BMW M GmbH thrust itself into the hearts and minds of car nuts around the world 40 years ago with the BMW 3.0 CSL
. Since then, it's built some of the most technically advanced German muscle, and given rise to the current horsepower wars with the e28 M5
. Sure companies like Ford
have always had dedicated racing teams and skunk works projects, but none of them were as focused, as driven, or as continuously accomplished in many forms of motorsports as BMW's M division. Here is our list of the most unforgettable M cars of all time.
BMW M and it's three colors have a special meaning, a meaning that resonates deeply with hardcore BMW fans. The M stands for Motorsport, and the three colors represent Texaco (red), BMW (blue) and the partnership between the two companies (Purple) that lead to the inception of BMW Motorsport. The first racing project, the 3.0 CSL
, was spearheaded by just 35 dedicated employees and, in ten quick years, grew to over 400 employees. In that time, the relationship with Texaco ended requiring BMW to purchase the rights to the color red in the logo, solidifying the brand as a fixture of BMW culture.
Though Porsche may boast more outright Le Man's victories, BMW was the first manufacturer to deliver road going versions of its race cars en masse. BMW M pioneered the concept of "race on Sunday, sell on Monday" in a way the world had never seen before. Ultimately, it was this conscious decision to connect the road and track that made the M badge so special. Here are our favorite picks broken down by decade:
1970's- The Upstart
1) 1978- 1981 BMW M1
What do we like about the M1? Body designed by Giogetto Guigiaro, check. 277-horsepower, 3.0-liter, inline six mounted mid-ship, check. Had it's own racing series, check. We could go on and on about the M1's history, but let's face it, you know how to use Google. Just watch this 470-horsepower M1 Pro Car in action to get you motivated:
2) 1971-1975 BMW 3.0 CSL
Introduced in 1972, the 3.0 CSL
was M GmbH's first official project. As part of the European Touring Car Championship (ETCC) regulations, BMW had to produce 1,000 road going versions of the 3.0 CSL's in order to compete. The standard BMW 3.0 CS was stripped of sound proofing. Then, thinner steel body panels and lighter Perspex side windows were fitted. Finally, the doors, hood and trunk lid were all replaced with bespoke aluminum parts for a total savings of 300 pounds. Originally equipped with a slightly enlarged 3.0L straight six, later models like the CSL "Batmobile" pictured here, came with a 3.5-liter engine that produced an estimated 430 horsepower in race trim.
3) 1980-1984 BMW e12 M535i
The first production car to ever wear the M badge, the M535i
boasted many features and upgrades over lesser 5-Series sedans. The suspension was tuned by BMW M employees in between class victories at Le Mans, building insane turbo-era Formula 1 engines, and demolishing the competition in ETCC. The engine was basically a standard production 3.5 liter producing 218 horsepower. Later, it was found in the 635csi
1980's- The Rebels
1) 1985-1988 BMW M5
Though few will admit it, the M5 of the 1980's is cooler than the M3 of the 1980's. Where the e30 M3 has a huge wing, a front spoiler large enough to rival Jay Leno's chin, and little low-end power, the M5 is the opposite. It's subtle, sporting only tasteful suggestions of what it's capablabilities . Under the hood is the S38 straight six derived from the M1's M88, and in Euro-spec trim it made an impressive 286 horsepower. It was the first real four-door German muscle sedan, and the reason why q-cars are still in vogue.
2) 1985-1992 BMW M3
Don't be fooled by our placement of the e30 M3
in second place. It is by all means a great car. However, it's hampered by two things: 1) it was never very powerful. Sure 192 horsepower was enough in 1984, especially with it's amazing handling, and more steering feel and fluidity than an Eric Clapton guitar solo. However, when hampered by U.S. emissions and a lack of displacement, it simply wasn't that
quick. Especially when you consider, 2) the price. You'd have to be crazy to buy one, or a serious car collector.
3) 1984-1988 BMW M6
The original M6
is a cool car. Even after 30 years, it's shark-like nose and long hood are still sharp enough to cut through the everyday beige. The classic BBS mesh wheels strike the perfect balance between power and class, and are among the hardest parts to find for any BMW. Powered by the same engine as the M5, but carrying less weight, the Euro-spec M6 was capable of sprinting to 60 mph in just six seconds flat. Not bad when you consider a 911
of the same year was slower, less comfortable and could spin you off into an oak tree in an instant if you so much as blinked.
1990's- Understated Excellence
1) 1992-1999 M3
The e36 M3
is revered as one of the best handiling cars of all time. When Car & Driver
pitted it against the likes of the Porsche 911
, Ferrari F355
and the Acura NSX
in 1997, it came out on top; posting better slalom and emergency lane change speeds than the three heavyweights. All this in a car that cost half the price of the Porsche and roughly a quarter of the Ferrari. It's chassis is, in every sense of the word, golden. Like all the M's before, it came with a castrated U.S. spec motor, but now e36 M3's are so cheap that you can buy one and swap in the 333 horsepower S54 motor from a wrecked e46 M3
for a pretty reasonable amount of money. If you don't do it, I will.
2) 1989-1995 M5
3) 1992-1996 850CSi
The 850CSi is the closest thing we ever got to an official M8. Though it doesn't wear an M badge per se, the 850 CSi features the same suspension and drivetrain developments that were originally intended for the M8. Instead of receiving the a detuned Mclaren F1 48-valve V12 engine producing 440 hp ,the 850CSi received a 5.6-liter V12 motor making just 375 horsepower. The S70B56 powering the 850CSi features just enough special parts to make it a relative of the Mclaren F1, and is therefore special by proxy. The halo 8-Series also did without weight reduction, essentially making it an 850i with more power. It is, however, one of the great grand touring cars of the 90's. It was over-engineered and ideal for high speed autobahn cruising. If you need further proof of the 850CSi's ability, check out the Youtube videos of countless highspeed runs. Thanks to a lukewarm reception, you can find a nice used 850CSi for around $30,000. A fair price considering the performance, luxury, historical value, and (now) timeless styling.
2000's - The Pinnacle
1) 2001-2002 M Coupe
It has been called everything from a clown shoe to a penis. Though the styling might be lost on some, there's no denying that the S54 powered M coupe's
are some of the coolest cars to come out of South Carolina
. The S54 models share the same engine as similar year M3's, but benefit from low production numbers and outlandish swollen fenders. Some have even suggested that 315-horsepower inline-six is better applied to the M Coupe, even if it is hampered by the 5-speed manual. It may be getting on in age, but the M coupe has garnered the attention of loyal and devoted owners who've made sure this shooting-brake looks just as fantastic as it did when it first appeared in BMW showrooms in 2001.
2) 1998-2003 BMW M5
Sure the e60 M5
was bigger, badder and more outlandish, but the e39
is just a laid-back bruiser with handsome looks and luxury to boot. Besides, the e39 series is perhaps the last car that BMW gave that "special something" to when they set about engineering it. Even the simplest things ooze quality; locking the doors feels like you're sealing yourself in a bank vault attached to a Saturn 5 rocket. Then there's the sound. Oh, the sound that the 5.0-liter. 400-hp V8 makes is glorious. It's the best iteration of the M5 based on the noise alone. The only reason why the e39 M5 didn't clench the number one spot, is because it wasn't the only great car the M division made from 2000 to 2010.
3) tie: M6 Convertible & M3 CSL:
If I had ever been given the privilege of driving the e46 M3 CSL
long term, it would probably be first on this list. Some minor detail about it not being sold here in the states. It's also plagued by the notoriously troublesome SMGII transmission. An odd bit of technology that won't age half as well as the M3's looks. The M6 Convertible
is possibly the utility man of the M lineup . It's a lazy, top-down cruiser when you want it to be, or a screaming banshee from 4,000 rpm all the way to the 8,250 rpm red line. It's shrugs off it's heft in the corners, but still feels exactly like the burly grand tourer that is jammed packed with enough technology to turn on Mark Zuckerberg. It's the perfect car to gobble up hundreds of miles at 90+ mph with the top down. It was also available with BMW's silky smooth six-speed manual.
2010's- A New Age: The Turbocharged Era
1) 2011 BMW 1M
The first turbocharged M car is the most hoontastic cars M GmbH has made in a long time. With its bull doggish front fascia, swollen fenders, and just the right amount of on-the-limit oversteer, the 1M is a blast to drive. It could be a sign that the future of M will be full of tire smoke, burning brakes and smiling faces.
2) 2012+ BMW M5
The latest M5 may be the official ambassador of the next generation of M cars It's better looking than the V10 M5, has more useable power thanks to it's 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 spooling out 550 hp and 510 lb-ft of torque, gets better gas mileage, and has more space for humans. Unfortunately, it doesn't come with a manual gearbox standard, and the engine sound is partially synthesized through the speakers. But like every M5 before it, the F10 M5 is simply a machine of its time.
3) 2010 BMW X5M
Yes, we think the X5M is worthy of being on this list of legendary cars. It has all the things we love about the regular X5, including plenty of bottom end torque to make passing that Prius in the left lane one of the most fullfilling things you'll do all day. The X6M on the other hand...they don't make pianos big enough for us to drop on it.
Honorable Mention: BMW M550d xDrive
The M550d xDrive is the sensible M for the discerning BMW enthusiast with any of the above cars already in the garage. Besides what better way to irritate the M fanboys than with a diesel proudly waving the red, blue and purple? We think it's a sensible, fast car that has a more in common with the old M535i than meets the eye.
Source: BMW, BMW M Registry, The Downshift Magazine