BMW M5 – great performance also takes some schooling

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The wife complained that each time she tried to sit in the passenger seat of the 2008 BMW M5 it was littered with owner’s manuals.

“What’s the deal,” she inquired as she tossed the books into the back seat. “I thought you detested opening an owner’s manual?”

She’s right, after all I consider myself macho, but the BMW is an exception. It takes more than a week of reading and driving — usually not at the same time — to become familiar with the intricacies of the 500-horsepower beast from Germany. Since we were only in possession of the super sedan for seven days it made for a steep learning curve.

For instance, BMW says there are 279 setting combinations to its MDrive system allowing the driver to vary horsepower, throttle response, transmission response, electronic damping control and stability control. Included are 11 transmission shift programs from mildest to sportiest in either sequential (six) or automated (five) modes.
And then there is the ever-present aggravating iDrive that the driver must use to access most of the car’s normal functions via a joystick knob mounted between the seats.

Driving has never been this hard and with double the aggravation.

But driving seldom has been this much fun, either, even if you haven’t mastered all there is to know about MDrive and the other goodies associated with the $86,000 mid-sized four-door rocketship.

Just plop down in the driver’s seat and hit the starter button. A low rumble is instantly emitted and you know with a blip of the throttle — without ever touching a book — that you’re sitting behind the wheel of something special with which most drivers will never be familiar.

What you have brought to life is a 5.0-liter 500-horsepower V-10 engine.
And if you are even vaguely familiar with BMW's penchant for delivering an extraordinary driving experience, you know that a highway tiger has emerged from his cage.

Straight-ahead rocket-like performance is measured at speeds unheard of just a few years ago for a four-door luxury automobile — 0-to-60 in 4.5 seconds; a quarter mile in 12.7 seconds at 114 miles per hour and a governor-limited top speed of 162 miles per hour.

Put this cutting-edge performance into one of the best two-ton handling machines in the world and you’ve got exhilarating fun for four people.
Problem is most of that fun will have to be relegated to a race track or an unused airstrip or — if a European vacation can be arranged with an M5 rental car — the German autobahn.

But the M5 performance can be enjoyed in short spurts if you dial up some patience and prudence.

The automotive excitement comes wrapped in a gorgeous package, the best so far from the 21st Century BMW design studio. The sheetmetal creases and folds look delicious. The standard 19-inch wheels are stunning and the M5 will turn heads and draw admiring stares from the knowledgeable and the unknowing alike.

The blue and red “M5” emblem on the trunk lid will give pause to the driver of the hopped-up Mustang who may have an itch for competition. Maybe?

This is the fourth generation of the M5 (which was introduced in Europe in 1984 and came to the U.S. for the first time in 1988), and the first use of a V-10 engine. Previous iterations were outfitted with V-8s. The third generation M5 from 2000-2003 came with a 4.9-liter V-8, generating 394 horsepower. Child’s play!

We used some of law enforcement-deprived back roads deep in the country for a few miles of hard running and a handful of full-throttle launches to experience some of the sedan’s attributes. This BMW can carve up winding roads with the best of them with its rack-and-pinion steering, incredibly tuned aluminum suspension and massive brakes.
Manually shifting the seven-speed sequential manual gearbox (SMG) is a hoot using the huge control paddles on the steering wheel.

But manually shifting becomes tedious in normal run-to-the-store everyday jaunts. You have your mind on other things, so pushing the shifter into Drive mode is the answer for routine cruising. Shifts through the seven gears come automatically.

But there in lies one of the little aggravations with the M5. In normal driving, there are big lags between up-shifts. Although it’s something you can live with, it’s annoying especially when most transmissions these days are so seamless as to make the shift points nearly undetectable.

We tried, books ever present on the passenger seat, to configure the automated portion of MDrive to give us the seamless shifting we like, but without much success. Perhaps some (all) of the problem was driver ignorance. Drilling down into the SMG seemed dangerous at best and more aggravating than it needed to be. You shouldn’t need to be a gearhead engineer to get the transmission to work smoothly.

A fully manual six-speed transmission is also available, but we would opt for the SMG version even with its peculiarities because it can be shifted as fast as a manual yet be set in automatic.
Don’t feel that you will get a teeth-jarring suspension because of the M5’s world-class handling. A softer side that will soak up most road imperfections can be dialed in through the Electronic Damping Control’s Comfort mode. And even in that setup there are scads of road-holding ability available.

The 16-way adjustable front seats are wonderful. No need to apply for the $1,900 optional 20-way M multifunctional adaptive seats.

There is adequate space for two adults in the rear and the trunk volume is a decent 14 cubic feet.

Standard equipment comes in abundance, as it should, highlighted by navigation, Bluetooth connectivity, Merino leather upholstery and a Harmon Kardon Logic 7 audio system with 12 speakers.

Ownership is not for the income-deprived. The entrance fee for M5 performance is $86,675 including destination charge and a $3,000 gas guzzler tax.

And it’s not for the technology challenged. Not only do you have to master iDrive, but you must learn the intricacies of MDrive as well to get the full value from your BMW.
Our test car came with a few options including the adaptive seats, a head-up display and rear sunshades for $91,945. It should come with a week of a BMW instructor too.

The operational fee at the gas pump is costly as the M5 delivers a paltry 11 miles per gallon in city driving and 17 highway using premium grade fuel. But the M5 is not about money. You either have it or you don’t. You are either going to burn the high priced gas or you’re not. The M5 is simply about owning one the top performance sedans in the world.


Base price, $86,675; as driven, $91,945
Engine: 5.0-liter V-10
Horsepower: 500 @ 7,750 rpm
Torque: 383 pound-feet @ 6,100 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed sequential manual
Drive: rear wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 113.7 inches
Length: 191.5 inches
Curb weight: 5,140 pounds
Turning circle: 40.7 feet
Luggage capacity: 14 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons (premium)
EPA mileage: 17 highway, 11 city
0-60: 4.5 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Audi S6, Mercedes E63 AMG, Cadillac STS-V

The Good
• Scorching performance and impeccable handling
• Wonderful build quality
• Excellent interior materials

The Bad
• Up-shifts lag in automatic mode of SMG transmission

The Ugly
• Gas mileage, what gas mileage?