Bimmers tend to be dual-personality cars, going from mild-mannered premium vehicle to road-eating beast at the push of a button or three. But the 2013 BMW M5 is mostly brutish Mr. Hyde, with only a little bit of refined Dr. Jekyll in evidence.
BMW includes all sorts of creature comforts in the M5, such as navigation, a Bang & Olufsen audio system, and app integration. There is even a lane-departure warning system for long road trips. At ignition, the car defaults to its most pedestrian settings, with steering and suspension in Comfort modes, and the accelerator in Efficient mode.
But as I drove the new M5 through city traffic, I could tell it was not happy. Power from the direct-injection twin-turbo 4.4-liter V-8 came on unevenly; slow, then really, really fast. Although the suspension setting said Comfort, the car could not resist communicating the feel of the road through the steering wheel, and tended to bounce me around when going over potholes.
On the flip side, when I could find a road that came close to testing the M5's capabilities, the car was ferocious. Over my favorite twisty mountain backroads, the M5 barely batted a headlight as it swept through the turns. With the revolutions per minute over 6,000, the engine makes a beautiful sound as 1,000 precisely milled German parts seamlessly work together to generate the peak 560 horsepower. On a straight, where I could get on the power, a glance at the head-up display showed that the car took me from 35 to 75 mph in the blink of an eye.
The 2013 M5 is one potent road machine, even more so than the . If you don't live near a good racetrack that hosts track days, don't buy one; 99 percent of its potential will go to waste. And drivers who think sports cars and technology don't mix should also steer clear, as the M5 relies on technology as much as the .
The previous-generation M5, similar to the M3, was marked, or possibly marred, by too many settings. The dual-clutch transmission had more than a dozen modes, while the suspension and engine could be dialed into a number of different combinations. For 2013, BMW refined these settings on the M5, making them a little easier to understand, if not less complex.
As mentioned above, the car starts off in its mildest settings for accelerator, suspension, and steering, that last being a new tunable element of the M5. A readout at the base of the tachometer shows how each is set. Buttons near the shifter toggle each aspect of the car through Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus settings.
In its default Clark Kent mode, the M5 feels clumsy, like a big car that takes an ample push on the gas to pick up speed. The wheel turns easily and the loose suspension is hampered by wide, low-profile tires that do a poor job of insulating the cabin from imperfections in the road.
The M5 also has idle-stop, a controversial feature inspiring Internet threads on how to disable it. I found that I could live with it, as long as I was driving in suburban areas with long traffic lights. In the city, where the traffic tended to creep, it often turned the engine off just as I needed to go forward. Also, with such a big engine, it did not restart smoothly or all that quickly. However, I could disable the feature by pushing a button near the starter, and it stuck with its last setting even when I restarted the car.
Push the three performance-setting buttons on the console once, and the M5 goes into Sport mode. The suspension takes on a notably stiffer quality, the wheel tightens up, giving more road feedback through its hydraulic power-steering boost, and the gas pedal becomes a more sensitive instrument. These settings work best for serpentine back roads with little traffic.
However, the M5 still won't deliver satisfying performance until you dial up the transmission's aggressiveness. I know, more settings. The dual-clutch transmission (DCT) in the M5 is simpler than that used in the last M3 I tested. It offers only automatic or manual shift modes, with no sport setting. A rocker switch behind the shifter toggles both automatic and manual modes through three levels, from smooth to aggressive.
With the DCT in Drive, or automatic, the most aggressive setting locked out the top three gears, only going up to fourth. In manual mode, I could shift higher, but the more aggressive setting made the shifts faster, with the potential for some big rpm changes that would make the car buck and the engine snort.
Pushing all these buttons was tedious, but this is an M car, which meant it had not one, but two M buttons on the steering wheel. From a screen on the iDrive controller, I was able to assign a performance profile to each M button. I did the logical thing and gave the M1 button all the Sport settings, and programmed the M2 button with Sport Plus. In addition to the programmed settings, the M buttons also trade standard traction control for BMW's M Dynamic Mode, which allows some seriously enjoyable cornering. Getting out of the M modes was a little tricky. From M2, I had to push the M1 button. In M1 mode, I had to hold down the M1 button for a second, which reverted the car to its default boring mode.
After all of this button pushing and programming, I finally had a car that was fun to drive. Or almost. Public roads just do not do the 2013 M5 justice. In Sport mode, with the M1 button, I had the DCT dialed in at its most aggressive position in manual mode, sticking to second and third gears over a twisty back road. In second gear, the car could get well over 70 mph before hitting redline. Around the sharpest corners, the M5 evinced a uniquely BMW handling characteristic, letting the rear end come out just a few degrees.
On a more obscure road, full of hairpin turns going up a mountain, I got a sense of what Sport Plus could do. With the M2 mode activated, the car was very twitchy, reacting to the road surface minutely. It became a precision instrument, with my every input to the accelerator and steering wheel causing immediate reaction. The steering wheel gave tremendous feedback. This mode would really come into its own during very hard driving on a track.
In a nutshell, whether in Sport or Sport Plus modes, the M5 showed itself as a car with absolutely amazing handling. Thanks to its performance technology, it reaches spectacular levels of acceleration and cornering. At speed, the M5 delivered precise turn-in and very predictable grip and rotation in the turns. I never felt the technology was driving the car, but that it was assisting me, responding to how I wanted to drive.
The technological finesse underlying this performance involves adjustable dampers, which can stiffen up for greater rigidity, variable steering, and an active differential that can go from zero to full lock depending on rear-wheel grip. BMW fits the M5 with FlexRay cabling, a high-bandwidth data conduit designed for the automotive market that feeds multiple sensor and control signals to a central computer, which sends commands to the dampers and differential in milliseconds. The M5 may seem overly reliant on tech, but it is more Terminator than Frankenstein's monster.
Eyes on the road
From the driver's seat, I found the HUD projected on the windshield to be a crucial feature. Normally, this display shows the car's speed and the speed limit for the current road, the latter often being wrong when driving around San Francisco. It also showed route guidance when navigation was active. The M mode display was something very different, a color representation of the tachometer with the current gear and the car's digital speed. That M display was extremely useful when manually shifting and running close to redline.
This M5 came equipped with my favorite safety feature, blind-spot detection, which lit up a triangular icon in the side mirror casings when a car was in the next lane over. And a new safety feature for BMW came in the form of a collision warning, a red icon on the HUD if the M5 calculated that it was closing on the car ahead too quickly. Strangely, a feature like this goes hand-in-hand with adaptive cruise control, yet the M5 did not have that option.
BMW surrounded the M5 in cameras, giving it a rear view complete with trajectory and distance lines, and a split-view front camera for pulling out of blind alleys. In addition, it included a top-down camera view, but the image was rather small and I found it difficult to make out the curb when I was parallel parking on a bright day.
As the M5 shows off the latest in BMW performance tech, it also comes with the latest in cabin tech. Standard is BMW's hard-drive-based navigation system, showing on the same sort of wide screen, with the option to display a split view, that has been in recent generations of BMW models. The interface, controlled with a dial and buttons on the console, is easy to use once you get used to it.
A lot can be accomplished with voice command, too. When entering a location, I was able to say the entire address as a string, and, remarkably, the car got every aspect of it correct, from city to street. Likewise, I could initiate calls through my paired phone by saying the names of people in my contact list. With a connected iPod or iPhone, the system let me request music by album or artist name. However, although the stereo read the tags and indexed the MP3 files from a thumbdrive plugged into the USB port, voice command does not work for requesting music from this type of storage media.
While using the navigation system, the car showed detailed route-guidance graphics both on the HUD and on the center LCD's split view. Along with the voice prompts, which read out the names of streets for upcoming turns, I had no excuse to get lost in the M5. The maps showed excellent detail: topographic features when out in the mountains and 3D-rendered buildings in urban areas. The buildings can be a bit of a distraction when navigating through a city, but this feature can be turned off. It's impressive how quickly the car renders these 3D effects, hinting at some real processing power behind the scenes.
As has become standard in the automotive market, the M5's navigation system showed traffic information on its maps, and used it to dynamically calculate routes. I noted in this car that the coverage area for traffic has increased, at least in the San Francisco Bay Area. Not only were more highways covered, but the M5 also showed traffic flow on many surface streets.
Although BMW has made a few obvious improvements in the 2013 M5's infotainment system, much more is on the way. Earlier this year, BMW announced . This new system will include a controller with a gesture surface embedded on top, and a more refined navigation system with what BMW calls High Guidance for helping drivers find their destinations.
The newest cabin tech feature available in the M5, short of the upcoming upgraded iDrive controller, is BMW Apps, a means of integrating Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, and other apps with the car. When running the BMW Connected app on my iPhone, I was able to connect it to the car's USB port and see Facebook and Twitter feeds on the M5's LCD. The app I found most enjoyable was Wiki Local, which let me see nearby locations with Wikipedia references. It integrates with the navigation system, porting addresses from the app to begin route guidance. The car also offers Google Local search for finding destinations, but this feature is part of the car's own telematics service, and separate from BMW Apps.
The most phenomenal feature of the cabin, in my opinion, was the Bang & Olufsen audio system. Although a pricey option at $3,700, its 16 speakers deliver one of the most clear and distinct listening experiences available in a car. While I listened to music from a four-piece band, each instrument came through with its own resonance. I could hear the strings of an electric guitar come through the speakers with a rich sound, and drumbeats that were more than simple thumps. This system did an excellent job expanding the layers of complex electronic tracks, making each come through clearly, and vocals were just stupendous.
Audio sources in the M5 were more than plentiful, from the hard drive with room for music storage to HD Radio, but I relied most on a simple thumbdrive with 8 gigs of music plugged into the USB port. I used to complain about BMW's music library browsing interface, but the company recently modified iDrive with a Browse Directory menu item that made it easier to view the music I had available.
At almost $90,000, the 2013 M5 is an expensive ride, and options on CNET's test car ran the price up over a $100,000. Part of that price is a gas-guzzler tax, which I do not think this car deserves. The EPA ratings are 14 mpg city and 20 mpg highway, but during freeway driving, the car easily topped its highway number, according to the trip computer. Overall, CNET's car averaged 19.1 mpg, with a combination of freeway driving, back-road flogging, and some seriously slow traffic in the city.
|Model||2013 BMW M5|
|Power train||Direct-injection twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8, 7-speed dual-clutch transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||14 mpg city/20 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||19.1 mpg|
|Navigation||Standard hard-drive-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard with contact list integration|
|Digital audio sources||Pandora, Mog, Web radio, onboard hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, iPod, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Optional Bang & Olufsen 1,200-watt 16-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Night vision, lane-departure warning, collision warning, blind-spot detection, HUD, surround-view camera, front split-view camera, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$103,195|