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Have cars become too fast? At the expense of being branded an old fogey I think this is a question worth asking, especially after being gobsmacked by the new BMW M5. Now there’s a great joy to be had in driving a car very fast, but there’s an even greater joy in said fast car talking to you; in finding the limits of adhesion, in playing with its balance, in poking around its edges and bringing your wheelsmanship into play. To be doing that in the new M5 requires you to be driving at a thousand kilometres per hour which, on a public road, is just mad.
And that’s in stark contrast to its forebears. They say you should never meet your heroes but I must tell you they are wrong. Over two memorable hours I drove the first four generations on Portuguese back roads starting with the E60. Goodness me that shrieking V10 motor still gives me the hibbie-jibbies, though that SMG sequential gearbox is properly maddening. The steering, initially at least, feels way too light but then you realize that it is talking to you unlike the artificially-heavy helm of modern cars. But really everything on the E60 takes a backseat to that F1-derived engine that puts the motorsport in M. It is four doors attached to an engine.
I then swapped to the E39, the M5 that I remember from Chris Harris’ how to drift tutorial that I spent hours analysing while trying to tutor myself. It is such a playful puppy. The balance of the chassis is so, so beautiful. And you can slide it around at sensible, legal speeds. In today’s M5 you’re driving on the edge of a very big accident, in the E30 you’re playing at sensible speeds. It gets even better in the E34, even slower, even more relaxed. There is body roll and the brakes are soft. The tyres squeal and the ’wheel squirms in your hand. The seats are soft and squishy. And a perfectly-executed heel-and- toe makes you whoop in delight.
For the final stretch I tried out the car that started it all three decades ago, in response to Merc’s 190 ‘hammer’. Even today the E28’s motor (from the M1 supercar) feels motorsport-y: hard, powerful, and not delicate. It sounds mega and the noises are all authentically mechanical not artificial notes piped, filtered and amplified through the speakers. In today’s cars everything is so easy but maintaining a decent lick in the E28 is hard work, it focuses the mind and makes you concentrate, all while not attracting the attention of the cops. Big grip and big power are all good and great but sometimes the simple pleasures deliver the biggest smiles.