The new BMW M5 is immensely capable but it may not have enough character to topple its arch-rival, the Mercedes-AMG E63 S

At a glance, the new M5 (codename F90) might look a lot like the previous-generation model (F10) but there are lots of small and medium changes and one major difference – the new car is all-wheel drive. But not permanent all-wheel drive; if you wish, you can make it just rear-drive, and then it becomes a very good drift car. In this sense, BMW is playing catch-up because the 450kW Mercedes-AMG E63 S has already brought this novelty to market, to acclaim from oversteer fans (most motoring journalists) and tyre manufacturers (probably).

> New BMW i8 Roadster revealed alongside updated i8 Coupe

Engine, transmission and 0-100km/h time

The output of the 4.4-litre, twin-turbo V8 has risen to 441kW (600ps), an uplift of 29kW over the regular F10 model and 18kW over the Competition Package that became the default variant in Australia towards the end of the model cycle. That 441kW figure is also a match for the chest-thumping M5 30 Jahre edition. Meanwhile torque has risen even more, from 680 to 750Nm, presumably because all-wheel drive means the car can handle more. A side point is that we’ve always felt that the M5 made considerably more power and (especially) torque than BMW was admitting. We still feel the same about the torque and think 800Nm is the true figure.

Of course, this 441kW, 750Nm variant is the ‘base’ M5 and a Competition Package is sure to follow. In fact, numbers for such a car are already rumoured at around 470kW and 900Nm.

Zero to 100km/h is in a claimed 3.4sec – which is a whole second quicker than the previous, rear-drive model, even though the gearbox is now an eight-speed automatic rather than the previous model’s theoretically quicker-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT). Perhaps more revealing is the claimed 0-200km/h time of 11.1 seconds, while top speed is limited to 300km/h (though 330-plus is said to be the true number without electronic interference).

> Take our BMW Quiz 

Technical highlights

The twin-turbo V8 has been reworked with higher fuel injection pressure (350bar v 200) which has given more control over the combustion process, enabling the power uplift, and also helps the 4.4-litre V8 meet emission requirements more easily. The latter is also helped by the adoption of an eight-speed Steptronic auto, which gives a greater span of gearing than the DCT. Shift times are claimed to be similar to the DCT.

The all-wheel drive takeoff is clutch pack in a transfer case at the back of the gearbox and although the car is rear-drive in most circumstances, in all-wheel drive mode torque can be sent to the front pre-emptively, ie when the car thinks it will help, or in response to rear slip. Or not at all, in rear-drive mode.

> BMW’s commitment to all-electric cars

What’s it like to drive?

The test car was fitted with the optional M Sport exhaust system, which is claimed to add bass tones. Aurally, the more potent V8 has more about it than it did in the previous generation M5, even though its flat-plane crank configuration means it will never have the woofle and bassy bellow of a conventional V8 (like the Merc’s), even with extra, synthetic bass piped in through the stereo. There’s no doubt that the V8 delivers the goods, though, with stunning standing-start take-off and relentless acceleration thereafter.

The ride is good and there’s a welcome, natural agility to the handling; the car wants to turn. However, there’s not a lot of feedback through the steering wheel so you don’t have that connection with the car that lets you feel what it’s doing. As a result, the car feels big and heavy on narrow roads where you want to place it accurately.

The usual tuning opportunities are there for steering weight, ride control and engine and gearbox response but now you can switch from all-wheel drive to rear-drive only. We tried the car on warm, dry asphalt, and in all-wheel drive trim, the car was grippy and secure. In rear-drive, traction control off, it could be coaxed into oversteer readily but controllably, though there was a bit of squirm at higher speeds as the diff tried to find grip. In all-wheel drive, traction off, it would kick the tail out as readily as in rear-drive at the corner exit but in other scenarios there was drive to the front and thus more stability.

So, if you like a bit of power-on tail movement on the road, turn off traction but stick with AWD. And if you want to drift on a track, go rear-drive and you’ll find there are few big sedans more capable, predictable or entertaining as they shred a pair of rears.

Price and rivals

The new M5 is due to arrive in Australia in March or April next year and two special editions will lead the charge into the showrooms. A $199,000 Launch Edition M5 offers incredible value and is limited to 50 units. Even more exclusive is the $229,000 First Edition, of which only five are coming to Australia from the global run of 400 units.

The M5 has nearly always been the chairman of the board in its super-sedan category, but the current Mercedes-AMG E63 S offers its stiffest challenge yet. At $239,900, the 450kW, 850Nm E63 S is a chunk more change to us mere mortals, but for those with sufficient wallet heft to be considering either, the difference in monthly repayments will unlikely cause any belt tightening. Still, AMG will also offer the $210K 420kW, 750Nm E63 from later this month.

Then there’s the Audi RS6 and RS7 with 445kW and 750Nm.

With a total of more than 1300kW and 2350Nm, that three-car comparison promises to be one of the battles of 2018.