Matt Robinson profile picture Matt Robinson 9 months ago 79
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Nothing Could Have Prepared Me For The E60 M5's Terrible Gearbox

Driving the V10-powered E60 M5 for the first time was a proper hero-meeting affair for me, but the ridiculously clunky SMG transmission threatened to spoil the party…

Remind me later
BMW - Nothing Could Have Prepared Me For The E60 M5's Terrible Gearbox - Blog

I had been forewarned by colleagues, reviews and by popular consensus, that the E60 M5’s ‘SMG’ gearbox is, unfortunately, a bit cack.

I had this firmly in mind when I was handed the keys to one for the very first time at the launch of the new M5 - I’d prepared myself as much as I could, but the first time I squeezed the right-hand gear-up paddle, all I could think was “good God, this is an unfathomably terrible gearbox.”

With each upshift there’s a pause that seems to last an eternity, after which point the whole car lurches as another of the transmission’s seven ratios is haphazardly slotted in. The difference in speed between this and a regular manual shift must surely be negligible, and certainly not enough to warrant being lumbered with this incredibly inadequate setup.

BMW - Nothing Could Have Prepared Me For The E60 M5's Terrible Gearbox - Blog

It’d be stupid to compare this 10-or-so-year-old box o’ cogs to a current dual-clutcher or a modern, torque converter-based automatic, but I have sampled a few ‘robotised manuals’ that work on the same principle as SMG. And none of them have felt anything like as clunky as the E60’s.

The pre-facelift Maserati Gran Turismo MC Stradale’s ‘MC Corsa’ gearbox is hilariously clumsy when you’re pootling around town, but slap it in Race Mode and bang the gears in just before the rev limiter cuts in, and the shifts are brilliantly ferocious and very fast. Even the ponderous shifts of the Audi R8 GT - the ‘R Tronic’ ’box which is closely related to the Lamborghini Gallardo’s ‘E-Gear’ system - seemed faster-paced than this M5’s, and I drove that back-to-back with a DCT-equipped second-gen R8 V10 Plus. Weirdly though, the E60 M5 is probably easier to manoeuvre than the R8 GT.

There are five different settings for the gearbox, but none seem to make a significant difference to the way it shifts
There are five different settings for the gearbox, but none seem to make a significant difference to the way it shifts

The big irony of my first taste of E60 M5 life is that while the gearbox fell below my already meagre expectations, the V10 was even more spectacular that I’d dared imagine. You’re treated to a crisp throttle response every time you play with the long-travel accelerator pedal, followed by a strong, linear pull than pins you to the backrest as the rev counter needle hurtles toward the 8000rpm mark. Oh, and it wails in a way that Audi’s 5.2-litre 10-banger simply doesn’t. If you’ve got a car-related bucket list and this car isn’t on it, that’s something you need to rectify. Immediately.

What’s going on under the skin of this E60 is the marriage of a magnificent engine - one of the all-time greats - to what could be considered something of a technological misstep in the world of cars. Like a duet between the world’s greatest violinist and a tone-deaf eight-year-old with a broken recorder, perhaps. But the gearbox is worth putting up with, when that 5.0-litre masterpiece is the reward.

In three generations, the M5 has gone from SMG, to DCT to conventional automatic (current model pictured)
In three generations, the M5 has gone from SMG, to DCT to conventional automatic (current model pictured)

In any case, those frustrating pauses merely highlight the potency of what’s under the Chris Bangle-scuplted bonnet. And speaking of Bangle, the controversial designer’s take on the 5-series is looking rather handsome these days, don’t you think?

The rest of the package still feels good today, too. The steering’s a little slower compared to what we’re used too now, but it feels natural and not over-assisted like a lot of modern BMW M Division products. The body control is tidy, and even my all-too brief drive was enough to suss out the car’s beautiful balance that’d be a joy to exploit on a long, spirited drive.

The E60 M5 is a hero car I’ve been wanting to drive for years, and the SMG hasn’t put me off the idea of owning one. The potential cost of ownership on the other hand is another matter…