MIRAMAS, France—The CEO of BMW’s M Division, Frank van Meel, opens the passenger door, throws his crutches in the back seat – a motorcycle accident – and gets into his precious prototype, a nearly finished next-generation M5.

I’m in the driver’s seat, about to take this priceless 600-plus-horsepower sedan onto a wet-handling track for the first time. He is a brave man. No pressure, then.

We’re at Miramas, BMW’s private testing ground near Marseille, France. Tall concrete walls hide this eight-square-kilometre facility from those who want might want a sneak peek at what BMW has in store for the future.

There are 40 kilometres of test track, on which engineers undertake five-million kilometres of driving every year. There are stickers over my camera so I can’t take pictures of anything. All the photos you see here were taken by BMW’s own people, vetted by the company.

This car is a big deal for M Division, and for its diehard fans. For most of its life, the M5 was the benchmark by which all other super-sedans were judged. But the competition, specifically Mercedes-AMG, has closed the gap with the latest E 63. Can the all-new sixth-generation M5 put M Division back on top?

BMW isn’t ready to show us what the M5 will look like. The camouflage cladding you see here won’t be an optional extra. The reveal will be at the Frankfurt motor show in September.

Some details are visible, however. The lower air vent behind the front wheel on the regular 5 Series is gone, replaced by some kind of vent higher up, more like the current M5. The rear wheel arches are the same, but the front items are subtly flared.

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Otherwise, expect the usual M5 treatment: more aggressive front and rear ends, lower stance, and a subtle spoiler on the trunk lid. The wheels are 19 inches, with optional 20s available that are slightly wider at the rear.

M boss van Meel said one of his goals with the new M5 was more visual distinction from the rest of the 5 Series lineup. We’ll see what he means come September.

I can promise the bags over the seats will be gone by the time the M5 hits dealerships, and that the dashboard won’t be hidden under black felt. All those exposed wires in the passenger footwell and the big red button on the dash I dare not press will be gone too, replaced by acres of leather and contrast stitching no doubt.

A carbon-fibre roof is available for the first time on an M5. The gear lever has been redesigned, now with a dedicated “P” button for parking. Oh, and there’s also a dedicated exhaust button, for when you need loud mode.

There will be no manual transmission option this time around. We saw this coming. Before everyone gets upset, I’d like to point out that the manual ’box on the current M5 wasn’t actually very good.

If this was an M2 it’d be a different story, but on the M5 it’s a non-issue for me. The new ’box is a conventional eight-speed automatic that will make the car smoother in traffic than the old dual-clutch.

The headline feature, and the one that will likely spark the most controversy among enthusiasts, is the inclusion of all-wheel drive on an M5 for the first time. It was something BMW knew it had to do, said van Meel. The reasons are many, but chiefly it will help broaden the M5’s appeal.

Other tech highlights include subframe reinforcements, a new cooling systems, and a lightweight lithium-ion battery. The M xDrive system uses a modified version of the 7 Series transfer case to handle all the torque.

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The suspension gets new-generation ZF dampers, new aluminum wishbones, wheel carriers, and hubs. Carbon brakes are an option.

The 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 engine is carried over from the previous-generation M5, albeit revised with new turbos and higher injection pressure.

What does all that add up to? Horsepower will be over 600, torque will be more than 516 lb-ft, and the zero-to-100 km/h time will be less than 3.5 seconds. Weight will be roughly the same, or a tad lighter, than the current model. Again, BMW’s not ready to release exact figures yet.

On the wet-and-dry handling track, we run through just some of the many driving modes available. The car defaults to “4WD” mode, shuffling power to the front wheels in an effort to keep the handling as neutral as possible. It does as advertised, making the M5 feel massively quick, but without much drama. The power comes on strongest above 3,500 rpm with a slingshot delivery that presses you back gradually into the seat as the speed builds.

“4WD Sport” mode is more rear-biased. It only sends significant power to the front once the rear wheels have exceeded a certain amount slip in an effort to straighten things out. Here you can enjoy the mountain of torque, sliding the car around with a modest jab of throttle. When it does cut in, the 4WD system seems to reign things in more smoothly than the stability control system which would otherwise start clamping down abruptly on individual brakes.

“2WD” mode is exactly what it says. No power goes to the front wheels, ever, even if you’re way out of shape. It’s only available with all the electronic safety nets switched off. Here the car will happily destroy its tires, but at times it actually feels heavier, more cumbersome without any power going to the front.

First impressions are that “4WD Sport” is most fun. There’s no on-throttle understeer mid-corner. It doesn’t behave like any other all-wheel-drive car. And the car feels better balanced, more exploitable. It seems to build speed while going slightly sideways, which is a neat trick.

The engine note is still augmented by sound played through the speakers. It’s a shame, but it’s too early to say if it’ll drone at highway speeds like that last M5.

The steering, however, was a surprise highlight. The new system is electrically power-assisted. It’s lighter than the outgoing car, in all driving modes, but manages to be more feelsome.

Combined with the clever all-wheel drive system and new ECU – that’s meant to interpret what the driver wants and make the car respond accordingly – the M5 has regained some poise and finesse the previous iteration had lost.

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Too early to say, but the outgoing M5 starts at $105,300.

As a car critic, any sort of critic, you’re supposed to maintain a kind of professional detachment, an objective distance from the subject. Sometimes, that’s impossible. I have a soft spot for the M5. But, if anything, that makes me a harsher critic.

The drive at Miramas was far too brief for a definitive verdict, but first impressions are that all-wheel-drive has only made the M5 better. It’s more lithe, despite not being significantly lighter.

Certainly it shows that, between the M2 and this, M Division seems to be going in the right direction again. Is the M5 better than the E63 AMG? It’s going to be close, very close.

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Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.