5 Stars. The UK launch of the latest BMW M5 offers the perfect excuse to test all six generations back-to-back. Words Glen Waddington. Photography Stuart Collins. BMW M5, first to latest At Anglesey Circuit with all six generations. Every M5 driven from E28 to the brand-new F90.
All the BMW M5s
Racetracks aren’t typically a natural home for an executive saloon. Yet exceptions can always be made, especially if there’s an M badge on the bootlid. And here we have all six generations of the BMW M5 together at Anglesey Circuit, from the very first (launched in 1985) to the very latest (just gone on sale).
And when you have every version of the M5 at your disposal, you discover a set of cars that share a name and a purpose, yet which differ hugely in how they deliver the M5 message. Over six generations and fully 33 years, the M5 has evolved in size, weight, engine configuration, aspiration, transmission and final drive, yet in each case it has set out to be the ultimate performance saloon. It’s time to find out how they compare – all the way from 282bhp right through to 592bhp.
Doesn’t sound so much these days, especially in comparison with nigh-on 600bhp in the latest m5, but that 282bhp was a lot when the first m5 arrived at the Amsterdam motor show in 1985. especially in a saloon that’s pretty compact by today’s standards. It made its debut as the first four-door to be powered by a supercar engine, and while we’re not talking about some fire-breathing V12, the m1’s 3453cc 24-valve twin-cam straight-six was more exotic than anything Mercedes built at the time, and even shaded the naturally aspirated flat-six of the Porsche 911.
And it looked like a base 518i on nice alloys. Yep, the M5 was a real Q-car, hand-finished by BMW motorsport, which fitted the engine, gearbox, suspension and interior. If you wanted something flashier, there was the M535i with its loud bodykit, run-of-the-mill engine and auto transmission. No, with the M5, BMW sought a more discerning customer, one concerned with go not show. Visual cues are restricted to twin tail-pipes and a lip spoiler. Oh, and the badge. Of course, the badge.
Climb in today and it feels curiously old-fashioned, more 1970s than 1980s thanks to a blocky dashboard, distant, upright windscreen pillars and a driving position that keeps switchgear outside the easy reach of fingers. While the E28 dated back only to 1981, it was heavily based on the preceding E12 version from 1972. And BMW had experimented with a faster, handbuilt 5-series before – the E12 was the first BMW to have a ‘series’ name – when the original, rare-groove (1410-off) 212bhp M535i was revealed in 1980.
Fire-up and the busy sizzle of that big six is surprisingly loud. There’s a conventional pattern to the five-speed shift and the m-technic wheel feels good in the hands. Its broad diameter means lots of movement as you manoeuvre away from rest… then you tread harder and feel the engine dig in, pick up and hurl you along. BMW claimed the M5 was the fastest production saloon of its day, with the mid-range acceleration of a Ferrari.
And you can believe it. It’s quite a visceral experience as the thrust is accompanied by a cultured blare from under the bonnet, plus plenty of feedback through seat and steering wheel. The suspension is quite soft yet the m5 is relatively light, so bumps cause the body to move and there’s some roll in the corners, too. It’s dry today, so the M5’s keen attitude to direction-change is welcome – it had a reputation for waywardness in the wet – and, while the steering isn’t the sharpest, it’s disarmingly consistent and linear, with no lost motion.
Yes, the E28 got the M5 dynasty off to a great start. And it’s the same for our group test: next comes the second generation, the E34 that arrived in 1988. Still hand-finished by m in Garching, still powered by that 24-valve straight-six, though this time capacity is up to 3.6 litres, upgraded to 3.8 from 1991, and virtually every single component within it was new. There’s instantly a sense of Things moving on.
The styling, for a start, is more overtly modern, crisp and yet with the kind of radiused surfaces that suggest solidity and expensiveness. For that we can thank Ercole Spada (who made the first sketches), J Mays (newly in position from Ford) and Claus Luthe (recognise the heritage of his epoch-making NSU Ro80 in the curvilinear form and high-tailed proportions).
Inside, the driver-focused cockpit has distilled all that’s best in BMW dash design, and is possibly (along with the E46-generation 3-series) the most perfect example of it. Power is up to 315bhp, acceleration to 62mph down from a highly respectable 6.5 seconds to a 911-baiting 5.4, top speed limited to 155mph (up from 152mph). And there are more of them, too: 12,254 E34 M5s were made, including 891 extremely special 3.8-litre Touring estates. That’s nearly four times as many as the 2241 E28s.
Much work was carried out on the suspension to quell the E28’s tail-happiness and you can feel the differences as soon as you set off. The ride is pliant, the steering still free of lost motion, perhaps a little sharper, though you wonder why BMW wasn’t in the habit of fitting a rack-and- pinion system in those days. The driving position puts you at ease, with every control where you want it to be, and while this M5 is bigger than before, it still doesn’t feel huge. Rev that straight-six and you’ll still love what you hear, though you hear it less, and acceleration is slightly blunter at low speeds.
Boy, does it pick up though. That Ferrari comparison of old? Car magazine actually pitched an early E34 against a Testarossa in 1990. Why? There simply wasn’t an equivalent saloon to compare it with! The E34 is proof that, while a straight-six might not be what people want in their supercars, it is more than up to the task of shifting a spacious saloon along as if it were a two-seater.
Hustling the M5 is all about smoothness: it turns-in obediently, without drama, and feels neutral, never threatening to break away from the back, though equally happy to do so if you wish to provoke it. It’s a very measured car, an enormously mature car, one that feels as though more careful thought has gone into it than went into the E28. All of which is probably fair.
And the differences are equally marked as we move on to the E39, which was launched at Geneva in 1998. So it’s almost exactly two decades old. And it’s a V8. Difficult to think of any car in history that hasn’t been improved by the addition of a V8.
Subtle-looking again, too: quad pipes, a tiny bootlid lip-spoiler, deep airdam, steamroller alloys, but that’s it. Only we’re not talking about a hand-finished car any more. Demand was so high by this point (20,482 built) that the M5 had become a series-production 5-series. It’s still massively impressive though, with a specially developed version of the 540i’s 4.4-litre 32-valve quad-cam V8, bored and stroked to 5.0 litres, with variable valve timing on inlet and exhaust and individually controlled throttle butterflies. There’s a six-speed manual transmission (up from five) plus a limited-slip diff (also featured on the first two M5s), and bespoke springs and dampers and an uprated anti-roll bar for the front strut/ multi-link rear suspension. The steering is higher-geared, though still a recirculating-ball set-up, which is a disappointment because the E39 was the first 5-series to move to a rack. It wouldn’t fit with a V8, though…
The headline figure was 400 metric horsepower, a real 394.5bhp. That was the stuff of supercars in 1998, a genuine shock in the world of saloons. Yet this is no raucous, bone-rattling monster. Quite the opposite, though neither is it purely an executive cruiser: six-on-the- stick sees to that, and here’s the first application of electronic driver assistance, with a Sport button on the wheel to adjust steering and throttle sensitivity, bringing the car alive, plus traction and stability control, keeping the driver alive.
There’s a gorgeous V8 warble as you start up, and you keep your eye on the revcounter from cold, wait for the series of yellow lights gradually to extinguish, raising the rev limit from 4000rpm to 6500 as the oil warms. Then it’s out onto the track to enjoy thrilling acceleration – so much more ballsy from the off than the E34 – and a glorious soundtrack, never quite NASCAR, nothing like as loud as the V8 Mercs that had come along in 1991, but soul-stirring, urgent and mechanical. It feels planted, capable, the kind of car that would make a wonderful companion for a long, cross-continent drive. One that would keep you alert and satisfied all the way, without ever wearing you out.
Perhaps the E39 is the consummate M5: faster than you need, refined at any speed, comfortable in spite of its massive capacity for clinging to tarmac and – occasionally, when you fancy it – sliding over it.
Then BMW went a bit mad. Change was in the air when Chris Bangle was appointed as design chief. Elegance and tradition made way for future-shock: suddenly BMWs looked as overtly modern as they drove. It’s fair to say that Bangle’s best work was the E60 5-series from 2003. Equally fair to say that it still looks contemporary, still more of a design statement than the two generations that have followed.
There’s a stark modernity inside, too, perhaps a little less successfully applied as it lacks the comforting friendliness of every other 5-series. There’s iDrive as well, which combines control for climate, nav, sounds and more into a single joystick, and infuriates as much now as it did then by burying many of the gadgets you’d prefer to switch into and out of in a maze of sub-menus. The system has improved since.
But forget the visuals and the gizmos; the E60 is all about its engine. A V10 this time, the only such application ever by BMW – and no coincidence that, then, a BMW V10 was powering Williams in Formula 1.
Only the configuration is shared, though the blocks were cast in the same foundry as those of Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya, and the electronic management runs on the same principles. The result? A seismic 507 of those metric horses (and, therefore, a real 500bhp!) plus a rev-limit of 8250rpm. In a large saloon. With a chassis tuned by a team that, in the words of the appropriately named former M boss Gerhard Richter, put priority on ‘lateral agility over longitudinal agility’. Performance figures? 0-62mph in 4.7 seconds and a (de-restricted) 189mph flat-out. It’s gonna be fun here, then. Right from the off, this car feels tough, track-ready.
Ease through the paddock and little surface lumps pockmark your low-speed progress in a way previous M5s smothered. You can switch the damping though a variety of modes but, truth is, it always puts handling over ride. Equally, the seven-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG) transmission is a bit jerky most of the time, though, when you’re on it, with shift-speed set to maximum attack (there are 11 modes), it’s highly effective on the paddles. The electronics in this car can make 200 million calculations every second. It’s clever.
Steering is high-geared, feelsome, controlled by a small-diameter wheel. This M5 turns-in sharply, surprisingly so, yet it tells you what it’s doing and leaves you to adjust its attitude on the throttle: it’s the most visceral drive since the E28 but in such a different way, super-taut rather than loose, hard-edged, every movement defined rather than leaving you to gather things together. And that V10: what a power-band, what a noise! It just keeps on keeping on, and its multilayered voice is full-on Wagnerian. This is the only car here in which the sporting blood hasn’t merely asserted itself over cruiser temperament but boiled up right over it. And the madness was catching: BMW built 20,589 E60 M5s, 1025 of those as Tourings, so you could chuck your dog about in one, too.
Sobriety returned with the more quietly spoken F10 from 2010, though it carries a massive 552bhp, 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 stick. M-sport itself was changing, this car’s forced induction indicative of an era in which the market led the engineers rather than the other way round: no more frenzied high-revvers, in their place evermore- powerful engines that chased the outputs of rivals at Audi and Mercedes-AMG, and nodded towards potential fuel economy that no enthusiastic driver could hope to achieve. And while M had promised no M-badged SUVs, along came the X5M. I expect there are other reasons why it couldn’t have been called MX5.
At Goodwood, nearly two years ago, I’d last driven the F10 M5 (19,533 built) as part of a test day when BMW showcased all its then-current M-cars. And it was my pick, despite being the most elderly design there. Why? Steering. It was the only one with a hydraulic rack. So, after buzzing about that fabled circuit in Ms 2, 3 and 4, I landed in the M5, caressed a steering wheel that felt so slender after the other cars’ drainpipe-thick rims, gave a sigh of contentment as it telegraphed so much more back from the surface even at pitlane speeds, then enjoyed my favourite few laps of the day.
It made me wonder, back then, whether there’d be a watershed in the market at some point, when we’d look back and treasure cars that put sensation, feedback and involvement over that last ounce of accuracy, grip and apparent efficiency. You know, like air-cooled 911s are favoured over the first water-cooled versions.
That thought returns as I enjoy, once again, the best steering here: quite an accolade, one rarely given when you’re comparing something fairly new with something fairly old. What I also notice, however, is that this M5 struggles to lay all that power on the track, especially as this ‘30 Jahre’ anniversary edition is pumped up to 600 euro-horses. Lamp it and it wiggles while the electronics quell the power in an effort to contain it.
So it’s no surprise that the new M5 features four-wheel drive, just like the latest AMG-Merc E63 and Audi’s RS6. It’s hard to tell the latest F90 from the last F10 (clue: the new car is the black one. Ah, no, the grey one. Er…), and its power output is the same as the 30 Jahre’s. Torque is up by 10%, though, to a full 568lb ft, delivered from 1800rpm to 5600rpm. There’s an eight-speed auto here, in place of seven SMG ratios, the 0-62mph sprint is down to a scarcely believable 3.4 seconds – and drive is diverted on demand to the front wheels. No more wiggling, then, unless you turn DSC off, and it’s back to rear-drive. It weighs the better part of two tonnes these days, though that, remarkably, represents a 90kg saving over the F10; they shaved 5kg from the exhaust alone.
There’s electric steering too, so sensation has gone from the helm. A shame. Yet, round the track, the latest M5 is fast, secure, way more agile than its weight would have you believe, and far better able to contain its power. If you want a ridiculously – nay, ludicrously – quick modern-day saloon car, roughly £90,000 dropped off at your local BMW dealer buys what is probably the best one. Suave, handsome, with the power to detonate a rival and scarper from harm, it’s James Bond on wheels.
What a pack, and you’ve a winner whatever your hand. The straight-sixes are clearly the periodpieces here, the later one majoring on greater sophistication, the earlier on raw feedback. The V8 marked the evolution to a genuine GT saloon, while the V10 is truly extraordinary, a car that remains unique and the like of which it’s probable we won’t see again. Then we have the recently departed and the newly arrived, both epic powerhouses, with individual strengths (and weaknesses) that mean you might prefer one over the other.
I’m going to stick my neck out here and predict that the slightly unhinged E60 will become a collector’s car, prized for its edgy styling and that crazed V10 – it’s certainly the most fun on the track, though it can frustrate on the road. The E28 and E34 are already becoming highly prized, while the E39 is deservedly a favourite of many, as the consummate all-rounder. A cliché? Maybe. But it was invented for this car. My favourite? I’d be happy to take any one of these home, but one suits me best: I keep looking back at the E39. And that says everything.