The first production road car developed by BMW’s M division was the M1 of 1978, but the company has a history dating back to 1972 and the founding of BMW Motorsport GmbH.
Later it became known as BMW M GmbH: a company responsible for developing some of the most iconic performance cars of all-time, as well as some capable but controversial SUVs.
Happily, the marque is soon to be back on form with a flagship 600hp+ M8. It could be one of the all-time great M cars.
Selecting the best M cars ever built is a little like choosing the best Beatles song. To make things a little easier, we’ve created a list of 25, although we appreciate that some people might opt for a different group of legends. Read on to discover what made our shortlist. Oh, and the best Beatles song is ‘A Day in the Life’. Probably.
- BMW M3: a history in pictures
- BMW M3 CSL review: Retro Road Test
- BMW M4 Competition Pack: Two-Minute Road Test
BMW E26 M1
Commercial disaster it might have been, but the M1 holds a special place in motoring history as BMW’s first and only supercar, not to mention one of Giorgetto Giugiaro’s finest creations.
Quite why BMW felt it needed to build a supercar is still unknown, but it turned to Lamborghini for help with the chassis and production. But with the Italians falling behind schedule, BMW took the project in house and even created its own ProCar race series to help promote its new supercar.
The 3.5-litre straight-six engine of the BMW M1 found a new home in the M635CSi, known as the M6 in Japan and North America. The ultimate version of the E24 6 Series was developed by BMW Motorsport and featured a revised chassis and a number of cosmetic upgrades.
In 1989, when the M635CSi was in the twilight of its life, it cost an eye-watering £46,000 – a massive £9,000 more than the regular 635CSi. That meant it was battling with the likes of the Ferrari Mondial, Lamborghini Jalpa and Porsche 911. BMW obviously had one eye on the future when it developed the M1…
BMW E28 M5
The E28 M5 was one of the original Q-cars, but its discreet appearance was no accident. BMW knew that this handbuilt and costly super-saloon would appeal to buyers in their 40s and 50s, many of whom wouldn’t be turned on by big spoilers, wide arches and associated trinkets.
Even the rear spoiler was an option, while buyers could choose to delete the M5 badge from the boot lid. At launch, the E28 M5 was the fastest production saloon car in the world, with a 0-60mph time of 6.5 seconds and a top speed of 153mph. A legend was born.
BMW E30 M3
In common with the E28 M5, the development of the E30 M3 was driven by a desire to mess with the head of Mercedes-Benz, both on the track and on the road. By the time it was unveiled at the 1985 Frankfurt Motor Show, BMW was already playing catch-up, with the 190E 2.3-16 unveiled a year earlier.
Within 12 months, BMW had exceeded the 5,000 units required for Group A homologation – it was clear that it had a hit on its hands. As the M3’s racing career developed, so did the need to create more homologation specials, which resulted in the Evolution and Evolution II special editions. A convertible version signalled a shift from pure racing to a luxury product.
BMW E36 M3 Evo
The second generation E36 M3 highlights this move upmarket, presenting a more refined take on the performance saloon model. That it was built on standard production lines and not at BMW’s M GmbH plant only serves to highlight this point. All of which means the E36 M3 shouldn’t register on a list of all-time greats, right? Well, no, not exactly.
Contemporary reviews were quick to point out that the saloon felt sharper than the coupe, while special editions only served to enhance the E36’s reputation. And in the more powerful M3 Evo, with its larger 3.2-litre engine, the E36 evolved into a highly accomplished all-rounder.
BMW E46 M3
If the jury is out on the E36, there can be no such doubts when it comes to the E46 M3. This felt like a return to form for the M3, complete with ‘phat’ arches and 343hp from its 3.2-litre straight-six engine. The 0-60mph time dropped to a smidgen over five seconds. Properly quick, then.
In so many ways, the E46 could be classed as the definitive M3. It has the looks, the pedigree, the performance and – perhaps crucially – the soundtrack. The engine and exhaust combine to deliver a symphony for the ears, ranging from a rasp to a wail. Hard to beat?
BMW E46 M3 CSL
Yes, it is possible to improve on perfection, and it comes in the form of the CSL. It speaks volumes that the current M2 – widely considered to be one of the greatest M cars of all-time – has been compared to the E46 M3 CSL. Stripped of all but the bare essentials, the CSL was 110kg lighter than the regular M3, creating a more hardcore driving experience.
CSL stands for ‘Coupe Sport Lightweight’, a reference to the hugely successful 3.0 CSL of 1972. If any car was fit to wear the legendary badge, this was it. We’ll also give a special mention to the M3 CS, a kind of halfway house between the M3 and the CSL.
BMW 1 Series M Coupe
The BMW 1 Series M Coupe – or 1 M Coupe – was an unlikely hero. Created using bits from the M3 and the Z4, BMW turned the junior exec into a senior performance player. It might not be an M car in the truest sense – there’s no bespoke engine to be found here – but it deserves its place alongside the Bavarian thoroughbreds.
BMW squeezed 340hp from 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged six-cylinder engine, with a maximum 369lb ft of torque available on overboost. If you were fortunate enough to buy one new, you’re sitting on a little goldmine. Price then: £39,995. Price now: upwards of £40,000, but as much as £65,000.
BMW M2 Competition
All of which means that you could save money by ‘investing’ in a brand new BMW M2 Competition. When we drove the original M2 we came away with the view that it’s the best new M car you can buy, a continuation of a bloodline that includes the 1 Series M Coupe, E46 M3 and E30 M3.
The Competition is even better, with a heart transplant courtesy of big brother M4 and revised suspension calibration and diff software. In all it’s the ultimate version of one of the great M cars of the last 20 years.
BMW E39 M5
The all-time greats just keep on coming. If the E46 M3 CSL is the ‘A Day in the Life’ of the M world, the E39 M5 is probably ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. In fact, the E39 is a far better all-rounder – as at home on the commute as it is on the track.
Power is sourced from a normally aspirated 4.9-litre V8 engine producing 400hp at 6,600rpm and 369lb ft of torque at 3,800rpm. But the E39 M5 was more than just a terrific engine. BMW’s M division tweaked the suspension, lowered the ride height, sharpened the steering and added a limited-slip diff to create one of the greatest performance saloons of all-time.
BMW E34 M5
Back in 1990 the E34 M5 was the fastest saloon car in the world, which is why Car magazine chose to pit against the Ferrari Testarossa. Perhaps predictably, the Testarossa won the day, with the magazine claiming that the M5 was “massively competent, but not really fun to drive”.
Retrospectively, Evo magazine concluded that “it takes time to uncover this precise adjustability… but it’s worth the effort. It’s a car you could spend a great deal of time with and never get bored. Phwoar.” That’ll do for us.
BMW E90/E92 M3
The introduction of the E92 – the fourth generation M3 – is the point at which the performance 3 Series jumped from six to eight cylinders. The E92 M3 coupe came first, swiftly followed by the E90 saloon, both of which were powered by a 4.0-litre V8 engine producing 420hp.
Sure, the shift from straight-six to vee-eight might have upset the purists, but the E90/E92 soon won people over thanks to its devastating performance. Another contender for the greatest all-rounder, the E90/E92 featured a ‘M’ button, unlocking the M3’s true potential.
BMW E90 M3 CRT
The E90/E92 spawned a number of special editions, including the M3 Coupe Edition, M3 GTS and the last-of-the-line M Performance Edition. Picking the best is a highly subjective opinion and – with a limitless amount of cash – we’d opt for the super-expensive M3 CRT. The CRT stands for Carbon Racing Technology, previewing new body panels set to appear on the i3 and i8.
The CRT also received uprated brakes, adjustable coilovers, titanium mufflers and less sound deadening for a more hardcore driving experience. All were finished in Frozen Polar Silver paint, but none came to the UK. Shame.
BMW F13 M6
Aside from the ludicrously vulgar X5 M and X6 M, the M6 Coupe is the most expensive current M car in the BMW range. The M6 Coupe starts at £95,580, while the M6 Convertible manages to break into six figures. There’s also an M6 Gran Coupe in the middle, but our money – nobody mention depreciation – would be on the Coupe.
Power is sourced from a 4.4-litre twin-turbocharged V8 engine developing a huge 560hp and 516lb ft of torque. Remove the rev limiter and this super-svelte M car will top 189mph, sprinting to 62mph in just 3.9 seconds. We’d add the £9,000 Competition Package for good measure. Well, if you’re going to drop the best part of £100k on a new car, you might as well do it in style.
BMW F82 M4 GTS
As the fastest production BMW ever built, the M4 GTS demands attention. Some will be unable to see beyond the slightly ‘aftermarket’ styling or the £120,000+ price tag BMW is demanding for the pleasure of owning this Top Trumps winner. But a 190mph top speed and 0-62mph time of 3.8 seconds might shift the balance in its favour.
It is, of course, at home on the track, where the GTS can make the most of its 69hp and 39lb ft gains over the standard M4. Production is limited to 700 worldwide, with a mere 30 coming to the UK. Expect the majority of these to be squirrelled away for investment purposes.
BMW Z3 M Coupe
A controversial choice, perhaps, but you only need to look at the prices being asked for the Z3 M Coupe to appreciate the greatness of BMW’s ‘breadvan’. You could understand the desire to create a Z3 M Roadster, but the Coupe required a greater leap of faith for BMW bosses.
The 3.2-litre six-cylinder engine developed between 321hp and 325hp, depending on the engine, with the 0-62mph sitting at just over five seconds. The looks might be an acquired taste, but exclusivity and the M badge will ensure classic status.
BMW E60 M5
If you want pedigree, the BMW E60 M5 has it by the bucketload. This was the first production saloon car to be powered by a V10 petrol engine, while the SMG transmission was a result of BMW’s involvement with the Sauber F1 team. Yet again, the M5 took the mantle of world’s fastest four-door saloon, with an unlimited top speed of 200mph.
The full force of 507 horses kicks in at 7,750rpm, which simply encourages you to explore the upper reaches of the rev range. And yet, the E60 M5 will happily spend its entire time on the autobahn, barely breaking sweat as it soothes away the miles. But it’s not the best all-rounder of the E60 generation…
BMW E61 M5 Touring
Because that accolade belongs to the E61 M5 Touring: the first M5 wagon to be officially sold in the UK. Everyone loves a performance wagon, right, while the M5 Touring also managed to smooth away the controversial Chris Bangle styling of the E60 saloon.
Seriously, where are the drawbacks? The performance figures are identical, and yet the Touring offers 1,650 litres of luggage capacity. BMW hasn’t built another M5 Touring, making this the last of the breed. We had a look on Auto Trader for inspiration (well you would, wouldn’t you?) where we found just two for sale, both available for less than £30,000.
BMW Z4 M Coupe
If the styling of the BMW Z3 M Coupe was a tad divisive, the Z4 M Coupe was a more sombre affair. Power is sourced from a 3.2-litre straight-six engine developing 343hp and 269lb ft of torque.
Purists rejoice, because the Z4 M Coupe and its Roadster sibling were only offered with a six-speed manual transmission, with a 0-62mph time sneaking below five seconds. Chris Bangle’s ‘flame surfacing’ has aged remarkably well, while prices start from around £15,000. Bargain.
BMW M550d xDrive
A diesel M car: whatever next? But before the purists choke on their V-Power, we should remember that the M550d xDrive features a quad-turbocharged diesel engine producing 400hp and 561lb ft of torque.
Sure, it’s a BMW M Performance product rather than a proper M car, but these are different times. Besides, a 0-62mph time of 4.4 seconds for the saloon and 4.6 seconds for the Touring will have this diesel upstart nipping at the heels of any genuine M car.
BMW G30 M5
The new M5 takes the difficult-to-love F10 formula and very nearly perfects it, with the sharpened looks of the G30 combining with a great new automatic gearbox, a livelier updated engine and switchable four-wheel-drive.
It’s a 600hp stonker jack-of-all-trades car that the F10 tried but never quite managed to be. The current Mercedes E63 has a similar weapons-grade capability with switchable all-wheel-drive. The next Audi RS 6 has got a real fight on its hands.
BMW E31 850CSi (M8)
The best M car that never was? The E31 850CSi was developed by BMW Motorsport and featured a 5.6-litre V12 engine developing 385hp and 406lb ft of torque. It was, if you like, a BMW M8 in all but name.
A true M8 was planned – with a lightweight body and a 550hp V12 engine – but BMW pulled the plug. The new M8 is due out this year.
BMW E63 M6
In many ways, the E63 M6 was a two-door M5, powered by the same 5.0-litre V10 engine. And yet the coupe featured a carbon fibre roof and new dashboard, making it 80kg lighter than the super-saloon.
When new it was criticised for being more expensive and less practical than the M5, but a decade on that hardly seems to matter. Best of all: prices start from around £15,000.
BMW E9 3.0 CSL
Without the E9 3.0 CSL there might not be a BMW M division. It is, if you like, the godfather of the M badge: the very genesis of the brand.
BMW’s Motorsport division developed and raced the ‘Batmobile’, laying the foundations for the future of performance gems.
BMW E12 M535i
Again, the M535i isn’t a true M car, but as the forerunner to the M5 it warrants a place on our list. The only M car prior to the M535i was the M1, which makes this saloon the first car to be developed with everyday customers in mind.
We’ll give a special mention to the E12 530 MLE (Motorsport Limited Edition): a homologation special developed by BMW of South Africa and BMW Motorsport GmbH.