A Northern Blast

DSC01132_4bb51f17597ec-lightboxThe scenery ahead retracts like a mythical doorway, revealing the splendour of the surrounding countryside. Scrawly winds are chasing clouds across the early Spring sky, whilst below them the pastel-coloured fields, blanketed in a sparkling sea of frost, speak of a long harsh winter. The M6 wends its way through this beautiful landscape, slicing through hills and valleys. Exposed, open, well-sighted, with minimal traffic and a joy at this time of the morning. Road-signs tell tales on Manchester at 100 or so miles distant. Changing down into fifth, digging deep into the long arc of the throttle. An incline defeats smaller, slower fare but the M5 makes a mockery of it. Blasting along in the outside lane, the V8 climbing above 5k rpm. Shift seamlessly into sixth. Ease the power as we crest the hill and admire the morning.

And we’re not alone. A 997 C4 S is drifting along ahead, setting the pace. Cutting the outer two lanes on the fast sweepers, and occasionally throwing some brake-lights back down the road for the tighter turns and blind crests. A W220 S500 is holding close station, driven by a chap who is obviously not unfamiliar with the sensation of piloting his limo at these speeds. We’re next, the M5 nicely into its stride, covering the ground with minimal fuss. And behind is an RS4, its Xenons occasionally dancing across my mirrors as the nose performs a little jig over expansion joints and through the tighter turns.

For 30 glorious miles we stream south in storming fashion, a fortuitous juxtaposition of situation and circumstance. Oh I daresay there are a few tut-tuts from the mouths of the drivers of the Xsaras, Priuses, Polos and eco-Fiestas that rock to the shockwaves of this all-German convoy ripping past. But strap them into the passenger seat. Subject them to a few eye-wrenching moments of full-bore 3rd gear acceleration from 40mph, and it would soon silence them. All too soon though, the approaching metropolis that is Manchester and the surrounding towns and cities calls for prudence, and an air of calm descends. Winding the M5 back down to a more sociable speed, I take stock of the past few days.

Friday morning was my chance for some time with the M5, before the weekend really kicked-off and any suggestions of ‘playing with the car’ would have resulted in the cold shoulder from the wife. Plus another (single) room booking on our already burgeoning account. So, whilst The Boss is down in the Spa being pampered, I grab the keys and go in search of spiritual relief.

Motoring nirvana, or at least the closest people like us can get to it these days, is what I uncover high up in the hills to the south-west of Carlisle. Snow-capped but wonderfully free of traffic, up here with only the sheep to worry about, the M5 can finally stretch its legs. Intrusive DSC killed, never below second gear and never above fourth (particularly good from about 40mph onwards, from where it will take you all the way to 130 if you really must….) the pleasantries begin with a staccato rat-a-rat-rat of the M5 sweeping across a cattle-grid.

Exuberance results in too much speed showing on the speedo as the M5 piles into the first bend. My full Cumbrian breakfast completes a lap of my stomach as we hurtle around, Conti Sport Contacts tracing a line around the outside of the bend rather wider than originally intended, inertia making itself felt. Small stones and other detritus are swept aside into the roadside flock of sheep, who are now scurrying down the hillside in panic… But the M5 lassoes itself to the inside of the bend and gets on with it, neutral balance showing through, slight understeer at the front mirrored by a trace of slip at the back. Nothing drastic, more a feeling of some flex in the sidewalls rather than actual lateral movement.

Over a slight crest, the revs spike in third and I hold my breath for the landing, which mercifully fails to defeat the suspension travel, the dampers admirably soaking up the punishment. We’re climbing now, an open left-hand sweeper looming large in the windscreen, clear through the corner to the exit. Get the nose hooked in. The steering reacts quickly, although we’re running with sport mode activated, so the adjusted weight takes a little familiarisation. Line correctly prescribed, give it the beans in third, really work those 275 rears and do it properly. The coarse surface offers up plenty of grip, and every last ounce of power twisting through the transmission is forced into the road, aided by the rear suspension squatting hard on its dampers. Nose-high, the M5 bungees out of the bend, again kicking up hundreds of small stones, marbles on the loose surface being stripped away and flung into the scenery. Quickly grab fourth, then back onto the brakes, heel-n-toe down to 3rd, and around a l-o-n-g right-hander, back in the direction we’ve just come, summit in sight. Still in third and don’t be shy, use all the power. Now the rears are alight and she’s sliding, here comes the opposite lock but I’ve misjudged it and she’s still sliding. Back off the power a little and the rears grab the surface, unwind the lock in a hurry and the M5 regains its line with an untidy lurch. The sheep score from a safe distance, singularly unimpressed.

Take a ten minute breather, a few snaps, a quick Dr Pepper and admire the scenery. I complete a few runs up and down the plateau but straight lines aren’t really what we’re here for today, so out with the map, find a good squiggly line back down the mountain and go off in search of round 2.

On the descent, the brakes start to grumble a little and the pedal lengthens a tad, but there’s precious little fade to speak of. Can’t be trying hard enough. We emerge onto the valley floor and happen across a length of perfectly smooth single-carriageway road. T-Junction at one end, and a hotel car-park at the other, not far from our own base for the weekend. Quick recce to check for pot-holes, blind junctions, buildings or Plod, and I turn around to have a proper go.

Carefully ease past the ubiquitous Land Rover pulling a trailer-ful of livestock, then punch the power in fourth. Ahead, the road is straight but dips and crests for a mile, faithfully following the folding topography before arcing right, out of sight. Potent at any speed, the S62 goes feral above 4k rpm and piles on speed with a ferocity that belies its breeding.

Grab fifth, over a crest, again the superb damping shrugs off the compression, back on the power before some fancy footwork drops us to third and the right-hander at the end of the straight.

Entry speed spot-on this time, we simply zip round with minimum heroics, the M5 feeling taut and resolute, but simultaneously supple and engaging. Sublime.

As we depart the services just south of Manchester on the return leg, the DME (Digital Management Electronics) light remains lit orange down in the lower, left-hand corner of the cluster. It persists after killing and restarting the engine. We drop in to OSC Motorsport in Rugby and the proprietor, Onkar, diagnoses a faulty camshaft-position sensor on the exhaust Vanos cam, at the back and of the right-hand side of the engine. Not a major problem, maybe due to the car ‘finally being driven properly’ as he puts it. Fault cleared, Onkar performs a Vanos check which declares the engine healthy, so we’re on our way again. It would reappear just over a week later, so I returned to OSC and had it replaced. Cost for the repair was a little over £160.

OSC had received the M5 earlier in the month for an appraisal, as I’ve always figured that prevention is better than cure. A stroke of luck put me in touch with these guys, as I was having little success in finding a reputable specialist closer to Oxford. Thumbing through a BMW magazine, their name popped out of the page so I decided to take a chance. OSC are well established in the industry and having experienced their customer care and jovial, welcome nature, I can see why.

The only real issue was a leaking input propshaft seal, the repair for which I sanctioned immediately (plus the propshaft gaiter which revealed itself as split although the warranty company covered the cost for that one). The final invoice price of a little over £900 was mostly down to the fact that I insisted on having the rear discs and pads replaced, even though it wasn’t strictly necessary. I also had the sat-nav updated, the ECU updated, some new wipers fitted and the rear lower ball-joints replaced. Overkill maybe but I’d rather keep on top of these things.

A service in the summer will include some stronger bushes on the brake-reaction control arms and a new thermostat, as the engine runs a little colder than ideal. OSC declared X738 a fine example of the breed after a brief but spirited road test along the local bypass, so I was very happy.

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Mark Williams