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There are sport sedans, and then there's the BMW M5. No other car in recent memory has been able to represent the ideal for this segment as strongly as the Bimmer. For each of its five generations, the M5 has impressively blended sports car performance, sedan utility and luxury ambience.
The M5 is a product of BMW's performance-tuning M Division. It's based on the 5 Series sedan, and historical calling cards include a unique and more powerful engine, a sport-tuned suspension, more powerful brakes, special wheels and tires, and aerodynamics-enhancing bodywork. Though the most recent BMW M5 is the most powerful of the group, any M5 still represents a fantastic choice for a luxury sport sedan. Even M5s from the 1980s and '90s were significant performers for their day, though are much harder to find because of their rarity.
Current BMW M5
The current BMW M5 is all-new for 2012. Like the 5 Series upon which it is based, this M5 is larger than its predecessor, with an improved interior and more traditional BMW styling. Compared to the last M5, however, the current one swapped out the old V10 for a twin-turbo V8, while gaining a more advanced automated manual transmission, a limited-slip rear differential, upgraded brakes and enhanced adjustable drive settings. Unlike the regular 5 Series, the M5 sticks with more responsive and communicative hydraulic power steering rather than electric.
Underneath the hood, the M5 packs a twin-turbo 4.4-liter V8 good for 560 horsepower and 501 pound-feet of torque. Rear-wheel drive and a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual are standard, while a six-speed manual is available. Unlike the high-strung engines that came before it, this turbocharged lump enjoys a mountain of low-end torque and doesn't let up as the revs build. This is an astonishingly quick car.
How the M5 drives is largely determined by which of the myriad drive settings you choose. Steering weight, suspension firmness, throttle response, transmission shift programming and stability control can all be altered to your exact desire. This differs from regular BMW models with such adjustable settings that conform to three or four combinations programmed by BMW. The overall result is a car that can be docile for a commute and a vicious, corner-attacking machine on a winding road.
As always, the current BMW M5 manages to be a high-performance machine that can do double duty as an everyday conveyance. There are several other cars that do a similar trick, but the M5 is the car that arguably inspired them all. Its engine may be a departure from past models, and its size may make it seem a bit unwieldy at times, but there's no denying the current M5 maintains its high-speed cred.
Previous BMW M5 Models
The previous, fourth-generation BMW M5 was produced from the 2006-'10 model years. As expected, it was a high-performance luxury sedan designed to offer more performance than the regular 5 Series sedan sold during the same time period. The car's most significant change from its predecessors was under the hood, where BMW shoehorned in a 5.0-liter V10 capable of 500 hp and 383 lb-ft of torque.
This normally aspirated and high-revving engine was connected to a seven-speed sequential-shift manual transmission (SMG) that sent power to the rear wheels. Drivers could place the transmission in automatic mode or perform exceptionally quick manual gearshifts without a clutch by using steering-wheel-mounted paddles. The downside was an unrefined, herky-jerky performance during more sedate, around-town driving. M5s produced from 2007 onward were available with a traditional six-speed manual, however.
While BMW chose to incorporate plenty of advanced technology into the M5's drivetrain, the car's suspension was treated to a more back-to-basics approach. Unlike the standard-issue 5 Series of that era, the M5 lacked active steering, active roll bars and run-flat tires. What the car had were an exceptionally well-tuned suspension setup, electronically controlled dampers, lightweight 19-inch wheels, performance tires and massive brakes.
As with previous M5s, the fourth generation didn't sacrifice much comfort to achieve its high-performance abilities. Just about every luxury feature came standard, and whether it's used for daily commuting, impressing clients or blasts on empty canyon roads, a used M5 from this generation will be up to the task. However, while this M5 remains a capable sport sedan, we aren't as fond of this generation and think some competing sport sedans are more desirable.
Besides the addition of the six-speed manual, there were only subtle changes made throughout the fourth-generation M5's life. Prior to 2010, the M5 featured older versions of BMW's iDrive electronics interface. These made even the simplest stereo or climate-control functions complicated to use. The changes for 2010 made it far more user-friendly.
For some BMW enthusiasts, the third-generation M5 is still the best. The 5 Series on which it was based (the fourth-generation 5) was an excellent platform and highly regarded in terms of styling, size, handling and amenities. Offered from 2000-'03, this M5 featured a 4.9-liter V8 good for 394 hp. At the time of the car's debut, the engine's output was considered quite outrageous for a modern midsize sedan. The sole transmission choice was a six-speed manual. Eighteen-inch wheels and the requisite suspension and braking upgrades were part of the package. It will no doubt be a future classic.
Previous to this there were two M5 generations, and both are rare sights on U.S. roads today. The second-generation M5 was available from 1991-'93. It had a straight-6 engine that displaced 3.6 liters and made 310 hp. Even today, that's a figure most automakers would be very proud to boast about. European-spec cars from this period had an even more powerful version good for 340 hp. This M5 was prominently featured in the 1998 Robert De Niro car chase classic Ronin. At the time, the only sedan capable of matching the M5 was the Mercedes-Benz E500, which had a V8 engine.
The original BMW M5 was available for the 1988 model year only and was based on the second-generation 535i. For power, it had a version of the 3.5-liter straight six-cylinder found in the legendary M1 exotic sports car. In the United States, it made 256 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque. The sole transmission was a five-speed manual, and the cars were offered with a black paint job only. Highly collectible now, it's said that only 500 were brought to the United States.
If you are looking for newer years, visit our new BMW M5 page.