It’s an arms race out there and if your horsepower figures don’t start with a six you needn’t show up. We’re now firmly in that predictable cycle of one follows, or in most cases bests, the other. Audi cranks up the numbers with the RS 7 Performance, Mercedes-AMG then goes one up with the E 63 S, in between Jaguar’s SVO division does something utterly mental, and now it is BMW’s turn to crank up the volume. 600 horsepower – or 591 brake horsepower in the numbers that we understand – that’s what the new BMW M5 puts out. Think about it for a second. 600hp in a four-door executive sedan that Sachin Tendulkar merrily plugs as a ‘business athlete’ (whatever that’s supposed to mean). Good grief. In all honesty 560 was too much for the earlier M5. I remember for the second issue of evo India (November 2013), I hotfooted the M5, in pouring rain, from Mumbai to Pune and even with all safety aids switched on I scared myself on the expressway; scared myself on the familiar roads of our shoot location; scared myself on pretty much every day of the week I had it. Oh, it also thrilled me to no end, so much so that it was the unanimous winner of our very first performance car group test, but if I’m being perfectly honest it really had way too much power for a normal road, forget wet and greasy roads. In contrast the S6 that we had – while no match on power or thrills – was so much calmer and easier to drive fast.
And so the F90 M5 (the previous gen was F10, these are codenames petrolheads need to consign to memory) gets something no M car ever had. Four-wheel drive. Quattro, as Audi will gleefully remind you. Because unless you’re Ferrari 592bhp is way, way too much for just two wheels to handle. Heck 600 horses are way too much for any public road!
Which is also why I find myself behind BMW’s DTM star Bruno Spengler in the pitlane of the historic Estoril track. Once upon a time, F1 cars used to blast around the place but now the tarmac run-offs aren’t enough for the likes of Vettel using his F1 car as battering ram. A natural consequence is this track has character. Elevation changes. Blind corners. Barriers that aren’t seven miles away. And the ghosts of legends past. You treat a track like this with respect, especially when 592bhp is waiting to be deployed. But first a walk around the car I’m going to drive.
It’s a 5 Series, no question about it. Whereas the M3 / M4 are significantly more blistered, pumped up and amplified over the equivalent 3 Series the M5 is less boy racer. It’s a grown up performance car. And it looks good. Of course the wheels are massive – optional 20 inchers on the test cars here – and the blue is a glossy, shiny, shouty blue that looks better on Instagram than in magazine pictures. But the rest of the package is all about subtle performance-enhancing details. The vents behind the front wheels and on the bonnet reduce turbulence and extract heat. The carbonfibre roof not only looks cool but reduces weight at the highest point thus lowering the centre of gravity. The four exhaust pipes frame the rear diffuser. And the cabin is suitably opulent and kitted out for a customer who’d be expected to part with 7 Series money. The seats look wicked and heat your bum. There’s carbonfibre trim liberally applied over the dash. The start/stop button is red, like the firing button of a fighter jet. The steering is as fat as the rear tyres. And on it sprout two red (and very cool!) buttons. M1. And M2.
Over the walkie Bruno tells us to hit M1. Each of these buttons can be individually programmed to your ideal combination of engine response, gear shift aggression, steering weight, ESP intervention, drive (4WD or RWD) and suspension stiffness. M1, for our sighting laps, has everything in full aggression with all safety nets kept on including all-wheel drive to keep things on the straight and narrow.First question: has four-wheel drive ruined the M5? First answer: no!
We are the first out on track and the Pirelli’s are cold. The track is damp and the sun is right in our eyes. But with only 6 laps we’re not going to waste laps learning the track, figuring out the lines and getting warmed up. Brake where Bruno tells us to brake, watch out for the apex Bruno’s M5 is clipping, and hard on the gas everywhere else. Wow!
Having driven the F10 M5 extensively, on road and track, I can tell you that unless everything was warm and grippy you could not go full on the gas without the ESP flashing and cutting in like mad. The F90 is different, very different. Of course in the patches where Bruno’s car kicks up spray you can feel the ESP cutting in, but most places the F90 is transformed in that you can deploy so much more of the power much, much, earlier than one would otherwise have dared to. And this isn’t at the expense of steering feel – something that blights all Quattro Audis. The helm continues to remain light and responsive, seemingly unencumbered by having to lay down power in addition to steering the car (though nothing like the E60 M5 – the one with the howling V10 motor).
There is, of course, a hell of a lot of power. The 4.4-litre V8 has been massaged to put out 40 more horsepower but more specifically torque has gone up from 680 to 750Nm. That is unheard of from petrol engines! To handle that mountain of torque the 7-speed twin-clutch has been replaced with ZF’s 8-speed automatic but don’t worry – it is as quick as I remember the DCT’s shift speeds while being a fair deal more refined.
Gone too are the days when you’d talk about turbo lag because there is none. Torque peaks at just 1800rpm! And because boost kicks in so early, just a tickle of the throttle transports you to the meat of the torque curve irrespective of the gear you’re in. This is a mad-fast car. A whole second has been shaved off the 0-100kmph time, taking just 3.4 seconds now. Top speed is 250kmph but you can now option the M Driver’s package that lets the F90 hit 304kmph. I’ll repeat that, the M5 now cracks 300kmph! And to reign in all that power you get carbon ceramic brakes. Take a deep breath for a moment and remember this is a car with four doors, four seats and a spacious boot. My god!
Two laps in, with Bruno convinced we aren’t going to paint the barriers an M blue, he tells us to hit M2 on the steering wheel. While not switching traction control completely off this brings in the mid-way 4WD Sport program; allows us to explore the balance of the chassis while still saving us from ourselves when we inevitably will run out of talent. What I discover is that the despite the massive improvement in grip and traction the M5 feels resolutely rear driven. Low gear, tight corner, gas it hard and the rear snaps out as the torque overwhelms the tyres followed immediately by ESP intervention. Repeat with a higher gear, feather the throttle, and now you can use all the torque to slide it out of the corner while remaining under the threshold of ESP intervention. It’s just so easy, and so much fun. There’s no armful of steering lock involved here, just a gentle four-wheel drift, but if you’re so inclined the M5 also has a full-on drift mode where you switch it to rear-wheel drive, ESP fully off, and have big smoky drifts for the taking.
Six laps in Bruno lets our heart rate slow down on the cool-down lap and guides us into the pits to gather our thoughts. So how does the M5 pull off this best-of-all-worlds versatility?It’s down to the Central Intelligence Unit, a new box that integrates the controls of the new M5’s hardware. As expected of The Ultimate Driving Machine, the 4WD system does not have a 50:50 power split – something that leads to horrible understeer at the limit – but is largely rear-biased. A clutch pack in the transfer case at the back of the gearbox sends power to the front wheels in response to slip at the rear or even pre-emptively if it thinks extra traction will help (like a full-bore launch). And in 2WD mode you can shred the rear Pirelli’s drifting around the track.
2WD is definitely not recommended for the road but even in 4WD Sport mode it is surprising how rear-driven the M5 feels when given a bootfull of throttle on corner exits. Yet in faster corners there is drive to the fronts that gives it stability, confidence and pace. Oh the pace, the sheer un-godly pace. I have to tell you the M5 demolishes roads like few cars do; like no other 4-door car I’ve driven this side of a Panamera Turbo. The responses are astonishingly immediate making the M5 feel more like a 2-seater sports car than a 4-seater super-saloon. The speeds you can carry through a twisty road boggles the mind. There is also a surprising amount of suspension compliance, a degree of comfort you don’t get from high-performance sports sedans these days. No matter how hard you push, there is no understeer to speak of and the poise courtesy of 4WD is remarkable. To make it move around you have to be doing absolutely insane speeds and that – for the first time in my life – has me asking the question: is the M5 too much? Does it have too much power? Have we finally answered the question of how much power is too much?