2013 BMW M5 First Drive

What It Is
The benchmark for midsize luxury sports sedans reinvented and reinvigorated.
Best Thing
It's just as easy to schlep along in a city as it is to drive on a racetrack.
Worst Thing
We can't afford one of our own.
Snap Judgment
BMW does it again, and families forced to trade in the Porsche are better off for it.


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When the BMW M5 returned to the U.S. in 1998, it was hailed as the best sports sedan ever made. Having driven one, I'm inclined to agree. While only sold in small batches at stratospheric prices, the M5 redefined just what a sports sedan was. And as a result, it helped -- and continues to help -- make the rest of the BMW 5 Series range that much better.

Since then, competitors like the Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG, the Jaguar XFR, and Cadillac CTS-V have crept up on the mighty BMW -- some say dethroning it from its long-held perch. The last version of the M5, powered by a 507-horsepower V-10, had a production run from 2005 to 2010. It was fantastic on a track, but an awful driver for commuters. Forced to meet the invigorated, do-it-all competition, the 2013 BMW M5 has picked up 160 horsepower over the last 15 years and a long list of Formula 1-inspired technology to get that power to the ground. Outside its slap-fight with other luxury automakers, it faced government emissions and safety standards, forcing it to gain 260 pounds since 1998 as it ballooned in size to meet pedestrian, crash, and rollover standards.

It's a bigger car than it used to be. It's a far more luxurious car than it's ever been. But after cars like the cut-price Cadillac CTS-V and muscle car-like AMG Merc ate its lunch with no remorse, BMW's back and wants us to believe that the M5 has it got its groove back.

Bringing us to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California, to test the 2013 BMW M5 was a natural choice. But giving us the keys to the car to test away from the track proved to be a trickier proposition. After experiencing the car in all its might on the racetrack, BMW had faith that its $92,000 super sedan could be a decent daily driver. After experiencing its track prowess firsthand, we had our doubts that it could do just as well when stuck behind a Prius in the slow lane. Invariably, we were bound to find out.

Walkaround

The 2013 BMW M5 is available in 14 colors, most exclusive to BMW's M cars. But if you're seriously looking at one, there are only two you should consider: Monte Carlo Blue Metallic and Sakhir Orange Metallic. Both colors are rich, drawing your eyes into their luster and highlighting the car's every detail. The rest are mostly the variations of white, black, and gray we've become accustomed to seeing on German cars. Bland and forgettable.

The two bright hues complement the M5's lines and curves. While somewhat understated for what's under the hood, the BMW M5's design draws contrast from the standard BMW 5 Series. Its signature widemouth air dam and fender ducts aren't just for show. They're needed to draw air in and extract heat from the car's twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8. Out back, four round exhaust pipes sit under a revised lower rear bumper. Only a single M5 badge on the back gives away what it is.

Most chrome is replaced by piano black; polished alloy wheels are exchanged for gunmetal 19- or 20-inch wheels exposing bright blue brake calipers -- or gold, should the driver choose BMW's optional carbon ceramic rotors. The car sits lower and wider than the standard 5 Series. It looks like sinister elegance.

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Sitting Down

Having driven a slightly more pedestrian (but likely rarer) ActiveHybrid 5 earlier in the day, we were bracing for disappointment that would never come when we stepped inside the M5. While fundamentally the same car, the M5's cabin comes swathed in BMW's Merino leather, a softer, much higher-quality hide than the one it uses in most other 5 Series models. A large strip of aluminum replaces the standard car's plank of wood, although wood is still available. Above, the cloth headliner is replaced with "Anthracite" Alcantara. The entire package is a marked improvement over lesser 5 Series models, as it should be for the five-figure premium.

Front-seat passengers are treated to exclusive front buckets that are deeper and thickly bolstered than standard 5 Series seats, but hardly the Vulcan death-grippers that Mercedes-Benz uses in its AMG cars. And in front of the driver is a thick three-spoke rim shared with the M6 coupe and convertible. Along with primary controls like the stereo and cruise control functions, it also has two reprogrammable M buttons that can alter the car's steering, suspension, throttle, and transmission settings, quickly turning the car from a quiet, comfortable cruiser into a track-ready monster. In manual transmission-equipped cars -- exclusive to North America because of high demand -- the transmission button is deleted.

As for the car's overall layout, it's the same as the standard car's. Its rear seat room is adequate for three people, but hardly exceptional. And its trunk is a massive 17 cubic feet.

Driving

Read several dozen different reviews on the 2013 M5, and they'll all say the same thing: The car is a monster on the track. BMW absolutely nailed it. But more on that later.

Because finding a good racetrack is a little difficult, even for 99-percenters, what's it like to drive in traffic on public roads?

Surprisingly good. Since we had already sampled BMW's slick seven-speed dual-clutch transmission on the track in the M5 and previously in the 2013 M6 convertible, we opted to grab a six-speed manual-equipped M5 for our jaunt around Monterey. Put in Comfort mode, the car cruised along without much fuss -- and without much noise. Had it not been for the M badging throughout the interior, we might not have been able to tell the difference between it and any other 5 Series.

But dropping it a gear and putting our foot down made the car's engine thrum a sonorous baritone note with the light whistle of two turbochargers singing backup. Interestingly enough, BMW programs the M5's subwoofer to act as an amplifier for the exhaust system, piping it through the car's stereo. Because of that, the car's engine is much more noticeable with the windows rolled up than being able to hear it through the pipes in back.

With the new car, BMW simplified controls and spruced up the M5's fun factor at low speeds. You get 560 horsepower on-tap all the time, beating the Cadillac CTS-V by a negligible 4 ponies. Around town, the Cadillac hates to go slow, its engine feeling wholly underwhelmed by monotonous tasks like shuttling kids to school or going to a grocery store. On the other hand, the M5 embraces such tedious activities, coddling the driver and passengers and making all the right sounds along the way. Its clutch pedal is progressive and its shifter so smooth that we think driver with little experience driving stick could pick it up pretty quickly. It's really that easy to drive. Switching it into Sport or Sport+ modes just throws in some additional feedback and sensitivity to driving it, albeit your biceps may feel it by the end of the day.

During our on-road stint with some winding roads, we averaged 18 mpg, which came as a result of BMW's Start/Stop technology and its much more efficient twin-turbocharged V-8 that replaces the 11 city/17 highway mpg 5.0-liter V-10 from the outgoing car. BMW hasn't finalized EPA figures for the new engine, but we suspect the 20-mpg mark should be reachable.

On the track, however, we halved that number -- and enjoyed every minute of it.

While downshifting in aggressive driving, the six-speed manual transmission blips the throttle, giving the car an added bump when coming out of corners. It works brilliantly. The pick for the track might have to be the M5 equipped with the dual-clutch transmission and the carbon ceramic brakes.

While it's easy to get any of the cars up to speed, the cars were driven for six hours on Laguna Seca. That's more than enough to prevent them from slowing down quite as well. With brake fluid boiling as our car would hit speeds over 100 mph and suddenly transitioning to 30 mph or less through the track's famous corkscrew turn and then shoot back up to triple-digit speeds, the M5's brake pedal can become mushy towards the end a long day. Fortunately, it's available with high-powered carbon ceramic brakes, which experience none of the fade seen in the steel units. The only consolations in opting for them are a lofty price and some squeal as the cars would come back into the pits.

On the track, we found the dual-clutch gearbox to be easier for getting the most from the M5. And because the paddles are right behind the steering wheel, it's easier to the car under control entering a sweeping corner. Some may contend that the dual-clutch transmission dilutes the driving experience; those people should drive both transmissions. While it takes some of the skill needed to drive quickly out of the equation, it hardly diminishes any driving enjoyment experienced in the car.

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Summary

Among my coworkers, I often hear jokes about BMW feeding me some awfully delicious Kool-Aid at these press junkets. But the truth is with the 2013 BMW M5 that it's good enough to deserve all the praise it gets. No, it's even better.

The BMW M5 is whatever you want it to be: a comfortable cruiser, a weekend canyon destroyer, a family sedan, or a traffic light warrior. Except for its nearly six-figure starting price, there's nothing wrong with it. Nada. Zilch.

With the inception of larger, more comfortable cars like BMW 5 Series, the automaker has come under scrutiny for making cars that have lost their way, surgical appliances of immense speeds with little driving passion needed. A supercar of any sort, whether it has two or four doors, ought to have a sense of occasion to it, a feeling to it that will raise the hair on your neck, soak your undershirt, and make you wish you could have a priest riding shotgun so you can have your last rites read while taking the next corner. It should be a harrowing experience -- which is a feeling I haven't described in this text.

"Turn off M Dynamic Mode if you want that," said BMW M product manager Matt Russell at the car's launch. "It'll scare the crap out of you. It's fun."

Seeing as how I didn't want to end up on the front page of any car gossip websites -- yes, such things actually exist -- I opted against his advice. M Dynamic mode is the last bastion of computer intervention, but it'll still let you hang the car out in a corner. That's more than enough for me. It's fun how I had it set up; it's certainly a harrowing experience without any of the nannies.

But best yet, it's also a car that can be enjoyed in any occasion. And you don't have to leave any family members behind to do it.

So if you have the means, by all means get one. Carbon brakes or not, manual or automatic transmission, it's nearly impossible to pick an undesirable version of this car. The only thing that's really possible to screw up is its color.

Basic Specs

Twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8, 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual or 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, 560-hp, $91,795, fuel economy not yet rated

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