The BMW M5 has maintained an impressively flexible character over the years. Even as advancements in technology have propelled it to awesome levels of performance, the brand’s mid-size super sedan has remained sufficiently luxurious and unassuming for low-profile chauffeur work. While we might expect that kind of bandwidth from any sedan priced close to the updated 2021 model’s $105,495 starting point, the M5 still does the split-personality thing better than most.
As a refresher, BMW plans to add a lighter, more-powerful CS variant to its 2022 M5 lineup, but the Competition model remains the one to get for now. A $7600 option atop the standard car, the Competition package brings darkened exterior trim, an active M Sport exhaust, and stiffer springs and suspension components. It also ups the output of the twin-turbo 4.4-liter V-8 from an official 600 horsepower to 617—the 553 pound-feet of torque is the same for both models—although a trip to the dynamometer revealed that the engine makes quite a bit more than that. A deftly tuned ZF eight-speed automatic transmission continues to harness those horses and route them to a variable-torque-split all-wheel-drive system with a selectable rear-drive mode. All 2021 M5s benefit from subtly revised front and rear bumpers plus updated grilles and headlights. The Competition also gains revised adaptive dampers aimed at improving ride comfort.
With essentially carryover hardware, our 2021 Competition test car aped the heady performance results of previous examples, including an all-wheel-drive, launch-control-enabled 60-mph run of just 2.8 seconds and a quarter-mile blast in 10.9 seconds at 128 mph, with launches in rear-drive mode adding more than a half-second to both of those times. Also familiar is a big 1.00 g of grip on the skidpad. The outlier is the trim 139-foot stop from 70 mph—13 feet shorter than a 2019 M5 Competition we tested, despite the new car weighing a similar 4237 pounds, wearing identical 20-inch Pirelli P Zero PZ4 summer tires and using the same $8500 carbon-ceramic brakes.
But as a proper number-generating machine with a million or so combinations of drive-mode settings, attaining a high-performance zen with the M5 Competition does require some work. Twisty roads must be attacked at a furious pace for chassis loads to filter up through the stiffened suspension and the meaty, ultra-direct steering wheel, which still doesn’t tilt down far enough for our liking. Probing the M5’s massive grip on two-lanes requires commitment and concentration to notice the 4WD Sport mode’s greater rear-drive bias and the heightened dexterity with which it meters out torque to help adjust your line through corners. A track day is a surefire way around this issue. Engage rear-wheel drive and the Competition’s new-for-2021 Track mode—which disables all the car’s electronic driver aids and shuts down the center infotainment display—and you can slide the M5 around with abandon. This setup also is good for burnouts. Big, smoky burnouts.
Compared to anything that can be considered a crossover, the M5’s lower center of gravity gives it an automatic advantage in terms of agility. As for like-hearted two-box sedans, the $108,550 Mercedes-AMG E63 S is among the last remaining competitors and produces virtually the same impressive test results. The BMW came out on top the last time these two cars met in a comparison test, thanks mostly to the greater overall balance of the M5’s connection with the road. “A hooligan in a three-piece suit” was the verdict on that Mercedes, even if we do prefer the crackling snarl of its exhaust to the synthesized, 83-decibel growl of the M5 at full chat. A newer class of hardcore, fastback four-doors—the $115,045 Audi RS7 being the winner of our most recent comparison test—also has joined the fray, yet there remains something endearing about how easily the more traditionally shaped M5 can slip through traffic and surprise unsuspecting supercar drivers in a straight-line romp.
At heart, the M5 remains a BMW 5-series, the latest iteration of which has grown more livable than ever. Although we frequently indulged in our test car’s massive thrust, our 19-mpg average betters the EPA’s combined estimate by 2 mpg. And despite the taut suspension and thin-sidewall tires that can return a jiggly ride over bad pavement, dialing back all of the car’s adjustments to Comfort transforms the M5 into a serene cruiser. Its steering goes almost finger-twirling light, its dampers effectively round off sharp impacts, and a subdued 69-decibel burble seeps into the cabin at 70 mph. The M5’s back seat, while not 7-series capacious, has ample leg- and headroom for six-footers, and its 14-cubic-foot trunk can swallow six carry-on suitcases. Although some luxury buyers might prefer the glitzier opulence of a Mercedes interior, the M5’s innards—from the highly supportive 20-way sport seats to the red M drive-mode buttons on the steering wheel to the Competition package’s striped seatbelts—are handsomely finished.
A few user-interface foibles will muddle the M5 experience for some. Although a consolidated drive-mode button with overarching Comfort, Sport, and Track settings has been added to the center console, configuring the preset M modes requires extensive fiddling with too many vehicle adjustments. The 12.3-inch instrument display can be confusing and is often difficult to read at a glance. And the center touchscreen—which for 2021 increases from 10.3 to 12.3 inches—is positioned too far away from the driver, which necessitates the continued reliance on the central iDrive controller. Regardless of how well we’d acclimate to this BMW’s ergonomic eccentricities over time, we do appreciate its updated cloud-based navigation system and the addition of Android Auto connectivity to the existing Apply CarPlay functionality.
With a few sizable options—including a not-so-stealthy, $5000 coat of custom BMW Voodoo Blue paint, plus the $2500 M Driver’s package that ups the electronically limited top speed from 155 mph to a claimed 190—our car’s final tally came to $141,045. That’s hardly a bargain, but it is about $5K less than the entry point for a mechanically similar M8 Competition Gran Coupe, which is more visually striking than the M5 yet somewhat stingy on both joy and civility. Make the effort to peel back the M5 Competition’s many layers of technology, and it reveals itself as a convincing luxury sedan with no shortage of high-powered entertainment.
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