A tale of two BMWs
These are the two most interesting BMWs on sale today. Which one would you choose?
Imagine. There you are, standing at the door of your local BMW dealer with €150,000 burning your bank account. You love cars and you love driving. On the right corner, the new BMW M5, a 600-horse power monster; on the left corner, the recently revised i8 which, four years on, is still the most futuristic-looking car on sale today.
So, is this a duel? You betcha.
I drove these two cars two weeks apart and, for different reasons, obviously, they were both spectacular and I started wondering which one, given the choice, I would buy. We need to get into the specifics to find an answer.
First, the M5. This is the sixth generation of the supersaloon that has defined the breed for the last 35 years. The fifth generation swapped a naturally aspirated V10 based on the block that powered BMW’s F1 car for a turbocharged V8. Critics were swift to point out the M5 had lost its soul but then the first reviews started to come out and they became a bit quieter.
The new M5 builds on the last car’s best bits and gives it an extra layer of involvement, despite this being the first 4×4 M5 ever, supposedly to satisfy the North American market’s desire for greater all-weather ability. The big Beemer’s M xDrive four-wheel drive system is set-up to be rear-driven as a default, sending torque to the front axle only as needed, via a chain drive and electronically actuated clutch. Hope that wasn’t too confusing. I’ll carry on this technical part for a little while longer because I think it’s necessary to understand the car. Sitting on the rear axle, between the wheels, lays BMW’s Active M differential, which can vary from 100% open to 100% locked faster than you can say the B in BMW.
To control those two systems, the active damping and the dynamic stability control systems, BMW developed a new ‘chassis brain’ that oversees each system ECU and can override it if it thinks it necessary, in order to make sure the car is following the driver’s orders. It’s all very, very clever, but driving it, it feels pretty normal, which is mesmerising given everything that is working beneath you.
The engine is a 4.4 litre V8 with two new turbochargers and a higher-pressure fuel injection, resulting in a ferocious 600 horse power. There are numerous chassis changes to accommodate that much grunt and bigger brakes too – with carbon ceramics as an option.
Let’s be clear about one thing: you cannot use the M5’s performance on a public road. It is just not possible. 0-100km/h in 3.2 seconds in a two-tonne car is playing loose with the laws of physics. Yes, eventually you will find an empty stretch of highway where you can press the Sport button and unleash the car’s potential, but in no time there will be a voice in your head asking: “wow, does your driver’s licence mean that little to you?”
The thing is, people buy this car because of what it can do and not what they do with it. No one is taking an M5 to the track. These cars will be used just like a regular diesel 520d, meaning they need to feel special even at 50km/h or there will be no point in buying one. Happily, the M5 feels spectacular at 50km/h or less. It feels spectacular parked on the street, not moving at all. It is, by all accounts, a spectacular car.
It stands out from a normal Five with its muscular bodykit and those trademark quad tail pipes. The ginormous wheels also give away that this isn’t just another BMW, especially if they house the golden calipers of the carbon-ceramic discs.
The M5 starts at just under €150,000 but when you start speccing it, you will end up with something closer to €175,000. It’s a lot. But then, you get a lot of bang for your buck. However, is it enough to cast a shadow over the avantgarde i8?
The i8 Coupé has just received the upgrades BMW developed for the Roadster. They’re minor but noticeable. New colours for the exterior and trim levels and materials for the cabin, new wheel designs and, because there is a convertible version now, a new Coupé badge on the C-pillar.
Stylistically, the i8 remains out of this world and, as someone who drives almost everything, I can tell you that no other car has this much pull with passers-by. I mean, people go absolutely crazy at the sight of the thing.
The hybrid system was tweaked to give some extra performance. While the thermal engine remains the same three-cylinder, turbocharged 1.5 litre with 241 horse power, the electric motor has seen its capacity raised from the 7.1 kWh to 11.6 kWh. That means more 12 horse power than before to a total of 374. Electric range is up by 50% to 55km.
The i8 sprints to 100km/h in 4.4 seconds, reaches 250km/h and, wait for it, averages 1.8 litres per 100km. Yes, that’s right: with the battery fully charged, the i8 will do the first 100km with less than 2 litres of petrol and emit just 42g of CO2. After that, around 5 litres are what you will see on the board computer.
Unlike the M5, the i8 is a car you can fully explore on the road. It has just the right amount of power and performance and around town, in electric mode, it really feels like you are driving the sports car of the future.
The biggest surprise of the new i8 for me was the fact that the harder I drove it, the more I liked it. This was the total opposite of the memory I had kept of the car from 2014, when I felt it shone brighter when driven in a quiet, peaceful manner. I had a nice conversation with the team responsible for the car and they told me customers asked for a sportier experience, on top of the whole wow factor.
They absolutely nailed it. I didn’t want to give the i8 back and not because everyone was looking at me on the road, but in spite of that. It’s now a true sports car. Which, at a shade over €150,000, it should be. Add a few options and you’ll need €170,000 to take one home, or roughly the same as the M5.
So, time to get back to the BMW dealer. Man, this is a hard one. On the one hand, you have this incredible engineering achievement, a car that reflects the peak of the automobile as we have known it since forever; on the other, an outside-the-box, concept-car-style vehicle pointing the way forward in terms of what the sports car of tomorrow will be.
I am pretty sure many of you will vehemently disagree with me, but I would take the M5. I love its lunacy and its breadth of ability. I love how I could use it every day and enjoy what it would be like to have 600hp under my right foot at all times, even if I so rarely used them.
I am not saying the M5 is a better car, especially because they are so conceptually different and not really comparable. What I am saying is, I like the i8 but I don’t love it. As for the M5, I fell head over heels for it.
By Guilherme Marques