First impressions

DSC01021_4b8aa54da7fce-lightboxExcept for this winter when on both occasions just after New Year when I had arranged to collect the M5 from West Sussex, the heavens opened and most of south-east England was slithering around on a foot of the stuff. All through Christmas I’d patiently waited, building the anticipation and now, insurance arranged, service done and a few jobs completed, the M5 was ready to go. Alas, I wasn’t. Not snowed in exactly but getting out in the loan-car Volvo was one thing, getting home again in a 400bhp M5 with 275 rears, quite another.

To call the wait agonising would be a stretch too far, but when the weather did eventually break I was in no mood to hang around and so, one evening with the threat of more snow in the air, it was finally my M5 and me, and those first few miles were both seminal and circumspect. The condition of the roads (sheet ice, no salt or grit) were largely responsibly for the latter, and the realisation of another ambition responsible for the former.

On first acquaintance, the interior seemed more roomy than I could recall. Pretty normal with most new cars you might think but in this instance the impression was skewed by the fact that I was coming from an E60 generation machine. Despite the younger years, the E60 felt smaller inside somehow, the design of the dashboard contriving a more upright driving position whereas the E39 encourages a more relaxed style, which in turn creates the illusion of space.

It was a couple of weeks before the weather cleared properly and I could at least break free from Oxford and go and explore the Cotswolds in this most focussed of super-saloons. Those first few miles threw into clear focus what I had been missing all these years. A razor-sharp throttle response, a stirring soundtrack (I’ve never felt less inclined to listen to the radio than I do in the M5, although I’ll admit to overtures in the direction of a Hayward & Scott or Eisenmann exhaust…) a feeling that the power-band wasn’t so narrow that the fun was over almost before it had begun, and a general impression of driving something with hidden depths, integrity and that most abstract of qualities – character.

Tacking along the A40 isn’t what the M5 is all about though, and pretty soon we peeled off and went in search of some less frequented roads. Now I could really start to drive, to feel the car working, to work some heat into the tyres and brakes, to go in search of the perfect upshift, and the perfect blipped downshift. And this is where the M5 really shows its two-faced character. Cosseting at a cruise, it can rapidly turn you into a hesitant wreck unless you’re prepared to give it everything.

Second gear requires precision and timing when cold. Coaxing the lever isn’t really on, first thing in the morning – you have to man-handle the shift from first to second when launching the M5 across roundabouts and the like. But once the oil is warm, it’s a different story. Now the gearshift feels like you’re actually extending your hand through the tranmission tunnel and immersing your fingers into the gearbox oil and cogs, sliding the gears home yourself. [Sounds dangerous and painful- ed]

Work some heat into the chassis and sense the tension and stiffness in the chassis subside. Almost as if the M5 becomes more permeable and biddable as the thermal energy envelops the entire car. There’s an orange segment in the rev-counter which recedes to red as the fluids warm. Up until now I had assumed it was intended to inform the driver when ‘full beans’ operating temperature had been breached and the M5 was ready for action. Indeed it is, but I do wonder now whether it is also designed to inform the driver when the M5 has reached the ‘thawed’ state of mind, when no matter what you throw at it, or ask of it, it will deliver.

Speed across the ground in this mode is simply devastating. There’s an older-fashioned feeling, a heft to the controls. The steering wheel is thick-rimmed and feels good to wind your thumbs round at the classic quarter-to-three position. Not the last word in feel maybe but the accuracy is sublime. Brakes, often criticsed for lacking ultimate conviction on track or a cliched Alpine pass, are massively powerful and reassuring for road use. Standing on the pedal at 60mph has the M5 teeing-up four-square on its nose with no grumble or fade. Grip in the dry is prodigious, less so in the wet when the DSC will throw a paddy at the first sign of dampness on the insde of any given corner. But all this is nothing compared to the gearshift – the USP of the E39 over the E60 M5 or any other of its rivals.

A perfect shift requires practice and much patience, even when warm. Timing is key – from 3rd to 4th under part throttle, releasing the clutch with minimal throttle as the revs quickly decay is the best approach. Under heavier loads, blending the change with a smidge of power as the crank speed matches road speed is best to guarantee smooth, lurch-free progress. From 4th to 5th, you have to slide the lever briskly up and across the gate, just in time to meet the revs falling back into the sweet spot.

And the downchanges are sublime. Perfectly placed pedals for heel-n-toe. A roll of the ankle down from fourth, blip to spike the revs up for third, a strident bark from the quad ‘pipes accompanies the re-engagement of drive, you hook into the turn, feeling the outside tyres loading up, a little more throttle, the electronics sort the commands but not so much as you feel you’re not instigating it, the 8 throttle bodies open wide and power pours from the S62. A traverse ridge skips the rears sideways, torque defeating grip. A quick “dab of oppo” is applied, the steering showing its speed and instilling confidence. The M5 telegraphed it perfectly. Suddenly the layers of refinement responsible for the relaxed demaneour are peeled away, the chassis laid bare. Working, always with you, engineered to cosset but also to entertain, an impossible sounding combination that relaxes you one moment but in the next, extends your limbs simultaneously to the four corners of the car. That early-morning run along the A*** was the best drive I’d had for some time…..covering distance at an obscene pace, demolishing the road. Slower traffic zapped in an instant, howling V8 ahead, bassy exhausts behind, connected by an irrepressible urge to take the road apart

Recalcitrant when cold and stifled in town, the M5 monsters open country.


I will never sell this car. Two years is about how long I intend to use it daily, just enough for the mileage to settle around the 65k mark. Then it will be moth-balled for posterity and for that time into the future when the true enthusiast will finally realise that pulling a paddle to change gear is not all it’s cracked up to be.




Mark Williams