Open gallery Close by Autocar 14 September 2004 Follow @@autocar Share
How we test cars
Fortune favours the fast. There we were, somewhere south of Munich plodding a route back to BMW’s test centre at the airport. Heavy traffic, stifling 75mph speed limit and the BMW M5.
Dampers set to full soft, gearbox in the slushiest of five possible automatic shift speeds and a squawky Bavarian folk ditty from the radio competing against the tyre noise. Nothing to do but settle and enjoy the cruise.
Until a silver grille rushes upon us and spills over the sides of the rear view mirror. Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Two big vents and a pair of low-slung metal grilles mean only one thing: it’s no lightly AMG’d E320 CDI. We have ourselves an E55.
Then comes the fortune. The derestrict sign flashes past, the gear selector is dabbed right to give the seven-speed sequential mode, adjust the shift speed to Montoya-plus-some then shift back to fourth. BMW v AMG, game-on.
No point in catching him unawares: we want to know who’s faster. So I power-on gradually, give him time to pin his auto ’box into kickdown mode and just as he begins to close the gap and grin at his false advantage, BMW’s epic V10 opens for business.
Instantly the Merc stops gaining, then recedes marginally. Into fifth the process continues, 10 car lengths stretching to 15. Shifting to sixth sends a bolt through the rear axle and as we brush the 155mph speed limiter the Merc is no longer recognisable as an E55. It has been reduced to the silhouette of a basic E-Class.
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‘This car was always going to have 500bhp, nothing less,’ said Gerhard Richter, head of BMW’s M division, over dinner the previous night as he pulled hard on a Camel filter.
Richter is the type of boss who avoids direct questioning, but has to balance that against an enthusiasm for M cars he simply can’t contain. The perfect man to front the M division. He either says nothing or issues priceless pearls that send his PR entourage into cardiac arrest.
Asked why the M5 doesn’t have the regular 5 Series’ electronic steering he simply replies that ‘we don’t need gimmicks’, with the faintest flicker of a grin as he sparks another Camel and the PR man scrabbles to ‘clarify’.
But on the matter of power he’s unequivocal, refuses to be drawn into the question of how much is too much. He’s right, too. The big Five-double-oh had worried me for a while simply because I couldn’t understand why a car needed 107bhp more than the outgoing E39-model.
Driving one in the wet the previous week was instrumental in this. It was so brutally, sideways fast. But having driven the new M5 (codenamed E60) for two days, there’s nothing to question. It’s an amazing achievement, largely because it almost never allows you to be drawn into the power debate.
The key is how well realised the whole M5 package has become. Because it now steers better, has such fine mechanical refinement and suspension, because everything surrounding that engine is so competent it feels entirely contained, correctly managed. Perfectly acceptable.
A coded way of saying that it doesn’t actually feel 500 horses-strong? No. Developed and built at the same engine plant used by BMW’s F1 team, this is another demonstration of what BMW knows about power plants. Had Lamborghini not launched a motor so similar in capacity and configuration last year, it would seem far more radical than it does today.
Cast in the same foundry as the F1 motors and using a 90-deg V to join identical five cylinder banks, the M5’s engine produces 500bhp at 7750rpm and 383lb ft of torque at a surprisingly high 6100rpm.