“This is one bad bitch,” the valet said as he pulled the Marina Bay Blue 2018 BMW M5 out of the bowels of the parking garage on Manhattan’s West Side for me.
I laughed in response. “You don’t need to tell me twice.”
On paper, the 2018 M5 (F90-generation) is formidable. Earlier in the summer, a fellow auto writer told me that it was the most savagely fast car he’d ever driven. Another UK-based car critic and friend said that it was probably one of the best cars he’d driven this year.
I didn’t really want it to be this way, but the bar had been set. So, it was time for me to finally see about this thing for myself.
(Full disclosure: BMW wanted us to drive the 2018 M5 so badly that it filled one up with a full tank of gas and let me borrow it for a week.)
The F90 M5 is the latest version of the legendary BMW M5—sedans famous and loved for being able to effortlessly blend performance and comfort. Over the years, BMW has given the M5 straight-sixes, a V8 and a V10. Only in the former two generations did BMW controversially switch to twin-turbocharged V8s. And this one is the first M5 that isn’t offered with a manual transmission.
As if that didn’t cause enough pearl-clutching in the M-enthusiast community, BMW also went ahead and gave the 2018 M5 all-wheel drive. It was inevitable. Look, you can’t tune an engine to have 600 horsepower and send it all to the rear wheels in a car people are supposed to be able to drive with dignity.
The M5 has numbers that made me a little nervous. Six-hundred HP, 553 lb-ft of torque, 3.1 seconds from rest to 60. An electronically limited top speed of 155 mph, though I have no doubt that it would smash its way straight past the 200 mph-mark if untethered.
Beneath its vast hood is a 4.4-liter, twin-turbocharged V8—an evolved version of the engine found in the outgoing F10 M5. That engine is now hooked up to an eight-speed automatic, rather than a seven-speed dual-clutch, which can better tolerate the sheer force of the engine’s torque.
Straight up? Yes, everything that’s ever been written about the M5’s vicious acceleration is true. Every word of it. Let’s get that out of the way first.
Coherent thoughts were left far behind after taking off with launch control. There’s so much power, the electronics are so clever and the all-wheel drive grabs so perfectly that every single ounce of the car’s brute force is harnessed and put to a single use: To pull down the moon.
So utterly furious is the acceleration that your brain can barely catch up with what is happening, much less act—which is why it’s good to leave the transmission in its most aggressive shifting mode. There simply wasn’t enough time for me to process how quickly the rev needle was flying up the tach and change gears.
Because, I, the driver, had been reduced to my most basic functions of hanging on and staying alive. That meant keeping my eyes glued on the road and eventually laying on the carbon ceramic brakes (an $8,500 option!) to bring the car down from the triple digits, which were achieved in a breathlessly short amount of time.
Forget your dual-clutch snobbery. The eight-speed auto fitted to the M5 is quick as lightning, making the car feel like it has one long-ass gear. That, combined with the strangely suffocating quality of the run—like you’re being crushed by the acceleration—locks you into a relentless battle with the car, an unshakeable sensation like you’d sooner run out of wits than it would power.
I don’t suggest this game of chicken. You won’t win.
As much of a nuke the engine is, it settles down into a very neutral (if not anonymous) daily driver. It’s composed and quiet on the highway, comfortable and happy to cruise for long periods of time. Thanks to its eight gears, I was able to average about 23 mpg on the interstate, where I spent most of the driving.
The seats are extremely comfortable and the interior is cavernous. The 5 Series isn’t a small vehicle, but at least its size translates to usable interior room. Three adults will fit easily in the back and the trunk swallows up a large amount of luggage without complaint.
Despite being so large, the M5’s steering is able to focus the size of it down to something much smaller. Unlike other BMWs I’ve tested recently, putting the steering into more aggressive modes doesn’t just make it heavier. In this case, it was a marked improvement over the default comfort steering. Even smaller movements off-center resulted in a nice twitch of the nose.
Yet, even with the sharp steering, there is no getting around the fact that the M5 is a big car to lug about. A precise steering column, grabby brakes and a powerful motor can only do so much to disguise sheer physics. There’s just a lot of metal to keep an eye on, and if you happen to drive through somewhere with narrow streets and a lot of obstacles, the M5 gives you a good workout in depth perception.
The car is enormous and heavy, of course, because of all of the extra safety equipment and insulation that BMW has packed on board. While that could very well mean that the new M5 is safer in a crash, it’s also tough to hear anything outside of the car at all. Including the engine. I know that BMW is extremely guilty of piping engine sound into the cabin, but even so, it was hard for me to hear the V8. Yes, the engine doesn’t sound like much, but I still would have liked to hear something.
Like in the previous M5, you also get two M buttons here, painted cherry red and located conveniently near you thumbs on the steering wheel. Depending on how you customize them, I’d recommend M1 for Fucking Shit Up and M2 for Destroying the Sun.
While I love the idea of being able to slip the car into custom settings at the press of a button, there are far too many settings to deal with. Once you open up the M button customization menu, there is an onslaught of driving settings from which to choose. To make it easier for you, I made a chart:
Look at that! Over 2,900 combinations to choose from (David Tracy helped me with the math). Of course, you only have to customize your M button settings and then leave them alone for the rest of the ownership of the car. But when I scrolled through the menu, I did feel a slight spasm of stress zing through my stomach.
There are too many options. Simply too many. Would the car really be worse off if it offered two settings instead of three? Are six different settings for the transmission alone necessary? Can anyone truly tell the difference between D2 and S2? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should is all I’m saying.
And around town, the gearbox seemed perpetually unhappy downshifting, shuddering and jerking through the gears until a stop. This was very confusing, as I didn’t have issues in the X3 M40i while doing the same things. It was almost reminiscent of the SMG transmission in the E60-generation, V10 M5.
The M5 is one of those cars that’s intimidating when you poke it, because it feels that much more capable than you are at everything. Its limits are so high above both what you’re accustomed to and what’s remotely legally allowed that you feel like a kid who’s outgrown their favorite playground when you drive it on familiar roads.
The twists and turns are where you’ve left them, but you’ve also returned much larger and faster. The resulting experience is pure claustrophobia, like you can never fully stretch out, like you can never fully extend your limbs.
The M5’s greatest strength is also its most crippling weakness. Having 600 HP is incredible and amazing, but the places where you’ll realistically use all of it are tragically limited. It’s simply too much power.
The times when I did get to cut the car loose were glorious. The chassis is big but the car feels stable, yet you’ll never be fooled into thinking that you’re driving a small car. I didn’t push the M5 hard enough to screw up and be saved by the AWD system, though. You’ll have to read Robb Holland to find out what that’s like. I like not going to jail.
When I had the M5, I treated it like hard liquor: potentially as dangerous as it is fun. So exercising caution while you’re enjoying it is the best way to make sure nobody ends up dead.
Base MSRP for the M5 comes to $102,600. My loaner, loaded up with options like the executive package, carbon ceramic brakes, 20-inch wheels and the Bowers & Wilkins sound system, came to $129,795. That’s basically how much the Mercedes-AMG E63S wagon that we tested came to.
Philosophically, the two are extremely similar. Turbocharged V8s, all-wheel grip, massive power, German heritage. The AMG has a much nicer interior, though. If interiors make or break the deal for you, then I’d point you in the way of Affalterbach.
Because there have been such colorful characters in the M5 yearbook, you can’t talk about a new M5 without bringing up one of the old ones. In particular, I’m talking about the V10 M5, one of the greatest cars that I’ve ever driven.
It was ferocious and, above all, raw. You’d floor it and hear the scream of the V10 in your very blood, feel the raggedness of the SMG slam through the gears as you accelerated. The car threw you into a mosh pit and made you beg for more.
The new M5, by contrast, is like an axe. A war-axe, yes, capable of toppling forests, but still an axe all the same. As in, not a precision instrument. Somewhere along the way of striving to make the best sedan king it possibly could, BMW packaged up the soul of the car and then just... didn’t... include it. Maybe because soul makes a car imperfect. Inefficient.
That might be a little unfair to say, but driving around in the M5 for close to a week, I felt like I was so insulated from the sound and the road that I just didn’t meld with it like I did with the earlier M5. Too many layers between me and the guts of the thing. Too calibrated, too smooth, too mechanical. Immense impersonality as a symptom of its perfection.
Because the new M5 is good. Too good, even. But if you get one for the performance chops, you’d better make damn sure that you have the room to use it. Otherwise you’re just wasting it.