Thursday, September 22, 2011

BMW M5, E28 through F10: A History of Supremacy:

In 1985, BMW created the M5, nothing less than a supercar in disguise. That first model was powered by the outrageously muscular, 24-valve, 3.5-liter inline-six taken (albeit slightly modified) from the M1. The result was extreme performance in the perfect camouflage. Only later did BMW add cladding and spoilers or even alter the body of the 5-series to create its top-of-the-line version.

To accompany our first experience in the fifth-generation M5, here’s a quick look through the history of what may be the quintessential executive missile.

A strong engine in a modest, four-door sedan has been among BMW’s bag of tricks since the mid-1960s. The Porsche-fighting “New Class” sedans—1500 to 2000tii, which begat the legendary 02-series coupes—were available with engines producing up to 128 hp.

The first-gen 5-series (E12) was offered with far more powerful engines borrowed from the 6- and 7-series, including a German-market version with the 194-hp, 3.2-liter out of the 633CSi and 733i. That car didn’t have an official moniker, except for “5er der Motorsport GmbH,” or 5-series by Motorsport GmbH. In the U.S., the most powerful E12 5-series offered was the 530i, which had a 176-hp inline-six.

Once the E12 evolved into the E28, BMW’s engineers wanted more, especially after eying Alpina’s successful 5er conversions, including the B7 Turbo, B9, and B10. M GmbH’s radical solution: Transplant the M1′s 3.5-liter six into a virtually unchanged 5-series body, giving it 8 more horsepower in the process; power was rated at 282 hp in Germany and at a still-more-than-satisfactory 256 hp for the U.S. market when it eventually arrived for 1988. The inline-six had a pure racing pedigree and emitted a wonderfully aggressive sound, but the car remained easily drivable in everyday traffic. Despite its aerodynamically challenged body, the M5 topped 150 mph.

The first tow years of E34 sales in the U.S. lacked a top-dog 5er, with it returning in 1991 on the new platform and sticking around through 1993. In its second generation, the M5 was clearly established and became a fixture of the 5-series lineup. Its trim distinguished it from the regular 5-series, and it got exclusive wheels, which unfortunately reminded U.S. customers of whitewall tires. The previous M5’s engine was enlarged to 3.6 liters, with output increasing to 310 hp. After four years, the European M5’s engine grew to 3.8 liters; power jumped to 335 hp. A station wagon was available in Europe. Late models got a bigger grille and a six-speed manual. M produced a prototype of a two-door cabriolet, which remains a one-off.

Voices within BMW calling for the replacement of the inline-six, which was deemed too similar to the M3′s powerplant, prevailed. The E39 M5—based on what some consider to be the most beautiful 5-series—received a 4.9-liter V-8 rated at 394 hp and shared with the near-exotic Z8. Cosmetic changes were significant, but the effect was mitigated by the fact that a very similar M package was available for lesser models. The eight-cylinder M5’s exhaust was the most raucous so far. A station wagon was considered, and a prototype exists, but BMW ultimately decided against it. The E39 M5 was offered in the States from 2000 to 2003.

Bigger is better, and so BMW equipped its fourth-gen M5 with a 500-hp, 5.0-liter V-10. Ten-cylinder engines were the rage, thanks to Formula 1 regulations at the time, and this one was an extraordinarily rev-happy and thirsty unit. The car was sold here from 2006 until 2010. Loyalists were tested with a new cockpit that discarded driver-oriented ergonomics while adding the flawed iDrive system. The jerky, seven-speed SMG automated manual was deemed unsatisfactory by U.S. customers, prompting BMW to hastily develop a manual six-speed box to quell the criticism. Europe got a station wagon, while, of course, the U.S. didn’t.

A V-10 no more: With the new M5, BMW reverts to a V-8, adding a pair of turbochargers this time. Power is rated at a lofty 560 hp, or about twice the output of the original M5. The mere mention of turbocharging has been considered sacrilege at M GmbH’s headquarters for decades, but it nevertheless has produced a fully convincing supersedan. The single-clutch automated manual is replaced with a seven-speed dual-clutch box, and the U.S. will keep the option of a manual. But the station wagon is history, even in Europe.

For more on the 2013 M5, read our first drive review.

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