The speed limit just clicked from 120 km/h to unlimited, but the guy in the 10-year-old black Mercedes-Benz C-class diesel won’t get the hell out of my way. We’re heading westbound on the A8 autobahn, about 50 miles southeast of Munich. Spring is late, and the freezing rain hasn’t let up for days.
I’m driving a 2018 BMW M550i xDrive, and it wants to eat. BMW says it’s the quickest 5-series sedan of all time, even outaccelerating the F10-generation M5, which just ceased production.View Photos
I flick the high-beams again. The guy knows he should move over, he knows I have three times his horsepower, but he won’t budge. In Germany you expect lane discipline. This guy must be from Ohio.
In frustration I pull up tight to his tattered rear bumper. Finally, he begins to change lanes but first gives me a spray from his windshield washers in a final act of defiance. Maybe he’s from New Jersey.It Is Alive
The BMW’s Sport+ mode tightens the suspension, adds weight to its steering, and injects a serious dose of amphetamine into its powertrain. I engage it now and the throttle becomes hypersensitive, while the ZF eight-speed automatic transmission, which has been tuned more aggressively for this application, holds gears longer and shifts harder. Now the car feels alive. With far more force than is required, I introduce the M550i’s throttle pedal to its carpet. The automatic quickly drops to fourth gear and the twin-turbo 4.4-liter unleashes serious thrust along with a proper V-8 soundtrack.
To deliver more raucous noises in Sport+ (as well as in Sport and DSC Off modes), the M Sport exhaust system that’s specific to this model includes a butterfly valve, and opening the pipes sounds good—throaty with a nice burble. But it’s not obnoxious and thankfully lacks the trendy manufactured pops and bangs on the overruns. (We’re looking at you, Jaguar and Mercedes.) BMW isn’t holding to some purist line, though: It still pumps V-8 roar into the cabin through the audio system.View Photos
The acceleration keeps me pinned to the leather seatback throughout the rev range, and at 6500 rpm at an indicated 165 km/h (103 mph) on the digital speedometer the eight-speed delivers a firm upshift to fifth.
The throttle is still wide open. Traffic is cooperating and the rain has lessened. We crest 200 km/h (124 mph) and rush past a string of large trucks, a brand-new silver AMG S-class that gives way, and some poor sucker in a yellow Renault Twingo. For a second, I fear the M550i’s aerodynamic wake might send the little Twingo spinning like a side-draft victim at Daytona. At an indicated 228 km/h, the transmission snatches sixth gear with authority.
That’s more than 140 mph. The car, as you would expect from a German sports sedan tweaked by M engineers and driven on a perfectly smooth stretch of autobahn, is rock steady even on the 18-inch Michelin winter tires fitted for the weather (and the law).
The M550i is governed to 155 mph, but Peter Quintus, vice president of sales and marketing for BMW M, asked that we keep it under 240 km/h because of the tires. Just shy of its top speed, I back off at 244 km/h (152 mph). Sans a governor and on its optional 20-inch Michelin Pilot Super Sport high-performance summer tires (19-inch run-flats are standard), the M550i xDrive might flirt with 180 mph.View PhotosNot the Max M
M Performance models slide between the M Sport packages available on models such as the 340i and 540i and all-out M cars like the M3 and M5. This portfolio of vehicles began in 2012 and now includes seven models in the U.S. market, from the M240i coupe to the M760i.
With the all-new M5 still a year away, this is as hot as the new 5-series gets right now—and it’s already on sale. Base price is $73,095, which makes it a performance bargain in the hot-rod luxury-sedan class. The Mercedes-AMG E63 and the Audi RS7 are far more powerful and also use all-wheel drive, but both wear six-figure prices. The all-wheel-drive Mercedes-AMG E43 costs about the same as this M550i, but its twin-turbocharged V-6 is weak by comparison.
This is also the only V-8–powered 5-series sedan currently available. Under the hood is basically the same aluminum-block V-8 that powered the previous-generation F10 550i. Like that engine, the M550i’s has two twin-scroll turbochargers, direct injection, Valvetronic variable intake-valve lift, and Double VANOS variable intake- and exhaust-timing control. Power, however, has been increased by 11 horses, from 445 horsepower to 456 at 6000 rpm. The peak torque rating, 480 lb-ft at just 1800 rpm, remains the same.
That’s 121 horsepower more than you get in the six-cylinder-powered 540i, yet it’s more than 100 ponies shy of the outgoing M5. BMW says it will run from zero to 60 mph in just 3.9 seconds, which is almost a full second quicker than the company claims for the 540i (in which we clocked 4.7 seconds to 60 mph) and a blink better than Munich’s assertion for the departed M5 (our test figure was 3.7 seconds). How’d that happen? Well, traction is up and weight is down.View Photos
Despite its standard all-wheel-drive system, the M550i is said to be, by Munich’s reckoning, around 100 pounds lighter than the rear-wheel-drive and traction-challenged F10 M5. We’ll have to put it on our scales for a more precise comparison, but also figure in that the M Performance engineers have also equipped this M550i with launch control. The system allows you to rev the engine to 3000 rpm when you perform a brake torque, and it unleashes the fury when your left foot sidesteps the brake pedal.
Sixty miles per hour does come up quickly, but it seems likely that the more powerful M5 would eventually plant its tires and sail past the M550i before the quarter-mile is up. At full stomp, the eight-speed clicks off positive and satisfying gearchanges every few seconds, and it keeps the engine revs up and angry where you want them. Use the paddle shifters to downshift, and it matches revs with precision.Multiple Personalities
In Comfort mode—the default setting—the suspension is softer, the engine quieter, the steering lighter. In that mode, the eight-speed delivers creamy shifts and the M550i takes on a relaxed, luxurious vibe, although the engine is no less potent. Basically, it feels like a 7-series.
Like the transmission, the all-wheel-drive system has been tuned for this application. BMW would offer no specific torque splits, saying only that the system distributes torque as the situation demands, intelligently and with a rear-wheel bias. And that’s exactly what it feels like on the wet secondary roads between Salzburg and Munich.View Photos
Traction seems endless, even up front. But there are no telltale signs through the steering wheel that this sedan is also driven by its front tires. It feels organic. It feels as if it’s rear-wheel drive. It makes you think you’re better than you are, and it encourages the use of a little left-foot trail-braking.
The Adaptive M suspension, with a 0.4-inch-lower ride height and automatically adjusting anti-roll bars, is also specific to this model. Body roll is minimal, but there’s just enough to let you know what’s going on at the tires as they load up and the big sedan takes a set. The ride is plush, at least on these polished roads. Even in Sport+ mode, it’s tuned well for daily use.
Some may think the steering is unnecessarily heavy in Sport+, but the ratio is right; in modern BMW fashion, though, there could be more feel. The M Sport brakes, which use blue-painted calipers and feature M badging, are strong and offer enough feel and a firm pedal.View Photos
Other exterior mods are subtle. There’s a small rear spoiler, high-gloss black trim around the greenhouse, and a titanium finish on the front fender vents, mirrors, and grille surround. The M Sport tailpipes are black chrome. Inside, it’s largely standard-issue 5-series, including the 20-way-adjustable power multicontour seats. Still, M Performance dials things up a bit, with blue contrast stitching (when optioned with black leather), an M Sport steering wheel, special aluminum trim and pedals, and illuminated doorsills. And, oh yeah, M floor mats.
Since 2012, BMW has peddled 70,000 M Performance vehicles worldwide, 45 percent of which were delivered to buyers in the United States. Germany is only the third-largest market for these models, trailing Canada. The new M550i isn’t likely to be sitting around America’s showrooms, either. Despite a relative coldness inherent to modern BMWs, it’s a worthy addition to the portfolio. Now, about that M5 . . .Specifications
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
BASE PRICE: $73,095
ENGINE TYPE: twin-turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 32-valve V-8, aluminum block and heads, direct fuel injection
Displacement: 268 cu in, 4395 cc
Power: 456 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 480 lb-ft @ 1800 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 8-speed automatic with manual shifting mode
Wheelbase: 117.1 in
Length: 195.4 in
Width: 73.5 in Height: 57.8 in
Passenger volume: 99 cu ft
Trunk volume: 19 cu ft
Curb weight (C/D est): 4350 lb
PERFORMANCE (C/D EST):
Zero to 60 mph: 3.8 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 8.2 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 12.1 sec
Top speed: 155 mph
EPA combined/city/highway driving: 19/16/25 mpg
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