It's well-known that carmakers have a propensity to exaggerate: Saabs aren't really "Born from Jets," there's nothing that "Revolutionary" about Chevy's model lineup, and Mercedes are not quite "unlike any other," as they are now starting to share platforms with Chrysler. One tagline, however, might just live up to its hype. We got the 2006 BMW M5 into our garage today, and while it might not be the most attractive car on the road (brutish and ostentatious are two descriptors that spring to mind), in the right conditions, it is probably the nearest thing to being the "ultimate driving machine."
The M series has always been a reason to celebrate the excesses of motoring, but the 2006 M5 is a little different. With a 5-liter V-10 capable of conjuring up a staggering 500 horsepower and reaching an unlimited top speed north of 200mph, the new M5 is not only the most powerful car in its class, it is one of the most powerful production cars on the road.
Fully aware of the M5's credentials--and its ability to put us in the ditch at the slightest of miscalculations--we took it out for a spin earlier today. The first thing that owners of the M5 will notice when climbing into this beast (other than the $100K hole in their pockets) is the overwhelming number of buttons, switches, dials, knobs, and levers that the cabin presents. BMW's much-maligned iDrive dial dominates the central column and is the gateway to most of the M5's onboard technology. Despite being in its second generation, iDrive is still a difficult interface to operate: the simple four-way home page menu for entertainment, navigation, communication, and climate belies a far more intricate web of menus and options beneath. One of the major difficulties when navigating iDrive is knowing whether to push the dial up, down, or to the side or whether to scroll the wheel to make a selection.
We managed to program a destination into the navigation screen through a process of trial and error, which involved a near-argument with the voice-recognition system ("not San Leandro or San Bruno--San Francisco, San Francisco!"). Having failed to get the computer to audibly recognize our chosen city, we were reduced to selecting the destination letter by letter with the iDrive wheel, which was a pretty painstaking process. iDrive is also used to control the XM Satellite-enabled audio system, which plays MP3s and WMA CDs. Sound quality is superb, although the iDrive limits ID3-tag information on folder, artist, and track to about 10 letters.
Our M5 is also equipped with Bluetooth hands-free calling, but it took us a long time to get it working; after digging around in the menu (communications, phone) and finding no intuitive path to pair our, we speculatively tried saying "Bluetooth" into the voice-recognition system, which had the effect of bringing up a connection screen. Pairing the phone to the car was a two-minute job, but sound quality was good when we finally got connected, and we were assured that we sounded clear from the other end of the line. But we digress. BMW does not, after all, claim to be the "ultimate Bluetooth machine."
Above the iDrive wheel is another cluster of buttons, which are more closely related to M5's true mission: labeled VSC, EDC, and (ominously) Power, these three controls are responsible for variable stability control, electronic damping control, and "M Engine Dynamic control," of which more below.
The 2006 M5 features a 7-speed sequential manual gearbox, which takes a lot of getting used to--especially when puttering around town. In fact, one of our major gripes with the M5 is its urban road manner. We accept that this is a car designed more for the racetrack than the daily commute, but the way that the gearbox hesitates when changing up and down makes for unpredictable and disconcerting lunges, which are a dissapointment in a car of this price.
I know what you're thinking: an overly complicated driver interface, a ropey gearbox, and and a few techno-gadgets are not many people's idea of "ultimate."
Well, that's true, until you take the M5 on the highway. With 400 horsepower on tap, the 2006 M5 goes like a rocket. A heads-up display presents virtual color-coded tach (the redline for which varies according to engine temperature) and information on speed and current gear. In automatic mode, the M5 is quick. With a flick of the shifter to manual mode (with gears selected using the shifter or steering wheel-mounted paddles), it can be made even quicker. And for those who still aren't satisfied, there is one more surprise.
Of all the buttons in the car (and we counted more than 20 at a glance), the one that really matters is a small M situated on the right of the steering wheel, which activates M Drive, BMW's ultimate entertainment system. With M Drive activated and the aforementioned Power button depressed, the M5 goes from 400 to 500 horsepower; dynamic stability control is turned off (!), damping settings revert to preprogrammed preferences, and the sequential gearbox can be set to sporty/purist mode. In M Drive mode, throttle response and handling was sharpened considerably, and the front seat's automatic bolsters gripped us as we attacked corners; in its M Drive configuration, the M5--a large and relatively ungainly car--can go from standing to 60mph in four and a half seconds.
Suddenly, the problems of iDrive are left behind with the rest of the freeway traffic; suddenly, "ultimate" is a pretty accurate description.