Once, I drove on a highway near Atlanta, in Georgia, that runs through a wood for about 16,000 miles. It is very boring. But after a quick trip to Wales last week I’ve decided that the M4 is even worse.
Some say that the most boring motorway in the world is the M1, but actually it’s not dull at all. It has a history and even a hint of romance. People have written songs about it and you pass many exciting places such as Gulliver’s Kingdom and the Billing Aquadrome. You’re tempted at every junction to get off and have a snout around. Except, perhaps, junction 22. Coalville’s not that appealing. Plus the M1 makes your blood boil, especially at the moment, because almost all of it is coned off and subjected to a rigorously enforced 50mph speed limit.
Driving on this section is like reading The Guardian. It gets the adrenaline going. It makes your teeth itch with impotent rage. The M4, on the other hand, is like a book with nothing written on any of the pages. You pass Bracknell and Reading and Swindon, and you would rather die, screaming, than go to any of these places. Eventually there’s a signpost to Theale, which doesn’t even exist. Have you ever met anyone from Theale? Been there? Read about it? I think it may have been hit 70 years ago by
the friendly German bombs meant for Slough.
Then you have the “works” exit, which looks as though it might lead to the sort of place where they keep grit and snowploughs for the winter. It looks harmless, municipal. But try to find it on Google Earth. Go on. Try. Because it’s not there. It’s a slip road the authorities want us to believe goes nowhere. Spooky, eh? After this non-event you are plunged into a nothingness that goes on for a light year until eventually you are asked to pay £6 to cross a bridge. Why is that? How can it cost £6 to use a fairly crummy bridge when for £10 you are given access to the whole of London? I hate the M4, and what makes it even worse is that there’s no car made that makes it even remotely interesting.
If you drive down it in something powerful, you will be caught by the speed cameras. If you opt for something comfortable, you will fall asleep and crash. If you go for something economical and sensible, you will become tired of the engine moaning out its one long song and deliberately run into the crash barrier to end it all.
There is, however, one car with just the right combination of features to keep you awake — to keep you interested in being alive — for just two hours more. The BMW M5. I have always been a fan. The original, a 282bhp version of the boxy 1980s 5-series, came out of nowhere and redefined what we thought might be possible from a saloon. And since then every single version has pulled off the same trick. The latest is even more of a star. Unlike the equivalent AMG Mercedes, which looks like a street brawler, the BMW is a bit like a bouncer at a “nite” spot that wants to be seen as posh.
It’s wearing a tux, and you have to look hard to notice the neck like a birthday cake, the chest like a butter churn, the thighs like tugboats. It’s a big bruiser, this car, but there are few clues. Just the blue brake callipers. And some Wallpaper magazine-style LEDs in the door handles. Under the bonnet the old V10 is gone. In its place is a turbocharged V8, which is good if you are a polar bear but bad, in theory, if you are a petrolhead. However, in practice, you don’t notice the turbo lag. There must be a gap between you pressing the throttle and the warfare beginning but you never, ever, feel it. It’s not a great engine. But it’s very good.
My friends, who are not very interested in cars, said that the ride was “bumpy” and that I ought to let some air out of the tyres. They were wrong. The ride is actually quite good. Another friend, who writes about restaurants, said it sounded like a diesel. He was wrong, too. It sounds like a tool for scaring dogs.
Out of town and away from my metrosexual mates, the new M5 continues to amaze. It feels heavy and the front is maybe a bit over-tyred, but it’s just so fast and so composed and so balanced and so wonderful that you even find yourself grinning a deeply contented grin when you are on the M4 and it’s raining and the burglar in the toll booth is still a hundred miles away.
There are so many toys to play with, so many things to do. You can set the engine up in Sport mode and the gearbox in race mode and the suspension in comfort. And then, when you’ve found a setup you really like, you can store it in a single-button memory. And then you can decide that actually, on some days, you prefer everything to be slightly different, so you can store this as well. Then you can choose precisely what information you would like on the head-up display. And then you can dive into all the submenus on the iDrive system and change everything up to the shape of the car itself.
So what we have here is a genuine four-seat limo. A car from which you would be pleased to emerge at a film premiere. But then this same car is also a tail-out, smoke-and-wail drift machine. And a finely balanced road racer, and a gadget. It’s everything. And it’s only £73,040. We’re talking five stars and then some.
However. There are a few problems. There are so many gadgets that some of the features are not very easy to use. Such as: last night I arrived at the Top Gear edit, put the gearbox in neutral and started to get out. “Bong,” said the warning buzzer and “flash” went the dash display. “You have not put the vehicle in Park. It may roll away. You may not lock the doors until you have put it in Park.” Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. I got desperate. There was no Park position on the flappy-paddle gearbox. Bong. I applied the electronic handbrake so the car couldn’t roll away. Bong. “Yes it can,” insisted the machine. Bong. Eventually I went into the edit suite and said, quite crossly, “Does anyone here know how to put an M5 in Park?” They were all very amused, but an hour later we were still none the wiser. We were so desperate that we even resorted to the handbook. But still there were no answers. It turns out that you must turn the engine off when it is in gear. Then Park is applied automatically. If you turn off the motor when the box is in neutral, you are bonged at until the end of time.
I would very much like to meet the man who designed this system. So that I can jab some cocktail sticks into his eyes. I suppose that eventually you would become used to this. But there is something else that would always be a nag. The problem is twofold. In the olden days the M5’s price tag was justifiable because the car was much better than the standard 5-series. That simply isn’t true any more.
The 530d M Sport is very possibly the best, most complete car in the world right now and it’s hard to see why the M5 costs £31,000 more. It gets worse. Today the M5 is a cruiser. A bruiser. A heavyweight. A very different animal from the original. It’s a wonderful thing, be in no doubt about that, but if you hanker after the olden days, you can have an M3, which is still lithe and sharp and crisp. And it’s almost £20,000 less. In short, then, the M5 is still a great car. But these days BMW makes other great cars that are considerably less expensive. The M version of the 1-series is another example. Happily there is no M4.