Nick Hall plumbs the hidden depths of BMW's four-seat GT
With a day on a race circuit followed by a jaunt along the south coast of France to the Monaco Grand Prix and a 12-hour drive home to England, I never thought the satnav would prove the major factor in my long-distance test of BMW’s M5.
But as we left Nice expecting the fastest route, the system had other ideas. It wasn’t until we crossed the Italian border, into a tunnel that marked the first of 1000 more mountains, that we realised how wrong we’d gone.
Not one person agrees with that computer, which may not have factored in the human need for self preservation on fearsome mountain passes, but this major detour turned out to be a serious blessing. It gave me a chance to re-evaluate this elegant giant, the opportunity to fall for its charms.
The 200km drive through the Alps, first to the North to Turin and then to the West across the mountain range to Grenoble, is the stuff of dreams. Even at 11pm, in pitch darkness, with a light drizzle forming and homicidal locals in high-powered Mercedes, 360s and knackered hatchbacks all taking the racing line.
There was a simple choice: drive slow and safe and emerge from the Alps at dawn or join the impromptu Deathrace 2000 along the road that looked like it was thrown at the side of the mountain. Not much of a choice at all then…
Roads like this tell you everything about a car’s handling as theoretical performance pales into insignificance next to the feel offered through the wheel. Forget 205mph top speeds, ours was limited to just over 160mph. In any case, it’s these places that lay a car’s soul bare and, jacked down to its hardest settings, it was here that the M5 finally proved it had the heart to back up its technical excellence.
The only thing that limited the speed was my valour with the right foot. Even at 130mph on a narrow mountain road, this £61,760 supercar in sheep’s clothing had plenty left for those blind bends and when I thought I’d badly overcooked it I only found more grip.
The gearbox suddenly made sense, the heads-up display became an invaluable part of the driving process and the true qualities of the car came to the fore. It’s not a super saloon in the traditional sense, it’s a grand touring supercar with a BMW badge.
It can hang with the Aston Martin DB9 and Ferrari 612 Scaglietti and taken on purely on merit is better than either at a fraction of the price. Forget the ‘rivals’ from AMG and Jaguar, they’d be lucky to stay in the same time zone on these roads.
A work of genius
BMWs are much more of a ground-up rework than the AMG Mercs. They tend to beef up what’s already there, while this car is built around that award-winning transmission. The suspension is 5 Series based, but you wouldn’t know it when hustling down a dangerous road with every block of rubber sending bulletins by e-mail every fraction of a second back to the wheel.
Considering its looks, weight and versatility, that makes it a phenomenal car, one of the very best in the world. It’s genius.
And this was a dramatic turnaround, as I’d left the circuit part of our test non-plussed. Yes it was quick and sounded good but the track served only to highlight that this was a heavy road car doing an exceptional job of hiding its 1,755kg. It kept coming back to the same thing: massively competent, amazing engineering, but lacking true inspiration.
To be fair, it just wasn’t the right environment to judge a four-seater car that rides so well round town. I also had other things to worry about, too. Sitting next to Mark Hales, sometime Pistonheads contributor, international racer extraordinaire and former colleague in my former days on CCC magazine, I suddenly felt like a learner out on my first lesson and fell apart in quite spectacular style. I put that car through everything, taking a whole chicane on the brakes and dropping a wheel on the grass at more than 100mph while attempting to use that last inch of track.
To their infinite credit, neither car nor Mark flinched once. However, the track work served only to prove that there is an awful lot of technology calling the shots and keeping this car on the straight and narrow. But as this car is aimed at the executive who simply wants a little more pleasure than the big Mercs and Jags can provide, that’s got to go down in the plus points column.
I loved the seats, too, with bolsters that fire up according to the corner to hold the driver like a full-bore bucket job, but couldn’t find the button to make the work under my own steam for the remainder of the trip. On occasion the M5 made me feel like my granddad trying to programme the video.
Too much technology?
Some gadgets left me cold. At 28, I’m too young to be a dinosaur and, even though that gearbox that is undoubtedly a technical marvel, I can’t fully embrace paddle-shifters and I am still gagging to get hold of the six-speed manual M5 and M6 currently under consideration.
And while the manual mode of the SMG proved spectacular on the open road, giving that racing feel with a dirty V10 wailing soundtrack, including that cool throttle blip, on the circuit it refused a few of the most aggressive change downs when the computer said the revs were too high.
Setting the car up via the iDrive, from 11 gearchange possibilities through the adjustable levels of traction control, might be an engineer’s wet dream, too. But a great car is one that you can step into and feel at one with, and the M5’s very depth prevents that happening. BMW may have got carried away with what was possible, rather than producing a simple system to suit most styles.
As it stands, getting the most from your M5 might require a night class. Lean on the gadgets and they’ll have your back, but this is technical tour de force rather than a car hewn from raw emotion.
Thankfully the driver’s favourite settings, in our case fast, hard and frantic, can be accessed with a touch of the wheel-mounted M button. Nudge the button and the car tangibly perks up like a startled dog, the response is fast enough to make this a near Nuclear Overtake button. Push it, and nothing will resist the move.
You won’t drive this car in 500bhp+ super crazy mode the whole time: it’s just unnecessary. It’s nice to know it’s there, though, and at the touch of a button at that. The launch control system feels like a violent assault, too, but perfect racing start takes about six steps to engage to prevent litigious Americans maiming themselves just enough to sue big-time.
There were other downsides: fuel stops every 200 miles when pressing on, a footprint so wide it barely made it onto the runners of the Channel Tunnel train, and the fact that it doesn’t look all that different to the standard 5. On the autoroute it all felt downright boring at sane speeds, too -- this vehicle's natural gait is about 130mph and that can get you in trouble more or less everywhere.
The result is a subtle car that can match the very best Grand Tourers of today, costs about 70 per cent less, doesn’t have an obnoxious badge on the front and can live its life as a fruity sounding 5 Series at the push of a detune button. The fact that the M6 should be even better and have that sporting killer instinct and feel that the M5 lacked suggests the ultimate performance car tags might well be warranted.
This verdict could so easily have gone the other way, had the satnav not had the forethought to send us via the most challenging route it could find. Maybe it knew what we were thinking, it is that clever after all.
On that road, I could bang up the box and back down again as required with just a few finger clicks – Playstation-style – when a manual box and heavy clutch would have killed me. On that road, I could power out of bends with all the confidence in the world knowing I had more electronic back-up than Microsoft. On that road, this M5 would have slaughtered the car I wished I’d been driving.
On that road, this car was inspired.