Bimmers tend to be dual-personality cars, going from mild-mannered premium vehicle to road-eating beast at the push of a button or three. But the 2013 BMW M5 is mostly brutish Mr. Hyde, with only a little bit of refined Dr. Jekyll in evidence.
BMW includes all sorts of creature comforts in the M5, such as navigation, a Bang & Olufsen audio system, and app integration. There is even a lane-departure warning system for long road trips. At ignition, the car defaults to its most pedestrian settings, with steering and suspension in Comfort modes, and the accelerator in Efficient mode.
But as I drove the new M5 through city traffic, I could tell it was not happy. Power from the direct-injection twin-turbo 4.4-liter V-8 came on unevenly; slow, then really, really fast. Although the suspension setting said Comfort, the car could not resist communicating the feel of the road through the steering wheel, and tended to bounce me around when going over potholes.
On the flip side, when I could find a road that came close to testing the M5's capabilities, the car was ferocious. Over my favorite twisty mountain backroads, the M5 barely batted a headlight as it swept through the turns. With the revolutions per minute over 6,000, the engine makes a beautiful sound as 1,000 precisely milled German parts seamlessly work together to generate the peak 560 horsepower. On a straight, where I could get on the power, a glance at the head-up display showed that the car took me from 35 to 75 mph in the blink of an eye.
The 2013 M5 is one potent road machine, even more so than the M3. If you don't live near a good racetrack that hosts track days, don't buy one; 99 percent of its potential will go to waste. And drivers who think sports cars and technology don't mix should also steer clear, as the M5 relies on technology as much as the Nissan GT-R.
The previous-generation M5, similar to the M3, was marked, or possibly marred, by too many settings. The dual-clutch transmission had more than a dozen modes, while the suspension and engine could be dialed into a number of different combinations. For 2013, BMW refined these settings on the M5, making them a little easier to understand, if not less complex.
As mentioned above, the car starts off in its mildest settings for accelerator, suspension, and steering, that last being a new tunable element of the M5. A readout at the base of the tachometer shows how each is set. Buttons near the shifter toggle each aspect of the car through Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus settings.
In its default Clark Kent mode, the M5 feels clumsy, like a big car that takes an ample push on the gas to pick up speed. The wheel turns easily and the loose suspension is hampered by wide, low-profile tires that do a poor job of insulating the cabin from imperfections in the road.
The M5 also has idle-stop, a controversial feature inspiring Internet threads on how to disable it. I found that I could live with it, as long as I was driving in suburban areas with long traffic lights. In the city, where the traffic tended to creep, it often turned the engine off just as I needed to go forward. Also, with such a big engine, it did not restart smoothly or all that quickly. However, I could disable the feature by pushing a button near the starter, and it stuck with its last setting even when I restarted the car.
Push the three performance-setting buttons on the console once, and the M5 goes into Sport mode. The suspension takes on a notably stiffer quality, the wheel tightens up, giving more road feedback through its hydraulic power-steering boost, and the gas pedal becomes a more sensitive instrument. These settings work best for serpentine back roads with little traffic.
However, the M5 still won't deliver satisfying performance until you dial up the transmission's aggressiveness. I know, more settings. The dual-clutch transmission (DCT) in the M5 is simpler than that used in the last M3 I tested. It offers only automatic or manual shift modes, with no sport setting. A rocker switch behind the shifter toggles both automatic and manual modes through three levels, from smooth to aggressive.
With the DCT in Drive, or automatic, the most aggressive setting locked out the top three gears, only going up to fourth. In manual mode, I could shift higher, but the more aggressive setting made the shifts faster, with the potential for some big rpm changes that would make the car buck and the engine snort.
Pushing all these buttons was tedious, but this is an M car, which meant it had not one, but two M buttons on the steering wheel. From a screen on the iDrive controller, I was able to assign a performance profile to each M button. I did the logical thing and gave the M1 button all the Sport settings, and programmed the M2 button with Sport Plus. In addition to the programmed settings, the M buttons also trade standard traction control for BMW's M Dynamic Mode, which allows some seriously enjoyable cornering. Getting out of the M modes was a little tricky. From M2, I had to push the M1 button. In M1 mode, I had to hold down the M1 button for a second, which reverted the car to its default boring mode.
After all of this button pushing and programming, I finally had a car that was fun to drive. Or almost. Public roads just do not do the 2013 M5 justice. In Sport mode, with the M1 button, I had the DCT dialed in at its most aggressive position in manual mode, sticking to second and third gears over a twisty back road. In second gear, the car could get well over 70 mph before hitting redline. Around the sharpest corners, the M5 evinced a uniquely BMW handling characteristic, letting the rear end come out just a few degrees.
On a more obscure road, full of hairpin turns going up a mountain, I got a sense of what Sport Plus could do. With the M2 mode activated, the car was very twitchy, reacting to the road surface minutely. It became a precision instrument, with my every input to the accelerator and steering wheel causing immediate reaction. The steering wheel gave tremendous feedback. This mode would really come into its own during very hard driving on a track.