Since its debut in 1985, the BMW M5 has been the pinnacle of performance sedans. Each generation combined cutting edge performance engines with razor-sharp handling characteristics, turning a daily-driver family car into a race bread driving machine. This is the super sedan that turned the car world on its head and made BMW the German sports car masters.
While its little brother, the legendary M3, gets all the racing credits, this big fast sedan proved to the world that you do not need a little coupe to have fun at the track or on the twisty alpine roads. No matter which generation we talk about, the formula for an M5 car is practically the same… Take a production executive saloon and put the strongest production engine in it. As a powerful car needs to stop eventually, fit it with stronger brakes. Firm up the suspension to make it go around the corners better. On top of all that, fit it with all the latest available luxuries and comfort features. Blend all these ingredients in the right way, and you will end up with a balanced high-performance car that combines speed and handling with comfort and luxury.
Although other cars do this as well, not many of them can carry up to five persons with luggage.
The story of the M5 actually begins with another M car. In the ’70s, BMW jointed with Dallara and Lamborgini to develop a mid-engine supercar, aimed to defeat Porsche at Le Mans. Although the rules changes and a series of other problems practically turned this project into a disaster, the BMW did end up with a great engine out of the whole experiment. This incredible racing engine had not only great performance, but it was also surprisingly reliable. At that time, BMW already had a sporty saloon, called the 535i, but that didn’t have an engine design by BMWs motorsport. And that was about to change. The M88 straight-6 engine made 273 HP and one incredible sound. And since it was designed for the harsh conditions of endurance racing it was pretty much overqualified for street duty. It also had individual throttle bodies which not only that give an instant throttle response, but sound awesome as well.
BMW shoved this engine under the hood of E28 5 series sedan, tweaked the brakes and the suspension, and the legend was born. Making its debut at the 1985 Amsterdam Motor Show, it was an instant hit. When critics and owners got their hands on the finished product, they were blown away by the M5’s razor-sharp handling and epic engine. A big, comfortable sedan that could go head-to-head with the Ferrari 308 was like nothing done ever before. It was unstoppable for fun and performance in an inconspicuous package.
What additionally set the first M5 apart from other sedans and sports cars was the fact that it was completely hand-built. Bodies were shipped from the main BMW factory to the BMW Motorsport divisions facility, where highly trained technicians joined the body with their own tuned chassis and drivetrain. The first version of M5 was only made for 3 years and since they were hand-built, a little over 2.000 of them were sold.
The M5 name continued with the release of the new E34 generation 5-series. The new M5 which appeared in 1989, was still hand-assembled at BMW Motorsport headquarters. The overall concept was almost identical to the previous car, although significantly improved and modernized in every aspect. The engine, which was an evolution of an original M88 engine, boasted more power and torque, with figures going up to 335 HP and 295 lb-ft in final years.
Supplement that with lower ride height, firmer suspension and bigger brakes, you have basically everything needed to make it an M creation. This is the first car of this series that used electronic damper control. This allowed a change in ride stiffness from comfortable to sporty with a click of a button. Later models even came with a six-speed gearbox. And at top of all that, it came as a wagon. It was the same curve bending and tail sliding beast that everyone had come to know and love, but now it was even more practical. In the period between 1989 and 1995, with 12.254 M5 in both forms were produced.
The next generation, the E39 M5 model, brought a big change, as come as the demand for the m5 was so large, that BMW couldn’t afford to stifle production numbers by having them assembled by hand. The new M5 would be built next to their normal 5 Series siblings. Luckily, although now being produced on a ‘mass scale’, the new M5 did not lose any of its performance focus. Beneath the hood was the biggest departure from the original M5 formula – a 4.9-liter aluminum block v8. Still, with dual air intakes and electronically controlled individual throttle bodies, this was not an ordinary V8. It was also the first M5 engine that used double-VANOS. This variable valve timing system gave a much wider torque range, making the car more drivable. With 400 HP and 369 lb-ft on tap, mated to a six-speed gearbox and a limited-slip differential, the new M5 would spin the rear tires with ease.
The suspension received significant updates, with aluminum wishbones at the front and multi-link suspension at the rear. Keeping up with the upcoming millennium, BMW modernized the styling. The traditional individual headlights and rigid lines were things of the past. The new M5 was sleek and subtle, but still muscular. It was refined and comfortable, but still able to transform into a supercar at a moment’s notice. Although at least one prototype was made, a torturing version was never introduced into production, due to financial considerations. The E39 was in production from 1998 to 2003, with a total of 20.482 cars sold worldwide.
Again, big changes were on the horizon for the world‘s premier sports sedan. Again, one of them was styling, as ‘flaming surfaces’ design was controversial, at least to say. The other main difference was, once more, under the hood. With BMW being highly involved in Formula One at that time, it is no surprise to find much of that technology pouring into new M5.
For starts, a V10 engine, developing out 500 HP and 384 lb-ft of torque, with a redline just over 8.200 RPM. Next, a 7 speed sequential manual gearbox, which was the fastest shifting gearbox at the time. And lastly, electronically limited-slip differential ensured superb control at the limit. Although the E60 was a true race-inspired sedan, with one push of the button it would transform into a comfortable family car. This time, it was even available in a practical touring version. During production 2005 – 2010 run, a total of 20.548 cars were made.
It seems that aging meant gaining a few pounds and inches to the waistline, as the new M5 was noticeably bigger and somewhat heavier than the previous model. And by this time, the era of bigger engines and more cylinders came to a predictable end, as even the new M5 succumbed to the downsizing trends. Luckily, all-new twin-turbocharged V8 with 550 HP and a massive 502 lb-ft of torque, was more than capable of handling the extra weight.
It was combined with a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, first of its kind in an M5. And with active M-differential capable of torque vectoring, the car would easily find any shred of grip. Sure, purists were a little hesitant to embrace the forced-induction, but the acceleration and top speed figures spoke for themselves. Even the fuel economy was noticeably improved. However, this generation seemed to lack some of the steering feel and overall race driving experience. In the end, the F10 lasted for seven years, with 19.533 cars made.
Another refresh in 2017 which gave us the current M5. Although the previous generation was a fast and capable car, many argued that it lost some of the ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ feel. To set things straight, new F90 raises the stakes with maybe the most radical updates so far. And this time, they are not under the hood. Even though the engine is now delivering 590HP and 550 lb-ft of torque, it is essentially the same turbocharged V8 from the previous generation.
The game-changer is hidden underneath the car, as this is the first time any M-car uses an all-wheel drive. However, even in the normal drive, the X-drive system is biased towards the rear wheels. And, it can also be configured to disconnect the front axle, sending all the power to the rear wheels only. Another major update is a gearbox, with the current car being available only with an automatic transmission. It may seem odd at first, but the 8-speed automatic is a state of the art that shifts as fast as DTC gearbox while being far more durable. All this, combined with a weight reduction of 40kg, helped re-establish the new M5 as a king of performance family cars.