Column: The Evolution Of The Greatest Sport Saloon Ever – BMW M5

Yep, I said it! Greatest Sport Saloon ever.

I’m not going to bore you with mindless specs and figures because that wouldn’t be doing the M5 any justice. The M5 commands more respect than numbers printed on a specs sheet. It deserves more than a static comparison; IT’S AN M5 for Christ’s sake!

So what’s all the hoopla about a four-door family sedan with a supped up engine and some suspension tuning? Surely any manufacturer can do the same. It’s the synergy between chassis, engine and driver that befuddles so many manufacturers. It’s that magic between the car and driver that make the M5 special. Let’s not forget the feel you get when you bring the engine to life and realize, something special is happening under the hood. And the smile you get the first time you step on the gas and pilot the M5 to triple digit speeds and realize it is not even breaking a sweat. But most importantly, it’s that “butterflies feeling” inside as you take the M5 on track and scare yourself silly with its balance, speed, and sheer capability.

This award winning formula started in late 1986 when BMW transplanted the S38 inline-6 lifted from the legendary M1 into the E28 5 Series chassis. Power was rated at 286 hp (DIN) – 6,500 rpm – with 251 lb/ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. Other than the restyled front bumper, sports seating, and 16 in BBS Mesh wheels, the M5’s true identity was masked to all but the trained enthusiast of the time.

This was my first introduction into the world of “M”. I had a chance to drive one of the identically colored E28 M5 in 1991. Black with nature leather interior, the M5 looked civil enough. But once I started up the engine, I knew this was no ordinary 5 Series. At the time, the most powerful car I had driven was a 1987 Porsche 911 Turbo. The M5 with nearly as much power felt as quick as the Porsche in a quick-run up to triple digit speeds.

But what really impressed me was the balance of the car and how much easier it was to drive around my favorite switchback mountain passes. Being able to keep pace with the Porsche, the M5 was better balanced in the turns and never gave me the impression the tail would swing out violently without giving me warning. The steering was precise, communicative and was relaying back to me everything the chassis was doing. And the brakes, far easier to modulate than the Porsche’s, probably because of Porsche’s “toward the floor” pedal design used at the time. The takeaway was my first lesson in “M” dynamics and what an M5 was all about.

The bug had bit me and I was infected.

Just one short year after the E28 model’s end of production, BMW M introduced the E34 M5. Oh boy… was I in love! The new chassis was muscular, angular, and best of all, still subdued in its character. Never really giving away its true intentions, the E34 M5 packed a more powerful punch. This time the S38 B36 is rated at 315 hp (DIN) or 310 hp (SAE) at 6,900 rpm and 266 lb/ft of torque at 4,750 rpm. My first experience with an E34 M5 came when I started working at a BMW center.

I’ll never forget that special M5 in Alpine White with dove grey leather. This car was not as raw as the E28 but it was clearly faster and easier to drive fast. A theme you’ll soon come to realize that is a trait that carries through to each progressive generation of M5.

I was snaking my way through the twisties of the Watchung Reservation on my way to the open highway when I realized the E34 was far more capable machine than its predecessor. The sheer thrust of the engine, the gear spacing, brakes and steering were the things I most definitely remember of the E28, but this time, only better. With a well balanced chassis, BMW M engineers did an amazing job shrinking the E34’s now growing size. You would swear you were driving a much smaller car.

On the open road is really where I became fully aware of what “M” was going for. Being able to cruise effortlessly at triple digit speeds, the M5 felt comfortable, quiet, and made me feel like I could drive to the earth’s ends and arrive relaxed. I never got to experience the M5 on the unrestricted Autobahn roads of Germany, but I got a taste of it on an open highway where I decided to test the M5’s medal. At an indicated speed of 150 mph, the M5 was rock solid. Never had I ever driven that fast before.

Now, I was addicted.

I decided to pull the trigger on my own M5. In 2001. I purchased my first M5 after owning two E36 M3 and two E39 5 Series. The car of my choice was painted in Carbon Black with Caramel interior. Better known as “Priscilla”, she was my queen. The E39 chassis was even larger and heavier than the outgoing E34, and making such a big car handle and feel like the E28 and E34 was a monumental task.

BMW M engineers came through. The E39 M5 was powered by the S62 V8 engine producing 392 hp and 369 ft/lbs of torque. A slick 6 speed manual gearbox from Getrag was supplied for the M5 and would later be used in the Z8. Capable of sprinting to 60 in under 5 seconds, it was the fastest, most capable M5 BMW had built to date. The M5 had received all the modern amenities of the time while retaining its winning formula of balance between performance and comfort.

I drove this car daily as well as to track day events and the two things that stand out about the E39 M5 were the power of that V8 and the balanced chassis. Something that was never lost from its predecessors.

A common theme is emerging here, balance and power. BMW’s M division had struck a deal with the devil for this formula. It’s this fine knife’s edge balancing act that make the M5 the perfect Autobahn blaster and back road carver.

2005 saw the birth of the E60 M5 and here’s where the story gets twisted. The E60 chassis had grown so large it was now the size of an E38 7 Series. “Bangled” and bloated, the purists were up in arms, but BMW managed to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

Borrowing technology from its Formula 1 program, BMW developed an all-new engine, the now legendary S85 V10. Pounding out a whopping 507 hp and 383 ft/lbs of torque, the E60 M5 rocketed to 60 in 4.5 seconds.

But wait, something was missing! Where’s my manual gearbox? Are the M engineers expecting me or other purists to drive an M5 with a sequential manual gearbox? My first thought: “I won’t have it! It’s not in the sporty character of its predecessors.”

Yes, the E60 M5 was a very capable car, faster in every way than any other M5 before. The E60 M5 was more refined, comfortable, and packed with all the technology of a $ 100,000 sedan (with options). But, the car lacked the feel and balance I was used to. The steering had become somewhat numb and you could feel the mass around you as you tossed the M5 into a corner. The E60 had grown so large in size that it was starting to affect the perfect balance between Performance and Comfort. Were the wizards at BMW M and marketing suits in a power struggle over the control of the M5? I thought so and many other enthusiasts did as well.

Then BMW made a concession. One year after launching the E60 M5, they made a US-only manual transmission, much to the delight of the purists. But something still wasn’t right, there was a piece missing from the puzzle. I believe to this day that the synergy between engine, transmission and driver was lost. The engineers had designed the engine to purposely be mated to the 7-speed SMG box. The manual version M5 was slower in every possible form of measurement than the SMG car. A new era of performance had surely dawned. After all, Ferrari was now almost exclusively using their version of the SMG; called F1 transmission.

Fast forward another few years and BMW is looking for the winning formula within the turbocharging technology.

Enter the just released F10 M5. No actual road tests or comparisons are available yet, so in terms of performance, my opinion is limited. But based on the official specs, the F10 chassis is slightly larger than the outgoing E60. The F10 550 M-Sport is a more capable chassis than the older 550i, and that’s saying a lot. Having owned an E60 M Sport, in my opinion, the F10 is more connected to my style of driving. Could it be that BMW is going back to a previous formula once used in the E39?

From the one and only review I’ve seen from the prestigious EVO magazine, the equally famous and respected Chris Harris favored the F10 M5 to the E39, rather than the E60.

If the new F10 M5 turns out to be the spiritual successor to the E39, then I’ll take mine in Jerez Black with Cinnamon interior and piano black trim.

Oh, and in a DCT please!




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