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Push the start button on the 2006 BMW M5 and there's a slight delay before the engine fires as if to hint at the complexity you're about to set in motion with your finger. And when all 10 cylinders burble to life they give new meaning to the words "performance sedan."
The engine, 5.0 liters of smooth-idling perfection, is capable of more than 8,000 rpm. It typifies the harmony at work in the M5: At idle its creamy smoothness belies its full capability. Like the rest of the car, it is what you want when you want it: relaxed and composed one minute, intense and aggressive the next. It is balanced.
So throw out your preconceptions. Ignore logic. Forget what you think you know. Then engage the MDrive button and mash the throttle and the M5 will readjust your automotive sensibilities.
MDrive, as BMW calls it, changes the M5's character however its driver chooses. It can, at the push of a button, transform the car instantly from a comfortable and quick luxury sedan to a brilliantly balanced, insanely fast road weapon. Technically, you could set everything to change very little, if at all, but when used properly, it increases the M's power output from 400 to 500 horsepower, swaps its throttle response, shift speed and suspension damping to more aggressive settings and disables stability control. Think of MDrive as the M5's Jekyll and Hyde button.
Bump the M button, nudge the paddle, breathe the throttle and we're under way. All at once this is a different sedan from the one we parked last night. Last night it was comfortable, not soft but comfortable, shifted slowly (too slowly), and made some pretty good yank when we stepped on it. It was a banker's car. Or a doctor's car. Dr. Jekyll, perhaps.
Now it's different. Now it's sharp-edged and angry. Delay and hesitation are gone. Every action is met with a deliberate reaction. Throttle jabs in the first two gears will send you to the chiropractor. Expansion joints become speed bumps. Full throttle upshifts — even in a straight line — require countersteer correction. It is immediate. It demands respect. It is Mr. Hyde after a swirly and sugar buzz.
This personality engages serious drivers in ways others in its class never could. This is a car that takes braking, turning, accelerating and hauling passengers seriously.
An engine for the history books
From outside the car, the 5.0-liter V10's sound at idle is tinny and not at all pleasant. The harshness is the reverberation of high-energy exhaust pulses inside the long, stainless-steel manifolds. It's an ugly, abrasive sound uncommon in the world of production engines, where exhaust energy is almost always muffled by cast iron. It's also the sound of BMW's undiluted focus on performance.
Rated at 500 hp at 7,750 rpm and 383 pound-feet of torque at 6,100 rpm, the aluminum engine has a unique power delivery and its combination of sound and thrust are entirely out of place in a sedan. There's no surge of torque when the throttles are opened like in any of the current sports car engines making similar power. Rather, there's a linear wave of thrust that crescendos with an intake shriek which sounds genuinely pissed at its 8,250-rpm redline.
Much of the sound comes from the 10 individual throttle bodies swallowing air through the large plastic intake plenums that cover both banks of cylinders. But the throttles are only the beginning of the technology at work here. There's also VANOS variable valve timing infinitely adjusting the opening and closing of the four lightweight valves at each cylinder.
Other exotica? How about the 12.0:1 compression ratio, hollow camshafts and those ugly-sounding 22-inch exhaust headers. This is an expensive engine. But it makes power and stirs the soul in direct proportion to its cost.
SMG: Round three
A new seven-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox is assigned the duty of transmitting the V10's power to the tarmac and BMW tells us a six-speed manual transmission will be available in the fall of this year. The new SMG, unlike it predecessors, is the first BMW gearbox designed exclusively to operate as such. Designing it from the ground up as an SMG made it stronger and quicker-shifting than previous versions.
Drivers select from two operating modes: sequential or automatic. In sequential mode, gears are selected manually using the steering-wheel-mounted paddles or the shift lever. There are six programs to modify shift speed and clutch engagement in sequential mode. During downshifts in this mode, revs are matched to the selected gear. Requests for a downshift which would overrev the engine are ignored.
Automatic mode, from a user standpoint, is very similar to an automatic transmission in which shifts are made for you. Five shift programs are available in automatic mode and they're all quite slow.
In action it's a blessing and a curse. On its most aggressive setting it lacks subtlety to the point of feeling abusive. Full-throttle upshifts begin with a microscopic pause followed by a violent thud as torque reloads the drivetrain. They're loud, ugly and fast as hell, so be sure you mean it if you're going to do it.
Downshifts, when they're executed as requested, are heavenly. Rev matching is as computer precise as expected. But more often than not when driving hard, they're ignored. Timing downshifts to the predicted rate of deceleration is still not a task suited for street-car technology. We often had to work the downshift paddle two or three times before we got the desired gear.
A chassis dressed to thrill
Visually the M5 stands out from other 5 Series models with double-spoke 19-inch wheels, quad exhaust tips, quarter-panel vents and several minor body changes including a small trunk lid spoiler. It's a subtle freshening that will only be noticed by those keen enough to know it's an M car.
Underneath the M5's skin is a capable all-aluminum suspension design that's up to the task of harnessing this kind of power and weight (4,012 pounds). Conventional MacPherson struts up front and single lower control arms with two upper lateral links at each side make up the rear suspension.
Damping is electronically adjustable in one of three modes: "Comfort," "Normal" or "Sport" via BMW's Electronic Damping Control, which continues to adjust damping to suit road conditions within each mode. The ride, even in Comfort mode, is exceptionally well controlled. The Normal setting provides an aggressive ride and Sport is stiff enough to only be useful on a glass-smooth racetrack.
The M5's steering ratio is variable and quickens as the wheel is turned off center. Steering assist is also variable between two levels which are linked to the car's electronic damping modes. In Comfort mode more steering assist is available than in Normal or Sport modes. Steering feel is typical BMW, with sharp off-center response and a just-right soft spot on center so as not to feel nervous when cruising. It's an appropriate balance for a car like this.
Naturally, BMW's most advanced braking system graces the M5. Behind the 19-inch wheels are huge 14.7-inch front and 14.6-inch rear two-piece rotors bringing the big sedan to a stop. Surprisingly, there are no four-piston calipers hiding in the front wheels. Instead, BMW chose a far less sexy dual-piston sliding-caliper design.
Power is sent to the Continental SportContact2 tires through BMW's M Variable Differential Lock limited-slip rear differential. Torque is distributed evenly between the rear wheels when viscous fluid in the clutch-type differential is sheared by a difference in wheel speed. In action, it's a quick-reacting, natural-feeling torque distribution that spreads rubber on pavement like butter on toast.
Overall, with its combination of leather, satin aluminum or wood trim and iDrive, the M5's interior is a distinctly Bavarian balance of form and function. Because iDrive controls navigation, climate, stereo and communication settings, the dashboard is relatively uncluttered. Switches on the center console control engine output, suspension modes and all 11 SMG calibrations.
The optional 18-way adjustable heated seats in our test car were equipped with active backrest bolsters which move inward to brace the driver or passenger against cornering loads. They are a gimmicky feature that can distract at critical moments. Luckily they can be switched off. We'd make due with the standard heated seats which are only 16-way adjustable.
The thick-rimmed leather steering wheel is stitched with red and blue and serves as the perfect frame for the easy-to-read 200-mph speedometer and 9,000-rpm tachometer. There's also a head-up display which projects engine speed and gear selection into the lower portion of the windshield, but we could never find it at a glance.
How's it stack up?
This is a very different car from the Cadillac STS-V or Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG, its only obvious competitors. Both of those cars are powered by grunty, supercharged V8 engines that, when compared to the M5's high-revving V10, feel like they belong in a tractor. This unique power delivery endows the M5 with more edge and involves its driver more than a lower-revving engine.
The M5 is also faster than the Cadillac and on par with the E55 in virtually any contest of speed. Our test car plowed through the quarter-mile in 12.8 seconds at 115 mph — a full half-second quicker than the comparably priced Cadillac. It hit 60 in 4.8 seconds, slightly slower than BMW's claimed time of 4.5 seconds. Our test surface isn't known for its grip, and without the aid of launch control, which isn't available on U.S.-spec M5s, launching the car is a trial-and-error procedure.
Perhaps most impressive was the M5's 69.2-mph slalom speed, which trumps the Cadillac by exactly 4 mph — no small margin in this test. Surprisingly, it generated only 0.86g around the skid pad, a number that doesn't reflect its capability.
Braking distance from 60 mph was outstanding at only 112 feet — 10 feet shorter than the Cadillac. Pedal feel was initially solid and confidence inspiring, but we did notice very slight fade after five back-to-back stops.
Is it for you?
Learning the M5's nuances, the ins and outs of its various systems and its ridiculous number of adjustments, is a serious task. And it comes with a serious price. Our test car totaled $89,090 with options and the mandatory gas-guzzler tax.
The M5 is one hell of an advanced car and it will challenge anyone who approaches driving like a conventional enthusiast. Most of the time it's brilliant and more than capable of meeting its driver's requests for power, grip or comfort. But get lazy — leave the tranny in 7th gear then mash the throttle for a quick pass on a back road — and the SMG's brilliance fades as fast as the oncoming headlights loom. No amount of technology will save you from idiocy in manual mode.
The 2006 BMW M5 isn't just a sedan. And it isn't just a performance car. It's a new breed of machine that defies definition. It's a 500-hp four-door that's equal parts passion, performance and highfalutin utility. Like we said balanced.
System Score: 9.0
Components: The BMW M5 comes standard with a Harman Kardon/Logic 7 sound system and 13 upgraded speakers including two subwoofers, plus Digital Signal Processing (DSP) and Radio Data System (RDS). There's a single CD player in the dash and a six-disc changer located in the glovebox. The only audio system option for the M5 is the addition of Sirius Satellite Radio.
Performance: We really like the Harman stereos found in most BMWs and often find little to complain about. The M5's stereo is no exception. Logic 7 sound systems are easily among the top four or five in-car audio systems available today in terms of sound quality.
The bass is rich, deep and lifelike, never turning muddy or imprecise. Separation is also excellent and this is one of the few sound systems where the midrange actually adds to the overall sound quality, giving vocals an intimate and "real" sound. The Logic 7 "Concert Hall" or "Theater" settings aren't right for every type of music, but live recordings and classical music are enhanced by this feature. Overall, the highs are clean and sharp but can, on occasion, sound too bright. We attribute this to the fact that the Harman system is reproducing sound so well that imperfections in the original recordings are being revealed. Thankfully, this stereo is very flexible as it has a built-in equalizer and separate bass and treble controls.
Getting to those controls is another matter altogether. There's no sense in wasting space further maligning iDrive, but it does get in the way. However, once you're in a certain menu, the graphics and controls start to make some sense. The radio dial with its big white numbers displayed in an easy-to-read horizontal fashion is a good example. The dash-mounted "track up" and "track down" buttons are also useful.
We like the single CD player in the dash but wish that slot housed a six-disc changer. It's not the end of the world that the changer is in the glovebox but it's placed so far back in the glovebox that it's kind of a long reach even when you're parked and stretched out over the passenger seat. You can forget about loading the changer while the car's moving.
Best Feature: Great sound quality overall.
Worst Feature: CD changer placement.
Conclusion: An excellent stereo for a stellar performance sedan. The sound quality is exactly what we'd expect from a top-of-the-line BMW. — Brian Moody
Inside Line 's Editor in Chief Richard Homan says:
Am I a BMW fan? You bet your Bavarian-chocolate-munchin'-in-the-Munchen-Marienplatz-subscription-to-Roundel I am. But am I ready to concede the ultimate-ness of the 2006 M5? I am not. There's no denying that this car will not be denied when the time comes to praise amazing sport-luxury sedans in the Holy Book of Cars. However, plenty of space remains between the new M5 and perfection.
First the praise: This car wraps itself around a highway — tight and twisty or grand touring (your choice) — better than a trained serpent laces and cleaves to a carnival snake woman. I'll let that image sink in before I move on to announce that steering is perfectly weighted and channels your thoughts directly to the front tires. The 5.0-liter V10 carries every instrument of a perfectly tuned orchestra right up to the 8,250-rpm redline, and packs a FedEx shipment of horsepower. It also looks wicked bad on the outside and feels wicked good within.
Now the blame: Any delight you've heard about the seven-speed SMG in automatic mode is hype. Ninety-five percent of the time, the computer-controlled clutch acts like it's reliving its first day in driver's ed: rrrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR — NEEYOWOWOWOW — (shift takes place here, then an abrupt-clutch-release lurch) — WOWwowowowowow — rrrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRRRRRR. Bad student. Using the steering-wheel paddles only helped a little. I tried every setting, but never got the short, sharp kickdowns I needed for passing.
Note to BMW: Either wake up the SMG transmission or deliver the manual box, because this car deserves your best.
Chief Road Test Editor Chris Walton says:
I was filled with great expectations and am left with mixed feelings. I know, I know, what's not to love about a five-passenger sedan with 400 or 500 horsepower, multiadjustable suspension, a six-way programmable auto-clutch seven-speed and a menacing wrapper? In a three-letter word: SMG. The M5 is 95-percent brilliant and 5-percent overreaching.
I wish I had thought of this, but as Homan put it, "No matter what shift mode I select, I can't seem to get out of 'first-time driver.'" SMG's less aggressive modes (1-3) are too lazy and 4-6 are too unpredictable.
You see, driving a car is not an assignment for which the driver decides, in his driveway, what kind of mood he is in, or predicts what the road ahead may be like and then selects the appropriate mode. The real world is a fluid and ever changing exercise made up of mostly restraint and routine, punctuated by occasional excess and challenge. Having the flexibility to shift my own gears, with my own clutch pedal and shifter, is what makes driving a personal and rewarding endeavor. Luckily, BMW will grant my wish later this year with a three-pedal M5 and I'll have an opportunity to drive it again; this time with feeling.
"This vehicle is a pure driver's machine, it is what other cars aspire to be. The design, the handling, suspension and cornering are unmatched, as is the fluid acceleration through all gears
the moment you hear the engine turn over, you know you are in for a great ride
the boy turns heads, and the engine pulls your neck straight back
I wouldn't own anything else after driving this car." — archangel, January 5, 2006
"This is an incredible sport sedan, lots of power at very high rpm. I'm still in the break-in period, so I have not pushed it that far yet. I'm a little disappointed the launch control that had been advertised is not available in the U.S., but overall I'm very happy with this vehicle. If you consider purchasing this vehicle remember there is a reason why there is a $3,700 gas-guzzler tax, this car drinks it. Favorite features: The 'M' drive mode is a nice way to instantly turn this car into the race machine that it is." — jdyjak, January 2, 2006
"This is my second M5 and I have been waiting for three years for this one. It was worth the wait! Awesome car, tremendous ability to adjust performance. Great handling, great feel, a wolf in sheep's clothing. Looks and feels great during the ride to church with the family and performs equally well side by side with the Viper or 911 on the interstate on the way back home. SMG takes some getting used to, but once you decide how you want to use it, it's relatively smooth and functional. Favorite features: Performance flexibility, adaptive seating, wheels look awesome and body styling. The nav system is much more user-friendly." mdash; mb2ndM5, December 24, 2005
"The M5's technology enables virtually infinite adjustments to suit the driver and the driving conditions. It is like having a bespoke car: the driver can adjust transmission, suspension and horsepower settings to his liking. And there is a lot to choose from given this car's great capabilities. It handles beautifully, with precise steering and road feel. The M5 has ample power, with up to 500 hp. I owned the previous-generation M5, and the 2006 is a tremendous improvement in terms of both performance and comfort. And I like the fact that the car is a 'sleeper.' Unless they know their cars, most people won't know that the M5 is one of the best-performing cars on the road." — pelican, December 18, 2005
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