BMW – Peak M

The seventh generation of the original super-saloon is here to show us the car industry is at a crossroads. Better to enjoy what we have while we can.

BMW decided to come to Portugal to show the world press the new BMW M5. A total of 240 motoring hacks from all over the globe – we shared our two days with the Japanese – flew to Lisbon to drive the seventh generation of the car that invented the super-saloon segment.

After the programme was finished and I got home, I came up with a new theory regarding cars and the future: electric cars are not here to save the planet. Electric cars are the way car makers found to build something new, because the regular car, as we know it, is simply unimprovable – except they cannot just come out and say it, can they?

What? Cars are unimprovable? Am I crazy? No, I am not. And if you think I am it’s because you haven’t driven the new BMW M5. I have and I say there is no way the next one can be better than this. No way.

A car with an internal combustion engine, a gearbox, a propshaft (or two in this case) and four wheels has reached the peak of its development. Yes, it can probably always go a bit faster, be a bit more comfortable and use a little less fuel, but the increments will be so small and insignificant that one will not be allowed to stare at a new car and shout: this is progress.

I can probably find some faults with the M5, but they will be very specific things, like: ‘the steering wheel is a bit too thick’ or ‘the car is too big for city parking’. Objectively, this car is perfect. There is nothing a car engineer could do to it that would make it a better car, a better super-saloon. Maybe some people won’t like the design, maybe some people won’t like the badge, but those are always subjective, personal considerations.

I can imagine Henry Ford building thousands and thousands of Model Ts in his first production line and dreaming of a car that would be the pinnacle of what he was doing, of that concept, of that type of machine – and that is where we have arrived.

Writing about the new M5 is, therefore, rather easy. It’s brilliant in every situation. Brilliant. Some say unimprovable.

BMW took the decision of giving the M5 permanent four-wheel drive, because 600 horse power are not usable on a four-door saloon on the road, with only the rear wheels doing the work.

At first it seemed the Germans were going to create the anti-Christ, because an M5 is, or rather was, by definition, a rear-wheel drive manic saloon. Being a BMW M fan myself, I too was worried.

I am not worried anymore. The set-up of the four-wheel drive system means it is always rear-biased, with that typical M5 feeling. One of the three xDrive modes (that is BMW-speak for all-wheel drive) even disengages the front axle, rendering the BMW, effectively, a rear-wheel drive car. That should only be used on a track or a decent road you know like the palm of your hand, very early in the morning, when there is no one else around. The M5 is a complete beast in 2WD mode.

The intermediate level is 4WD Sport, which, while keeping the front axle working to propel the car, sends even more power and torque to the rear. Also beware of this mode until you are familiarised with the car. After all, the most powerful Beemer ever packs a 4.4 litre V8 with 600 horses and gets to 100km/h in 3.4 seconds.

If anything, it feels even faster than that but, unlike in, say, a Ferrari 458 Italia, which boasts the same acceleration time, the M5 looks like it will lift off at some point, just like an airliner, such is its thrust. You are always aware this is a big car, a heavy car, so the engineering behind what it can do is very, very impressive and the car never lets you forget that.

In what is quickly becoming a new trend, BMW decided to ditch the double-clutch gearbox of the previous generation and stick to a good old torque converter instead. Fine by me. It is silky smooth when you want it and super-fast when you feel like emulating a professional driver.

Talking about professional drivers, there were two in attendance to make sure you realise just how slowly you drive. One, António Félix da Costa, born and raised almost on the Estoril track, is probably faster with his eyes closed in a BMW 116d than I am in the M5 around the circuit. I mean it, it’s incredible. The other, Tom Blomqvist, wasn’t as fast as our António, but he was still faster than everyone else. And by that I mean I was a dot in his rear-view mirror by turn five.

It’s always fun to follow someone who drives cars as fast as they can for a living, but it is also very frustrating. Trying to follow one such person in a 600 horse power, 2 tonnes, five-door saloon car is not the ideal situation in which to explore your limits, so you just try to concentrate and go as quick as you can. It turns out that is spelled v-e-r-y s-l-o-w in racing language.

Nevertheless, racing drivers know they operate in a different reality and they are always the coolest people around. They understand you would give your left leg to have their job and they try to teach you as much as possible in the little time we have available. Still, you cannot help but hate them a little bit. After all, they are the best at doing what you love the most and you are…well, not.

The roads around the circuit are spectacular and the M5 feels even more special on the road than it does on the track because, obviously, it’s a road car. The poise of this thing is like nothing I had driven before with this level of performance and you can adapt the car to your every wish: there are three modes for the steering, three modes for the drivetrain, three modes for the dampers, three modes for the gearbox, three modes for the stability control and three extra seats so you can invite along your favourite people.

The depth of engineering is staggering. However, in spite of all the power, the performance and the capabilities of the M5, you can still drive it as if it was a 520d and it will not disappoint you. It’s quiet if you want, extremely cosseting and inside you will be sitting in a cabin that seems closer in luxury to a 7 Series than a regular 5 Series.

I am sorry but there is just no way the next M5 will be a giant leap forward, this is just too good, too accomplished. And while I may be half joking about electric cars being a way forward for the automobile because there is no more to be taken from a regular fuel-powered machine, I truly believe the electric car is a perfect excuse for BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and others to show they can still innovate.

I mean, if all cars were electric, we would live in the dark. There is just not enough electricity. Therefore, electric cars are the future of today. Tomorrow is a different story.

Meanwhile, we should rejoice we are living in 2017, almost 2018, and that there are cars like the new M5 around for us to drive. It’s hard for us to see when we have peaked at something, but I think the M5 is one of those moments. Peaks are rarely cheap though: the M5 will probably start at around €150,000 when it arrives early next year. Who needs a house anyway?

By Guilherme Marques