The scintillating new BMW M550i xDrive saloon fills the gap between the standard 5 Series range and the forthcoming new M5 super-saloon. Sadly, the M550i won't be made in right-hand drive. More's the pity.
In the Metal:
If you want the answer to the question of "how do you make the new 'G30' 5 Series look good?" then the answer is to spec it as an M550i xDrive. With the caveat that the all-new M5 is waiting in the wings, revving gently, the M550i is the best-looking new 5 yet. It's all subtle stuff - Cerium grey finishes for the radiator grille surrounds and door mirrors, dark finish for the window surrounds and a gorgeous little 'Gurney Flap' boot spoiler that calls to mind the wonderful E39 M5. You can have standard 19-inch wheels, or 20-inch as an option, but thanks to some unexpected snow in Berchtesgaden, we were stuck with 18s and winter tyres. Can't have it all, I suppose...
The cabin of the 5 Series is arguably a touch too bland and too similar to other, lesser, BMW products, but the upside is that it's beautifully made, almost crossing the boundary line of 'crafted.' The optional Mocha Nappa leather seats of our test car really lifted the cabin ambience, and are wonderfully comfy to perch on, while the new digital instrument screen looks nice and works well, as long as you don't have it in Sport mode, when it looks a bit too PlayStation-y.
The mechanical specification is what makes the M550i so mouth-watering though: there's 10mm lower suspension with M Dynamic dampers and active anti-roll bars, plus Active Steering, too. The wonderful 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 petrol engine is tweaked to produce 462hp and 650Nm, all transmitted through a rear-biased xDrive four-wheel-drive system. This is supposed to be a 'lesser' fast 5 than the M5, but with that spec it's looking distinctly senior.
With 100hp less than the outgoing M5, you might think that the BMW engineers were under strict orders to keep their new M Performance (the sub-brand that fills the gap between normal cars and M cars, which also includes the M240i and X6 M50d) creation from treading on the M5's toes. Not quite, though, as with a four-second 0-100km/h time, the M550i is actually 0.3 seconds faster than the old M5, and about as vast as the vaunted M5 30 Jahre special edition. Makes you wonder what the new M5 will be like...
Whatever it's like, it can't possibly offer more useable performance than the M550i. In fact, in realistic terms, no-one needs to go any faster than this on the public road. With a momentarily clear stretch of Bavarian Autobahn in front of us, the M550i leapt forward, chewing up huge chunks of tarmac as the xDrive system effortlessly put the power down, in spite of the rain-slick conditions and the cold temperatures. In spite of the winter tyres, the car was rock-solid stable even head-butting its speed limiter as we nudged up to 260km/h (about 20km/h faster than the winter tyres were supposed to be able to go, as we sheepishly later noticed). While the brakes are strong (and the blue-hued brake callipers gorgeous) you do need to be wary of outrunning your stopping distance at these speeds, so common sense prevailed and we slowed back down, satisfied that the 550i has earned its M badge.
As with most BMWs, you can choose between different electronically curated settings, from Comfort to Sport to Sport Plus, but the M550i adds an extra one - Adaptive. With this mode engaged, the car monitors your driving and the various steering, throttle and other inputs and adjusts the dampers, accelerator response, steering gearing and weighting and much more on the fly. And the big surprise is that it keeps the M550i actually quite soft. Anyone who's driven a stiff-kneed E60 V10 M5 will be shocked by this, but the M550i rides with almost limo-like compliance (albeit this on ultra-smooth German blacktop). It's so soft, in fact, that sudden, fast direction changes can actually catch it out a touch, although it's hard to say if this is an effect of the smaller winter wheels and tyres, or a deliberate gap left by BMW engineers for the new M5 to exploit...
Either way, the M550i is essentially little short of fantastic. The steering is a touch numb to your fingertips, but it's fast, accurate and dependable, while the xDrive made sure that all the available grunt went where it was supposed to, and we avoided any unplanned agricultural expeditions. You can tickle the tail out under severe provocation, but on greasy public roads, this felt a step too far.
Anyway, the M550i's best aspect is the way, with a cultured, metallic V8 howl, it grips and goes like a Mediterranean Blue Exocet, launched across the Munich countryside. Effortless speed combined with equally effortless comfort and refinement is this car's metier. It will be interesting, extremely interesting, to see how the next M5 goes one better. A shame that Irish customers won't get a chance to find out - there's going to be no right-hand-drive production of the M550i.
What you get for your Money:
With no Irish price, we can't really give the M550i a fair comparison here, but given that it's likely to significantly undercut the M5, and is hardly a slouch in the performance department, it does rather call into question the need for the more extreme M car. We're sure BMW will come up with a convincing answer, though...
It's a shame that the BMW M550i isn't coming here (and a bigger shame that so few of us could afford one even if it were). Here, amongst the SUVs, the hybrids, the electric cars and the diesels is proof that BMW still knows how to make a truly great engine, and a truly invigorating sports saloon. The fact that it's also refined and exceptionally comfortable just makes our enforced separation harder still to bear.