner by lap six around Estoril, a circuit I had never been on until that morning.

After my morning track antics, I was really looking forward to our planned drive through the twisty narrow back roads of the Portuguese countryside.

Getting into the big M5 feels like getting into any other 5 Series, mainly because the interior is virtually identical to its less sporting siblings. There are a few splashes of red highlights thrown at the starter and sport mode buttons (because red means sporty right?) and the digital display screen is M specific. That’s pretty much where the special prettiness ends.

In fact, the only real noteworthy interior change is the set of M sports seats with electric adjustment, seat heating trimmed in Merino leather. Bigger, bolstered M multifunction seats with better lateral support are available as an option.

Gadgets and everyday assistance tech in the M5 is pretty much the same as what you get in any other 5 Series: Wi-Fi hotspot, news and weather apps, Google Online POI search, and Apple Car Play. The navigation system has real time traffic, speed limit information and 3D navigation.

I did find the navigation system struggled, from time to time, to inform me of the right exit at roundabouts.

Perhaps that had more to do with GPS interference from the smoke coming off the rear Pirelli P Zero tires then a fault with the system itself…

But the Bowers & Wilkins stereo system is so auditorially glorious that I could have seriously skipped the hot laps and just sat in the Estoril parking lot all day listening to tunes.

My current reference system is the Volvo V90, which coincidentally (or not) is a B&W system as well. Keep up the good work, chaps.

Now the one disappointment for all you “Save the manual” club members is that there will be no manual transmission option for the M5– ever again. When I asked Van Meel why, you know where this is going- nobody bought a manual F10. So expect to have a hard time finding one used, if that’s your scheme.

But I was even more nervous when I found out that the only transmission available in the new M5 is a new eight-speed M Steptronic transmission, which is a regular-old automatic. There is no double clutch transmission option, and BMW has done DCTs so well before.

As it was explained to me by the M engineers: this was a performance decision, as the automatic is actually faster than the old dual-clutch transmission so many of us have loved. They told me that the torque converter is already fully locked as soon as the car starts moving, so shifts are close to instantaneous.

I’m not sure how much of that was marketing speak, but I will say that both on track and around town, I never once was left waiting when I needed to drop several gears in a hurry. And transmission’s shift mapping can be changed on the fly. Mode 1 is for daily, around town driving. Mode 2 shortens up the shift times a bit. Mode 3 is fully dialed for the track with extremely short shift times.

You can still shift manually if you want though, with paddles around the steering wheel, with no automatic override.

As performance-oriented as BMW M has made the new M5, there is one aspect from which it cannot hide: it’s immense size. It’s huge. I’m talking last-gen 7 Series huge. And this isn’t just from memory, as BMW generously brought all of the past iterations of M5 to Estoril for us to play with, from the E28S M5 all the way to the F10M M5. The new car dwarfs its predecessors.

That said, the new F90 M5 is actually lighter than its predecessor by about 33 lbs. However, it is larger in every other dimension. This becomes readily apparent on the narrow Portuguese roads outside of Lisbon. Especially when you’re trying to get by a delivery van on a crowded cobblestone street. Getting this thing through European city traffic, at times, was like trying to pack all your possessions for a three-month trip in a fanny pack.

But the car’s nimble enough to thread needles it has no business being near, so I made it across town without any scratches or soiled seats.

After a few laps around a town and track, I’m confident calling the 2018 F90 M5 one of the most capable four-door performance cars on the planet. But more than that, it’s a solid answer on debates over AWD versus RWD performance: Why not have both?