The essence of the BMW M5 has always been a moving target.
Although the first few iterations of the world-beating four-door clung to the original six-cylinder formula linking it to the brand’s groundbreaking M1 supercar, it wasn’t long – a mere three generations in – before the M5 had broken with that tradition by swapping heritage for a snarling V8. Since then it’s been a merry-go-round of technical innovations for the super sedan, with an F1-inspired V10 giving way to forced induction as BMW continued to push the upper limits of ‘saloon’ horsepower.
The 2018 BMW M5 continues this trend. While you may hear whining from self-styled traditionalists about the latest addition to the vehicle’s arsenal of high-performance hardware – all-wheel drive – make sure to ask complainers which version of its history they’re pining for. Just be prepared for a personality crisis as they attempt to justify their reasoning for dismissing the mightiest M5 model yet.
All-Wheel Drive, All the Power
The move to include all-wheel drive in what is arguably its flagship performance car is a sign that even the M division doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Facing a world where its primary competitor, Mercedes-AMG, has also gone over to four-wheel traction almost across the board in North America, and with home market nemesis Audi lurking in the background to steal away customers with the Quattro system outfitted to its RS cars, the M5’s move to AWD is a double-win for the brand. First, it satisfies the public demand for foul-weather traction (one which has been marketed to death in northern climates), and second, it allows BMW’s engineers to better process the immense output of the car’s twin-turbo V8 engine, making possible a 0-60-mph sprint of just 3.4 seconds.
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The 2018 edition of the BMW M5 retains the previous model’s 4.4-liter V8, with 600 horsepower and 553 lb-ft of torque now standard. M fans will note that the previous-generation sedan was also available in a limited-production 600-pony edition (with 575 and 560 hp models in the lineup), but BMW claims significant revisions to the mill, including new turbos, exhaust manifolds, and an improved oiling system. The sizable 52 lb-ft torque bump makes this easy to believe, and max grunt starts low at 1,800 rpm and remains in the picture until 5,600 rpm.
Helping to harness the heightened horsepower are two new wrinkles in the M5 formula: the previously-mentioned all-wheel drive system, and a first-ever eight-speed automatic transmission. The latter represents the only gearbox on offer with the car, as no manual gearboxes, automated or otherwise, are available, while the former is based heavily on BMW’s existing xDrive hardware, with a few key differences. All 2018 M5s come with an Active M rear differential, which allows for torque vectoring, and a number of driveline components have been strengthened in a bid to manage both the heft and heartiness of the vehicle. The major update to xDrive that transforms it into ‘M xDrive,’ however, is found in the ones and zeros that manage what goes where when the accelerator is punched. Specifically, M xDrive doesn’t just bias power to the rear of the M5, it actually offers a specific two-wheel-drive mode that locks out the front axles completely.
Civilized and Ferocious
What’s it like on an open road? Surprisingly, M xDrive feels largely transparent at almost all speeds, with no obvious numbing of steering feel present in the car aside from the digi-caine effects of BMW’s constantly-improving electric power assist (the company claims that the front wheels are only ever engaged when required to assist with traction).
As with most modern M cars, the key to unlocking the various facets of the 2018 M5’s character are found in its various drive modes, which can be programmed into two M-button shortcuts on the steering wheel. All-wheel drive (or four-wheel drive, as the engineers continually referred to it) is active every time you start the car, but if you swap into M Dynamic mode and select 4WD Sport, stability control backs off to the point where nominal tail-sliding (and a much greater tolerance for non-linear driving) becomes possible. To go full-drift, you need to turn off stability and traction control completely and swap into ‘2WD’ mode via the iDrive screen, a series of steps that reminds you that you’re really working without a net.
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While the roads surrounding Lisbon, Portugal were sufficient for exploring the 2018 BMW M5’s composure when (mostly) respecting the boundaries of legality and good taste, it was at the Estoril former Formula 1 circuit that the car was able to tap into its true potential. It was here that the all-wheel-drive system proved its mettle, civilizing the ferocious turbocharged fury of the M5 to the point where navigating the race track’s twists and turns largely became a matter of point-and-shoot. Estoril’s long front straight had the sedan hauling down to near-zero from 160-mph (260 km/h) before entering a right-hand kink, and this sobering velocity shift only cooked the carbon ceramic brakes once. Better still were the shenanigans available in 2WD mode, as the car held smoky drifts with ease, a party trick that probably only gets old when you’re forced to pay up for a new set of 20-inch Pirellis.
Verdict: 2018 BMW M5 First Drive Review
Where does the 2018 BMW M5 fit within the current range of plus-size sport sedans? Over and above its performance credentials, the four-door offers the same comfortable ride and spacious interior that you’d find in any high-option 5 Series, with the bonus of spiffy sport seats up front and an aggressive but not over the top aero treatment to the front and rear bumpers (there’s also a carbon-fibre roof panel available).
Priced at $102,600 ($113,300 CAD), the base M5 moves into six-figure territory for the first time, where it’s in good company alongside the Audi RS7 and the Mercedes-AMG E 63 S, both all-wheel drive cars that deliver similar speed doled out somewhat differently (with the rear-wheel drive Cadillac CTS-V dark horse delivering more power and equal finesse for a near $20k-discount).
The lack of a clutch pedal might put off the small contingent of M buyers still dedicated to the stick shift, but the truly excellent eight-speed, standard four-wheel locomotion, and very approachable performance envelope will more than make up for that in attracting a wider audience for the car.
Still, it’s worth noting that as technology continues to democratize horsepower, grip, and stability, and digital filters work harder and harder to smooth over the ragged edge, it’s increasingly difficult to tell one of these heavy-hitting 200-mph Teutonic sleds apart from the other – even from behind the wheel. What a time to be alive.
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