BMW M5 SMG E60 against an example E60 M5 that’s been converted to a six-speed manual

Contentious would be an apt description for the sequential gearbox found in the fourth generation M5. I vividly remember watching Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear throwing a temper tantrum about the SMG and all its various drive modes and shortcomings while trying out the then new M5. But what he said next left an equally lasting impression: “It doesn’t matter what you’ve ever driven, it’s quicker, it’s faster, it’s more astonishing. It sounds like a Ferrari 430 and that’s about the best car I have driven.”

Whereas the E39 M5 was only offered with a manual transmission, the E60 M5 could only be had with a SMG… except North American enthusiasts kicked up so much fuss that there was no manual option in BMW’s largest M market that BMW M was forced to build one for North American consumption only. In total it built 1360 manual examples, give or take, compared to over 8000 SMG-equipped examples for North America.

Without a doubt, the third iteration of BMW’s M sequential ‘box was the biggest bone of contention with the M5. The seven-speed SMG was specifically developed to work in tandem with the S85 V10 engine. It comprised of a single clutch, eleven Drivelogic shift programmes (five in automatic mode, six in manual mode), and launch control – and it swapped cogs 20 percent faster than the previous SMG. But herein lay the conundrum, as many deemed it too complicated. The E60 M5 did however have an ace up its sleeve. The S85 engine used in the M5 was based on the Formula 1 P84/5, 3.0-litre V10 engine, as used in the Williams and benefited hugely from the technological strides made by BMW in Formula 1. In road trim the S85 engine was a masterpiece, and its electronic brain was capable of more than 200 million calculations per second, it won ten ‘International Engine of the Year’ titles, between 2005 and 2008. Titles include: ‘Best New Engine’ 2005, ‘Engine of the Year’ 2005 and 2006, ‘Best Performance Engine’ 2005-2007 and ‘Best Above 4.0-litre’ 2005-2008.

Our rendezvous for the shoot is my place, at 5am sharp. Snapper Uzzi and Guy Patron whom I’ve asked to join us, so we can compare his SMG M5 against the manual, arrive as planned. But just as I am about to pull away, my Labrador bolts out the gate! I give chase in our tracking car, a Mazda 2, but I soon realise that I’ll have to pursue Milo on foot, so I abandon the Mazda. Maybe not the best idea, but 20 minutes later heart pounding, we all wrestle Milo into the Mazda. The M5 can easily make up the time lost, but my steer is a little slower… With sunrise looming, we race against the clock on the B-roads that cut through the countryside just outside Cullinan. The Mazda is struggling to keep up, but the beautiful noise that emanates from the rear muzzles of the M5 is astounding. With every gear shift there is an explosion, and even with the wind noise there are enough decibels for me to appreciate the V10. Ten minutes out from our location, Andy Ackerman, owner of the white manual M5, joins the convoy. I slot in behind him and marvel at the sound from his M5, sounding like a Spitfire doing barrel-rolls up above, simply marvellous.

We find ourselves just outside the historic little town of Cullinan, which has generated 25 percent of the world’s diamonds, including ‘The Cullinan Diamond’, the largest ever found in the world. It was sliced and diced to make jewels for the Queen, including: the ‘Great Star of Africa’ found in the Royal Sceptre, and the ‘Lesser Star of Africa’ placed in the Imperial State Crown. Enough with the diamonds though, let’s get back to the M5s. With the two cars parked next to each other, glistening in the sun, the Alpine white manual creates the perfect contrast to the Hellrot red SMG. Guy explains that through the ‘M5 Board’ in the US, he was able to ascertain that his M5 is only one of three in the world, in this hue.

Of the three, two are right-hand drive, the other right-hand drive being in the UK and the only left-hand drive being in Germany. This a 2006 model with 115,000km (71,500 miles) on the clock, it has a custom TNT exhaust (cat free) fitted aft of the cats on the manifold. Guy acquired it three years ago, it was an astonishing find, as it had been fitted with a new engine and gearbox by a BMW main dealer. Guy virtually bought a new car – it is pristine and managed to win its class at the inaugural Concours SA in 2016. According to Guy, “It has been three years of pure enjoyment and not so much as a peep from the SMG.”

Let’s now draw our attention to Andy’s Alpine white M5, the main reason for us being here today. It’s a 2007 facelift with only 102,000km (63,500 miles) showing on the odometer. Eighteen months ago Andy traded his E34 M5 (featured in the 2016, July issue of BMW Car – The Last Hurrah), for the E60 M5 and paid in the difference on the price agreed upon. Andy regards the conversion to manual as close to the factory spec as you can get, highlighting that it is an OE (Original Equipment) conversion, as only BMW parts and coding were used in the process. The previous owner, Werner Venter had sold his Sapphire black E60 M5 to Andy and needed a replacement for his daily steer. Werner, a technician at Pinnacle Auto BMW, Secunda, (a mining town 130km from Johannesburg in the province of Mpumalanga) bought the Alpine white M5 from a client, with the intention of converting it to a manual.

Werner was aware that manual M5s had been made available to the American market, and that these had been fitted with the manual gearbox from the E90 M3. Finding and fitting the M3 gearbox was the easy part! Werner however took it a step further, by installing the clutch and flywheel from the V10 sequential ‘box. The American M5 manual variant however, made use of the clutch and flywheel as fitted to the M3. Andy assures me that the clutch and flywheel from the SMG fitted perfectly. The reason for this is that the S65 engine (in the M3) is a shortened version of the S85, sans two cylinders and a capacity of 4.0-litres. The S65 has the same bore and stroke, cylinder dimensions, pistons, connecting rods and double VANOS, as the S85, resulting in exactly the same compression ratio of 12.0:1. Not BMW’s first foray into this cross sharing philosophy (to build on a winning formula), remember the S14 found in the E30 M3, it used a shortened (two cylinders) version of the cylinder head as found in the M88 motor (as used in the M1 and M635CSi), the bore, stroke and valves were also based on those used in the M88/ S38. The gearbox thus developed for the E90 M3 was similar in dimension to that used in the M5, and therefore it should come as no surprise that the clutch and flywheel from the M5 could be mated to the gearbox of the M3. Incidentally, the SMG from the Alpine white M5, went into the Sapphire black M5, which both Andy and Werner previously owned, as the original had failed.

The more difficult part of the operation was to get all the coding modules to work in tandem. Werner opted for a hybrid approach, by using modules from BMW North America, for the manual map (which does not enable traction control to be disengaged), and then proceeded to load the European spec ECU software which allows for slightly more aggressive timing with a better fuel map. Werner was assisted by OBD Worx, specialists in the repair and replacement of control modules found in BMWs. The entire conversion took a year, but Werner wasn’t satisfied until he was able to remove the speed limiter, effectively increasing the RPM limit slightly and increasing the in-gear speed limits, allowing for a top speed of 360km/h (224mph) in sixth-gear. These are darks arts. I am keen to know more, but Andy explains that it is all veiled in secrecy and he has told me as much as he knows. He is however very keen to let me know that while on holiday in the Cape (at sea level), he did a pre-dawn run (more dark arts), in which he managed to pass the reading on the speedometer of 330km/h (205mph), with the needle hitting the fuel gauge needle – he estimates his speed to have been 345km/h (214mph).


By now I am itching to go. First up the Hellrot red SMG, we all hop aboard, no one wanting to miss out on this rare opportunity to sample the E60 M5 in both sequential and manual guise. With four adults onboard it will be a real world test of the capabilities of the Super Saloon. No key fob, just a good old fashioned key that slots into the ignition. A beautiful noise pours out the back end, the broader diameter on the tailpipes projecting a deeper growl than the standard items. Every conceivable option turned up to the limit. As we exit Kitty Hawk Airfield (where we’ve come to take the stills), we pass over the track for the gate, it sends a sharp jolt through the entire frame of the car… the joys of an M car. Initially the car is left in auto mode and sure enough there is a thud, followed by a kick in the back, the Achilles’ heel of the M5 has raised its ugly head. Best to take control via the paddle shifters! Once on the open road the M button is engaged so all 507hp can be harnessed. This is a narrow country lane that runs through an undulating countryside, with certain sections of road made of patchwork. Level your right foot into the foot-well and keep tugging on the right paddle in quick succession, until in fourth. Then let the revs climb to the 8000rpm, the speedo showing the sort of figures we really shouldn’t admit to. The M5 has turned into a 1800kg projectile locked on a mining town called Cullinan. Inside the M5 cabin is spacious enough to carry four adults in relative comfort (I say this as I find the interior of the previous M5 to be superb), and the suspension, although stiff, does absorb the uneven patchwork rather well. The brakes at this speed are excellent, considering that it only uses a two piston calliper setup in the front, and a single piston calliper in the rear. On a charge the M5 is sublime, climbing into the red line at any speed in any gear… expulsing a glorious rumble. In reality though it is both ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, the SMG only good for a high speed chases, temperamental in traffic and town driving, and forget trying to parallel park, as Guy and Andy point out it can be a very jerky and frustrating experience.

Next, Andy’s manual, fire it up by depressing the stop/start button and there is the sound of the Spitfire in the distance. Largely brought about by a custom exhaust, retaining the manifold cats but dispensing with the rest, only mid silencers, none at the rear, finished off with Akrapovic tips. Crossing over the gate rail induces the same jolt that was previously experienced. On the open road the M button is engaged to muster all the power that is available. From the outset the M5 is pushed into the red line, don’t expect to light up the tyres or get it going sideways, as traction control cannot be disengaged. Gear changes are definitely not as rapid as with the SMG, but I am pleasantly surprised at how smooth it is. The gears are stacked close together, with a short gearshift and remarkably light clutch, making for easy and precise shifting. Swift gear changes allows you to keep the revs above 6000rpm and then back into the red line, changes are smooth but the release of the clutch throws a jab at your kidneys. The final surge of power comes just before you reach 8000rpm, the sound of the Spitfire is no longer in the distance but hovering above. By now we are doing big velocities again, and at this speed the narrow country lane seems to have become narrower. Descending into a dip, over a patchwork of tarmac, I pray that the brakes and Michelin Pilots Super Sports are up to the task of keeping everything in check.

When we come to a stop and the blood leaves my brain and returns to the rest of my body, I realise that I am sold on the six-speed manual and would take it over the SMG any day of the week, and twice on Sundays.

I want to get Andy’s reaction though, as he has been fortunate enough to have owned both, he gives me his take: “I learnt how to get the best out of the SMG M5 that I had for a year, but I much prefer the manual, it is more satisfying, more engaging, the manual ‘box just adds to the driving experience… I love the heel and toe action. The gearbox is very smooth with a medium throw and a short shifter, making it quick. Also the clutch is light, slightly stiffer than that of the E90 M3. And it is a smidgen lighter on fuel.” Next on Andy’s list is to be able to get the traction control to be switched off. He tells me that the MDM button has been installed and wiring has been done, all that is needed is the coding for the DSC module.

The production of F10 M5 ends just about now and interestingly enough the North American market again was the only market to get the M5 in manual. Demand for manuals worldwide is waning, only 560 F10 M5 manuals were sold in North America, less than half that of the E60 M5 manual. Soon enough there will be a new M5 on the horizon, and it’s a pretty safe bet that it’ll have an auto or DCT ‘box and that xDrive will be the only option available. Unfortunately the pleasure of driving a manual M car is rapidy becoming a thing of the past…


The E60 M5 was designed to be SMG only and it’s a marvellous system when you’re on a charge but can be clunky and obstructive when you’re trundling round town.

The North American market demanded a manual ’box for the M5 and M obliged with a version that used the E90 M3’s six-speed unit.

E60 M5 Manual The beautiful noise that emanates from the rear muzzles of the M5 is astounding

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