The first one I drove was loud like a bomb. A billion miles and rusty rocker panels, and the exhaust was partly blown out, so it sounded like Le Mans. Or maybe just Le Mans as it sounds in my head, a bagful of throttles and yowl on public roads.
This was years ago, when I worked as a mechanic in St. Louis. The car belonged to a customer. It was a 1988 BMW M5, the first one sold here, and the first generation made. Black, because all 1340 American-market 1988 M5s were black, with blacked-out bumpers and window trim. BMW of North America thought it would be neat to sell a 150-mph sedan done up like Darth Vader’s Underoos. The slightly healthier European version of the car gave 152 mph and more power than a Ferrari 328.
I don’t remember why the car was in the shop. I just remember the test drive after we fixed it, because the drive made that noise. My ears went to shrapnel.
The second M5 I met was the one BMW called E39: The first V8 M5, naturally aspirated, 2000 to 2003. Owned by a friend of a friend. It revved to 7000 rpm and felt like Detroit love in Munich pants. The third M5 I came across was an E60, a 2007 test car with a 500-hp, 8250-rpm V10. Seeing that battleship deck gun under the hood of a sedan was like finding a dwarf star in your office wastebasket. Delimited, the car would nudge 200 mph. It made even grocery runs feel quietly illegal, like broken parole. The car seemed to exist in spite of the business that built it.
Call it the M5 effect: These are big, rear-drive luxury sedans with nutball engines, driver-centric bruisers in tailored suits. They produce memories of a tweaked reality—one where you’re smarter and better-looking, where you blitz through intersections sideways, where the world feels like France on a weekend in June.
Also, oh, right, I forgot the key bit, if you have spent any time at all on the internet you knew this was coming, here is the key bit: The car is now all-wheel drive.
Some of the evolution is due to realities of the era. All-wheel drive has become a virtual requirement to sell performance cars in America’s snowbelt; it’s also the most practical way to give 600 hp to ordinary drivers, even on dry pavement. People like the technology, and it sells.
Which makes the BMW easier to place while, say, hucking down a mountain road, the trees so close, you could reach out the window and grab the branches. In a 16-foot-long sedan with enough power to light Peoria and a generous blind spot, that’s no small bonus.
They’re fine on perfect pavement but irritating anywhere else, where they all but force you to spend a lot of time revectoring the car and avoiding even the tiniest lumps in the road.