There are two 2018 BMW M5s currently lapping Autodromo do Estoril in Portugal, and there’s a stark contrast between what’s going on in the cockpit of each. In the striking BMW M-liveried pace car in front there’s Martin Tomczyk, a former DTM champion you’ll currently find in the Petit Le Mans series, usually milling around the various steps of the podium. He’s calmly giving instructions over a radio while effortlessly throwing ‘his’ F90 M5 around and making everything look very easy. In the car behind him is me. Palms sweating into the leather steering wheel. Forgetting to swallow. Digging deep into my limited track driving repertoire just to cling on to his back bumper. And currently, understeering.
Granted, some of the my shoddy lines and occasionally somewhat off entry speeds aren’t helping, but there’s a definite tendency for this all-new M5 to wash wide coming out of tighter corners. It felt on the whole rather neutral on the road earlier on today, but with the room and lack of speed limits enabling me to explore the limits of what the chassis is capable of, I’m washing wide.
Going all-wheel drive has spoiled the fun at camp M5, then? Thankfully, I can report a hearty ‘hell no’ to that. The last couple of laps we’ve been using one of the M5’s two configurable ‘M’ modes, pre-set for attending journalists with most elements of the car - the steering, suspension and so on - turned up to ‘Sport’, but with the all-wheel drive system left alone. Part way through lap three though, I get the call from Tomycz on the radio to switch to ‘M2’.
Shifting is now done manually (ish) with the steering wheel-mounted paddles, everything’s in Sport+, the ESC interference is turned down to the minimum, and - crucially - we’re now in ‘4WD Sport’. As in the standard ‘4WD’ mode, the amount of torque sent to each wheel constantly varies depending on myriad factors, but in the Sport setting, much more is generally shoved to the those 285-width Pirellis at the back during hard cornering. And that’s a very good thing.
I discover this coming into turn three a little too hot, the back end giving way just enough to warrant a little bit of counter steer, but not so much that a Code Brown occurs all over these magnificently supportive grey bucket seats. This sets the tone for the next few corners: the rear bias is noticeable, exploitable, and tremendous fun. There is a ‘2WD’ mode that does exactly what it says on the tin, albeit with all electronic aids turned off entirely, which unfortunately we weren’t given the chance to try. That’s something to try another day, perhaps somewhere with more run-off…
The other big change here is the gearbox: gone is the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, replaced by a conventional eight-speed, torque-converter-based automatic. BMW tells us it’s partly down to it fitting better with the all-wheel drive system, and partly because the difference in shift time is so small that it’s not worth making the car less smooth to drive at lower speeds and in stop/start traffic.
For the most part, you’re not going to notice the gearbox - and that’s a good and bad thing. A good thing because it generally won’t do anything irksome in auto or manual modes, and a bad thing because at no point will you be thinking ‘my, this swaps cogs rather nicely, doesn’t it?’ It’s just not quite as crisp on the upshifts or downshifts, but we are talking about small margins here.
The engine on the other hand isn’t new; at least not entirely. It’s best thought of as an evolution of the F10 M5’s 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8, here making 592bhp and 553lb ft of torque. About the same as some of the final, limited-run versions of the outgoing M5, although all F10s were thought to be more powerful than advertised. It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s the same case here: off the final corner and onto the start/finish straight, the F90 gathers pace at a frightening rate, with the speedometer tickling 160mph at the braking point for turn one.
There’s plenty of twist low down, but it’s after 3000rpm or so that things get really exciting. Want some figures? You’re looking at 0-62mph in just 3.4 seconds, 0-124mph in 11.1, and if you tick the right option box, a 189mph electronically-governed top speed. Given how lenient these ‘leccy buffers tend to be, I suspect - given enough road - you’d be on the cusp of 200mph before being held back.
As the final flying lap comes to an end and a cool-down period begins, I’ve time to take stock of the last few laps. Conclusion? The M5 behaves far better on track than any two-tonne, leather-lined saloon should do. Yes, it can’t mask its weight and size entirely, but can chuck it around in a way that just doesn’t seem to make sense.
But it’s not the only car to pull of this trick - the similarly powerful, similarly set-up Mercedes-AMG E63 also behaves in a way that appears to stick a middle finger up to the laws of physics, plus it feels more rear-led on the road, where the M5 - even in 4WD Sport - feels mostly neutral until you have access to a track where you can properly kick its head in. The shorter gears in the AMG (it has nine ratios rather than an eight) make it feel a little less excessive away from the circuit, too, since you can chop through a few cogs before hitting silly speeds.
It’s a close-run thing but I also reckon the Merc is a little nicer inside, even if its infotainment system can’t touch the better-than-ever BMW iDrive. So I’d have the car from Stuttgart, then? That I can’t answer until we have the chance to get the two cars together, but for now I can tell you the M5 is another triumph of the super saloon world.
Offering a four-wheel drive system with switchable rear-wheel bias and even the option to decouple the front axle entirely feels like the way forward for these spectacularly powerful missiles. And I love the way that you can just calm down, turn the various modes to comfort and transform the M5 into a supremely wafty luxury saloon. But I prefer it with everything turned up, where the M5 makes you look like an utter hero while pummelling your face with lateral G-forces. Nicely done, BMW. Nicely done.