The opinion-dividing exhibitionism of the new BMW M5

BMW silver car.
(Image credit: BMW)

In surveying the current landscape of high performance cars, one starts to feel a certain sympathy for Cold War nuclear strategists. They lived in a time when too much was never enough, and the only benchmark your bomb needed to exceed was the size of your rival’s last effort. There’s a similar dynamic at play amongst car makers: untrammelled by treaties or gentlemen’s agreements, each is committed to deploying the most power and pushing out the most impressive performance figures, with each new model trumping the last. The latest megaton missive from BMW is the 2018 M5, a 4.4 litre V8 powered super saloon that is as much a social signifier as it is a sports car, although it excels a both roles.

Superficially, the M5 is the flagship of BMW’s 5-Series range. It shares many components and basic appearance with the regular car. In fact, to the untrained or disinterested eye, it is simply yet another BMW. This stealthy character used to be a fundamental part of the M5’s appeal. Over successive generations, however, the M5 has become brawnier, beefier and louder, and although it’s certainly more stealth wealth than, say, a Bentley or a Maserati, today no-one seeks out an M5 because they’re a shrinking violet.

Interior view BMW M5

(Image credit: BMW)

The exhibitionism starts with the key. BMW’s Display Key features a touch screen that lets you check the car’s systems, fuel range, set the temperature, open the windows and even park it remotely if you’ve specified the right options. It’s quite an incongruous device, tech-overkill rendered in a bulky and ostentatious form. In a way it’s a useful metaphor for the way the model itself has grown in scale and complexity over the years. Modern car systems are too clever for their own good, with switchable four-wheel drive, over 600hp on tap (in this ‘Competition’ spec model) and the ability to get to 100km/h in 3.3 seconds. Even the M5’s heart, its 4.4-litre V8, is swathed in digital enhancements, with the ability to pipe ‘enhanced’ engine noise through the car’s sound system. This sort of thing makes purists bristle, but it’s an inevitable stepping stone on the way to the electric future, when we’ll presumably be able to dial up whatever engine sound we like to listen to inside our near-silent cars.

If all this makes the M5 sound clinical and cynical, rest assured that it’s still very much a visceral analogue experience for the driver. It’s nigh-on impossible to make a V8 feel sterile, and the M5 matches its roar with an exhaust that will rumble, pop and crackle to the delight/fury (delete where applicable) of everyone you pass. Enthusiasts might beg you to rev the engine; detractors just practice their rude hand gestures. Such is the lot of the sporting BMW driver. But as with all things automotive, the cocooning quality of a modern automobile imparts total immunity from what anyone else might be thinking. Ultimately, the obsession with stats and output is as irrelevant as the car itself; for as long as the M5 remains a sublime, intoxicating thing to drive, you’ll be happily oblivious of everything else.


BMW M5 Competition, from £96,205. For more information, visit the BMW website

Jonathan Bell has written for Wallpaper* magazine since 1999, covering everything from architecture and transport design to books, tech and graphic design. He is now the magazine’s Transport and Technology Editor. Jonathan has written and edited 15 books, including Concept Car Design, 21st Century House, and The New Modern House. He is also the host of Wallpaper’s first podcast.