With so many operating modes for the steering, damping, engine, gearbox, four-wheel drive and stability control, this M5 takes some getting to know.

If you find a particularly complex driver-configurable experience a turn-off, this is not the super-saloon for you. But even if you do approach it with a degree of scepticism about the amount of button fiddling you’ll need to do to really enjoy the car – and several testers did – the M5 is ready to dismantle your cynicism a piece at a time.

Richard Lane

Road tester
4WD Sport mode puts enough torque through the outside rear wheel to cue up power oversteer out of the hairpin in lower gears.

In addition to the Comfort, Sport and Sport+ settings for many of its systems – with which BMW M regulars will be familiar – the M5 adds three new ones for its drivetrain: 4WD, 4WD Sport and 2WD. The last of those only works with the stability control system deactivated completely.

Even so, you can, in short, have as much or as little four-wheel-drive security at play in the car’s handling mix as you want. And, moreover, if you want to combine a drift-happy rear-drive set-up with Comfort suspension and steering, unlike in an E63 S, you can: there’s little sense of prescriptiveness about the set-up combinations.

But having created a super-saloon with an unprecedented dynamic range, and handling more malleable than almost any other performance car we can think of, BMW’s masterstroke was to make a greater feature of the M5’s ‘M1’ and ‘M2’ driver preset buttons, to be found on the spokes of the steering wheel.

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Without these, switching the car between your favourite modes would require far too much button pressing to avoid maddening frustration. But with them, transforming the car from a secure, compliant, fluent and reassuring executive express to something more tightly controlled, agile, interactive and poised for a favourite B-road is the work of a flick of your thumb.

The M5’s more aggressive drivetrain modes – 4WD Sport and 2WD – feel like they’ve been optimised for the dry. The active differential seems to work particularly hard for its keep in the former setting, making the car feel superbly poised and balanced on turn in, and allowing you to accelerate neutrally, even into the beginnings of oversteer, without needing to deactivate the stability control system entirely.

‘M Dynamic’ mode allows you an enticingly delicate degree of rear-drive handling adjustability, which makes the car feel playful but never lairy. In ‘2WD’ mode, alternatively, the M5 can adopt drift angles every bit as lurid as you intend.

In the wet, the car doesn’t quite conjure the remarkable, unequivocal traction and security of, for example, an Audi RS6 Avant. Nevertheless, its blend of balance and stability is a compelling, although not always an entirely predictable, one.

What ultimately marks out the M5 as exceptional among fast saloon cars is its remarkable agility, cornering balance and handling adjustability. There is poise and delicacy to the chassis that few cars of this size really approach and neither seems at all blunted by the four-wheel-drive system.

Select 4WD Sport mode and you’ll find that the M xDrive works as a remarkably good de facto stability control system, in fact, at times when you don’t want the intrusiveness of the DSC system. You could certainly level the charge that the M5 ought to be gentler-riding, where the average super-saloon settles into a more relaxed touring gait.

You could also criticise the steering, which is heavier than it needs to be and doesn’t always feel predictable or natural in your hands. But both failings can be mitigated by perfecting the car’s systems set-up and both seem like small prices to pay in the context of the car’s remarkable broader dynamic capabilities.

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