Tuesday

2008 BMW M5 review


BMW has for many years operated under the slogan “The Ultimate Driving Machine”. This design philosophy has, in the minds of true drivers, truly distinguished the manufacturer from its German (and now Japanese) competitors. Add to BMW’s stellar reputation as the ultimate driving machine the famed Motorsport division, where the Bavarian engineers start to take their work seriously. The M1 of the late-‘70s led to the M breeding of the 3, 5, and 6-series production cars. Continuous production of M-versions of the 5 up to 2003 made it essentially the pen-ultimate sports sedan of its era – M5s from 2003 back to the originals continue to be sought after today.

Unfortunately, about that time (2003) BMW took a wrong turn down the dark alley of technology and subsequently got mugged by a 900 pound gorilla. The company’s direction from that point forward appeared to drift from the ultimate driving machine to clumsy body design and complex electronics. I drove the 530i from 2004 and was, to say the least, unimpressed. Thankfully the Motorsport division seemed to weather the storm and continued to produce a car for drivers.

My personal experience with the Motorsport cars stopped for a time with the E36 M3 and the M Roadster. The E36 M3 has to date remained one of my favorite drives of all time. To risk giving away too many of my conclusions, what appealed to me about the M cars is the fact that you can have total communication between the car and the road, yet the car’s incredible performance is not throwing you around the cabin. I was never uncomfortable in the most demanding of M3 drives. Now enter the current M5 – try to design this feeling into a mid-size sedan pumping 507 bhp from 10 cylinders in front to two wheels in back.

This latest edition of the M5 sports a body similar to the current 5 series – a little depressing to be sure, but with the addition of some body panels and a side grille emblazoned with the M badge, it can still distinguish itself from the mainstream 5. All 10 cylinders do fit underneath the hood of the car, albeit a little tight. The weight ratio between the axles is nearly perfectly balanced despite 6 of these cylinders being placed at or in front of the front axle. Inside the car you find essentially the same tach and speedometer dials that you have seen in BMW’s for the last 10 years. The fit and finish are passable for a German luxury car, but I frankly spent little time scrutinizing these. When your eyes travel to the center console, you are greeted shockingly with a LCD screen and a notched aluminum turning wheel… telltale signs of the bane of BMW – iDrive.

This M5 has, to my dismay, not escaped the complex technological thrashing that has defined BMW for the last 5 years. iDrive gives you the ‘power’ to alter, adjust, change, fix, mess up, or any other adjective you can perform on literally hundreds of minute options within the car. About six of these options, including horsepower, fuel intake, and suspension settings, directly relate to the immense performance of this car, and all of these settings can be invoked to their peak performance by pressing a button labeled “M” on the steering wheel (in this case, “M” stands for Memory, not Motorsport). The other myriad of settings are merely designed to artificially create a more comfortable ride. Is that too much air blowing out of the upper vents? Turn it down – if you can find the menu. Are your entertainment settings not entertaining enough for you? Change them – if you can find the menu. Are your lights staying on too long? Change it – if you can find the menu. It took me about 2 minutes too long to adjust the temperature knobs, vent options, and radio preset buttons. I much preferred those of my old Chevy rather than deal with this monstrosity of a computer. BMW justifies this needless technology saying that not everyone wants the peak performance of the M5 at their disposal at all times. Additionally, you have the opportunity to completely customize your M5 for any situation – and once all of your settings are made, the “M” button will turn your car from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde and back on a dime. Now for many 19-year-olds and trekkies this reasoning is appealing. But in my experience, customization of hundreds of options be it on your car, your computer, or your home, is fun only for the first hour or so. Once the hour has elapsed and you still have 300 options to go, you quickly wish BMW’s engineers would have made these decisions for you – they are engineers. To make your customization more tedious, BMW’s menu system is not very user-friendly. Bury yourself into too many submenus, and very often you cannot back out, short of returning to the main screen and having to navigate all the way back to where you were. Thankfully most of the controls crucial to driving can be controlled from the steering wheel and can be communicated to the heads-up display. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it would be to mess with iDrive while you’re driving a standard transmission.

As an aside, I would like to know how the settings of the M5 are set as it leaves the factory floor. Is it set up to ride as a 535, or an M5? If anyone knows for sure, please let me know. The BMW reps I’ve spoken with to date are unable to answer this simple question. Also let me know if the box the M5 comes in has a stamp saying “some assembly required.”

In view of this customization, one question has come at me from many different people: “Why would you want to ‘turn down’ the performance of the M5?” I’ll tell you why – because this particular M does not behave like any others I’ve driven.


Note what I had said previously – the appeal of the Motorsport cars has been to give you incredible performance and acute communication with the road without sacrificing comfort; essentially supercar performance without the suffering of driving a supercar on public roads. I cannot say this M5 is the same. When the car starts, expect to wait for 2 or 3 minutes as the engine simmers down to idle. The Motorsport engines of today behave much like the super exotics in that they start at rather high revs with the finesse of your John Deere lawnmower. Conversation next to the engine bay is stifled for a time – it’s best to continue inside the car with the doors closed. The model I drove was the 6-speed standard. The throw was a little longer than I expected, or was used to in the M’s of the past, though not nearly as long as the 335. If you decide to buy the manual, learn to stabilize your right foot at the sidewall of the center console as you press the accelerator. The push (or shock) you get at takeoff can easily change your body position enough to greatly change the amount of throttle you are delivering to the engine, and the result can be an uncomfortable bucking of the car back and forth. For much of the drive I felt I was dumping the clutch with every shift, preferring to hold gears and listen to the engine than to blow by the law-abiding Subaru in front of me. I should also say that for much of the drive I was in “M mode.” And the difference is very evident. Turning M off drops the engine to a paltry 400 bhp output and applies the comfy settings of any 535i. But if you stabilize the throttle and press the button again, the engine seems to flare with new life, breathes higher revs, and if you’re not careful will put you into the back of the law-abiding Subaru – all without changing the position of your right foot.

As you put the M5 into a corner you are reminded of the performance specs of its predecessors, and you feel this M5 to be a worthy successor. But I would never use the word “comfortable” to describe the ride of this car. And to prove the point that the M5 needs 400 customizable settings to make the ride more comfortable, I was rudely introduced to perhaps the most annoying feature I have ever seen offered on a BMW – electronically movable side bolsters on the front seats.

When the car is in M mode, you enter a corner, and you have decided to purchase this option, the side bolsters will press toward you with the intent of keeping you in the center of your seat. That’s the nice way of saying it. In reality, these bolsters engage by forcibly jabbing your kidneys and forcing you to shift your position back to center while in the corner. The first time I experienced this (even after being thoroughly warned and instructed about them) it was a surprise I could easily have lived without – especially since at the time I was not doing any performance driving whatsoever. On the next corner the same thing happened… and the next corner and the next. Even when I powered through the corners these bolsters were an unwanted and unnatural addition to an already wild ride. And don’t think you’re the only one to suffer – your front passenger will be treated to the same discomforts as you. Also don’t think you will be spared from these grips of death in your subdivision as I felt them engage at speeds as low as 20 mph. They will just as easily puncture your spleen turning into your driveway as they will on the racetrack. Now granted you can turn the intensity of this sensation down through an easily found menu in iDrive, but this whole piece of technology has absolutely no place in the BMW performance flagship. Just build a better seat, guys.

Much to my embarrassment, at the end of the drive I even had trouble removing the key fob from the ignition (of course we all know you are not actually using a real key to operate this car). Despite the repeated instructions of “push it in and pull it out,” I always needed 3 or 4 attempts before I could successfully remove the fob. And at some point BMW’s engineers realized that the rest of the world is much less intelligent than they are, so the fob can lock, arm, and raise all 4 windows of your M5 when you leave (and likely many more things I didn’t notice, all of which can likely be set and customized in iDrive). Much the same as the modern Lexus, BMW is proving that, yes, a robot can do many of the things you can do. But as the “M5 V10” badge on the engine block states, I bought a Motorsport car, not a robot.

I must say overall that I was extremely disappointed with the M5. And I feel that I’m in the minority in saying so. Reviewers around the world rave about it despite the infusion of electronic gizmos. Trusting in their judgment, I had high expectations. I was really looking forward to driving this car, hoping to relive the pleasures of the older M cars and to feel the performance enhancements of this ‘ultimate driving machine.’ But at the end of the day I needed to make an appointment with my chiropractor. I am sad to say that the only similarities this M5 has with the previous M cars I have driven are the circular dials on the dashboard and the cold, hard performance numbers on a sheet of paper.

BMW has liberally and successfully used technology to greatly improve the performance of their cars for a long time. But now they are trying to use technology to improve the driving experience much the same way electronics are used to create motion simulator rides in theme parks. But BMW Motorsport production cars do not need to be motion simulator rides. No one needs a computer, a sensor, or an electric bolster to tell you that you have put full throttle into a 507 bhp V10. And no computer can enhance that feeling. Instead, it turns the whole experience into something artificial - like watching a movie with too much CG. Or like looking at a digital rendering instead of a real object. A truly successful performance sedan should be able to simultaneously provide an exhilarating and comfortable drive without the push of a button, without an OCD techno geek deliberating and setting hundreds of customizations. Many cars at a similar price point can do that today so save yourself hours of customization time and find a sedan that does everything you want out of the box.

Photos property of BMW

3 comments:

Chris said...

"When the car starts, expect to wait for 2 or 3 minutes as the engine simmers down to idle. The Motorsport engines of today behave much like the super exotics in that they start at rather high revs with the finesse of your John Deere lawnmower."

He's not kidding. I had a brief interaction with a current M6. Starting it up was a rough experience, and when the throttle was blipped (granted on cold engine) the engine coughed and sputtered.

But seeing as how a Hyundai doesn't do this, I certainly don't expect a flagship M car to do it either.

Googanu said...

i own a2008 bmw m5, best car in the world.

mark said...

Jeremy Clarkson had a similar toned review. I remember many complaints about the iDrive UI. But at least it doesn't let you down in the performance department.

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