““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Like the four models before it in their day, the fifth-generation M5 is the standard-bearer of BMW’s craft. It’s also a striking value among new performance cars. BMW’s factory in Dingolfing, Germany, will likely build fewer than 3,000 copies of the M5 each year, and despite the many specially developed components and systems that elevate this car above its non-M stablemates it sells for a relatively paltry $100,000.
Starting the M5’s twin-turbo V8 creates tailpipe noise more akin to the signature boom, crackle and fizz of a Ferrari 430’s or 458’s freshly ignited V8. The seven-speed double-clutch automated manual transmission delivers the 560 horsepower (and 500 lb-ft of torque from as low as 1,500 rpm) to the road with gearshifts that by human perception are as instantaneous as the crack of a .22 bullet leaving the barrel.
Unlike regular 5-series BMWs, the M5 has an electronic limited-slip differential with special mounting hardware for more rigidity; hydraulically boosted variable-ratio steering rather than electric; various body-stiffening additions; brakes with (in the front) six pistons clamping down on special rotors; redesigned suspension with forged aluminum ingredients and, in the rear, a cradle mounted directly to the body with no bushings; and so on and on, to the point that the approximately $30,000 price premium of the M over the rear-wheel-drive (as opposed to X-Drive) 550 is palatable. Base price on this test car was $89,900 and the bottom line on the sticker was $103,195.
Competing for the affections of driving enthusiasts who want seats for four/five and four doors, the M5 is up against the Audi S6, Cadillac CTS-V, Jaguar XF-R and Mercedes E63 AMG, and your own test drives will be the final decider among that lineup.
My daily drive for the past five years has been the M5 from 2003, the last year for the E39 model before it was replaced by the V10-powered E60, and comparing my car with the new edition is one measure of how far cutting-edge sport sedans have come in 10 years.
For essentially the same money in real dollars, the new M5 provides major strides in technology over the ’03, but at the expense of raw driver involvement (which includes such warts as my car’s rather long-throw stick shift). My 10-year-old car represents the pinnacle of the sports sedan before it got sucked into the digital age. About all the M/sport button on my ’03 does is change the throttle map for swifter response from the accelerator pedal; stability control is separate, either on or off with a push of the DSC button, and the suspension is not adjustable.
The new model has a multitude of variations to suit individual tastes. M Dynamic Mode has three modes for traction and stability control: full on; MDM, which allows more wheel slip and tail wagging before intervention; and full off, you’re on your own. Sport throttle has three modes to tune the gas-pedal response and alter the engine noise (through the car’s audio system). Dynamic Damper Control electronically changes the valve function of the shock absorbers for three levels of firmness—comfort, sport and sport plus—and M Servotronic does the same for the steering feel. M DCT
Drivelogic changes the gearshift points and the severity of clutch engagement.
The M5’s electronic smarts are finely calibrated. For example, the automatic headlamp control switches between high and low beams when it detects white lights approaching from the opposite direction and red lights growing closer in front; not once in the 500 or so miles I put on this car in darkness did the lights dazzle another driver. The lane warning sounded about an inch before where I estimated the roadway edge or centerline to be. Cruise control nailed the chosen settings without a waver. Everything has a cold precision to it.
No question, the new M5 offers a stunning array of electronic choices that, coupled with that 560-hp “M TwinPower Turbo” V8, makes for an impressive driving experience whether you seek a ride suitable for taking aging parents to dinner or a high-G workout to tickle the synapses. But compared with the 10-year-old car, it’s a somewhat antiseptic experience. The 2013 M5 is CD/graphic-equalizer perfection to the 2003’s pops-and-scratches, what-you-hear-is-what-you-get vinyl.
The new M5 fits the zeitgeist of this digital era, an age that offers a climate-controlled world where people immerse themselves in social media for constant contact, set the thermostat for 65 year-round and switch on a sound generator for the lap of waves on the beach or a thunderstorm at bedtime. It’s all there, but somehow it lacks the authenticity of the raw original—the unvarnished immediacy of personal contact, the sound and feel of the wind as a storm lashes the trees.
I could live with a 2013 M5 because it represents perfection in the modern idiom, but not until my ’03 is an irreparable heap of clapped-out tolerances and oxidation with three wheels in the grave. The way BMW builds cars, that day will be a long time coming. With 150,000 miles on the clock, it’s as tight as the day it was built and has cost me nothing in maintenance so far beyond fluids, filters, tires and one camshaft position sensor ($200 installed). That’s another definition of perfection in my book.