DRIVEN: BMW M5 xDrive M Steptronic

ESTORIL, Portugal – BMW’s new M5 has taken a route that’s becoming all the more common in the performance car realm, ditching its long-standing rear-wheel drive configuration in favour of a new all-wheel-drive setup. It’s a move that will no doubt have the purists moaning, but it could well be a blessing in disguise…

Four on the floor

Much like its closest rival, the Mercedes-AMG E63 S, the new M5 adopts an intelligent AWD system with a transfer case that features a multi-clutch arrangement that can apportion drive fore or aft. This system is supplemented by an active rear differential with a 0-100% locking spread that is designed to counter the understeer that often afflicts powerful AWD cars. The fear that AWD would add considerable mass to the new car is allayed somewhat by the fact that the M5’s item adds only around 60 kg to the overall kerb weight.

Subtle sledgehammer

BMW’s M creations have become progressively subtler of late, and the M5 is an especially demure creature. The obligatory flared arches, more blown-up three-vent front apron and more pronounced exhausts are present and correct. Perhaps the most prominent feature is the car’s carbon-fibre-reinforced-plastic roof panel that, although lighter than a steel equivalent, contributes to a kerb weight that’s only around 15 kg lighter than that of the previous car.

Iron fist

While sweeping changes have taken place in underpinnings of the new BMW M5, the 4,4-litre powerplant has been left largely untouched. Obviously, tweaks to such elements as engine management, fuel injection, turbochargers and the like have seen the outputs climb from the previous car’s 412 kW and 680 N.m to a lustier 441 kW and 750 N.m of twist – outputs that BMW claims will propel the car from standstill to 100 km/h in just 3,4 seconds on the way to a 305 km/h top speed. Those of you who have read our on-paper stats comparison will see that these figures are as close-to-dammit as those of the rival Mercedes-AMG E63 S.

Velvet boots

Given its performance-oriented bearing, the M5’s suspension is surprisingly compliant, allowing it to negotiate the patchwork of road surfaces in a composed and cosseting manner. In fact, on the road the M5 is rather demure. Even with the sports exhaust in full song there’s little other than a subdued burble permeating the cabin and barring the fat steering wheel and more form-fitting seats you could just as well be ensconced in any of the powerful 5 Series models. It’s only when you switch the drive selector into a sportier setting and roll down the window that you’ll become aware of this car’s pedigree as a chorus of blusters, cracks and growls from the tail ricochet off your surroundings.

On the road

Despite the marginal weight difference between them, the newer car’s AWD setup and the progressive yet pleasing manner in which it transfers power to the blacktop makes it feel more balanced and nimbler than the sometimes-portly feeling predecessor. There’s a considerable amount of configurability on offer here, with the steering, damping, transmission and drivetrain each receiving three settings … not to mention the AWD system, which also receives a trio of configurations (AWD, sports AWD and RWD), so crafting a combination that best suits your driving style requires some fiddling.

Once you’ve found your preferred combination, though, the M5 feels satisfyingly wieldy with just enough slack in the leash to allow some tail-wagging with the AWD module in its middle setting. Engage RWD and the M5 becomes unruly enough to placate purists and scare the rest of us. The steering is responsive, while the body control is a bit softer than the E63’s. Still, it’s not stodgy and doesn’t take long to get into the rhythm of how the body settles into tighter sections of road.

Some may argue that the adoption of AWD has eroded some of the old car’s liveliness, but the M5’s engineers have done a sterling job of configuring the performance AWD system in such a way that in most driving scenarios you’d be hard-pressed to tell if the front wheels are chiming into proceedings. But it’s on the track where the sparkle behind the M5’s added drive really comes to the fore.

On the track

Estoril is a bizarre circuit that flits from fast and flowing, to tight and technical with alacrity, lending it perfectly to RWD cars that can skim through corners courtesy of traction and throttle control. Our first couple of laps are undertaken with the M1 button preset to the standard AWD setup. There’s plenty of grip on offer in this configuration, but you can feel the rear sports differential helping to tuck the nose into tighter corners, effectively nixing the nose-heavy understeer that often afflicts larger AWD performance cars.

The next couple of laps saw the M2 button, pre-set to AWD sport, enter proceedings. Here things become livelier but not so loose as to mercilessly spit you out mid-corner. Where margin between stable and sideways was a very thin one the old car, the new M5 feels more progressive and communicative in the manner it transitions from grip to slip.

The verdict

The M5’s impressive grip inspires confidence, while the AWD setup gives just enough latitude so that you can still have some fun. It’s an impressively balanced package, although some may feel that it errs on the slightly conservative side in terms of its cosmetics and in-cabin soundtrack. But these are minor quibbles in a car that looks set to give its Affalterbach rival a serious run for its money.

Fast facts

Model: BMW M5 xDrive M Steptronic
Price: TBA
Engine: 4,4-litre, biturbo V8
Power: 441 kW
Torque: 750 N.m
0-100 km/h: 3,4 sec
Top Speed: 305 km/h
Fuel Consumption: 10,5 L/100 km
CO2: 241 g/km
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Maintenance Plan: 5 yr/100 000 km

ETA: Q1 2018