The benchmark for sports sedans.

by Sam Moses

Base Price (MSRP) $69,400
As Tested (MSRP) $72,070

After a wait that must have been agonizing to lovers of the racy six-cylinder M3, BMW has finally engineered a high-performance V8 into the M5. And it has been racking up raves like no high-performance sedan in history. With a six-speed gearbox and 394 horsepower, the M5 on the 5 Series platform is a totally civilized sedan with racing car capabilities.

Model Lineup

The BMW M Series consists of four different cars, although three of them share the same basic engine. Along with the new flagship M5 for $69,400, there is the M3 built on the 3 Series platform, which for 2001 will be getting a new 330-horsepower version of its 3.2-liter inline six, price unannounced as yet. The M Coupe ($41,800) is that boxy little bugger that looks like all the weight is on the rear wheels, but in fact it has perfect 50-50 weight distribution. The M Roadster ($42,700) is the same car with a soft top; both Coupe and Roadster use 240-horsepower versions of the 3.2-liter six, with five-speed gearboxes.


Almost all of the good stuff is in the M5, not on it, so you can't see it. With 18-inch wheels, it doesn't appear to squat low to the ground and the fenders aren't visibly flared. There's a businesslike air dam with black mesh screening covering its generous openings, which draw great gulps of air for the brakes and 302-cubic-inch engine. The super wide (8-inch front, 9.5-inch rear) polished alloy wheels catch your eye for their good looks, not their size, and offer a peek at the brake rotors through the 10 spokes, which collect dirt and brake dust and thus must be cleaned often. Four chrome exhaust pipes stick out the rear and, along with the wide tires, tell vehicles in your wake that this is no ordinary BMW sedan.

Under the aluminum hood, there's nothing to ooh or ahh over, as plastic pretty much covers everything. Thick intake tubes flow from the big airbox on top of the engine, down and forward of the wheelwells. A special induction system with dual air cleaners and airflow meters and eight throttles feeds big wind to this heavy breather. The handsome ribbed valve covers are visible, at least, as is a badge on top that announces BMW MPower. But you'll never impress anyone who asks to see what's under the hood. "Hmh," is the likely reaction. Tell them how many liters of air per second the engine swallows, that'll impress 'em.

The six-CD changer, connected to a digital sound system with 14 speakers, lives in the small trunk, in a compartment which also stores two quarts of oil-a racy touch that one hopes is more for effect than need.

Self-leveling Xenon headlights offer state-of-the-art night visibility, and are accompanied by halogen foglights neatly tucked into the corners of small air dam openings under the headlights. Other important safety features include a reinforced passenger cage, and airbags galore: two-stage front airbags, side airbags for each door, and tube-like bags that drop from the headliner and prevent impact against the front windows. And here's a comforting honor bestowed upon the BMW 5 Series in 1999: The Safe Car of the Millennium Award from the International Brain Injury Association.

Another novel high-tech safety feature is a tire pressure warning message that appears as a digital display, although its words "tire defect" might be alarming. Ours came and went one time during the test, so we shrugged it off. That wasn't easy, considering there is no spare at all; the size of the wheels and tires precludes one. That's what the roadside assistance program is for, to get towed to the nearest BMW dealer; all of them are required to stock at least one front and one rear M5 tire and wheel. Roadside Assistance comes free with the car, but the cellphone doesn't. Either use your own, or order the optional $595 BMW phone.

The list of civilized features is long: self-dimming mirrors inside and out (the oval shape of the rearview mirror is curiously and neatly retro), headlight washers, sunroof, power sunshades at the rear and side windows, and an onboard navigation system that constantly computes latitude and longitude. The navigation system has so many capabilities, explained in its own manual, that we didn't take the time to learn and critique the system; we spent every precious minute with this car driving it. Suffice to say: If you want onboard navigation in your roadgoing race car, you got navigation.

Interior Features

Heated power seats with lumbar support usually look fatter and plusher than the M5's spare-looking but handsome buckets (ours were red and black), but like everything else related to the driving of this car, they were perfect: Perfectly comfortable, perfectly suited to the task of real driving. There's a cool dead pedal to plant your left foot against during hard cornering (a necessary touch as we will see). The leather-wrapped steering wheel had the right feel, no surprise, while its hub contained stereo controls under the left thumb and cruise controls under the right-and there's no better or safer place for cruise control, because you can quickly exit with a simple twitch of your thumb.

With a car like this, you tend to forget about the back seat-it is, after all, a seriously self-indulgent vehicle-but because it's a 540 Sedan before it's an M5, the back seat offers good room and comfort.

We liked the Alcantara anthracite roof liner, otherwise known as charcoal gray suede-like, never mind that Car and Driver said it made the M5 interior feel like "another Teutonic coal bin." We also liked the polished metal instrument bezels, the ring around the 180-mph (300k!) speedometer. But we hated the hysterical thick neon-like orange and red lines beginning at 6500 rpm on the tach; since the rev limiter activates at about 6800 rpm anyhow, why have that awful constant message at 7000 rpm that screams RED ALERT YOU IDIOT! Why? Because BMW can. The glowing orange redline is part of a cold-engine protection plan; when the engine is cold, the orange moves down to lower rpm. In winter it could be quite useful, but in summer it will be ignored. We fired up the M5 on a hot August afternoon, and two gentle miles later it was still telling us not to rev over 5100 rpm. Race car, indeed.

Driving Impressions

Email from a beautiful blonde friend:

Hi there,
Thanks again for the ride. It was a BLAST! Sorry I got queasy, I'm just not used to that much g-force in the turns. That was some power! Fairly breathtaking, is exactly what it was. Keep me in mind for the next ride.
Very best regards,

Leaving Amy ... where to begin? The M5 driving experience has more meat than there is space to describe it.

Let's start with the big, throbbing, heart of the car: its engine. At 302 cubic inches, the engine is not huge; but 21st century technology draws a heavy punch from a small package, so think of this 5.0-liter V8 as really big. The speed specs on the fastest production sedan on the planet? Acceleration from 0 to 60 in 4.8 seconds; quarter mile in 13.3 seconds at 108 mph; top speed electronically limited to 155 mph, which in sixth gear would be a casual 5200 rpm or so.

The powerband is eminently comfortable and cruisable, thanks largely to BMW's VANOS system of variable valve timing, which brings the massive torque down into the 3000 and even 2000 rpm range. The free-flowing exhaust system, which exits in four thick tailpipes, is considerably muted for the law, alas, so you have to open the windows to hear the engine sing.

With such acceleration and quick, sure handling, the M5 passes on a two-lane like a motorcycle. It's a fun and personally powerful feeling: twitch out and hammer it, twitch in and back off the gas, done in seconds. On the freeway you can use your foot to move in and out of holes: keep it in fourth gear and squirt, shift to fifth to get legs, and settle in sixth when there's no traffic.

You can hit the 6800-rpm rev limiter in a heartbeat in the lower gears, and it's easy to do so inadvertently because the engine never screams or sounds stressed in any way. You drive by the tach a lot because of this, but you soon get the rhythm of upshifting at 6200 rpm when you're working it. The engine likes to work aggressively in the twisties at nearly 6000 rpm. It feels so strong that you get the feeling the rev limiter is set slightly and conservatively low, and the specs would support this, as the engine makes its maximum 394 horsepower at 6600 rpm. An upshift at 6200 rpm is actually a short shift, and feels like it. Six thousand rpm in third gear is about 88 mph, and it's a measure of the control of this car that this is not an uncommon place to be, when you're driving for satisfaction on a desolate winding two-lane road, in a region of a western state with almost no population. You live in Jersey, you want an M5, you move out West to exercise it.

The six-speed gearbox, a fortified version of that found in the 540i, shifts with tight precision, having a relatively short throw. And sixth gear is not too tall, so you still have torque to accelerate without downshifting at 60 mph. The throttle blip during heel-and-toe downshifts was responsive, but we didn't find the pedals perfectly matching our feet and legs.

The brakes are magic, flawless, breaking a barrier for power, consistency and easy control during hard usage. We were so dazzled that we forgot to test the ABS-like, the brakes are so good that the notion of a "panic" stop never occurred to us. The front rotors are 13.6 inches and the rear 12.9, which says most of it. We did have one small problem, having reached unprecedented ground: when braking from high speed, stunningly deep for a second-gear turn, there was so much forward momentum on our body that if the road was bumpy our right foot was forced hard against the brake pedal, making things less smooth than desired. We needed racing seatbelts to pin our shoulders back.

Point and shoot is an expression that usually refers to a car that doesn't corner, but it rings true for the M5 because you can point it through a corner. It has such solid grip that the car confidently shoots around corners, not merely away from them; you don't have to wait for the apex to floor it. There is a Sport mode, which tightens the recirculating ball steering (and quickens the throttle responsive), making the car feel somewhat heavy at slow speeds, but the "M Servotronic" speed-sensitive power steering is seamless; you don't realize it's there, but the faster you go the lighter the M5 feels.

Performance, performance, performance is what you hear about the M5, but its most amazing quality is the ride. The suspension is MacPherson struts in front, multi-link in rear, using aluminum components, with new meaning brought to the words "fine tuning." Somehow, brilliant BMW engineers have created this magnificent handling without compromising the comfort and smoothness of the ride, not one iota, not in one single situation. Even those humongous low-profile tires don't cause it to jar or bite-okay, maybe over railroad tracks at 5 mph. But there's no jolt over freeway expansion strips, no wandering over changing surfaces, and no tug on the wheel in rain grooves. If a ride this civilized in a 400-horsepower car with such grip is not unbelievable, it certainly is unprecedented.

We saved the complex feature, the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), both amazing and problematic, for last. The problem is it works too well, or rather too much. However, it's important to say that the problem can be solved with one finger: so push a button and turn it off, if you don't want it. And we're talking here only about driving really hard on dry pavement. We didn't have the opportunity to test the DSC in the wet, which is where it could be a lifesaver, and what it's all about. Complicating our issue is that it was only the traction control, not the directional control, that got in the way. But BMW's DSC integrates everything: ABS, traction control and stability (directional) control. Its sophistication level is state of the art, with wheel sensors that measure not only minute slippage, but lateral acceleration (how hard the vehicle is cornering) and yaw (rotation around the car's vertical axis).

Technically, we can't say what the car's committee of ECU chips was concluding. All we knew was that under hard acceleration or aggressive cornering, the traction control kept activating. It might have been simply because it's super sensitive-way too sensitive. Minute wheelspin happens long before you can feel it or it has any effect on control, and if you want to program a computer to stop it, you can, but that doesn't improve the driving experience. We're talking about a loss of spark and/or application of brakes at 60 mph on dry pavement while upshifting aggressively to third gear. And while cornering hard-but well below the point of sliding-under steady throttle in second gear, if there are light bumps in the road. It feels like a misfire, and it's annoying to have your head lurch forward when the car stops accelerating in these situations. Of course, it might be said that DSC works like a training tool to force you to apply the throttle gently.

In reading BMW's excellent explanation of DSC, the words "normal" and "should" appear a lot. There's the rub, we think. It's not a computer problem, it's that a human being decides what is "normal" and what the car "should" be doing, and then programs the sensitivity of traction control within the DSC. That human being isn't behind the wheel on your road on your day.

Final Word

It may be a cliche to say a car like this raises the bar, but it's certainly true in this case. The BMW M5 redefines fast and smooth. Its suspension is perfectly comfortable while offering unmatchable grip, the steering is perfectly precise, the brakes are perfectly strong and steady. The M5's competitors are the Mercedes AMG E55 and Jaguar XJR, which, by objective measures, are blown out of the water by the M5.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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