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First Look: BMW M5

SMG: Simply Magnificient Gearbox

Jay Chen
Dec 2, 2004 SHARE
0501_01z+BMW_M5+Front_Drivers_Side_View Photo 1/9   |   First Look: BMW M5

SMG skeptics, protest no more. The future of transmission technology is here and the path is utterly clear. The future begins with the third-generation SMG transmission in the E60 M5, a seven-speed close-ratio unit designed from the start to be an SMG-only transmission. Why do I start a first look of such a remarkable new car by ranting and raving about its transmission, you ask? Because it is, without a doubt, the heart and soul that characterizes the new M5--and it is flawless. Without it, this new M5 would be yet another overpowered trophy car for yuppies to do burnouts and flaunt their wealth in.

I assume that as you are reading this, you already memorized all the specifications of this M5, much like that first dream bicycle that you ached for. I won't bore you with that. For the engineer in you, details can be found online at www.europeancarweb.com.

0501_02z+BMW_M5+Side_Marker_View Photo 2/9   |   First Look: BMW M5

M GmbH's tradition of creating an independent car based on an existing BMW chassis is blatantly evident in this M5, which far exceeds any differentiation on previous M cars. Again, the reason behind the alter ego is the application-specific SMG coupled with the high-revving V10 and active vehicle handling aids. This is no longer just a punched-out 5 Series with better suspension.

The new package creates an entirely different car. Not once did I even think of the existing 5 Series while behind the wheel of the new M5. Even with all the hype and anticipation, this M5 will totally blow you away every time you get behind the wheel. The only clue to the M5's origins is in its appearance. Changes include sporty but discreet front and rear bumpers, aero mirrors, a functional M fender grille, side sills, bulging fenders, and some serious exhaust piping.

In my option it's still not a far enough departure from the base-model E60. Luckily, you can't see the car once you're behind the wheel, where you should be spending most of your time. Once inside, the active side-bolster seat supports, Alcantara roof lining, M steering wheel and heads-up display all hint at the driving experience to come. There isn't even a sunroof to creak as the chassis flexes under hard load. I can't recall the last time I've sat in a BMW without a sunroof.

To compensate for nearly every control being integrated into BMW's notorious iDrive, the M5 features extra buttons that can provide hours of additional entertainment. There are four essential buttons next to the shifter to note: Power, DSC, EDC and SMG shift-level--which allows you to chose from 11 programs available in automatic and sequential modes, combined.

0501_03z+BMW_M5+Front_Drivers_Side_View Photo 3/9   |   First Look: BMW M5

The Power button switches the engine management between 400 and 500 horsepower modes because there really are times when there is too much power.

The new Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) for the M5 can be switched off for spirited driving, but there really isn't a need to with this car. DSC can be enabled in two modes: One very much like that found on non-M BMWs and a second one that is tied into the Mdrive configuration, allowing for power oversteer and wheel-spin launches. The Mdrive DSC is adequate for the most aggressive and seasoned drivers on any road condition.

Electronic Dampener Control (EDC) is yet another aid that actively varies suspension dampening for three different configurations and achieves a controlled yet firm ride on the 19-in. M-style wheels. EDC also stipulates which of the two steering ratios the Servotronic system uses. Gone is BMW's active steering mechanism, which continually varies the ratio and takes away from the race-car predictability inherent in all M cars. In addition, the buttons give passengers plenty to play with--as long as the driver doesn't mind.

0501_04z+BMW_M5+Interior_View_Steering_Wheel Photo 4/9   |   First Look: BMW M5

For added convenience, an "M" button on the steering wheel can be programmed from the iDrive interface to immediately set all the previously mentioned driving aids to the user's preference. The M mode can also be programmed so that the engine management uses the 507-bhp sport mode, which is not selectable with the power button. With the push of just one button, the M5 is tuned to exactly how the driver likes it.

All this attention to the buttons isn't just a show-and-tell. M GmbH really went out of its way to create a driver-centric car with customizable variability in all pertinent driving aids. At its most relaxed setting, the M5 can drive like a very fast 545i, without the overly soft controls. At its extreme, the M5 sits it in a class of its own. Few cars come to mind that have this level of useful performance packaged into a mid-size four-door luxury sedan.

Starting the V10 immediately brought out the second best part of this car: the sounds. Until now, I thought BMW's current V8 mill was one of the best sounding engines out there: Both lumpy and refined at idle while taking on new character with added revs and load.

0501_05z+BMW_M5+Engine_View Photo 5/9   |   First Look: BMW M5

With the V10 and its accompanying exhaust, the aforementioned lumpiness is gone due to increased overlapping of combustion events. The sound is more refined while just as brutish with the added extra cylinders. Piped through the dual exhaust, the tone is ever-present yet is never annoying or intrusive. The V10 turned my ear into the most sensitive throttle-position sensor, with every minute movement--intentional or not--communicated acoustically. The sound never droned or became tiring, even after an entire day of driving in traffic, at the track and on the autobahn. It's sounds nothing like Porsche's raspy race-car like V10.

The V10, designated as the S85 B50, was also designed from the ground up by M division for use in the M5. Though some variant of the block might trickle down to other non-M vehicles, it was solely designed with M performance in mind.

The 90* aluminum alloy V10 displaces only 58 cu in. more than the previous M5 V8, but produces 113 more bhp and winds up to 8250 rpm. The peak 507 bhp occurs at 7750 rpm.

0501_07z+BMW_M5+Interior_View_Gauge_Cluster Photo 6/9   |   First Look: BMW M5

The beauty of this high-compression motor is there is sufficient displacement and optimal engine geometry to provide torque at any speed. Maximum torque of 383.5 lb-ft is reached at 6100 rpm, but falls sharply instead of rolling off. Keep feeding the throttle and the car will continue to push you back into the seat with seemingly endless rewarding thrust. There was always more speed to be had but, instinctively, I always backed off well before the rev limit because I've never heard a deep throaty engine maintain its growl past 6000 rpm.

Gear selection seemed to be moot as the engine responded at any speed. It easily hung out and cruised happily at 4000 rpm without ever sounding strained. The point of this engine is driving pleasure. Others may be faster, but none--so far--even come close to being as rewarding. Imagine putting together all of the best a Chevy small-block and a Honda S2000 engine have to offer and you'll have the S85.

It used to be that your feet had all the fun performing the pedal ballet. Though the fancy footwork will be missed by many, the F1-style (right side up, left side down) SMG paddle shifter has moved all the action to your fingertips. All things considered, this was the smarter choice, considering the amount of power the driver is required to handle.

0501_08z+BMW_M5+Rear_Drivers_Side_View Photo 7/9   |   First Look: BMW M5

Truth be told, the decision to use the SMG opened up myriad possibilities for increasing the driving experience. Eliminating the clutch pedal allowed engineers to add another gear for even more race-car feel and it allowed them to use a dual-plate clutch, which--for the most part--would be too uncomfortable for manual-gearbox use on the street.

From its introduction, BMW's SMG was always great at downshifts. It was the upshift and timing that were the issues. Since there was no room for an only-tolerable system on BMW's new performance flagship, something had to change. With the first bump of the paddle, I knew M had finally gotten it right. The new gearbox is 20% faster, has one more gear and is a hell of a lot smarter.The third-generation SMG not only set all my doubts to rest, it never ceased to surprise me with its dynamic adaptation to differing driving styles and road conditions. Faster hydraulic circuits and shorter gear spacing eliminates the hesitation of upshifts in any mode and the engagement of the twin-disk clutch, whether snappy or eased in, is jerk free.

I've yet to ride in a smoother shifting car outfitted with a dual-plate clutch. Shift engagement in either automatic or sequential mode is throttle dependent. The transmission knows if you mean to bang into the next gear or just slowly change up, easing into a cruising mode.

Previous generation SMGs--which were just standard manual transmissions fitted with computer-controlled hydraulics--were known for their odd shift timing. Thankfully, that problem is solved in this SMG. Rev-matched downshifts are not as jerky, and though not slower, feel more natural. Closer gear spacing on the seven-speed allows clutch engagement to occur as the revs are dropping after the blip. This method maintains the decreasing momentum of the drivetrain with the engine.

On deceleration, the SMG downshifts to keep the engine at the right speed should the need arise for an immediate throttle response. Gear selection also seemed to be tied to cornering conditions. The more aggressive my driving style, the more apt the SMG was at keeping the revs up.

0501_09z+BMW_M5+Front_Drivers_Side_View_Generations Photo 8/9   |   First Look: BMW M5

Much to my chagrin, I found it more fulfilling to drive in automatic rather than sequential mode as the transmission shifted and responded so perfectly. Racing around the winding roads at the base of the Alps, the system was choosing gears and timing shifts far better than I did. Shifts (either up or down) never happened in the middle of a corner, unbalancing the weight transfer at a critical moment. And with a 8025-rpm ceiling, pegging a rev limiter was never an issue.

It goes without saying that this car handles wonderfully. In cornering, the M5 made no attempt to hide its heft or size. Unlike the active-steering-equipped 5 Series--which made the car feel deceptively nimble--the M5 powers through corners with fantastic grace and grip. Although the suspension architecture is derived from the standard 5 Series, precise tuning of spring rates, bushings and the use of the EDC, totally separates the M5 from its origins. It's definitely not a sports car, but for what it is, it does a superb job.

0501_10z+BMW_M5+Drivers_Side_View Photo 9/9   |   First Look: BMW M5

Braking is similarly augmented with 374mm diameter rotors in front and 370mm in the back. (You do the math, 25.4mm to an inch.) BMW decided to use a floating-caliper design to prolong brake life, minimize caliper deflection and reduce uneven rotor and pad wear. Have no worries, this product stops as well as it goes. Even gut-wrenching stops from 270 kph (168 mph) were not enough to activate the ABS.Just writing this makes me crave to be back in the seat with all seven close-ratio gears at my fingertips and 507 bhp at my command. Unfortunately, for all of us it might be a whole year before we receive U.S. delivery. At least we know that M GmbH has plans to make many more E60 M5s than it made of the E39.

So fear not, the larger production run and earlier introduction in the E60 product cycle means the there should be plenty to go around. Digging up the expected 80-grand plus I leave up to you and your financial advisors. I suggest selling the children.

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By Jay Chen
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