driving.ca | DEREK MCNAUGHTON | 08/06/2018
Ascari, Spain — A race track, especially one like the Nurburgring, is where performance cars are beat upon at high speed by factory drivers who look for possibilities, opportunities, problems. Elation often mixes with disappointment. Success is realized as much as failure. But for a genuine performance car, a track is always where a car is proven, where the currency of truth is ultimately found.
A track is also where the new BMW M5 spent much of its pre-dawn life as engineers questioned whether 4WD could really work in a sedan historically celebrated for the purity if its rear-wheel-drive dynamics. But would 600 horsepower overwhelm the chassis, especially given its size and weight? More importantly, would 600 horsepower in a family sedan be too much for an M5 owner — most of whom might never see the inside of a chicane?
That is the same question I am asking myself as I sit in the paddock of Ascari racetrack in Southern Spain with an M5 idling in my hands — except this is no ordinary M5. This is the new M5 Competition, a model that builds upon the already omnipotent M5 with more horsepower and several model-specific components to elevate it beyond the standard car, much the same way as the M2 Competition is more car than the outgoing M2. Think of it as the one with icing on the M5 cake, a dangerous dose of extra calories.
Danger, because, while the M5 Competition retains the same 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 engine and eight-speed automatic transmission as the regular car, horsepower increases to 617 at 6,000 rpm. BMW says it was able to yield the extra power from the same engine by “meticulous retuning.” So, if 600 HP might be a tad much, how can more horsepower mitigate the concern? Sure, torque remains the same at a monstrous 553 lb.-ft. between 1,800 and 5,800 rpm — a remarkably long runway of power — but the Competition model is factionally faster than the standard car, able to reach 100 km/h from zero in 3.3 seconds and 200 km/h in 10.8 seconds (one- and three-tenths of a second quicker, respectively).
Click. The seatbelt is pulled tight. The M5, once the fastest production sedan in the world, has long been heralded as the very best of all sedans, and the 2019 BMW M5 Competition merges onto the track with a ferociousness that says it wants the title back. Power pushes the car ahead with so much instantaneous force, the first turn arrives far too quickly. Squeezing the optional carbon ceramic brakes eliminates speed and prevents understeer. Turn in feels beautiful, the long hood easily pointed to the apex where the throttle is pushed to the floor once more.
Again, the M5 pulls away with so much intensity and thrust that it fights the forces of physics that want to send me hurtling into the grass and trees flanking the track. The eight-speed M Steptronic automatic transmission, the only gearbox available, replaces the previous M5’s seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, and it shifts so cleanly that gear changes go by undetected at times, though in manual mode I tended to keep hitting the rev limiter. Instead, I flip the lever to auto and let the transmission work its magic.
Despite taking a long, arcing bend at a speed that would not seem possible for a 4,395-pound car with seating for five, the M5 somehow holds. The Pirelli tires do not release their grip. The suspension, lowered by seven millimetres, maintains its balance. Lean is negligible. Model-specific engine mounts, tweaks to the dampers, stiffer springs and shorter auxiliary springs to reduce the fluctuation in wheel loads all work in concert to make the M5 stick to the track as though it were mechanically hooked.
Yes, there’s a blunt but delicious rasp from the engine up front. Out back, the model-specific M Sport exhaust expels burnt fuel with an equally honest rasp, some of which is also carried through the car’s speakers (but can be totally silenced). But other than the exhaust and engine, the cocoon of quiet is almost eerie given the way the car is chewing up the track with so much intensity, delivering terrifying velocity with so little drama. It’s as though this M5 can do anything and everything its driver asks. More speed in the corner? No problem. Faster in the straight? How much speed do you want? Like the very best butler, the M5 Competition aims to serve.
At least until the M2 button on the steering wheel is pressed, or the stability management and traction control are completely disabled. Besides 4WD and 4WD Sport modes, pure rear-wheel drive (2WD) can be selected with no fear of intervention, allowing for some of the smokiest, tire-shredding drifts possible in a large production sedan. In 4WD mode, engine torque is distributed simply and cleanly between the front and rear wheels by the transfer case’s fully variable, electronically controlled multi-plate clutch. It can also be divided at the rear wheels by an “Active M” differential that splits torque again as needed between the two rear wheels.
Despite the heavier four-wheel drive system, BMW reduced weight of the new M5 by about 40 kilograms over the previous model. And, of course, when it’s time to act like an adult or collect children, switching to a less aggressive driving mode is done with a touch of a button on the console. Stepping down from Sport Plus, through Sport and into Comfort, the M5 Competition pivots from being a track star one minute to a comfy cruiser the next.
Identifying a $121,000 M5 Competition from a regular $113,300 M5 isn’t something most will notice. New, 20-inch forged wheels, a different black kidney grille, a rear lip spoiler and badges in gloss black highlight the differences. Other dead giveaways are the four black tail pipes attached to the standard M-sport exhaust, or the Frozen Dark Silver metallic body colour.
A little like the very first M5 that was hand-built in 1986 on the 535i chassis with a modified M1 engine, the M5 Competition takes a stock M5 and makes it that much superior — especially on the track.