Pace & Grace
At the end of this, I’m going to have to disappoint you. But first, a question. It is perhaps the most pressing question of the age, at least for BMW fans. Do I really need an M5? Do I need the expense? The running costs? The insurance quotes? Yes, M is a magical letter, but would I be better off with a big-engined 5 Series that’s just a little more… normal?
Of course, this a question that the likes of Alpina, AC Schnitzer and others have been eagerly hoping you will ask and, they hope, answer that you don’t need an M5, but you still need a car with more emphatic performance than comes as standard. BMW has noticed this gap, over the years. The gap between its high-end ‘normal’ cars and the products of the sainted M Division and it has of course begun to exploit that gap in recent years with the M Performance range. These cars, the like of the M140i or X5 M50d, cannot, supposedly, provide the full-on thrills of an M car, but they are still very quick, very good to drive and BMW can charge you a little more for them. Generally speaking, everyone goes home happy, and both Audi and Mercedes are now starting to exploit similar gaps in their own ranges. The M550i feels a little diff erent. It’s one thing to have a half-way-M-house 1 Series or X5, but the M5 has been such a touchstone of high-performance BMWs for so long that it seems almost treasonous to dilute that image, to undermine the king by promoting a prince, so to speak.
That’s exactly what the M550i xDrive is, though. It’s an M5 for those who can’t quite aff ord an M5, or for those who like the idea of an M5, but crave a car that’s a touch easier to live with, a touch cheaper to run, a smidge less aggressive in its outlook. Does that mean that the M550i is a niche too far? A car with a foot unsteadily planted in both camps?
Looking at the engineering specification, you would suspect not. Power comes from BMW’s familiar 4.4-litre N63 V8 in B44 spec, with twin TwinPower turbochargers, Double Vanos variable camshafts and Valvetronic variable valve lift. The headline power figure of 462hp looks… well, it looks a little disappointing to be honest. After all, that’s a full 100hp down on the outgoing F10 M5, so does that mean that the M550i is more over-hyped exec express, and less serious performance car?
Well, no actually. Look a little deeper and see the 479lb ft torque figure, achieved at just 1800rpm and, for that matter, look at the xDrive setup, with its rear-biased four-wheel drive. That’s a combination of output and engineering that promises serious get up and go – and so it proves. The M550i is actually faster than the outgoing M5 in the scramble to 62mph from a standstill, hitting that number in four seconds dead, compared to 4.3 seconds for the standard, ‘old’, M5 (although the 30 Jahre edition M5 could match the M550i, it must be said). Top speed, as ever, is pegged at 155mph, and there’s no option to have that limiter removed or raised.
Not that you actually need it, as the limiter is pretty soft as it is. The M550i gathers pace with violent intent, and even with a relatively small break in the traffic swirling around the Munich Autobahn, and even with the limiting factor of running on 18-inch winter tyres (the standard 19-inch items having been swapped out thanks to an unseasonable cold snap), the M550i still blasted through the limiter and on to an indicated 260km/h, or 161mph. And then a Renault van pulled out and we noticed that our winter tyres were supposedly limited to 240km/h, so the flat-out fun was over for the day.
We were pretty thankful of those winter tyres, though. The air temperature outside had dropped to a most un-April-like 0.5 degrees Celsius and there was slick rain on the road, and last night’s snow on the verges. In those circumstances, unleashing the M550i’s full potential would have been rather more nerve-wracking had we been on the wrong rubber.
And the car shows serious potential. Thanks to xDrive, there’s simply no hesitation in response, and only the tiniest fraction of turbo lag. Press sharply down on the right-hand pedal and the M550i just girds and goes, with a delicious crackle of exhaust fury and intake rumble. In an age of hybrids and heavily-boosted four-cylinder engines, it’s a treat and a relief to remember that BMW can still make proper engines – and this most certainly is one. It doesn’t have the uncouth rumble of an American V8, but instead a sophisticated, if rather un-PC, growl and snarl – the sound of a proper European thoroughbred.
What’s rather surprising is how soft it is in chassis terms. BMW says that the suspension has been lowered by 10mm compared with a standard 5 Series, and it uses M Adaptive dampers. There are also active anti-roll bars and Active Steering, the latter juggling the ratio of the steering rack to suit the prevailing conditions. You think, you assume that it’s going to be a hard-riding lead-sled, but it seems those old E60 days of rock-hard run flats and damaged coccyx are long behind us, because the M550i rides like a limo most of the time.
While you can, of course, use the usual switch to hop between Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus, and Sport Individual modes (allowing you to have the engine and eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox at maximum attack, but the dampers set to maximum comfort), we chose to run for most of the time in the new Adaptive mode, which works out what you’re doing and tries to change the settings to best suit your mood and the conditions. And it works rather well. Take it gently, and the M550i could be a regular executive saloon. The cabin is hushed, the engine restrained at low rpm and the ride is genuinely pliant. Then you find a gap, or pass the end of a speed restriction, nail the pedal to the firewall and suddenly you’re on a hot lap of the ‘Ring, with that gorgeous V8 soundtrack giving tinnitus to passing squirrels as you go.
At no point though, even in flat-out madman mode, did the M550i’s suspension ever jar, nor jolt, nor jiggle. In fact, it almost feels too soft to be true, far too easy-going for a serious performance car such as this. Perhaps we have just become too accustomed to sporting cars being hard-edged? Maybe it doesn’t have to be like this?
The rub comes with a very fast right-left, somewhere in the misty woods near Garching outside Munich. The M550i was powering fast through a long, endless right hander, which needed some hard braking at the end to flick the nose into a classic left-over-crest. And here is where you find that a gap still exists, very probably, between M Performance and full-on M. The softness of the suspension meant that the M550i just felt a touch slow to respond to the flick of the steering and for just a tenth of a second its responses felt slow as it unloaded the right-hand wheels (causing a momentary sensation that the xDrive was trying to send too much power to the right-front) and loaded up the other side of the car. It wasn’t nervous, and certainly not sloppy, but there was just a touch of hesitation, a sliver through which the next-gen M5 might well pass with greater conviction.
Steering feel and response are, to be honest, much as it is in the rest of the 5 Series range. While the Active Steering is a useful option to have, and makes what is quite a chunky 1880kg car feel much more agile and responsive than it has any right to, the fact is that the feel is slightly numb and artificial. Anyone who remembers the old E39 M5’s steering will weep for its loss, but at least the speed across the locks, the weighting and the sensation of carefully-oiled precision is just as it should be. Is this, again, a faint shade of ability in which the M5 can stamp its authority on the M550i?
Looks-wise, there’s no question that the M5 will be far more aggressive than the M550i, but perhaps that’s an advantage to the ‘lesser’ car. After all, we live in a world of image, and maybe being too much of a show-off isn’t a good thing anymore. To all but the most clued-in M-badge fan, the M550i will essentially pass unnoticed. The M Aerodynamic body kit and that lovely little boot lid spoiler do give it an air of subtle muscularity over and above a mainstream 5 Series diesel with an M Sport kit, but again it will be hard for the layman to spot. Ditto the ‘Cerium Grey’ metallic finish to the kidney grille surrounds and the tops of the door mirrors (exclusive to the M550i for now) and the High-Gloss Shadowline of the window trim. It looks good, and the maligned styling of the G30 has never looked better, but this is all under-the-radar stuff.
Inside, there are illuminated aluminium door sills with the M550i badge and Dakota leather seats with contrast stitching. Our test car was finished in Mediterranean Blue Metallic with optional Mocha Nappa leather, which looked great and really helps to lift the styling of the M550i’s cabin. If it can be said that the G30 has played it rather too safe and familiar with its cabin styling and layout, at least here, with these sumptuously comfortable seats, finished in something thankfully other than too-predictable black, the 5 Series interior is at its best.
No quibbling over the space either – rear seat passengers have impressive room, and the practical side of things is taken care of by the generous 530- litre boot.
Equipment includes the new digital instrument pack, which looks terrific in standard mode (aping the classic, simple, and clear BMW analogue dials as it does), but which looks a little too video-game-y in Sport mode, with its slightly silly red backlighting and chunky digital numbers. There’s the new iDrive setup, with its neat tile-based display and the slightly pointless gesture control (there are already two ways to change the stereo volume, do we really need a third?) and the full BMW Connected suite of apps, smartphone hook-ups (Apple CarPlay is an option), Microsoft Office 365 compatibility and advanced voice control functions.
There’s also a full set of safety equipment, including optional radar-guided Active Cruise Control and Lane Keeping Assistant, which bring a modicum of autonomous driving capability to the M550i – that might sound anathema to a performance car, but it came in handy during a stop-start traffic snarl up thanks to Munich road works.
Do we still need an M5, then? Is it worth upgrading beyond this; a car already faster than the last-gen M and realistically as fast a car as you could ever need for public road driving? A car that effortlessly combines the roles of limo and dragster, a Can Am racer in a business suit?
Well, yes is the answer. We do still need the M5. Because there will be no right-hand-drive production of the M550i, more’s the pity. This is an exceptionally well-rounded car, a car with jet-fighter acceleration and (mostly) agility to match, but with comfort that makes it not merely bearable, but actively cosseting. A car that treads an almost perfect line between the standard 5 Series range on one side, and the M5 on the other. But, sadly, a car that we cannot buy in the UK. We’ve got to hope the new M5 blows it out of the water.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE BMW M550i xDrive G30
ENGINE: V8, 32-valve, twin-turbo
MAX POWER: 462hp @ 5500-6000rpm
MAX TORQUE: 479lb ft @ 1800-4750rpm
0-62MPH: 4.0 seconds
TOP SPEED: 155mph (limited)
WEIGHT (EU): 1885kg
PRICE (OTR): Not on sale in UK
The M550i is actually faster than the outgoing M5 in the scramble to 62mph from a standstill, hitting that number in four seconds dead.