First Drive: The 2021 BMW M550i
The latest installment of a perfected formula may not be a window to the future, but it sure is a glorious celebration of all we’ve learned about mastering internal combustion.
The new 2021 BMW M550i is a little like Usain Bolt in a Brooks Brothers blazer; a sheer force of nature in a classy, if somewhat subdued, outfit. This is a car for the grand tour, for the joy of putting many miles on it. It is not the car you buy purely to show off at the valet stand, as there are flashier and more emotive options for the price, but none that drive this good. The elegant 5-series silhouette acts like Clark Kent’s glasses in disguising the superpower that lies within.
During a week in the historic city of Charleston, it drove like a tiger in a cage whenever I wasn’t on a freeway, and even on the open road, it was hard to do more than scratch the surface of what this beast is capable of. Driving it over the South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor, hundreds of feet in the air on a suspension bridge, delivered a rush of adrenaline and was the best taste I got for what an autobahn road trip might be like. But thankfully, no matter where I drove it, the acceleration off of a dead stop was astonishing.
Based on the familiar interior, you may at first think you’re sitting in a normal, well-crafted German sedan, and then you touch your toe to the rocket thruster that is the gas pedal, and suddenly you realize there’s a Hyde beneath the hood of this Jekyll. I found myself often slowing down in the middle of a block, just so I could enjoy the rush of accelerating again.
The speed on the heads-up display turns from white to orange any time you’re over the speed limit, and it is nearly impossible to keep it in the white. Perhaps it’s a good thing that, aside from a few tasteful M touches like the bright blue calipers in the 20-inch wheels and the graphite gray side mirrors, it’s not at first glance the kind of obnoxious sportscar that State Troopers live to pull over.
The M550i doesn’t have the same cult following as an M3, but that also makes it more of a purist’s choice. This is a car you buy to spend time in, rather than one you buy on trends or emotions alone. To put it simply, you buy this car because you know enough about cars to prize impeccable engineering over any trends.
The 4.4-liter turbo V8 engine is nothing short of fantastic. It sounds good, it pulls good–it’s a monster. It roars with absolute confidence; not sputtery for show, just strong and emphatic. The stellar brakes are able to rein it in easily, so mostly what you feel when driving it is a perfect balance between engine and brakes, power and restraint. And with all that power delivered via BMW’s intelligent all-wheel drive, it’s hard to imagine a car driving and handling any better than this does.
The interior is both luxurious and comfortable, though it’s not the vision into the future that you see in BMW’s new iX. The m550i’s dashboard screen is not particularly integrated into the dash, for example, clinging to it more like a mounted iPad. This interior clearly favors mechanical buttons and knobs over touchscreen input. But that means you already know where everything is, and you also know that it will all last longer than a more tech-reliant interior. After 200,000 miles, the seats will still be firm, the buttons will all still work, and the cockpit will still be quiet. Because this car refuses to give up function for the sake of fashion.
Provided we have a future, it will undoubtedly look back at this specimen as the high-water mark of the gas-powered vehicle. It’s a Rolex, not an Apple Watch. And for anyone who absolutely loves driving, and has $77,000 to spend on a car, it just doesn’t get much better than this.