There's a well run-in BMW M4 GTS in front of me travelling quickly. At the wheel is none other than Timo Glock, one of BMW's hot-shoe factory racing drivers with Formula One and Champ Car experience to his name. And we're on BMW's home turf, the Miramas test track in France. I have no chance of keeping up, have I? And yet, I'm not worried, because I'm driving what I predict to be one of BMW M's most talked about cars in years, its brand-new M5, the sixth iteration of the indisputably iconic nameplate.
I can name a few reasons why I'm not concerned. First up, BMW M has breathed on its twin-turbocharged 4.4L V-8 to release more power. Helmut Gehrig, project manager for the M5 project, won't tell us what his team of engineers has done or what the results are as yet, but he will admit that the new car has "a little more power than before." We predict that means about 620 hp and 540 lb-ft, though a day spent in a prototype version of the car makes us suspect those figures may be even a little pessimistic. Helping it along is a weight reduction over the old car, despite all the new hardware (which I'll get to in a moment). A cool carbon-fiber roof assists with that, and brings the center of gravity down a touch, but most of the gains are from the new "G30" body structure, which is more than 200 pounds lighter than its predecessor.
Further enhancing speed and efficiency is the adoption of an eight-speed "M Steptronic" transmission, usurping the seven-speed dual-clutch item of the previous M5. This change is marked by the arrival of a chunky new shifter in the center console, but we're pleased to see that three-mode Drivelogic is retained, allowing the driver to select just how fast and abrupt he'd like the gear changes. Keen drivers will be glad to hear that there's still a fully manual mode, operated by the lever or tactile gear change paddles behind the steering wheel, and this transmission is very quick to respond to input, blipping the throttle on each downshift, allowing flat-out upshifts and even multiple-gear down changes. In its fastest setting, it's just as exciting to use as the previous item, while always being a little bit smoother and easier to live with. That steering wheel is new, too, and the M1 and M2 customizable buttons have been enlarged and positioned in a more prominent location on the spokes of the wheel. Just as well, as there are even more driver settings to choose from then ever before.
That's because—wait for it—the BMW M5 has gone all-wheel drive. It shouldn't be a shock to the system, given that AMG has gone that way for the E-Class, but there's no doubt that it raises a lot of questions from diehard M fanboys. BMW calls the system M xDrive, to differentiate it from the all-wheel-drive system offered in many of its regular cars. Having tested all its modes in the wet and dry on track, I can safely say that, not only is this quite unlike any other all-wheel-drive BMW, it's quite unlike virtually any other car on the planet that sends its power to all four wheels.
There's nothing dramatically surprising about the hardware itself. At the back is an updated Active M Differential, now using carbon plates for more precise control and feedback. As ever, it apportions power to the rear wheels, infinitely between 50:50 and 100 percent to one side. There's a transfer case in the middle of the car that divides up the torque front to rear, again in an infinite range between fully front-wheel drive and fully rear-wheel drive. Up front there's a regular open differential. The clever part of the M5 is, according to Dirk Hacker, vice president engineering, BMW M Division, the integrated control of all of this, plus the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system, via a new central intelligence unit with software programmed in-house at BMW M. "It is not a closed loop control system," Hacker says, "it uses what we call a feed forward strategy."
What that boils down to is that there is no such thing as a fixed power split between front and rear axles. Instead, BMW M sets longitudinal and lateral dynamic targets, depending on driving mode selected, and the whole system adapts to meet those requirements using input from the driver and other sources. But acknowledging that M5 drivers vary, from those who do nothing but cruise around looking good, to the very rare few who actually push their cars to the limit on a racetrack, BMW M has developed a new setup facility that's incredibly easy to use and also key to unlocking the full potential of the M5.
At start-up, by default, the xDrive system is in AWD mode and the DSC is switched on. Literally anyone could jump into the M5 in this guise and drive as fast as they dare. It's secure, stable, and the electronics are quick to intervene to prevent any slip or instability whatsoever. Given that we had a wide test track to play with, you'll forgive us for not sticking to that mode for very long... Next up, press the DSC button once to initiate the M Dynamic Mode. This has been part and parcel of BMW M cars for years, but in the new M5 it also switches the M xDrive system into 4WD Sport mode, and the car starts to come alive. There's much more of a rear-drive feeling on the exit of curves as you put your foot down, though the DSC still reins things in if it thinks you're being a little exuberant. This is Helmut Gehrig's favorite mode, and we reckon it's the best suited to use on the public street, where driving beyond a car's limits isn't really socially acceptable. Even so, it allows the driver of the M5 to have a lot of fun.
But, for those who want more, there's a lot more. Hold down the DSC button until a warning in the instruments tells you it's turned off and another option menu pops up on the touchscreen, allowing the driver to choose between 4WD, 4WD Sport, and, praise be, 2WD. To be clear, that's not front-wheel drive. Before getting to that, it should be pointed out that the two 4WD options are suddenly, entertainingly, hugely more fun with the DSC switched off. The car flows through a curve smoothly, finding plenty of grip and there's a discernible difference between the two settings as well.
The first is much more neutral, keeping the rear end in check and allowing super-fast lapping of a track with little in the way of oversteer. Likewise, understeer is all but absent, unless you wrench the wheel into a turn, causing the front tires to scrub wide, of course. On a streaming wet-handling circuit, it was possible—with a lot of provocation—to get the M5 to hold a drift in this mode, but it's done so with all four wheels pointing in the same direction, like an oversized rally car on ice.
Go for 4WD Sport and it's more of a hooligan, allowing full-on drifting in the wet or dry if you push it hard, or just a deliciously rear-led stance if you don't want to attract the attention of the authorities (and tire-fitters with dollar signs in their eyes). This setup is brilliantly judged, making the driver feel like a hero, while still giving a characteristically BMW M rear-drive sensation.
And then there's 2WD mode for the purists who aren't afraid of going beyond the limits of adhesion and more than likely themselves. Remember, this is only accessible when the DSC is switched off, so you really are on your own. Cast your mind back to the "F10" M5, which was fast and fun but didn't telegraph what it was doing, meaning those who played with the limits of grip had to learn their way around the chassis rather than feel what was happening. BMW has insisted it's returning to its roots of making actual drivers' cars; we might just believe it. The new car, despite the move to an electrically assisted steering rack, is much better at communicating with the driver, clearly indicating how close to the limits the tires are. That meant it took us no time at all to feel comfortable driving it in 2WD mode, both on a fast, dry circuit and sideways for the camera around the soaking-wet handling facility. Hell, we even managed to keep Timo Glock honest for a few laps.
Does this mean BMW is back? If other cars follow suit to this M5, it is certainly on its way. It might seem counterintuitive to think that the addition of all-wheel drive, electronic differentials, and loads of computers is what it takes to get BWM back to its old driving-dynamics-focused self, but if we look around that industry, to deliver the level of performance customers expect along with the driving experience, technology is exactly what it takes. This car is substantially bigger than any e34 or e39 driver would have ever thought an M5 could be. This is, however, what the market demands for this class of car.
The cars we drove here were as close to production as possible, although it is fathomable that the cars might even get just a little better with final tweaks. We can't wait to get into the production version in just a few more months. Look out, Timo, we're coming for you.