This is the BMW M550d xDrive. It’s the first of a new line of BMW M Performance Automobiles, set to sit above the bodykit and suspension-focused M Sport models, but below the full M-cars. But rather than sporting some sort of detuned M5 engine, this M550d xDrive has a diesel engine (albeit a triple turbo one), four-wheel drive and an automatic gearbox.
Sacrilege, or just plain business sense? BMW has launched the first ever diesel car to wear a Motorsport badge. We get behind the wheel to find out if it’s worthy of that little M on the boot lid.
What’s going on at BMW M? One minute they’re making screaming V10 supersaloons, the next they’re churning out SUVs and even diesels. Why is it making the BMW M550d xDrive?
It’s simple economics. BMW is in this game to make money and sprinkling the M badge a little more liberally is a surefire way to generate more cash.
Two things to note here. First, the M550d is not a proper M car. It’s the first of a new slew of M Performance BMWs designed to slot into the range above the regular BMW models such as the 535d, but below ‘real’ M cars, like the M5. Think back to the 1980s when BMW simultaneously produced the line-built 218bhp E28 M535i and hand-built 286bhp E28 M5.
And the second point of interest is that this is no ordinary diesel. It displaces the same 3.0-litres as the sixes fitted to the 530d and 550d, but that’s where the similarities end, because only a handful of parts are shared. The new engine features not one, not two, but three turbochargers. A small blower spins up quickly just off idle and is then joined by a second, larger turbo from 1500rpm. From 2700rpm, a flap opens, sending surplus exhaust gas past the still-spinning small turbo to the larger turbo, and also a third, smaller, super-responsive variable geometry one.
Three blowers? Was Eddie Cochran right?
Well, with 375bhp and 546lb ft of torque, the kick in the back is certainly pretty heavenly, but you can forget about the three steps bit. The whole process is so seamless, you’re never really aware of all that wizardry going on. It pulls hard off idle and then keeps on pulling, but where a 640d (3.0, two turbos, 309bhp, 464lb ft) would be dying off in the upper rev range, the 550d gets a second wind. Ultimately though, it’s a diesel, so the effective usable rev limit is barely past 5000rpm and the lack of drama makes it all feel rather ordinary compared to winding out an M5 to the redline.
It certainly doesn’t want for performance though. Zero to 62mph comes up in an incredible 4.7sec, compared to 4.4sec for the M5 and 5.5sec for the 535d. Yet the triple turbo car can achieve over 44mpg, down from the 535d’s 52mpg but much better than the 29mpg BMW claims for the M5. It even sounds great, especially in Sport mode, more like a V8 than a six. BMW attributes this to careful use of insulation materials that boosted the bassy V8-like frequencies and hushed everything else up.
Bit of a handful with all that torque, is it?
Not with BMW’s xDrive four-wheel drive system soaking it all up. Give it everything from a standing start and there’s not so much as a squeak from the tyres. It’s nominally rear-wheel drive, the fronts only chiming in when needed, and it feels composed, tight and pleasingly light on understeer. Push really hard and you can feel the car moving around beneath you, but don’t expect to indulge in any M5-style sideways heroics. Or, ultimately, M5-style thrills. Although the uprated suspension, stiffer bushes and brakes lifted from the 550i do a good job of handling the near two-tonne weight, it doesn’t make you laugh out loud like a proper petrol supersaloon would.
And the snag?
There isn’t one – providing you live in mainland Europe. The four-wheel drive system can’t (or won’t) be engineered for right-hand drive applications though because the steering column is in the way of the transfer ‘box. BMW could feasibly do a rear-drive version for Britain, but it feels that a car with this much torque needs the added traction of four driven wheels. Brits will get the triple-turbo engine in the X5 and X6 SUVs instead.
Being picky, we could say that the M visual upgrades, while attractive, don’t do enough. Okay, so the car we drove was on weedy winter wheels and tyres instead of the stock 19s, but the aluminium cabin trim, tiny rear lip spoiler and gaping front bumper don’t do anything that the current M Sport kit doesn’t do.
If you’re expecting an M5 in all but fuel consumption, you won’t quite find it here. It just doesn’t quite reach that level of excitement. But the M550d is a great car in its own right, a fantastic autobahn cruiser with supersaloon overtaking go, supermini economy and the security of four-wheel drive that ski-crazy Continental Europeans require. Which makes it all the more disappointing that Brits can’t get their hands on it. But here’s the consolation: the M550d costs €80k in Germany (£67k at current rates), nearly M5 money. Which makes the brilliant 535d M Sport we can buy for £47,590, look even better value.