Road Tests

Drive Review: New (2018) BMW M5 is an AWD revolution

If there was one lingering regret following TopGear’s annual Speed Week, it’s pretty clear now. With all-wheel drive sedans now boasting trick clutches feeding power to savvy differentials, the four-door executive supercar has gained a whole new performance repertoire, leaving us to ponder where the latest 2018 BMW M5 would have ranked if the timing had been a little more kind.

In a year that delivered several M derivatives and previewed new M8, 2017 was a vintage year for M, although none threatened major disruption to the BMW M formula quite like the latest BMW M5. Two issues before we fuss over the details; this is the fastest car BMW has on sale, and it’s also the first to debut M xDrive – which is the company’s Swiss Army Knife to its catchphrase Sheer Driving Pleasure. We’re told it will allow owners to access most of the power, more of the time. That’s a good thing, right?  

All-wheel drive makes the latest M5 almost troublingly different from those which went before it. Purists might ponder if this is the next vexing betrayal of those once unshakeable BMW-values, similar to when the brand shunned normally aspirated engines for turbo power or flipped the dynamics with the front-wheel drive Active Tourer. Truth be told, 2017 was a slippery year for all old school automotive recipes and yet we’re driving faster, lighter, cleaner cars than before; progress must be judged on what it delivers, instead of disrupted.  Besides, alongside Audi’s quattro and Merc’s 4MATIC, it is a logical shift to register BMW’s M xDrive into the trifecta.

Without the M, xDrive is the all-wheel drive assurance relevant to everything from an X3 to the 760Li. M5 debuts a skunkworks evolution with an active rear differential responding to micro dalliances embedded within F90’s grey matter. BMW’s conventional xDrive is programmed to recruit traction at the earliest detection of slip, which often delivers a neutered driving experience, because faster isn’t a function of channelling power to the front wheels for traction safety, which eventually promotes understeer. Think early Audis. With the M5 its electromechanical brain is that little bit less paranoid when there’s a deficiency in grip, bestowing risk and reward to the driver through an interactive set of challenges when power converges to the rear wheels.

For years we’ve measured an all-wheel drive’s level of skulduggery by the percentage of rear bias allowed by its centre differential – a metric which always sounded better than it actually was. Not so here, BMW doesn’t quote M5’s rearward drive bias, because those outdated rules don’t apply.

Suspense over, the new BMW M5, or F90 in BMW’s code language, does drift exuberantly but you are required to seek out the setting by diving through the menus, and you really ought to think about where you’re doing this and why. The local shopping centre parking area, is not such a place.

We can confirm that inspiring pre-launch media material of Timo Glock flicking it sideways at the entry to a corner in the most precise arc of Pirelli smoking car-ballet one could imagine, is most representative of BMW’s latest M product – unlike a Nürburgring lap time, which BMW refuses to validate for M5. Off means ‘off’ in the dubious waters of traction control, promising that the front wheels be tasked solely with counter-steering as 441kW and 750Nm instantly overwhelms the rears for 4th gear black lines and flamboyant oversteer.

But for the life of me I just can’t see BMW M5 owners using their car in this rawest mode. It is…unsafe. And slow. It feels as if BMW has had to mitigate engineering advances to serve a perception that decrees BMW M must always be best in rear-wheel drive. Experience the other modes and there remains an unyielding amount of stabilising intervention, preventing that rear wiggle in AWD MDM – which is disappointing considering the mode’s safe but mischievous past. AWD with ESC off is a potential favourite, and the raw tyre shredding in 2WD will dramatically shorten tyre life, but with the broadness of functionality available, you realise new BMW M5 has incredible bandwidth that probably deserves five separate reviews.

Sound confusing? Fortunately, you don’t need to meddle with the electronics or throttle alchemy to spoil a supercar owner’s day. The fastest M car to date has its targets set on last generation supercars, like the 458, with 0-100km/h in 3.4 seconds – versus 4.4 in the Pirelli-burning F10 M5, and if you want it to smash through the electronic speed limiter you can always tick the 305km/h top speed. Even with two axles demanding power, advances to the 4.4-litre’s reworked turbo setup, fuel pressure as well as weight saving negates an increase in fuel consumption.

We’ve only seen new BMW M5 in two colours but there’s no evidence to suggest that a brighter hue will spice the demure shape.

Compared to the First Edition with its matte paint, black alloys and other bits of mascara, the standard M5 has opted for a style that’s going to give other versions (think Competition Package) enough headroom for visual embellishments like carbon splitters, contrasting alloys. The metal work is taut with subtle flares instead of meaty holes of peeled back bodywork around the bumpers, but it is never going to be mistaken for one of the M Sport packages instead of a pure M-car. A notable detail is the carbon roof, a first on any BMW M5, is evidence that BMW’s M-cars have gone on diet, which makes this new M5 lighter than its F10 predecessor.

Inside the usual smattering of M badges remind you that this is the car which brings M xDrive to the world. There are a few differentiators not included on BMW’s 540i – status items denoting M5’s halo positioning. Logically they’re red: the starter button wouldn’t be out of place on a Civic Type R whilst the position of the M1 and M2 buttons are now where one’s thumbs comfortably rest on the inside of wheel. BMW has placed renewed emphasis on ease of configuration – the growing list of driving modes is a clever cheat code to unlocking the M5’s multiple personalities – scaring oneself at one corner, before rushing back to the all-sustaining security of all-wheel drive.

There was a time when M interiors were dull and old, or just not quite as widescreen as a Mercedes or molecular as an Audi. There aren’t a hundred different interior hues to pick from, and while you can select different fragrances for the climate control, BMW M5 as a whole doesn’t confuse itself with superfluous elements. It’s fundamentally an environment which promotes driving involvement. Technology features you have little interest in, never interfere with the experience – an enormous head-up display, great iDrive, one screen (instead of splitting the view) and I’m happy. If you want to use gesture control or talk to your car, change the rpm and speedo gauge to something meaningless, the M5 will take care of that too. Tolerant of gimmicks, but never defaulting to them.

As a driven experience, it rides better than an E 63 S. Didn’t expect that. Minus the boxy seats, there’s unusual pliancy as we wilfully melted Pirelli rubber into Portugal’s scenic drive. On normal roads, at sane speeds, it could have been mistaken for a regular 5 Series – with the benefit of keener body control. Unlike the Mercedes, M5 acts with enduring sophistication. It is civilised at cruising speed, creeps along lazily as if there’s a lightness of 200Nm underfoot and the throttle response is never abrupt in one of the less manic driving modes.

My gut says the E 63 S AMG is still the meteor shower – it has another 100Nm of intimidation – while the M5’s edges are a little smoother, the exhaust note drawing less attention with tighter crackles on an early downshift. Engineered noise? Subtle enough, better with the exhaust enhancement button left alone – strangely. We’ll need to organise one of the biggest shootouts of 2018 to be sure which one strikes the eyes and the heart.

Driving impressions of an M5 would ordinarily require a heavy hoofing for the first four corners, a clockwise scroll of the iDrive and some rapid downchanges. This new one is a very complex M, with a perplexing number of signals nibbling at the electronics as it enters into every corner, wanting to straighten itself out, or reacting to every bump. Yet it’s equally night and day in its transformation from the old BMW M5, it’ll switch character in an instant from a slightly nose-led drive that cooks up the front tyres due to its weight and size to one that feels tremendously supple in rear-wheel drive mode.


  • Price: R1 700 000est
  • 4395cc, 8cyl twin turbo, AWD, 441kW, 750Nm
  • 10.5l/100km, 241g/km CO2
  • 0–100km/h in 3.4secs, 305km/h/h
  • 1930kg
  • VERDICT: There’s a lot of hardware. Right mode and right road, M has waxed AWD
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