Max Factor in BMW M5

PETER LOUISSON
Last updated 11:22 21/02/2012

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After a wet Christmas-New Year break, pretty much everyone around the office was grumpy about being back on deck. Except me, for I'd scored a drive in the new, fifth-generation (F10) BMW M5.

It is a car Kyle suggested, after attending the international launch, might be the best all-rounder on the planet - which is how many have described earlier generations of the M5. However, this one kind of breaks the rules of M-dom, by being - gasp - turbocharged, and as if that's not enough to have purists spluttering into their Weissbiers, it's also an EfficientDynamics M5, what with regenerative this, and idle-stop that. Has BMW lost the plot with the new M5?

Of course not. The engineers have merely bowed to market(ing) forces and built a sports sedan that delivers not only more on the performance front - it accelerates faster than the V10 version, despite being 130 kilograms heavier - but also environmentally, as it uses no more fuel than, say, a Falcon. It's rated at 9.9L/100km overall, which is down by an amazing 30 per cent on the V10, and indeed we sometimes saw fuel-use figures under 10 - imagine that from a 412kW monster! At a clip, travelling down winding King Country roads, it returned 15.9L/100km overall.

Given we've touched on the main point of contention, the fact this is the first M5 with forced induction it's appropriate we talk about the motor before touching on other stellar key features, like the styling and dynamics.

BENEATH THAT SCULPTED ALUMINIUM HOOD

The engine isn't new, at least not the core of it: this same basic unit powers the X5M and X6M. In the M5 it produces 412kW - that's 10 per cent more power than the V10 produced - and 30 per cent more torque, up from 520 to 680Nm, delivered from 1500 to 5750rpm. That's essentially how it derives better fuel economy; you're not using that much throttle most of the time, whereas the V10 lived for revs. Even under moderate acceleration the transmission often doesn't bother downshifting, such is the solid hauling power in the 2000-to-3000rpm rev range. Mind you, much of this depends on the settings, specifically throttle responsiveness. If you're not in Sport Plus mode, the acceleration can be found wanting. Truly.

The engine features all of the good tech stuff, like twin-scroll turbochargers (a pair of them), direct fuel injection and full variable-valve timing (lift and duration). It's also Euro 5 emissions rated, with a CO2 output dramatically less than the V10's, at 232 to 344g/km. Helping with efficiency is the move to a new Getrag seven-speed twin-clutch transmission, which is naturally every bit as stunning as the engine. As with the old SMG 'box you can vary the shift speed - from quick to blazing, with three different positions. We left it in the middle setting most of the time.

On the settings front in general, this car can seem a bit daunting initially, but you soon warm to the task, though launch control had us licked. Everything that can be adjusted, such as steering weight, throttle response, electronic damping and stability control, is centred around the stubby wee gear lever, which is itself a bit of a mind warp. For example, why no 'P' for park position? We soon learnt that when you activate the electronic parking brake before killing the ignition, the 'P' shows up in the dash.

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But we digress, because the most important variable from a performance standpoint, by a long chalk, is the three-position throttle response button. How it changes performance! The base setting is dubbed 'Efficient', which kind of gives the game away. The difference in performance is particularly noticeable once you get out on the open road. Hit the Sport setting when you're on the move, and the car gets a bit of a spring in its stride; and when you select the Sport Plus setting, the throttle response is at its hastiest, and tastiest, the stride becoming giant-sized. Each time you park the car, these settings default to the most wimpy to optimise economy; however, you can quickly and easily configure your fave settings via the iDrive system, so we allocated the M1 button on the steering wheel for out-of-town work (which means all settings on Sport or Sport Plus), and the M2 for urban running (Sport Plus for throttle response, Comfort for the rest).

SO WHAT'S IT GOOD FOR, THEN?

Once you've sorted the settings to your liking, they're locked and loaded. As said, the only one we had trouble sorting at all was launch control. There are seven steps for it in the handbook, for heavens sake, which suggests they don't really want you to use it that much, though the real issue is that several of them are not explained that well. In the end, launch control only worked properly once and, unfortunately, the timing gear wasn't attached. However, the car proved properly quick undertaking the performance runs simply with traction control off, and by moderating the wheelspin off the line using the throttle.

Initially, we obtained a best time of 4.58 seconds on chipseal, which is still 0.3 of a second quicker than the best we'd managed with the E60 M5. But we decided to try it on hotmix, and quickly achieved a best of 4.30 seconds. With launch control, some overseas testers have found the 0-100km/h run is possible in 4.0 seconds flat, and we can believe that, based on the one launch we experienced with the system engaged.

We found the M5's overtaking time to be identical to the fourth-generation V10-powered car, at a scintillating 2.25 seconds. No rear-drive production car we've tested has completed an 80-120km/h time more quickly.

The brakes, naturally, are stupendous, with just a brush of the pedal sufficient to wipe off excess speed prior to corner entry. The pedal looks like it could have been lifted from any 5 Series; we're surprised it's not alloy and rubber, but forget left-foot braking. On coarse chip, the panic stop wasn't wondrous, but it's likely to be much better on hotmix.

At the traffic lights the M5 idles quietly in 'D' without any brake pressure. Of course, most of the time the engine turns itself off if idle-stop is engaged, though you can bypass the system if you want.

So the M5 retains its mantle of fastest four-door, five-seat family car on the planet - at least for the time being. The incoming 2012 Mercedes E63 sports an even more powerful 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8 with almost 800Nm, and it's said to be a rocketship as well.

SHIFTING BEYOND SLICK

Compared with the E60, a couple of points are immediately apparent. First, the transmission is as much a revelation as the SMG was a distraction. The new 'box is a Getrag seven-speed twin-clutch unit like that of the M3, only strengthened to handle the extra torque. It is, like most such devices, utterly amazing, shifting instantly and seamlessly. This feels every bit as good as the PDK transmission in the Porsche, except for the aforementioned launch control, which few owners will bother to use anyway; it's pointless without having proper timing gear available. We opted for the middle or second sequential shift speed setting almost the entire time when driving the M5 because it made it easier to access seventh gear - useful when you're trying to extend the range of that 80-litre fuel tank.

On the go, there are the usual myriad ways to use the twin-clutch transmission, and all are simply excellent. We left the auto to do its own thing most of the time, and this it did brilliantly. Back in town, the M5 wafts along on a hint of revs, giving no indication of its real performance potential.

If there's one aspect of the powertrain that disappoints ever so slightly, it's the noise: there's not quite enough from the engine or exhaust. The atmo V10 voice of the E60 was hard to beat, whereas this is more muted. While there's a bit of a V8 burble around town, it sounds much of the time on the open road like you're aboard a 767; a low whine is evident that probably emanates from the turbos. Only at full noise (7200rpm!) does the car really snarl in fury, the exhausts emitting a bang on each upshift; otherwise, the cabin is eerily quiet, even over the worst coarse-chip surfaces, with an average SPL rating of 76.3dB. This is an astounding result given the Bigfoot contact patches of rubber.

A RETURN TO STYLING FORM FOR BMW

On the styling front there hasn't been much from the BMW stable that has been jaw-dropping for a while, but this is a return to form, especially after the oddball E60 M5 with eyeliner. About the only misgiving is the fact that it looks like an upscale version of the M3, though that's no bad thing. Some might think that the cabin has not quite enough evidence of M-ness, but externally, you'd not mistake this for any other 5 Series variant. The wheels and brakes are the first hint of something special: blue six-piston front calipers biting down onto enormous 400mm discs. Up front, the bumper is essentially a trio of enormous air scoops, and at the other end, two pairs of exhausts bookend a diffuser. Enhancing the sports mix are a tiny boot-lid spoiler and gently flared wheel-arches that accommodate a 27mm widening of the tracks. At the rear of the front guard a bold lateral character line ascends from an M5-embossed vent.

The interior features M comfort seats, and these power-adjusted beauties work well. The day before our 500-kilometre lunge through the King Country, my lower back was making even standing painful. I therefore had mixed feelings of dread and excitement before the drive. Afterwards, my back actually felt better, despite a day at the wheel. Seems that extreme lumbar support adjustability does wonders for a bad back.

AND SO TO THE DYNAMICS

Previous M5s were set up primarily to hare around tracks as quickly as possible. Remember the 'Ring Taxi story? But they were taut and terrific in such an environment though a bit of a pain at slower speeds. Not any more: thanks to adaptive damping and three different settings, all bases are now covered.

Much of the time, we opted for the Comfort damper setting. While there's a bit less roll and dive under brakes with the Sport setting, Comfort is sweet for most situations, producing a fine mix of pampering and cornering flair. Leave Sport Plus for the track. The car is a limpet and has almost even weight distribution, and while it seems to shrink in size when placing it on tight roads, it does feel like it weighs just 22 kilograms shy of two tonnes. That said, it maintains a neutral stance right up until the front tyres start to slip, or as is more often the case, the rears threaten to lose traction.

The steering is fast but never twitchy, and sweetly weighted, even in Sport mode. Its hydraulic assistance results in almost too much information on centre, at least on coarse chipseal, where a few too many of the high-frequency vibes make it through to the wheel. On hotmix, all is good. The variable-ratio aspect of the helm is appreciated in town, particularly when parking.

We drove the M5 out from Pirongia to Waitomo via Kawhia, which is a reasonably long drive, not that we really noticed it. While the ESP intervened a fair amount when we were doing our cornering photos - it was high noon and the seal was melting -it seldom activated during normal driving, a sure sign of a sorted, well-balanced chassis. The car aced the faster, more flowing Troopers Road, and also Te Pahu Road, where it took corners at double the advised speed, no worries.

SO, WHAT ELSE DO YOU GET FOR YOUR $229K

As if the performance, style, drama, dynamics and refinement aren't enough? There are a few options, but none really worth mentioning. The drive-away pricing includes a sunroof (which barely interferes with headroom in the rear), 20-inch light alloy wheels, rear- and surround-view cameras, full leather trim, adaptive headlights, head-up display (with revs, gear and speed shown), M multifunction comfort seats, an auto-opening and -closing tailgate, soft-closing doors, and a comfort access system (which locks and unlocks by touch pads).There's also four-zone climate air, sat-nav, cruise control with brake function, a 650wpc 16-speaker hi-fi system with 12G of music storage, TV functionality on the 10.2-inch screen, and park distance control. The boot area is up 20 litres to 520 in total, and 60:40 split-folding expands the luggage space further.

AND IN THE END

Despite a move to turbocharging for fuel and emissions purposes, the latest M5 continues the legend of being the performance sedan to beat. It's the fastest production four-door we've tested and has such diverse adjustability that it manages to function brilliantly as both a day-to-day workhorse and as a weekend road warrior. Moreover, it's actually less expensive than its predecessor, which sold for $233k before on-road costs. It has been a hell of a way to kick off 2012. 

MODEL: BMW M5.
PRICE: $229,000.
ON SALE IN NZ: Jan 2012.
ENGINE: 4395cc, V8, 412kW@6000-7000rpm, 680Nm@1500-5750rpm.
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed twin-clutch, rear-wheel drive.
VITALS: 4.30sec (claim 4.40) 0-100 km/h, 9.9L/100km, 232g/km, 1978kg.
RATING:
 8/10.

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