Techno-junkies and A.I. aficionados like to refer to something called ‘the singularity,’ the point at which our digital achievements accelerate at so rapid a rate they eclipse society’s ability to understand them.
In the world of sports sedans, that’s already happened, and the 2018 BMW M5 is the latest proof writ in glass and metal.
It took only a few spins around the Circuito de Estoril (just outside of Lisbon, Portugal) in the newest M car for me to realize that the days of human beings having to work hard for dazzling lap times in a vehicle they can also comfortably drive across the country are now officially over.
Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it’s the Germans who have whole-heartedly embraced the digitization of performance to the point where all one has to do is open the door, push the engine start button, and point the steering wheel in the general direction of the finish line in order to experience the kind of speed and handling prowess from a plus-size 4-door luxury car that a mere decade ago would have required professional-level driving skills to pull off.
Keeping up with the Joneses
After years of resistance, BMW’s M division has fully embraced the trifecta of a turbocharged engine plus an automatic transmission plus an all-wheel-drive system in its highest-profile model, the M5, joining rivals Mercedes-AMG and Audi RS in presenting a front of Teutonic hegemony manifested in frighteningly fast cars wrapped in surprisingly accessible packages.
Sure, there are a few hold-outs from this formula, such as Cadillac with the CTS-V and Alfa Romeo with the Giulia Quadrofoglio, that cling to the old super sedan standard of a lively rear-wheel-drive chassis. Up until now the BMW M5 had also been a bearer of that particular performance torch.
The singularity, however, is all-encompassing, and faced with a world where well-moneyed customers have been trained by extremely successful marketing campaigns to demand not just the full-season capability of all-wheel drive but also the ability to boast of harnessing 600-plus horsepower without fear of spilling their coffee on the way to work in the morning, BMW had no choice but to spin all four wheels towards destiny.
Docile in daily driving, a terror on the track
Lest you think me a purist bemoaning days gone by when men and women had to toil in the traction mines to earn their keep on a race track, I have no beef with the 2018 BMW M5 marching to the beat of a modern, highly-amplified, studiously-perfected drum.
It’s irrational to compare the current M with those of days gone by, because when customers visit the BMW showroom they’re not going to be cross-shopping by way of a time machine. They’re going to head across the street to see what’s waiting for them on a competitor’s lot.
This is the reason why the BMW M5’s 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 engine now pushes out 600 horsepower and 553 lb.-ft. of torque, numbers that put it on even footing with the 603-hp Mercedes-AMG E 63 S and the 605-hp Audi RS7. You can thank a new set of turbos, plus extensive exhaust work, for the torque blip (53 lb.-ft. over its predecessor), along with the 40 additional ponies compared to last year’s base M5 (25 more than models equipped with the last-generation car’s Competition package).
It’s also the reason why the M5’s third pedal has been banished, as there’s not a single member of the executive sedan elite from Germany, America, or otherwise, that still clings to the concept of flesh-and-bone shift lever actuation.
The new M5’s 8-speed automatic was perfectly composed on the highways leading from downtown Lisbon to Estoril, and it also handled creeping traffic without any undue surliness.
But at the track, when the Drivelogic selector on the center console was set to shorten shift times as much as possible, the gearbox came alive and provoked exactly the right response from the mammoth 8-cylinder lump under the hood whether I tapped a paddle or simply mashed my foot to the floor.
Sign on the dotted line to eliminate the safety nannies
BMW’s M-tuned version of xDrive all-wheel drive was similarly Janus-like in how it presented itself.
The unit borrows almost all of its design from the xDrive you’d find in the standard 5 Series, save for a torque-vectoring rear differential and the girded loins of a few key internal components that have been buttressed against the onslaught of turbocharged torque.
Where the M5 differentiates itself from its siblings is in the lines of code called upon to shunt power from the rear wheels to the front, the M5 operating primarily as a rear driver unless traction conditions dictate assistance from the forward axles.
This is no mere lip-service to the concept of a rear-biased AWD system, either, because should you so desire it’s possible to swap out of the car’s default ‘4WD’ mode (BMW’s term) and engage ‘4WD Sport,’ which in combination with the M Dynamic drive setting renders the stability and traction control systems surprisingly tolerant of tail-wagging antics on the race track.
If you wish to go full opposite-lock, the M5 will oblige you by way of its 2WD mode, but only after you’ve signed the waiver of responsibility by disabling stability and traction control completely.
In addition to these segment-exclusive all-wheel-drive features, the BMW M5 is also outfitted with a full range of steering, suspension, and exhaust settings accessible to the driver via console buttons or, if you’d prefer to mix and match to create your own perfect setup, you can save a unique combination of attributes for easy access by coding it to one of the two M buttons on the steering wheel.
All of this Silicon-cum-Rhine Valley voodoo came together in rather spectacular fashion while lapping the F1 circuit at speeds cresting 160 mph. The explosive nature of the M5’s acceleration was simultaneously attenuated and amplified by its AWD system, which introduced almost no trace of understeer while putting 600 horses to the rough-finished Estoril asphalt and hauling the car out of each corner with supreme confidence.
When switched to 4WD Sport there were moments when the BMW sedan’s impression of a dialed-in, rear-drive platform proved quite convincing, particularly when rotating the car through a set of S-curves. The 2WD setting, however, is clearly designed to put a smile on your face rather than plop you on the podium, as the required absence of traction control combined with the car’s Montana-flat torque curve conspired to keep the car smoking and sideways when I got on the throttle mid-corner.
M5 drives great, but is less filling…in terms of your bank account
You may have noticed that up until now I’ve avoided discussion of how the 2018 BMW M5 looks either inside or out, and that’s because, well, it’s really quite similar to any other well-spec’d version of the current-generation 5 Series.
Sure, you get a more aggressive aero treatment front and rear, M call-outs in the trim, quad exhaust tips, unique 20-inch rims wrapped in sticky Pirelli rubber, and the option of gold-plated carbon ceramic brakes (not to mention spiffy M-stitched sport seats), but paint it silver and you’ll be able to park it in front of your office without inciting a revolution among your rank and file.
In fact, the next-step-down on the 5 Series rung, the M550i xDrive, is so competent that it threatens to eat into what was once the M5’s core customer. While the M550i might be down 150 horsepower compared to the true M Division monster, its 480 lb.-ft. of torque and standard all-wheel drive allow it to reach 60 mph from a standing start just a half second or so behind the M5’s 3.4-second measure. The M550i lacks the track pedigree of the M5, of course, but the percentage of BMW customers who plan to exercise the beast anywhere other than public roads is vanishingly small.
In the real world, it’s a safe bet that at least a few would-be M5 buyers wouldn’t mind saving nearly $30,000 of its $102,300 sticker price and be just as happy driving home with an M badge of a different sort on the deck lid.
As such, it would also seem that the automotive singularity has brought everything so close together so quickly that it’s threatening to blur the lines not just between what rivals have to offer, but also the driving experiences delivered by brothers in arms with the same marque.
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