Anybody who sets out to chronicle the super-saloon genre is faced with a similar problem to those who write about north-south motorways in England’s bottom-left quarter. That is, it’s very easy to disregard everything else and become totally obsessed with the M5.
Now well into its fourth decade, BMW’s high-performance four-door has so often been at the forefront of the sector, both in terms of power outputs and prevailing technologies, that it’s entirely possible to tell the wider story of the super-saloon without discussing any other car.
MORE THAN THE ‘M5’ SECTOR
This is very often referred to as the M5 sector, mostly because ‘M5’ is the only nameplate to have endured from the early days of the super-saloon right up until the present day. But we won’t fall into the BMW M5 trap this time; while it’s not only possible to plot the history of fast saloons and stop at BMW’s door just twice, it is also far more accurate to do so.
Although some say the first M5, launched in 1986 and based upon the E28 5 Series, was the original super-saloon, there was in fact another, somewhat more obscure car that got there several years before it. In the late Seventies Alpina hadn’t yet been recognised as a car manufacturer in its own right – and it wouldn’t be until 1983 – but was known instead to be a tuning and racing company, one that concerned itself only with BMW products. To give you an idea of how highly it was regarded, BMW would honour its own warranty on any car that had been upgraded and repurposed by the wizards at Alpina.
And so it is that we begin our super-saloon timeline in 1978 with the Alpina B7 Turbo (pictured above), a 296bhp saloon car that could propel itself to 62mph in less than seven seconds. It was derived from the E12 7 Series and although there had been quick saloons before it, not least from the Alpina stable, it was the first to have been manufactured and sold in anything like significant numbers. Although with 149 built, it was hardly mass produced.
In 1986, while BMW was touting what was then the very first M5 and certain corners of the automotive community were besides themselves with excitement at the prospect of a 286bhp saloon car (10bhp less, you’ll remember, than the B7 Turbo), the power merchants over the way at AMG had gone one better. Or 56 better, in fact, because with 340bhp from a 5.0-litre V8, the Mercedes 300E AMG, known in some circles as the ‘Hammer’, was not only more powerful than the M5, but significantly so.
THE LOTUS CARLTON ARRIVES
The B7 Turbo spawned a new breed of performance car, but the Hammer elevated it to a new level entirely. Soon enough, however, another super-saloon would arrive with yet more power, more performance and a far more sophisticated chassis. The Lotus Carlton (pictured above), which went into production in 1990, was engineered to be fast not only in a straight line, but around corners as well. After all, no car could possibly wear the Lotus emblem and not have an appetite for bends. Nevertheless, what caused such a stir 29 years ago (to the extent that the Daily Mail, so outraged that a road car this fast could be sold to the public, demanded it be banned) was the fact it’d do 176mph given enough space. To this day, the Lotus Carlton feels unnervingly rapid once the pair of Garret turbochargers have begun to puff.
It took BMW eight years to deliver a super-saloon with more power. While the E39 M5 (pictured above) with its rumbling 4.9-litre V8 wasn’t substantially more powerful than the Carlton (394bhp versus 377), it did successfully relocate the super-saloon balance of power back to southern Germany, where it originated and where it remains to this day. The third model in the M5 dynasty was such a brilliantly well-rounded proposition that some say we reached peak super-saloon with its emergence in 1998. It was fast, comfortable, charismatic and when you wanted it to be, an unrestrained hooligan.
Another BMW M5 demands recognition here. The version that followed, the E60 M5 (pictured above), was so advanced that it comprehensively rewrote the super-saloon rulebook. Its 507bhp normally-aspirated V10 was to all intents and purposes a racing engine, while its transmission used nothing as outmoded as a manual gearbox, but a highly sophisticated paddle-shift. It was a supercar with space for four.
MERCEDES MAKES ITS MARK
Today, however, the apex super-saloon is not a BMW, but a Mercedes. The Mercedes-Benz AMG E63 S (pictured above) also rewrote the rulebook, setting new standards not only for performance (600bhp tends to do that), but also redefining the technical blueprint for the sector. Its basic anatomy – downsized V8 with two turbos, clever auto ‘box, four-wheel drive system with a rear-wheel drive mode – was mimicked exactly by the most recent M5.
The E63 S really is the definitive modern super-saloon. It may never have existed, though, were it not for a certain Alpina.
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