Try To Read Without Smiling
Thu, 11 Apr 2002 20:42:49 -0400

(i love reading this schtuff - but haven't a clue who wrote this one.)

BMW M5 6-speed
400 horsepower and six forward gears -- these are not things one expects to encounter in a big four-door sedan, let alone a luxury sedan, which is why the BMW M5 is so special.

When -- if -- you are ever lucky enough to get behind the wheel of a machine like the $69,900 M5, do not sleep, do not eat. Just drive -- wild-eyed and heavy-footed until the fraying cords show through the smoldering hides of those Michelin P245/40ZR-18 tires and the four chromed exhaust tips pointing out the back are hot enough to blister the plastic of the ground effects kit.

The M5's numbers will some day enter the pantheon of the world's benchmark cars long after the last drop of petrol has been sucked from the Earth and we're all driving whirring and utterly soul-less little hybrids or pressing the flesh with the masses on public transportation.

Capable of scorching five-second 0-60 mph sprints and quarter-mile times that tickle the high 12s (to say nothing of a top speed not often seen on cars without "Sunoco" or "44" stickers pasted on the door) makes the M5 pretty much the quickest and fastest regular production four-door sedan you can buy. And it is the only V-8/rear drive sport sedan available with a manual transmission -- a Getrag 6-speed ideal for keeping the big V-8 on the sweet side of the power curve. In fact, it's the 6-speed or nothing, as there is no automatic version of the M5.

Neither the 349-hp, $70,300 Mercedes-Benz AMG E55 nor the 370-hp, $69,355 Jaguar XJR can match the sheer brute force of the M5, and neither the Benz nor the Jag is available with anything other than an lopey-dopey automatic transmission that spoils half the fun.  

The M5 is not a purchase made lightly. The car is almost $20,000 above and beyond what you'd pay for a regular 540i (MSRP: $53,900). But the M5 is to the 540i what major league baseball is to AAA ball. Aside from the basic sameness of the 5-series bodyshell, there are few similarities. First and foremost is the M5's 5-liter, 400-hp V-8, an engine that puts some of the most legendary Detroit big block muscle car engines to shame.  It is a heavily modified, increased displacement version of the 4.4 liter/290-hp DOHC V-8 engine used in regular 540i models. Hotter cams, higher compression, high-flow cylinder heads, and BMW's "double-VANOS" variable valve timing system are among the many departures from stock.

This superb manifestation of Deutsche engineering idles with the docility of a well-mannered grocery getter. No clunkety-thumpety, rat-a-tat big camshaft, Detroit Motor City sound effects. And yet when called upon this thing will suck the grille off ordinary cars -- even elite sports cars -- in the vortex it creates by its banshee-like passing powers.

The twin-cam, all-aluminum V-8 is so totally understressed, even at the 400-hp level, that BMW's Motorsports guys could probably get 500 or even 600-hp out of it without messing up the idle quality. (Watch out for the next generation M5, slated for 2003, which may have electro-magnetically actuated valves and dispense with camshafts altogether.)

But it's not just its mechanical heart that makes this beast so incredible. If it were only a matter of fancy import luxo-tourers with big-inch engines and lots of straight line pull, then cars such as the Mercedes E55 and the supercharged Jaguar XJ-R would have to be included in our consideration. But the M5's unique manual transmission and a suspension so perfect that even an average driver can do things that would startle Jackie Stewart leave the over-achieving M5 in a class by itself.

BMW is the acknowledged master of chassis dynamics. Not only do BMW cars corner and respond like race-prepped rally cars, they are "just right" in their day-to-day compliance and livability. They sacrifice nothing in terms of ride comfort; yet turn the wheel a little harder, lean on those brakes, or spin that eager engine to its 6,500 rpm redline and the car responds as happily as a Labrador Retriever sprinting into a river. And when you stop to consider that BMW is still working with a chassis that is now several years old -- and therefore implicitly "dated" in an industry where new models are churned out almost every 24 months -- the formidability of the 2002 M5 becomes that much more startling.

Among the few options on the M5 are BMW's $700 park distance control, a ridiculous feature, when you think about it: An M5 driver needs help parking a car without bumping the curb? Another option is the extra sneaky, no-cost model inscription deletion, which removes the "M" badging from the flanks. Yeah! That's the ticket!

Everything else that's available on a regular 5-series is standard equipment on the M5, including dual zone climate control, heated leather sport buckets, GPS navigation system, BMW's Dynamic Stability Control system (which unlike the Mercedes system can be totally turned off if you like), and all the power/convenience and luxury stuff you'd expect on a car of this caliber: power one-touch windows, locks, cruise, tilt wheel, etc. Buyers may select from several types of no-cost leather/velour trim options for the interior to customize its appearance.

Only the absence of a dash-mounted CD-changer (a dated and inconvenient trunk-mounted unit is all you can get) and shifter action that's a little mushy betrays the age of the 5-series platform and detracts from this otherwise exemplary, near-perfect automobile. The CD thing is not a big deal, and one can install a tighter shifter without too much hassle.

Twenty years from now, people will still be talking about this car. And it may be that even then, the M5's numbers won't have been eclipsed -- except, perhaps, by the 2003 M5.