Can A Manual Transmission Save The BMW M5?
By Tom Martin
March 15, 2013
George W. Bush, a fierce competitor in the National Malapropism League, once said "Africa is a troubled nation." Picking up on his lead, we might say, "BMW is a troubled car." There is perhaps no better example of BMW's recent struggles than the M5, a car that we want to be good and many of you want to be good, but just really isn't as good as well all want it to be.
There are two views of the problem. The first problem, which we have been describing in our reviews of the car since the last (E60) generation, is that BMW's goal of building a family sedan that can run on the track, coupled with a very large engineering budget, manages to suck the life out of the car on the street. The dynamics are pretty inert at 7/10ths, the sound is uninspired and the sense of organic behavior is MIA. Part of the latter issue, is well summarized in Car & Driver
's latest review
of the car: "It was the M5's cadaver-cool character and elaborate array of complex complexity (81 possible settings for steering, suspension, throttle, and transmission!) that doomed a blue example we drove in Germany to third place in a comparo against the Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG and the Audi S6
." It isn't just the number of settings, or the likelihood that you'll get them wrong, that is problematic. With a lot of computer-controlled bits, the driver is left with the sense that none of the settings actually feel right because the engineers didn't have the time to really refine any of them (because they were spending so much time making the software and adjustable mechanics in the first place).
The second problem with the M5, some have suggested, is the dual-clutch, paddle-shifted transmission. BMW has been nice enough to supply the US market with manuals in many cars that are DCT- or automatic-only in other markets, and so it is with the M5. But be careful what you wish for. BMW's old six-speed gearbox is a pretty grotty shifter. And considering that you aren't trading from DCT to a full manual for speed (since the computers can beat you every time) or smoothness (ditto), it really needs to be a pleasure to shift. C&D got ahold of a manual version to answer the question "Can a manual save the M5?" You probably know the answer, but they observe: "What's less likely to improve over the car's life is the shifter, which is long of throw and rubbery in action. The M5 manual also suffers from a distressing amount of fore-aft movement, which we're attributing to driveline windup and inappropriate throttle mapping."
Can a manual save the M5? "No" is the simple answer. That's because the M5's problems are deeper and more philosophical than the transmission technology. And it is because BMW doesn't have a good manual for a car this big, so the manual doesn't really improve things.