Despite being in the industry 35 years, my list of truly memorable cars, ones that I would instantly place in my mythical garage, is not actually that long. Not one to be unduly wowed by supercars for their own sake, I look for good dynamic balance as well as beauty in any car.
One car that easily made my short list in 1987 was the (E28) BMW M5. Powered by a 286 hp version of the 3.5-litre 24-valve twin-cam straight six from the M1 supercar, the original M5’s sweet, high revving motor had guts all the way through its rev band. And so long as you took the stock alloy wheels shod with Pirelli P7s and not the nasty Michelin TRX wheel and tyre option its impressive straight-line speed was matched by an agile and nicely balanced chassis.
Fast-forward 30 years to Portimao circuit in the Algarve, and I am once again behind the wheel of an E28 M5, this time from BMW’s Classic collection, on the occasion of the latest M5 launch.
Even though the simple analogue cockpit looks and feels ‘classic’ for want of a better description, I feel instantly at home. The period BMW ergonomic virtues of having instruments and controls aligned with the drivers’ line of sight and touch has endured the test of time.
Out on the road, the big six under the bonnet of this 124,000km example feels hale and hearty, and revs cleanly and strongly through the gears. In period form, the air conditioning is quite effective but the blower is very vocal, reminding me just how far manufacturers have come in terms of making cars quieter and more efficient.
Above all, my re-acquaintance with the first generation M5 served to remind me why I loved the car so much back then. It also underlined the fact that any well-balanced machine should be able to maintain this impression, even years down the line.
Sadly, succeeding generations of M5 did not have the same draw for me. Growing bigger and heavier is not a good thing, and the E34, E39 and the E60 M5 failed to win a place in either my heart or my mythical garage.
In an environment where manufacturers usually improve efficiency of their new models by shedding excess fat, the fifth generation M5 (F10) of 2011 shocked enthusiasts by debuting with 90kg more dead weight than its V10-engined predecessor.
With tightening emissions standards looming BMW chose a 4.4 litre twin-turbo V8 to succeed the V10, and uniquely placed those turbochargers inside the Vee in what they term a ‘hot side inside’ configuration. With 560hp and 680 Nm of torque, the S63 T2 motor made for the most powerful M5 ever, but at 1,945kg, it was also the heaviest.
Although based on the latest G30 5-Series, the new M5 that goes on sale in spring 2018 is internally designated F90. Go figure. Power comes from the heavily revised S63 T4 version of the V8 bi-turbo good for 600hp and 750Nm of torque. This is dispensed to all four wheels through a new ZF eight-speed torque convertor automatic gearbox that replaces the seven-speed Getrag dual-clutch gearbox used before.
Since they had already used all-wheel-drive to good effect in the M550d, an M fettled version of BMW’s xDrive system was the logical missing link in the M5 chain. The good news is that despite the extra weight of the front differential and two driveshafts the engineers managed to shave around 40kg off the kerb weight of the outgoing F10 model.
Apart from its weight, another serious bugbear of the F10 M5 was the counter intuitive weight and feel of its hydraulic power steering, which became unnaturally heavy and lacking in feedback in its Sport setting. If anything it felt like one of those early force feedback set-ups for PlayStation that gave you lots of resistance, but no feeling of being connected to anything.
Thankfully the engineers have got it right this time round and the EPS (Electric Power Steering) works a treat both in its normal setting on the road, and when all systems are on full alert on track.
In design terms, BMW has always applied a mandate of one generation of styling revolution followed by one of evolution. This has not changed, but the differences between the similarly proportioned F10 and F90 generation 5-Series models are subtle enough that non-enthusiasts would struggle to identify them as they drive past. The same goes for their M5 derivatives, whose lights, grilles and bumpers are the real giveaways to car enthusiasts.
However, there is no getting away from the fact that the latest M5 is a handsome car in the classical sense. It is arguably crisper looking than the more organically styled E63 AMG, which also features 4WD as standard. The RS6 derivative of the forthcoming new Audi A6 is still some way off, so for now the new M5 is safe from an Ingolstadt challenge, which will once again likely be only made in its iconic Avant form.
While it may appear superficially similar to its predecessor, the sixth-generation M5 is in fact an all-new car under the skin. Based on the new platform that BMW terms their CLAR (Cluster Architecture) structure, this latest M5 has a lighter and more rigid monocoque, making it a potentially more stable platform for its M specific suspension.