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BMW M5: from exotic race car to elegant car about town.

Editor's Note: Two auto manufacturers, BMW and the Chevrolet division of General Motors, responded to our ranking of the "Top 10 Cars for CEOs" in the October 2005 issue by asking us to sample their 2006 wares. It's hard work, but someone has to do it! Here's what I thought:

We're in a new BMW M5 tearing down the straightaway at the Lime Rock racetrack in Connecticut. A professional driver is in the passenger's seat and I've got the pedal to the metal. I wouldn't dare look down at the speedometer, but I can tell from the heads-up display in the windshield that we're going 120 mph.

Of course, any idiot can go fast. The trick is the hairpin turn called Big Bend that's approaching. The racetrack, owned by famed driving instructor Skip Barber, has big signs that are intended to help the driver brake to get ready for the turn. The signs start at 6 and work down to 1.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

As I approach the turn, the pro starts shouting for "brake" at about 6 but I hesitate. I don't want to brake too fast. But it quickly becomes apparent that I have underbraked and I'm going into the turn too fast. When I do apply the brakes, my rear end spins out and I have to stop, just one wheel on the grass.

I guess any idiot can spin out. But otherwise, the M5 was flawless on my three runs around the tricky 1.5 mile course. Having driven Ferraris and Masseratis on the same track, I can attest that BMW's M5, with a V10 engine, behaves like those exotic cars, with an MSRP of just $82,000.

But the trait that makes the M5, the fourth generation since the M535i was launched in 1980, so interesting is that it can be adjusted to so many different driving environments and tastes. It normally cruises along with 400 hp., but if you hit a button on the steering wheel, you get another 100 horsies. That's bone-crunching power. Zero to 60 mph occurs in 4.5 seconds. (BMW's M brand is like Daimler-Chrysler's AMG and Audi's S units, which take standard models and improve their performance.)

The driver also has a choice of shifting mechanisms. There are Formula 1-style paddles on the steering wheel and they are beauties. I've resisted the shifting paddles in the past, much preferring the satisfaction of a clutch. But the M5 has convinced me that the paddles, which are linked to an all-new seven-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox, can be more exhilarating than manual shifting because it takes a millisecond--during which the vehicle doesn't lose any noticeable speed. When you engage a manual clutch, the engine isn't getting any juice.

Even in automatic, you have choices: five settings to control the shifting points. At one end of the spectrum, you can set it sporty; at the other, you get sedate.

After the track, I drove my M5 into Manhattan. I slipped it into the sedate end of the spectrum and never had to pay attention to shifting. It was perfect in Manhattan traffic.

That's the real point--there are very few cars that you can race on the track and then drive into Manhattan without first having to change the tires or brake pads. BMW has created an exotic race car that can morph into a very practical, elegant car about town. Plus, the M5 is a four door with plenty of space in the back, so you could take the kids or a couple of grownups. "I see it as an exotic car for the practical person," says M Brand Manager Larry Koch.

The body design also seems to reflect an effort by BMW to break out of a by-now predictable look. There's no funny high rear end as there was with the relaunch of the 7 Series. Instead, the lines are downright sexy, with special rocker panels that seem to suggest human hips. Two "gills" in the front flanks on either side of the car give it a daring, aggressive look, reminiscent of the M3.

BMW has packed the M5 with other highly innovative features. One of my favorites is "active" seating. When the car enters a turn, it can sense which way gravity is about to push your body. The backrest and lumbar elements of the seat push out to compensate, so that you remain stationery. Of course, you can adjust it, or turn it off.

Virtually all manufacturers are trying to imitate BMW's performance characteristics. But the latest M5 shows, convincingly, that the Bavarians are still ahead of the pack.

RELATED ARTICLE: Corvette Z06

The General Motors guys were irritated that we included the Ford GT in our "Top 10 Cars for CEOs" because it costs at least $100,000 more than the Corvette Z06. "Drive the Corvette," they said, "and tell us whether the GT is worth $100,000 more."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

So let's begin: The Z06 boasts 505 hp., compared with the GT's 500. This vehicle, with its 7.0 liter V8 engine, is the most powerful vehicle that the Chevrolet division of GM has ever built.

I drove it in manual, which is the only way it comes. The car just begged to be hit, so I did. This is raw American rear-wheel-drive power, in contrast with the more refined European variety. If you shift from first into second, and even from second into third, the rear end dances precipitously. The car is relatively light (3,132 pounds) and has so much power that you really have to know how to drive. This isn't amateur hour. Of course, that element of danger is thrilling. The auditory feedback is aggressive. You can feel it in your throat.

There are three modes of driving--with the stability control system, without it, or in competitive driving mode. I left it on stability control. I couldn't imagine being able to handle the car otherwise.

It does 0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds, which is like taking off in a F-15 jet fighter. It had every bit of the muscle that the GT does.

The GT, which starts at $170,000, is slightly snazzier in physical appearance, with its deep air scoops and rear window that allows you to watch the engine as it performs. But the Corvette is more refined, even elegant. It's no longer the kind of car driven by guys wearing gold chains.

Fans of the Z06 are saying that "Corvette finally got it right." With a base price of $65,800, AutoWeek called it "the greatest value in supercar history." I have to admit, if I were in the market for muscle, I'd go with the Z06 and invest the $100,000.--W.J.H.
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Title Annotation:WHEELS; Bavarian Motor Works
Author:Holstein, William J.
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2006
Words:1126
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