As regards first impressions, BMW laid on a couple of hours at Anglesey circuit to provide those, along with a couple of hundred miles on Snowdonian roads – many of the latter having been made to feel particularly narrow by a saloon that now measures more than 2.1 metres across the mirrors (a McLaren 570S supercar is narrower).
Both tests, nonetheless, were rapaciously devoured by a car of truly extraordinary pace, traction, agility and composure for something so practical – and one whose purity of balance and vividness of driver appeal seems to have suffered not one iota as a result of what’s been done to its drivetrain. Considering the car in the round, in fact, I fail to see how anyone could claim that both aren’t major improvements on the standards of the ‘F10’.
This isn’t our first shot at explaining exactly how much is new and interesting about this near-600-horsepower BMW; after the reaction to Munich’s announcement of the car’s adoption of four-wheel drive, a test of a prototype in 2017 delivered our first taste of what might be expected, followed by a drive review from the car’s European press launch in Portugal later in the year. The message to take away from both is simple: in practice this car can use its four-wheel drive system as little, or as much, as you choose.
And now? I was certainly surprised at not finding quite the dynamic breadth-of-ability in the M5 as our earlier reporting suggested. Earlier we told you that it “could slide into your life as easily as a 520d”; on UK roads, that sentiment could stand a bit of tempering.
This is a firmly sprung car – has to be, I suspect, to produce the handling dynamism those M Division bosses targeted for it. It’s never a harsh- or really uncomfortable-riding one – but make no mistake, it’s no turbo V8 armchair. And nor would you want it to be, by the way: the M5 is a car of much greater purposefulness and pedigree than that.
Use ‘comfort’ mode on the adaptive dampers and there’s certainly less bite about the vertical body control, but it remains a wee bit tetchy at low speeds and over a less than smooth surface. ‘Sport’ produces better-matched spring and damper rates, a more harmonious and responsive kind of high-speed close ride control, and is the setting I’d pick for most road driving. And that goes not just for the suspension, should you be wondering how you’d ever navigate so many configurable systems (steering, gearbox, engine map, exhaust, four-wheel drive system, stability control). See: where BMW adds complexity, let Autocar bring calm.
On the track and at the limit of its grip, meanwhile, the standout feature of the M5’s showing is how balanced, nuanced and interactive its handling is, even without needing to activate its ‘2WD’ mode. Moreso, I would say, than a Nissan GT-R or an Audi R8, you can steer this near-two-tonne saloon delicately into and through corners with power, using its rear wheels as your chief vectoring point, and with the car’s drive system set to ‘4WD Sport’ and, if you prefer it that way, even with the electronics on, but dialled down, in ‘M Dynamic’ mode.
There is that much balance and adjustability with room to spare – not to mention now truly enormous traction and acceleration, and crisper mid-range throttle response than in the ‘F10’.
The M5, to put it simply, makes four-wheel drive feel like rear-wheel drive precisely when you would prefer it that way. Application to a four-wheel drive saloon has somehow given the BMW M active rear differential a greater starring role than it has ever had before.
That dynamism isn’t really accessible on the road – but here, the M5’s keenness on turn-in and mid-corner poise, and its superb vertical body control over testing crests and through compressions, really come to the fore; they make a big car feel light and spry, even if they can’t make it feel small.
On the motorway, meanwhile, the car is surefooted and supremely stable, hitting big speeds in the blink of an eye and ultimately making them feel small. Ultimately, that is, but not immediately. The car's outright performance level is unrelenting and yet unimposing.
The M5 has one of those accelerator pedals you tend to tip into, only to feel the car take off at a rate that's faster than you needed or expected it to go straight away. So you instinctively check yourself; ease off with your right foot; take stock. But only a moment later, with your next dive, do you realise there was so much more to come.
And so getting to the bottom of that accelerator pedal is something you do by degrees and with repeat visits - followed, at least initially, by childish bursts of laughter.