The headlines about the BMW M550i have all been about its speed – how its 0-100 km/h time of just over four seconds is faster than the current (and outgoing) M5. And indeed it is very, very fast, its turbocharged 4.4-litre V8 producing 462 horsepower, which drives all four wheels through an eight-speed automatic gearbox (the M5 has rear-drive, and a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission). With no traction issues to speak of off the line, an extra ratio to play with, as well as the new-generation 5 Series’ lighter body shell, the M550i leaps off the line and keeps charging hard well into license-losing territory. In any weather.
But it’s not the speed which makes this car so special. It’s the M550i’s incredible balance: not just in its handling, but in the way all of its qualities come together to form a convincing, cohesive package that make it one of my favourite new BMWs in a long, long time.
Ironically, for something that seems to have been sprayed with M badges (they’re on the back and the sides; on the brake calipers, wheels, door sills, steering wheel, engine cover, and surely even more places I wasn’t looking), comfort is one of the M550i’s most impressive qualities. Leave it in comfort mode and it is, thanks to its non-run-flat Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires, a smoother-riding, more comfortable sedan even than the 7 Series, the adjustable dampers taking the edge off every bump without feeling loose and uncontrolled. Road, wind, and tire noise are all hushed, the V8 a back-beating murmur while you enjoy the clarity and punch of the standard Harman/Kardon sound system.
This is a car that loves to munch huge miles, and time in it made me wish I had a huge, 300-km highway commute like I used to. The interior is beautifully crafted, with standard multi-adjustable seats whose backrest curve, side bolsters, and thigh support are adjustable in addition to the usual functions. The latest-generation iDrive system has a huge, bright screen and can be controlled with the rotary knob, by touch, or simply by gesturing in the air to adjust volume, answer and end phone calls, and more. A full array of active safety features keeps you safe and calm, and even the A/C is beautifully refined in the way it operates, a mere whisper coming from the fan motors even when blowing at full blast.
As you would expect, in this kind of setting, the M550i is effortless in the way it moves. Your right foot controls the release of a deep well of torque from the V8, the transmission is seamless and instantaneous in its ability to grab the right gear, and the brakes, should you need them, are right there, with a nice, firm pedal and huge stopping power thanks to the big rotors and mono-block calipers. All of this you would expect from a big, powerful sedan listing at $80,900.
What you might not expect, and what makes the M550i so brilliant, is what happens when you peel off the autobahn (um, 400-series highway). Flip it into sport or sport plus, and it comes alive. The steering gains a little bit of weight, the suspension ruthlessly controls the movements of the big body, and the M Performance exhaust’s flaps snap open, unleashing the sound of rolling thunder. It feels light, alert, and pointable in a way that a car this big should not feel, and it covers ground in a way that takes your breath away.
It’s not just how quickly the M550i covers ground, though, but it’s the way it feels when doing so. The control weights are all beautifully matched, with just the right amount of weight to push against. Steering feel is terrific, and throttle response is magnificent, the V8 rarely feeling turbocharged, just delivering a huge wallop of well-controlled power through all four wheels. Most impressive of all is the transmission, which despite being a torque-converter automatic, cracks off perfect, crisp shifts both up and down, doing a very satisfying impression of a twin-clutch sequential when in sport mode, while preserving the smoothness of an automatic in normal driving.
As you can tell, I fell for the M550i pretty hard over a very short period of time. I was expecting it to be a big, fast executive express with huge speed and superb comfort – that much is a given, and BMW’s been doing that formula well for years. What I didn’t expect was how engaging a personality it would have, the eagerness of its responses, and the way everything came together so well into a cohesive whole. This is a car that’s far more than the sum of its parts, and it makes me wonder just how extreme the new M5 is going to be when it arrives next year.
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