Review and photos by Laurance Yap

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2006 BMW M5
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Between the various controls on the BMW M5’s dashboard and centre console, I counted a total of 198 possible faces for this incredible vehicle to take on. In addition to the sport mode switch that quickens the throttle response while adding weight to the steering, the M5’s seven-speed sequential manual gearbox (SMG) has, between its automatic and manual modes, ten different settings for shift speed and aggression. On top of that, you can deactivate the traction control with another button to gain access to a super-aggressive setting with launch control for track driving. All of that is before you touch the “power” setting, which resets the engine from its default output of 400 hp and gives you the full 500, or the full 500 in “sport” mode. If that’s not enough, there’s a three-position switch for the electronically-controlled dampers that let you determine just what level of suspension stiffness you want.

Fortunately, there’s another button that you’re likely to become well-acquainted with that makes it easy to access your favourite of all of those personalities. An innocuous little button marked “M” on the steering wheel lets you store, just like a radio station, your favourite combination of shift speed, throttle response, power output, and stability control threshold. That way, with one push, you can take the M5 from its pussycat – yeah, right – default 400-hp slow-shift mode into, for instance, a fire-breathing monster with the full 500 horses, the fastest shift setting, and throttle response that can only be described as ballistic.

2006 BMW M5
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You can, if you wish to be an idiot, also create some truly odd combinations, such as shotgun-throttle-slow shift. (My favourite set-up, by the way, is full power, full stability control, fast throttle, and the second-fastest shift speed.)

All this talk about multiple personalities is entirely appropriate given what the M5 has always represented to its buyers. On the one hand, it’s a roomy four-door sedan with a leather-lined interior, a Harman/Kardon sound system, amazingly comfortable seats, and terrific sound insulation; a high-end luxury car that swallows the miles over long distances and is also usable on the way to work every day. On the other hand, it’s an extreme sports machine, with enough power to keep up with all but the fastest supercars, huge tires that generate even huger cornering grip, and brakes that feel like they would stop a 747, they’re so powerful and fade-free. The M5 is, has always been, a car that somehow managed to do the impossible and combine the best of two very disparate worlds.

2006 BMW M5

2006 BMW M5
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While the new 2006 model does very much the same thing, its extra power, high-revving V10 engine, electronic gearbox, and extra visual attitude put more of an emphasis on sportiness than ever before. I mean, just look at it: it sits impossibly low on massive 19-inch wheels. Its body is BMW design boss’ Chris Bangle’s best work, its flame-surfaced fenders and sides flowing together into one angry, pointy mass. Four unfinished bazooka exhaust pipes jut from the rear bumper and the flanks are punctuated by the air extractors that have become BMW M’s signature. The thing just exudes visual menace.

The M5’s driving experience easily lives up to the promise of its styling. The acceleration is simply unreal, at any speed, in any gear. While the big V10 produces big torque right from idle, the real power rush comes on beyond 5000 rpm, where the engine starts to rev even faster and more aggressively to its 8250 rpm redline; you simply roar past other traffic, even on light throttle openings, even when you’re playing gentle with all the controls. Drive aggressively, and the performance is devastating; full-throttle upshifts are accompanied by a burp from the transmission, a screech from the tires, and a massive head-toss as the F1-inspired engine races toward the redline again.

2006 BMW M5

2006 BMW M5
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For the full F1 experience, you can even invoke launch control from a standing start: disable the traction control, crank the shift speed up to its fastest setting, hold the gear lever forward while flooring the gas, and then release: the M5 departs the start line as if shot from a cannon, its engine and transmission judging just the right amount of wheelspin for the fastest, most aggressive launch.

The rest of the car’s controls reflect the same sort of aggression. Stomp on the brakes, and it’s as if you’ve snagged a nearby lamppost, the deceleration is so immediate and so violent. The steering (interestingly, it’s conventional, while BMW’s high-end regular cars have all been sporting variable-ratio active steering) is very fast, pointing the nose into corners with a twitch of the wrists. As you would expect, those steamroller tires and BMW’s best multi-link suspension mean massive cornering grip and impressive stability, pretty much no matter what the speed.

2006 BMW M5
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On the downside, the M5 is lacking in genuine sports-car feel, the sort you would get from something with two doors, say, and a couple thousand pounds less to haul around. At higher cornering speeds, the wheels clump over ridges, the steering goes kind of lifeless, and you really feel all of the car’s weight working against you as you try to turn the car. All in all, it’s an impressive performance given the M5’s exceptionally broad range of capabilities, but there’s no denying the laws of physics.

2006 BMW M5
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Indeed, one wonders if BMW’s gone a bit too far in trying to make the M5 an extreme sports car. While its interior is still sumptuous and comfortable – the leather on the seats is beautiful, there’s aluminum and wood trim everywhere, and enough room to seat four very comfortably – it’s not as settled or relaxing, when you’re not driving aggressively, as the old M5. In particular, the ride on those huge tires is quite busy, and can be almost uncomfortable over really rough roads even in the softest suspension setting. The engine’s noise, while wonderful, is also quite intrusive, at least if you keep it on the 500-hp setting; and the SMG gearbox, though easily the best and most sophisticated of its kind, requires more concentration to shift smoothly (you have to remember to lift off the gas just a bit before pulling on the shift lever or one of the steering-wheel paddles) than a conventional manual.

2006 BMW M5
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Then again, if you’re going to be driving this car conservatively, you probably should be spending your big bucks on a 7-series instead; you buy a BMW M car because you want that extra dose of performance, edginess, and aggression, and this newest M5 is the fastest, most aggressive iteration yet of one of the world’s landmark sport sedans. There are few cars on the road with its incredible breadth and depth of ability, and there’s no car on the planet that lets you so comprehensively tweak its behaviour to your own preferences. In the case of the M5, far from being a disorder, having multiple personalities is the car’s most impressive feature.


Specifications: BMW M5

  • Price (base/as tested): $115,500/$125,600

  • Engine: 5.0-litre V10
  • Fuel consumption (city/highway/as tested): Premium, 15.9 L/100 km combined
  • Power: 507 hp
  • Torque: 383 lb-ft
  • Competition: Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG; Audi RS 6; Porsche 911
  • What’s best: The most customizable driving experience of any car
  • What’s worst: Not as refined in regular driving as the old M5
  • What’s interesting: No active steering in this flagship driver’s BMW


M5 vs 911

2006 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S
2006 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S. Photo: Porsche. Click image to enlarge

It was, I swear, merely coincidence that my weekend with the M5 coincided with the arrival of a Porsche 911 Carrera 4S in my driveway. Though it has only two doors and (arguably) two usable seats, the $127,500 Porsche’s mission in life is broadly similar to the M5’s: it’s both an extreme sports car and something that can be driven every day; I know a number of 911 drivers who looked at M5s before buying; and a number of M5 drivers who also considered 911s.

What’s interesting about the new C4S is how Porsche has also jumped on the multiple-personality bandwagon, though not quite with the same gusto as BMW. Neither the standard six-speed manual transmission or the optional five-speed Tiptronic auto offer any way to change their behaviour, but, just like the M5, the Porsche has a “sport” switch that alters the speed with which the throttle responds to your right foot. Pushing it also stiffens up the standard adjustable PASM (Porsche Active Suspension Management) suspension, which you can also control independently with another switch. For most everyday situations, the suspension works best in its softer setting, which helps the wide-bodied 911 find more traction on rutted roads, but the sport setting makes this all-wheel-drive Porsche as extreme as the old GT3 on a racetrack.

2006 BMW M5
2006 BMW M5. Click image to enlarge

Driven back-to-back with the M5, the 911 – can this be possible? – actually manages to feel a bit slow, as it musters just 355 hp from its 3.8-litre flat-six; it’s still fast enough to blow most other cars into the weeds. On the other hand, its chassis is the very model of communication: the steering writhes and wriggles every bit of information about the pavement direct to your fingers, and you can feel, through the seat of your pants, exactly what’s going on at all four contact patches. (The rear patches are even bigger now, with 305-section 19-inch Michelins fitted as standard.) On a truly challenging road with lots of curves, the 911 would leave the M5 behind, despite its power deficit.

On the other hand, you can’t bring three of your friends along for a ride in the Porsche, and its cabin, though vastly improved in quality over the previous-generation car, doesn’t feel nearly as rich or luxurious as the M5’s. On the balance of practicality versus performance, it inches further towards driving thrills than the BMW, with the necessary compromises in interior and trunk space, cruising range, and stretch-out comfort.

Being someone that hardly ever has one passenger, let alone three, I’d take the 911 in an instant, but if I needed a back seat, a trunk, and spent a lot of time driving long distances, the M5 would be an easy pick – and one that wouldn’t at any point feel like I’d settled for something slower, less extreme, or less entertaining.

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