When I saw a mustard-colored Bentley GT rocketing towards my all time favorite highway exit, I knew lunch was served. Paddling from seventh to third and pressing go, I closed the gap between the M5's voracious prow and Bentley Boy's behind before the adrenalin could hit my bloodstream. As we entered the ramp, the Bimmer's heads-up display assured me I had enough rpm-age to blow-off anything that wasn't built out of carbon fiber and/or jet-powered. When the off-ramp widened for a few yards, I dove inside and dusted Bentley Boy into a fine powder. Despite my obvious, riotous supremacy, nothing changed. BMW's uber-sedan was not my friend.
Supercar scalping in a family four-door is a terrific way to kill an afternoon, but the original M5 earned its place in automotive Valhalla as the consumate all-rounder: a car that can schlep, thrash, coddle, cruise, potter and impress with equal aplomb. Make no mistake: while the M5's accelerative aggression and Nürburgring-fettled handling got the headlines, the uber-Bimmer's core appeal lay within its relatively humble origins, daily practicality and circumspect sheet metal. No other car– at any price– offered such a potent blend of ability and humility.
Well, you can forget the stealth part of the proceedings. The "flame surfaced" donor car is so fundamentally bling that the old M5's appeal– a set of nudge nudge, wink wink performance cues grafted onto an accountant's daily driver– has been lost. The prominent lips above the M5's quad pipes and the in-yer-face indented 10-spoke wheels are hopelessly, needlessly crass. It's the John Gotti of everyday supercars: dapper, powerful and as subtle as a bullet to your brain. Sporting drivers who understood the legal advantages of owning a car that performs like a Ferrari without looking like a Ferrari will not be well pleased.
You can also disregard the cruising part of the program. That pain has a name: SMG (Sequential Manual Gearbox). Why BMW would give one of the world's fastest sedans the world's worst gearbox (a mistake first inflicted on the otherwise sublime Eurospec E36 M3) is a question almost as difficult as finding a suitable way to use the damn thing. Drivers must choose their preferred shifting mechanism (paddles, center stick or auto), horsepower configuration (400 or 500hp), shift mode (eleven choices), suspension adjustment (three levels) and traction control intervention (three levels). The total number of permutations isn't as annoying as the M5's inability to deliver rapidfire quickshifts or, more to the point, mindless Mercitude.
To achieve a [relatively] smooth shift in the new M5, you have to dial-in the SMG's most aggressive setting and paddle the beJesus out of its V10 engine– which eliminates the possibility of effortless low-speed cruising. At low revs in autobox mode, the torque-challenged engine and dim-witted gearbox make for slow, annoying advancement. Floor it and the engine just up and dies– until the computer can blip the throttle on your behalf. And then the M5 takes-off like a scalded cat shot from a big bore Winchester– a turn of events that isn't exactly conducive to around town ambling. Anyway, what's the point? Whereas the previous M5's V8 burble was a pistonhead's siren song, the V10's low-speed clatter has all the sonic allure of a diesel delivery van.
Thankfully, the M5 isn't appointed like a commercial vehicle. The cabin materials are faultless and faultlessly assembled: a sumptuous, tasteful gathering of suede, leather, brushed aluminum and wood. The perfectly-proportioned accommodations and generous trunk space remind you why the 5-Series is such a hit with money both old and new. Unfortunately, the M5 also suffers from the same technological overkill bedeviling a "normal" 5-Series: iDrive [you nuts], turn indicators you can't cancel with a stick and lots of little buttons that do God knows what. More worryingly, the key kept falling out of the slot during hard cornering.
And there's your upside. The new M5 handles a lot better than the old car, and not a lot worse than a race car. Although you can still feel the M5's mighty mass shifting around you through a turn, the new car's rack and pinion steering (sans BMW's lamentable Active Steering) is ideally weighted for fully committed hooliganism. The M5's 19's hold an apex-hunters' chosen line like grim death, at speeds that defy the G-force gods. It's a corner carver par excellence.
In fact, the new BMW M5 only makes sense in two situations: driving like a lunatic around long sweeping bends and driving like a lunatic from 100mph to V-Max. In both cases, rapid progress demands that you stay in 500hp mode at the top end of low gears, guzzling gas like a dragstrip refugee. Sure it's exciting. But then what? In the old M5, you could have just as much fun doing other stuff. In this car, you can't.