When the original BMW M5, the ubiquitous E28, was launched in 1985, the industry sat up and took notice.

Here was a fairly conservative looking saloon that had enough power to upset the apple cart of exotic machinery, yet it cost a fraction of their price, all the while remaining as practical as any other sedan its segment. This saw a flurry of rivals coming into the segment with only one object in their crosshairs, to depose the M5 from its throne.

Over the decades, there have been adversaries from compatriots such as Audi with the RS6 and Mercedes-AMG with the E63, and there has been a tip in power outputs.

The interior is comfortable and the switchgear better laid out than the last generation. Picture: BMW
The interior is comfortable and the switchgear better laid out than the last generation. Picture: BMW

The RS6 of the past decade with its 5.2l V10 twin-turbo engine was the first to breach the 400kW mark with its 426kW quota. It was staggeringly quick when not being temperamental. The new E63s, at 450kW, is the brawniest yet, while the recently launched M5 is not far behind with 441kW.

So the power wars haven’t quite abated, but the issue in recent times has been driveability; more importantly, traction. Of course, Audi has long been selling quattro all-wheel drive traction in all its RS cars, while Mercedes-AMG has most recently given its E63 S four-wheel drive too. BMW has now followed on that trajectory with the new M5, which too has all-wheel drive traction.

However, what makes the Merc and BMW systems that much more special is the fact that you can decouple the front driveshafts and send power exclusively to the rear and lay down unofficial road markings from expensive rubber if you so wish — the best of both worlds.

Having spent a week behind the wheel of the latest M5, it is a totally different kettle of fish to its predecessor. The old car was always champing at the bit, feeling restrained in traffic situations. And it felt quite ungainly as its weight — almost 2-tonnes — constantly reminded you of its presence, particularly when you started driving with gusto, flicking it through a sinewy road.

However, for me it was how the vehicle struggled for purchase from the get-go, which meant hot hatches had a field day at the traffic light showdown against the M5. Thankfully, that folly has been duly tackled in the new car — thanks largely to the all-wheel drive system.

Even when driven in inclement weather, there is a sense of calmness and control that the previous model never had. In fact, I probably died about five times every time I drove that vehicle in anger over the 12 months we had the Competition Pack version as a test car, as it required your wits and courage to be turned to 11 to be driven fast. While my heart absolutely loved it for that, my head went in the opposite direction.

While still subtle in its design, the new M5 is more athletically-suited executive than before, while that theme is firmly carried into the cabin with form-hugging leather pews and swathes of leather on the dash and door inserts making it a very comfortable place to be. Then there is the performance of the thing, which is now more accessible than before. It is deceptively quick in a straight line, embraces corners with the verve of a compact sports car and feels more agile than any M5 I have driven.

I found 4WD Sport (there is also 4WD and 2WD) to be the best mode for proper exploits, but it does require you to switch off the traction control completely to savour it.

The eight-speed automatic gearbox might not be as snappy as the last generation’s M-DCT dual clutch gearbox, but it strikes a fine balance between slow and high speed driving situations.

If there is an area I ought to wax lyrical about though, it is how beautifully the vehicle rides over scarred and rutted tarmac, where even in Sport mode it never crashes nor rattles your dentures lose. Comfort mode in the new car is definitive with Sport mode the best setting for spirited driving, while Sport Plus is a bit too firm for the road and more suited to track driving.

The new M5 may not have the aggressive look of the Mercedes-AMG E63 S, nor its guttural engine note, but in isolation it is arguably BMW’s return to form since the brilliant E39 M5 of the late 1990s.

The king of sports saloons seems to have decidedly found its mojo and its newfound, controllable performance talents are more accessible to an even wider audience without alienating the purist which, by all accounts, is a staggering feat.