The remit of BMW M has broadly stayed the same, in spite of the growth and contraction of markets and the evolution of buyer taste. Starting out as road-going motorsport refugees and hopped-up repmobiles, BMW M stood as much for office car park status as it did for track prowess, with all being no less than the best driver’s cars of their kind. While the homologation specials aren’t exactly tumbling out of dealers today and the latest M3 has more visual attitude than the M1 supercar that started it all, BMW M still strives to put the driver first. But what, in this 50th anniversary year for the fastest letter in the German-English alphabet, are the best M cars ever made? We’ve made an attempt to count them down.
The 11 best BMW M cars ever
The BMW M1 has to be here. It just has to. What was intended to be a racecar through and through turned out to be a well-hewn and dynamically rewarding supercar, showing buyers it was possible for such exotica to perform reliably. Its 3.5-litre 277PS (204kW) straight-six was a honey of an engine and the M1 was as sweet to potter around town in as it was to dispatch your local mountain road. Typically, it made no money due to being quite expensive and never actually got to race due to rule changes, but BMW had been bitten.
BMW M5 (E28)
The first bonafide production M car as we know it was the E28 M5 and what a sweetheart that car was. Weighing just 1,431kg and spanning 4,600mm in length and 1,700mm in width, the E28 was as featherweight as it was slight in proportions, compared to the two-tonne monster we have today. Its 286PS (210kW) 3.5-litre straight-six was a derivation of the unit used in the M1 supercar, with a splash more power. This M5 did next to nothing to shout about its performance potential or its flagship status in the 5 Series line-up. The only telltales? A bootlip spoiler, a bit of a chin up front, sporty BBS-style wheels and a smattering of M5 badging. In today’s market, the original M5 would be very out of place, an antithesis to excess and bad attitude. Sounds perfect to us.
BMW M3 (E30)
In the beginning, the BMW M3 was a means to a couple of ends: one, to beat Mercedes to the punch in weaponising the potential brand value of a performance flagship and two, to beat Mercedes on the racetrack. The E30 M3 is BMW Motorsport’s original homologation special and of all the M cars, the closest in relation to its racing cousins. It’s the most successful touring car of all time, in fact. While later straight-six cars are sweeter than the harsh S14 four-pot and on-road driving dynamics have improved in the years since, the original M3 has an almost implied place on any best M car list.
BMW M5 (E39)
When the E39 BMW M5 appeared in 1998, it was little short of a revelation. Its 4.9-litre 400PS (294kW) V8 embarrassed supercars of the day, its dimensions and styling the perfect blend of subtle and sinister, its chassis and dynamics deftly honed. To this day the E39 is seen by many as the definition of the ‘goldilocks zone’ for fast executive cars, that no M5 or indeed no M car, has since beaten. It’s no wonder this 180mph-plus rocketship is a darling of the modern classic classifieds today, its place even as a top five M car all but assured.
BMW M3 CS (E46)
The E46 M3 is a family of fabulous M cars, from which picking the best is a challenge. The obvious choice would be the CSL, the lightened, more powerful, rarer and more hardcore variant. But from the factory, it was lumbered with the clumsy SMG gearbox that on standard cars, was only an option alongside a proper manual. The CS on the other hand was a runout model of which just 250 were made, available with a manual but also with the CSL’s quicker steering better brakes, M track mode and lightweight wheels. It’s a carbon airbox away from E46 perfection and we think, the true E46 to sit in amongst the very best M cars ever made.
BMW M3 CRT (E90)
With the E92 generation M3, the sloppy SMG was replaced by the razor-sharp DCT twin-clutch. The straight-six was out in favour of a howling 4.0-litre V8 but weight and size were up too. The E92 was far from perfect, with that highly-strung V8 lacking the low-down punch to make what was a heavier, larger M3 feel as fast as it should. This is BMW M, though. Special versions are here to raise the game, as did one of the least well-known M cars and we think one of the best. Meet the M3 CRT, a four-door special of which just 67 were made, packing the upgraded 4.4-litre 440PS (331kW) V8 from the M3 GTS, and a 68kg weight saving, while still retaining the luxuries expected of what was not an inherently track-focused model. The perfect all-rounder? Save for what remain high prices on such an exclusive model and maintenance costs of that V8, quite possibly.
BMW M5 Touring (E61)
The E60 generation BMW M5 is a flawed car. Lumbered with a sluggish SMG gearbox, gawky styling, a heavy thirsty motor and a tiny fuel tank from which to feed it, what’s it even doing here? Well, that engine happens to be a 5.0-litre V10 producing 507PS (373kW) and if you so chose, you could have it in an estate body. Don’t get us wrong, for all its flaws the E60 had that M dynamic magic but it takes the specialness of the Touring, of which there is one for every four saloons, to bag it a place on this list. We’d even sacrifice that potential 200mph top speed of the saloon in favour of the load-lugger…
BMW 1 Series M Coupe
BMW M can to an extent be thought of as a gang of car enthusiasts within the brand that sometimes get the urge to build something for the sake of it. Something to the left-field of the corporate remit. That’s exactly how the 1 Series M Coupe project started, a bonafide skunkworks car, born of a passion for driving over margins. The ingredients: a muscular turbocharged 340PS (250kW) straight-six driving the rear via a manual gearbox, M3 bits including a rear axle and suspension components, and a body kit with a face like thunder and hips to humble Shakira. The result was a scintillating driving machine, one of BMW M’s best from recent memory. It set the stage for the somewhat more sanitised M2, which following the 1 Series M Coupe’s success, was fully sanctioned by the bean counters.
BMW M2 CS
But as is the trend with BMW M, the M2 needed time to mature, to develop and to grow ever more extreme. The broad recipe was very similar to the 1M but with more budget and more muscle. The CS is the logical extreme: carbon bodywork, an M4 engine at full muscle (444PS, 331kW), trick suspension and carbon-ceramic brakes. Those same bods that made the 1M as special as it was had time to hone the CS. The result is what might just be one of the last great traditional BMW sports coupes, an unsurprising multiple award-winner, as autonomy and electrification creep ever closer.
BMW M5 CS
Just the one bang to go out on is for the BMW bods, not quite enough. Of all the models to craft one of its best driver’s cars out of in recent memory, the M5 is an unlikely candidate. But they’ve by most accounts done the impossible with the M5 CS – it’s a classic example of the whole entirely outshining the sum of the parts. Take the M5 Competition, a competent and devastatingly fast if not inspiring super saloon, drop 70kg via some carbon bits, reduced sound deadening, forged wheels and a stainless exhaust. Then tune the new dampers, lower suspension and anti-roll bars. Then revise the engine with new turbos and better oiling, for 635PS (467kW). The result is a car that many claim is a night and day revolution over the car on which it’s based and the best M5 in generations. That it doesn’t wear its aggression quite so on its sleeve stylistically compared to rivals, channelling that original M5 subtlety, sits very well with us too.
BMW M3 xDrive
The controversial-looking G80 BMW M3 has behind that toothy snout turned out to be a far better-resolved performance car than the F80 generation that preceded it, by most accounts. All that turbocharged torque is met with a chassis that can handle it, presenting a balanced rather than scary driving experience. Still, that twin-turbo six is a meaty machine even in the new car, which is where BMW’s latest xDrive system comes in. It’s part of what makes the M5 above a boon and part of why many are saying they prefer the M3 that sends power to all wheels. The M3 xDrive is getting praise from all sides for how it handles that tower of performance and how the powered front wheels only add to the experience. Yes it’s heavier, yes it’s bigger but it seems the M3 has evolved into quite the all-round package. It couldn’t be more different from the original we mentioned earlier and yet the new M3 xDrive is proving to be a frontrunner as an all-time great M car. To think there’s a Touring version of this coming soon…
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