The 2006 BMW M5 is a tech-savvy speed freak's dream come true. Its Formula One-bred engine, which has collected two consecutive International Engine of the Year awards, is the most delectable bit, with the seven-speed sequential manual gearbox (SMG) and various chassis control systems complementing the power to provide truly awesome performance.
The transmission does take some getting used to and still occasionally confounded us even after considerable seat time in both the M5 and the M6, but with experience and an understanding of the manual vs. automatic settings, a smooth drive is possible. Clearly, though, the SMG is most effective and transparent when pushed very hard, and given the M5's performance potential, this is impossible on public roads.
Visually, the M5 doesn't set itself apart too dramatically from the current non-M 5 series upon which it's based, but is discernable by larger standard wheels; front, side, and rear lower body enhancements; more aerodynamic side mirrors; four chrome-tipped exhaust outlets; and a side vent adorned with an M logo ahead of each front door. In darker colors, such as the Indianapolis Red Metallic of our test car, the effect is positive: the car looks purposeful, but it didn't draw much attention from other drivers or passersby.
With a base MSRP of $81,200, the V10-engined M5 is still something of a performance bargain, as the engine alone is uniquely valuable both as a power plant and for bragging rights ("yeah, but your Ford GT doesn't rev to 8,000rpm"). As usual, generous ticking of the BMW options list takes a toll, and with major options such as Sepang Bronze Perforated Leather ($3,500), multifunction seats ($1,900), a heads-up display ($1,000), and comfort access ($1,000), the total runs to a hefty $94,965, including a $695 destination charge. Sitting in the 2006 BMW M5 for the first time and taking an initial look around at the trim and controls, little is different than in other modern BMWs. The main gauges, iDrive controller, hooded navigation screen, and climate controls are nothing new. But looking closer, clues emerge as to the more serious nature of this particular M5.
The steering wheel is thick and stitched with three-colored thread matching the M logo colors. The SMG gear selector isn't a giveaway, as it's available in other BMWs, but some of the buttons in a row behind it are new. Two of them control the multifunction seats. These feature adjustable side bolsters that can be set to react in concert with vehicle dynamics, with the outside bolster "gripping" the seat's occupant during hard cornering (a system called "active bolstering"). Our car's front seats were also heated (standard) and cooled (an $800 option) through their full leather. The seats are comfortable and provide plenty of side bolstering at their regular setting; active bolstering is an interesting novelty but can be distracting while driving.
The $1,000 comfort access option allows entering and starting the vehicle without using the key fob, a worthwhile convenience we've appreciated in all test cars that have come so equipped. With the foot on the brake and the SMG lever in neutral, a tap of the Start/Stop button brings the V10 to life. iDrive allows customization of entry/exit options such as how long exterior pathway lighting stays on following exiting the car, the central locking sequence, whether the car beeps and/or flashes upon locking or unlocking, and all manner of other minor options.
iDrive again proves something of a double-edged sword, as we and others have previously noted ad nauseam. It offers simplicity and elegance of design but also requires too much effort for minor control modifications.
Overall, the premium sound system leaves little to be desired, with Logic7 surround, a six-disc changer in the glove box, and a single-CD slot in the dash, 13 speakers including 2 subwoofers and digital sound processing. No provision is made for factory integration with auxiliary audio components, but iPod adapters are available from dealers. Sound is strong and adjustment options are effective, with three main modes (normal, concert hall, and theater). One complaint was that the CD magazine in the glove box is tucked far up and out of sight, where it is all but unreachable by someone sitting in the driver's seat at full stretch, let alone while driving.
Bluetooth hands-free cell phone integration is standard as part of the BMW Assist package. We were unable to get a Motorola Razr to pair with the car by digging around in the iDrive, but by using voice commands, other testers reported easy pairing and solid call quality on outgoing and incoming calls thereafter. As with other BMWs, a list of approved phones recommended for use with the car is available.
The voice control system also proved effective in controlling the navigation system, although inputting destinations requires the use of iDrive. Storing names and phone numbers using voice commands is straightforward. The menu displays on the main nav screen are as crisp and readable as those we've enjoyed on other BMW systems, with enough processing power to eliminate any delays in menu switching and map zooming.
The heads-up display is slightly different from the one we saw previously in the 550i. This version includes a tachometer depiction showing green, yellow, and red areas of an arc that wraps around the number indicating the current gear, so shifts can be executed at maximum revs without having to glance down at the main tach. As with the earlier heads-up display, current speed is also displayed, along with any vehicle warning messages. There is also an M mode that displays only the gear and the revs. The use of this mode is customizable as part of the M-Drive settings.
Satellite radio prep remains, alas, a $595 option in even the priciest BMWs. Sirius is BMW's provider of choice, and we noticed more drops and skips in the signal in both the M5 and M6 than we remember from either satellite system in any car we've tested previously, although we were driving in hilly and/or downtown conditions much of the time.
A glass moonroof and pull-up sunshades on the rear windows are standard on the M5. A power sunshade for the rear glass is another pricey option ($575) but proved useful during some unusually warm summer weather between San Francisco and the Monterey peninsula. Also helping keep things cool in the cockpit is parked-car operation of the ventilation system, customizable to blow warm air out of the interior at set times while the car is unattended. The engine in the 2006 M5 is a mechanical and technological tour de force. Rated at a maximum of 500 horsepower at 7,750rpm and 383 pound-feet of torque at 6,100rpm, it certainly produces prodigious power, but the engine's willingness to rev is the most startling aspect of the experience.