You need to come to a place like this to really enjoy a BMW M5. You need long, empty roads and few police, and few places in Europe provide it but here: rural Andalucía, in Spain's gritty, arid, lonely south-western corner. The region has Europe's only desert and feels distinctly non-European. You encounter few other cars; mostly ancient, dusty hatchbacks. This is where BMW has chosen to present its new M5 super-saloon to the first handful of motoring writers to test it. You can see why they chose it, and why this region around the Sierra Nevada mountains was the home of the spaghetti Western in the sixties.
The area hasn't changed, but the M5 has. The engine has been downsized in capacity and cylinder count from the old, monstrous 5.0-litre V10 to a 4.4-litre twin-turbocharged V8, to get a near 50 per cent improvement in emissions and fuel consumption, and more power and torque. Fans of BMW’s M-division were still concerned though: this new M5 didn't seem to have the same obvious visual brawn as BMW’s other high-performance M-cars. And would a turbocharged engine sound as good as the old, F1-style, naturally-aspirated V10, or be as responsive?
Criminally, the first thing I did was to stick the new, seven-speed twin-clutch paddle-shift manual into auto mode, point the car at the Sierra Nevada and forget all about it as we cruised past the (relative) bustle of Seville and Granada. You couldn't do this in old M5s with their simpler manual gearboxes. The gearbox in the new one might be its greatest asset. It is utterly seamless when in fully automatic mode, pulling off that impressive trick which only super-high torque engines can manage, licking lazily between sixth and seventh in almost every circumstance; you can see how it produces those claimed economy and emissions figures. It's quiet too, and the ride is astonishingly good. The cabin is lush, trimmed in supercar materials but with a standard of fit few supercar makers would recognize. So already this doesn't feel like an M-car; they usually demand some compromise, or show some idiosyncrasy or flaw.
But you didn't start reading this to find out about the M5's cruising abilities. So I pulled off the autopista and onto one of those long, straight, deserted desert roads to pit 560bhp against 1,945 unladen kilogrammes. BMW seems to have given the new M5 more set-up options than its old Sauber F1 cars. You can configure the damping, steering, throttle response, shift speed and traction control separately, and the mosaic of buttons around the gear shifter gives you immediate access to most of it, making rolling adjustment easy. And there are now two M-buttons on the steering wheel to store your favourite combination of settings, one of which, if you're even half a man, will be maximum-attack, everything-off.
Good God, it's fast. First, second and third are thrown away almost as quickly as you read this, each virtuoso upshift eliciting a pop from the exhausts and a polite, affirmative nod from your head. BMW claims acceleration of 4.4 seconds to 100kph, but it feels sub-four to 60 and sub-nine to 160kph. The thrust is immense and even and relentless in a manner peculiar to modern, big-capacity, high-power turbocharged engines; the M5's motor shares its character, if not its absolute numbers, with cars like the Bugatti Veyron and the new McLaren.
I just don't think you'd want to go much faster in a saloon car, and if you did, you wouldn’t get it stopped without the help of a parachute. The brakes have been upgraded to six-pot calipers but the M5's mass has grown by 115kgs and all that torque means you're going faster sooner. And the noise is a little disappointing; like some of those other turbocharged engines the bloke in the cabin paying for it all gets a bum deal. From the outside the V8 sounds loud and rich and colourful, with that pop on the upchange and a drumroll coming down; in the confines of my hotel's underground car park the overrun cracked like a rifle shot and had me laughing out loud. But from the cabin, on the move, you'd like a little more volume and detail.
So from the valley floor I headed up into the Sierra Nevada itself, aiming for one of the few passes that goes straight over the range. On twisty roads you need to exercise a few of those options to get the best from the M5; the firmest damper setting keeps the body flatter than a model's midriff, and the heaviest steering setting feels confident and serious when you're attacking. The M5 doesn't handle like a two-tonne car; you start by showing respect but end up just enjoying yourself, though you never forget to allow a little extra braking space as you charge down the far side of the pass. Keep an eye on that fuel gauge, though; you’ll need a light right foot to get the improved economy and emissions BMW claims. A mixture of cruising and mountain driving saw us hose out three-quarters of the M5's enlarged 80-litre tank in just 300km.
The M5 isn't perfect. But few M-cars have been. They're not meant to have the crushing completeness of a standard BMW 5-series; instead you get terrifying performance, better ride and handling than you could hope for, and a few flaws you can probably work around. And you'll notice that I haven't once suggested that downsizing the engine or using turbochargers has lessened my respect for this mighty car. In the land of the dusty hatchback, the BMW M5 is still king.
How much? HK$1.648 million
Engine: 4395cc twin-turbo V84.4-litre V8, twin-turbo
560bhp @ 6000rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch
Performance: 4.4sec 0-100kph, 250kph
How heavy: 1945kgs
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