Wheels — Hit the Switch

BMW’s M5 offers the best of both worlds: sport and luxury

Ignore people who say now is no time to buy a sports car. It is exactly the time, especially if the dealer throws in a four-door luxury sedan for free. Sounds crazy, but that’s what all BMW dealerships are doing now.

Or not. The catch to this impossible bargain is that the two cars — the 155 mph, 500 hp sports car and the sensible-sounding sedan — are the same car: the M5.

This bipolar project started in 1985 when BMW thought it would be a good idea to fit its 535 with an adapted M1 supercar engine to reinforce its credentials as the producer of “the ultimate driving machine.”

That car immediately became the fastest sedan in the world, a title the current M5 (three generations later) would hold today if its speed wasn’t electronically limited to 155 mph. With that circuitry disabled, the M5 can hit 204 mph — faster than most Ferraris.

The M5 (from $83,900) has several modes for almost everything, allowing you to tailor to your preferences. You choose things you’ve never even thought of in other cars — for example, how quickly you want the gearbox to change gears, what ride quality you’d like, even how much you want the seat bolsters to clasp you as the car corners.

It can get a little confusing at first, but it’s worth persevering, as the end result is a car customized to you. Truth be told, it won’t be as plush as some luxury sedans, and you will initially get frustrated with the myriad choices; but you will forgive it the first time you press the steering wheel-mounted button marked “M.” In stark contrast to the regular setup process, this doesn’t require any other preparation than a tightening of your grip on the wheel.

Pressing the “M” button tells the car you want to see what it can really do — and it’s more than happy to oblige. In “M” mode, the gearbox, suspension, rear differential, and engine shift immediately from pedestrian to racer. That means swifter gear changes for better acceleration, firmer suspension for better road feel, tighter differential for better traction, and another 107 bhp from the engine for more speed.

The difference in the car’s personality is spectacular. One minute you’re driving a comfortably quick, modern-looking German sedan; the next you are haring about the countryside in a car that thinks its hair is on fire. It’s like discovering your sensible retriever can suddenly outrun a Greyhound.

And it can. In “M” mode the M5 can hit 60 mph in only 4.5 seconds (almost the same as a Ferrari F430) and will cover a quarter-mile in 12.8 seconds. But sheer speed is not its only party piece. In handling, the rear-drive M5 also does a fine impression of a car half its weight.

You have to know what you’re doing behind the wheel to get the most out of it. Don’t expect its electronics to come to the rescue if you let the speed rise above your skill level. But if you have even half a clue, you will find it an enjoyable place to spend time behind the wheel. The special part is that you can off all the mad performance as instantly as you turn it on, so you can charge on your favorite stretches and cruise on the freeway, as the mood and limits take you (which is its main selling point).

It would be easy for the M5 to have been a compromised luxury sedan and a half-hearted sports car, as the two require almost opposite attributes. But thanks to excellent engineering and inspirational thinking, the M5 pulls off both roles convincingly, making it the perfect choice for 2009. With everyone telling us we should be downsizing, what could be better than two cars in one — particularly when one of them is free?

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