Underneath, pretty much everything beyond the basic architecture is uprated; the rear floorpan is modified to fit a huge exhaust system, the rear-subframe mounting points are beefed up to cope with the extra loads, bushes, links and joints are changed. There’s no Dynamic Drive; instead a more basic Electronic Damper Control (EDC) function offers three damper positions.
Is there a more telling indictment of how BMW rates the dynamic benefits of its own Active steering system (the one that alters the ratio according to speed) and run-flat tyres (that have an adverse affect on the ride quality of all BMWs they’re fitted to) than the fact that neither make an appearance on the company’s performance flagship?
Don’t laud it too much though, just be thankful that the M5 has a bespoke set of Continental Sport Contact 2s (Michelin Pilots will come later), lovingly crafted for this car, and a conventional steering rack with conventional servotronic assistance.
It’s a disappointing car at idle, this M5. Twist the key and it fires instantly with a thrum so distinctive you wonder if there aren’t four rings on the bonnet and an Ingolstadt registration plate. Then it settles to a dreary, rattly idle. Stationary, it could be a standard 530d.
There are controls everywhere. It would seem that BMW’s move to i-Drive simplicity has been rather ignored by the M division. The i-Drive’s familiar aluminium rotary control remains but everything else seems to have migrated to the steering wheel and gear lever surround areas.
There are six buttons on the wheel, one of which is marked M and controls an encylopaedia of toys we’ll come to in a minute. And instead of integrating M5-specific functions into the i-Drive software, BMW has sprinkled five more buttons by the gear lever.
EDC selects damper settings, the shift-speed adjustor will be familiar to any M3 SMG owners and the traction/stability control functions are fully removable with the DSC button. There is also a button marked ‘Power’.
Undoubtedly this is The Gimmick of 2004, but it’s rather wonderful all the same. Start your M5 and its ECU automatically sets to a 400bhp default function: for the full beans you must press Power. Allegedly this is to ‘help in wet conditions’, which roughly translates as the ultimate show-off activity for the delectation of selected mates.
So, engine rattling, Power selected, auto ’box chosen, we nose off. Just 100rpm above the engine’s idle speed it sounds immeasurably better. A little quieter than a Gallardo, less raspy and yelpy than a Porsche Carrera GT, but incredibly distinctive all the same.
The gearbox shifts cleanly enough, but it’s immediately obvious that SMG can’t match the versatility of Audi’s DSG system. That’s not a big problem, because you learn to feather the throttle and smooth shifts accordingly, but it’s a long way behind the best autos.
There’s a character issue here, too. After those first few miles, I didn’t use the automatic function again, even in traffic. Everything else about the M5 is so clearly focused towards not just having but savouring total command of all its controls that to do anything else seems plain wrong.
What’s more, I opted for the lever over the steering-wheel paddles. The M5 gets its own thick-rimmed steering wheel, but the thumb rests are in an awkward position and I found the paddles difficult to operate. That doesn’t matter though, because the stick itself snicks forwards and back with a lovely action, and it also makes the car feel like more of a conventional manual.