Sedans are dead. Long live the sedan.

Now raise a salute to the all-new BMW M5, the pinnacle of the German luxury automaker’s fabled 5 Series midsize sedan. While sedan sales are dwindling in the face of a rising tide of crossover SUVs, BMW’s latest M5 proves there’s plenty of life left in the segment, especially for exclusive performance models such as this.

The 2018 BMW M5 marks the 6th generation of this luxury sports sedan, and we just had our first taste of it on the roads and on a track outside of Lisbon, Portugal. The usual ingredients that you’d expect in an all-new model are here: more power, more technology, more capability and more advanced safety features. But for this new M5, BMW broke with a long-held tradition that possibly risked sacrilege in the eyes of enthusiasts who hold dear model names like E34 and E39: It is no longer rear-wheel drive.  And yet, it can be.

M xDrive with an X Factor

How is this possible? For the first time in a history of over three decades, the BMW M5 is all-wheel drive. But this is no standard all-wheel-drive (AWD) setup. Called BMW M xDrive, it is a rear-biased system with multiple modes for enhanced traction. This xDrive’s X factor is its ability to completely disengage power from the front wheels, making it rear-wheel drive (RWD) just like every other BMW M5 dating back to the E28 in 1984.

The reason the new M5 is all-wheel drive is all about traction. The 2018 M5 uses a revamped 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 that makes 600 horsepower. That kind of power is best laid down via four wheels, not two. If you need proof of concept, look at the new M5’s 0-60 mph time: 3.2 seconds. That’s astonishing.

Good for far more than just straight-line acceleration, the M5’s AWD system supremely enhances grip on road and track. The default 4WD mode will handle just about any on-road situation you throw at, and finally makes the BMW M5 suitable for all-weather driving. But it’s the other modes where things get interesting, especially in a setting where they can be best exploited – a closed track.

Track-tested, pro-driver approved

Autodromo do Estoril is a former F1 racetrack that’s around 2.5 miles in length with 13 turns and a straight that feels long enough to land a jumbo jet. It’s also the site where BMW introduced its all-new M5 to the world’s automotive media. Here we had a chance to see what this thing can really do.

Before even launching onto the tarmac, the M5 makes a statement. This BMW performance sedan throbs with power. Literally. Rev the engine while in park, and the car quivers like some old-school muscle car. Tear onto the track, however, and you’re in for a cutting-edge experience.

Even in the default 4WD mode, the M5 behaves like a rear-drive car. Only when pushed hard into corners and when the sedan requires extra grip will power shift to the front wheels as needed. In this mode, the BMW also keeps an electronic leash on how far it can be pushed before traction and stability controls intervene. It will allow a momentary slide, but is quick to pull the vehicle back in line. Yet in this most restrictive mode, the M5 still handles with aplomb. Cornering response is sharp, power is guttural, and all in all it handles a track in a manner that seems to defy physics – and certainly what is expected of a 2-ton-plus luxury midsize sedan.

Switch to 4WD Sport, and things get more exciting. In this mode, more of the engine’s 553 lb-ft of peak torque are directed to the rear wheels, and additional wheel slip is allowed. This means longer slides in corners. From there, you can walk further down the tightrope by switching to 2WD. This mode is for experienced drivers, as it shifts all power to the rear wheels and defeats the M5’s stability control systems. With no electronic safety nets, burnouts and drifting can ensue.

We should note this isn’t the first system of its kind, but perhaps the best implemented by drivers who really know what they’re doing. The Ford Focus RS also has a “drift mode,” but its system still ultimately keeps the car in check via stability control. The M5’s most direct competitor, the Mercedes-AMG E 63 S, can also defeat its all-wheel-drive system with the implementation of “drift mode,” but it requires purely manual shifting via paddles in that setting. With the new M5, it can be shifted via paddles or left to its own devices. 

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After my laps on the track, I jumped into an M5 with a pro driver, BMW up-and-comer Nico Menzel, to see what this machine can really do. I was surprised at his preferred setup. He opted to leave it in standard 4WD mode with automatic shifting, but stability control turned off. As such, he ripped the M5 around Estoril with ease and finesse. Using every inch of tarmac, this young pro racer elegantly slid the car around, and we saw over 160 mph on the straight. (For the inquisitive/daring, the M5’s top speed is listed at 189 mph.)

Real-world driving

After flogging the M5 on the track, we had the chance to drive the new 2018 BMW M5 as most owners will: in the city, on the highway, and through suburban landscapes where most driving takes place.

Surprises, good ones, came here as well. Whereas the last M5 felt more beast than beauty, this new one is more civilized and simply easier to drive. The 8-speed automatic transmission is refined and a welcome change from the prior M5’s 7-speed twin-clutch automatic. Unlike the prior model, a manual transmission is not available on the new M5. As with so many other modern high-performance cars, the demand just isn’t there, BMW says.

Steering feel is communicative, and the ride quality can be tailored to your liking, even if your liking is comfort. The exhaust note is pronounced, but we could tone it down with the press of a button.

In the real world, the 2018 M5 is a pleasing, very powerful sedan that just happens to have immense athletic abilities, not to mention all the luxury accoutrements and safety and tech features that come with a car costing over six figures.

New BMW M5 price, and when you can get one

The new M5 indeed starts over six figures, but just barely over if that’s any consolation. The latest M5 begins at $103,595, including destination. At that price, it’s easily the most expensive of BMW’s 5 Series lineup, roughly $30,000 over the only other V8-powered model, the M550i xDrive. 

The new 2018 M5 is set to go on sale in late March. When it does, it will fill out this all-new generation of 5 Series, firmly establishing itself as the fastest, highest-performing BMW M model to date. 

 

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