We drive: Heavy-metal BMW M5
My first thought after driving the new M5 for the first time was what the next M5 would be like - a tad premature, you may say, given that this car has at least a half decade's lifespan ahead of it.
But I was wondering whether there'd be some paradigm shift in future, a new direction to make the next car significantly lighter. In the past few generations the M5 and its competitors have been involved in an intense power-uber-alles battle which has produced, in its fifth iteration, an M5 wielding 412kW and 680Nm of automotive anger. Those are quite eye-watering figures for a luxury sedan but so is its weight, which has crept up to a corpulent 1870kg.
For the next generation will we continue seeing ever-fatter luxury sedans with ever-more-powerful engines, or will someone take a leaf out of the Lotus school of power-to-weight thinking and start using more lightweight materials such as aluminium or carbon-fibre? Just wondering.
For now we have a heavy car with a heavy-hitting engine, making the M5 the most powerful M car ever. The new engine is already something of a paradigm shift for BMW because it's the first M5 to be turbocharged - a concept once sneered at by the Bavarian firm but now embraced with open arms if you look at how many of its cars use the technology.
Compared to the high-revving normally-aspirated five-litre V10 it replaces, the new M5's 4.4-litre, twin-turbo V8 is not only considerably more muscular (the old car produced 373kW and 520Nm) but the power's available much more instantly, like flicking a switch. And it's claimed to be 30 percent more fuel-efficient as well, which according to BMW was the primary reason for going the turbo route.
It's sad to see the demise of that glorious-sounding V10, which will go down as one of the all-time classic engines. The racy rasp as it revved to its 8250rpm redline was spine-chilling.
Thankfully, my fears that turbocharging would strangle the sound of the new M5 proved unfounded. Though it revs to a lower 7200rpm the V8 engine makes a heavy-metal holler that's perfectly in tune with the violence of the acceleration - 0-100km/h in 4.4 seconds and on to 200 in just 13, according to BMW's figures. When you come off the throttle quickly there's also a loud "brupp!" from the exhaust that'll shake the thorns off a cactus at 20 metres.
Power delivery's instant. At sea level, where I drove it, there's no hint of lag and the throttle pedal feels like a trigger. It's possibly too instant, as non-petrolheaded as that might make me sound, as you spend much of the time gently feathering the throttle rather than having the visceral satisfaction of booting the pedal to the floor.
On some of the twisty Spanish mountain passes where we drove the M5 at its international media launch, it often felt like too much car for a public road. Any half-enthusiastic throttle treatment would cause the rear tyres to momentarily screech and the stability control to kick in a split-second later. The car felt penned-in, an angry beast twitching and snorting to be released from its cage.
BMW obliged by giving us a few laps around the Ascari race circuit, where the beast's legs could be stretched and its limits probed. Here the car delivered everything one expected of the M badge. With its suspension, steering and stability control responses all set to "Mad Max" mode (this can be programmed to take place at a single press of a button on the steering wheel), the M5 lapped the track with commendable athleticism for such a big car.
It's an intense experience. The brutality of the acceleration is always front of mind, as is the tendency for powerslides at the slightest provocation, showing little respect for the width of the 295mm rear tyres. The dual clutch seven-speed auto transmission, which has replaced the unloved SMG gearbox in the old M5, is a smooth-shifting treat that swaps gears super-fast without ever feeling jerky.
But you're always aware of the M5's mass; it's not a car to be flicked around like an M3. This is a ballistic grand tourer, not an agile sports car.
The wonder of the car is how it morphs into a refined and comfy-riding luxury cruiser when you tone down its Mad Max settings - together with your own adrenalin levels. When driving with a light foot I even managed a consumption of 10.5 litres per 100km (compared to 39 on the track!).
The new M5 will be the star attraction on BMW's stand at the Johannesburg Motor Show, starting this weekend, and the car will go on sale here in January at a price still to be announced. - Star Motoring