A few BMW officials thought it would be a good idea to let members of the media drive this rare and desirable car up portions of the California coast this week. The car received a thorough checkup at the hands of top BMW USA technicians before setting out on the journey from Los Angeles to Monterey, California.
Its M1-derived, 4-valves-per-cylinder, 3.5-liter inline six-cylinder, rated at 256 horsepower in U.S. specification, is running strong. This is close as we'll ever get to traveling back in time to 1988.
The first thing that strikes is the light effort of all the major controls. The steering is light. The clutch takeup is light. The shifter for the five-speed manual transmission is light moving through the gates. The whole car feels light (and small) around us. Also, the seating position is high and bolt-upright in an old-fashioned way and we can easily see out around the skinny pillars and across the flat hood. Ah, sweet visibility.
By the way, light doesn't mean overboosted or imprecise or flimsy. This car just doesn't weigh much nor is it coping with modern-day performance car torque loads, so it doesn't take as much effort to change direction or change gears. Response to inputs are direct in a way that modern BMWs can't (and maybe wouldn't want to) replicate. When you turn the steering wheel or lay into the (cable) throttle, you know deep down that you're taking responsibility for what happens next. It's a neat and liberating feeling.
At the same time, we can't help but think how far BMW has come with its M cars and everything else when we drive the car. Torque is meager below 2,000 rpm and redline hits around 6,500, so you've got to make sure you're working in this operating range -- which is OK with us because we dig heel-and-toe downshifting. The '88 M5 feels quick if you keep the engine in its happy place, but it certainly wouldn't a dragrace against anything with the N54 engine or the E46 M3 or you get the idea. The not-so-big sedan holds a line nicely through corners, but the suspension gets unsettled more easily over bumpy pavement than a current-day BMW setup.
These shortcomings don't matter at all to us. We're continually angling for a way to get more time in the M5 over the course of a two-day drive. The honesty of the steering combined with the very mechanical engine sounds (with minimal exhaust note... watch the video below) combined with the satisfaction of ripping off a nice downshift make for a wonderful drive. If only there were more 1988 M5s with 12,XXX miles waiting around for us to drive.