When looking back at over 50 years of BMW’s M Division, we can see that they have been taking their standard models of road cars and given them a huge dose of modification steroids. Sharper transmission, tuned up engines, more responsive throttle and improved suspension are just some of the things that the M people like to play with to make their cars stand out from the crowd. Better braking systems and more streamlined aerodynamics make these cars more agile, especially when the road stops being a straight line and becomes more twisty. Essentially making race cars out of road cars that you can use every day.
Like muscle cars, M cars have big and powerful engines, but unlike muscle cars, they are not big, bulky and boxy in their design like, for example, what some may call the last great muscle car the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat. Here are 10 BMWs that we would choose to buy over any muscle car.
2000 – 2006 BMW M3 E46
This version of the M3 packs one hell of a punch. A straight six, high-revving 8,000rpm, 3.2-liter engine throws out 338hp achieving 0-62mph in 5.1 seconds. Figures that are impressive even by today’s standards. Where this might not be as powerful as a V8 (which came in later versions) it is still a darling on both the track and the road. It’s poised and balanced with a 50/50 weight distribution keeping it planted to the tarmac even when it is being pushed to the limit. And when it does let go it’s very easy to control and bring everything back in line. In many ways it is like a tamed beast that has a ferocious bite when let loose but when kept under control it’s loads of fun.
As a machine the E46 M3 is incredible. It is simple and effective. However, it is not just a machine. Sitting on the road it has a presence that will fill you with awe. Drop-dead gorgeous looks come courtesy of an enlarged front bumper giving it an aggressive front end, flared wheel arches that snarl at you every time you press the throttle and the infamous chrome side grilles that became the mark of the M3. On top of all this it has very usable back seats and a very practical trunk, coupled with all the creature comforts that you come to expect from BMW. All these make it a great all-rounder. Whether it’s to belt around a track or take on the country lanes or doing the weekly shopping, the E46 M3, which some consider to be the best M car has got it covered and will always leave a smile on the face of anyone that drives it.
1986 – 1991 BMW M3 E30
The original and some would argue the best M3 ever made. This iconic car has become a modern-day classic. It holds a place on this list not only because it’s a classic but also because it is a joyous thing to drive. Born from the second generation 3 series, it has a 2.3-liter, lightweight, four-cylinder engine that produces 300hp in the race car and around 200hp in the road version. By today’s standard that amount of power may seem quite pedestrian, but in the mid 1980s it outclassed many other sports cars in its range. Apart from its exterior design changes from the normal 3 series, the E30 M3 was only available in left-hand drive (although conversion to right-hand drive, if desired, is possible) and a Getrag dog-leg five speed gearbox, something that was also seen in the iconic and very special supercar the Ford GT40. This meant that gears 2 and 3 as well as 4 and 5 were in a straight line making smoother and faster gear changes which all adds to the driving experience.
Coming from the mid 1980s, this car came without a lot of the electronic driver aids that you now see as standard on today’s model. You still got the ABS anti-locking braking system and assisted steering but more or less everything else requires driver attention. In other words, being awake is the only way to drive this car. There are no computer systems kicking in to keep the car under control. It’s just driver and machine working together in harmony to get the best from that wonderful engine.
2008 – 2013 BMW M3 GTS E92
The E92 M3 GTS took car technology to another level. It was the first time BMW powered its M3 with a V8, replacing the iconic straight-six engine that was so well established in these cars. A bigger engine meant more power and that is exactly what you got. Over 400 horses stampede out of this engine through a seven speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, accelerating the car from 0-62mph in 4.4 seconds and on to a top speed of 190mph. Redlining at over 8,000rpm, the roar from the 4.4-liter V8 is simply intoxicating and once experienced, the resulting effect can only be described as being hooked.
Just like the original, and subsequent versions thereafter, this is a race car for the road. On the outside it may not look like a racer with its soft curves and subtle bulges, but just sit inside and the bucket seats with the no-frills interior are an instant reminder that there is something a little bit special about this car. This was also the last coupe version to bear the M3 name as the newer generation M3 Coupes are now renamed M4.
1968 – 1975 BMW 3.0 CSL E9
The first thing that anyone needs to know about the BMW 3.0 CSL, affectionately referred to as the ‘Batmobile’, is that it was the car that launched BMW’s M Division. The 3.0-liter, six-cylinder inline engine produced just over 200hp with a 0-62mph time of 7.4 seconds. This car, however, is much more than just about its figures. With the ‘L’ in CSL meaning ‘leicht’ (light), that is precisely what you got. What you would be looking at is very little in the way of interior refinement, perspex windows, an aluminium hood, doors and trunk lid all in the name of saving weight. If weight could come off, it came off. All this added up to a road car that in race version won the European Touring Car Championship four years in a row.
The CSL showed a radical shift in design for BMW. Specially made bucket seats (which in those days was radical) kept the driver firmly in place no matter how hard the car was driven. A front spoiler that put loads of down force on the front axle making sure that the nose pointed where you wanted the car to go and a rear spoiler that pushed the back wheels into the road giving them massive amounts of traction. Horizontal grilles on the side wings made the car more stable when driven fast, especially through the bends. The end result is a car that looks amazing, drives aggressively and can provide plenty of thrills.
2012 – 2016 BMW M5 F10
The M5 was the car that took sedan luxury and married it with hardcore sports technology to produce something that could get you from point A to point B in the fastest way possible in luxurious comfort. This breed of M5 kept the same philosophy but had a totally different mindset. It saw the end of an era of naturally aspirated engines that were equipped with endless tuning potential and the introduction of turbocharged monsters. The V10 that powered previous generations got replaced with a V8 in the F10. Now dropping the power sounds like a step backwards but not with the wizards in the M Division. They managed to conjure up 552hp, 10 more than its rival Jaguar XFR-S, from a 4.4-liter twin turbocharged V8. It’s not surprising then that the M5 has always been the benchmark for judging performance sedans. For instance, taking a look at some of the facts and figures of the Mercedes E63S AMG shows that it may have a little over 600hp, but it can’t deliver that power as well as the M5 which means they both do 0-62mph in 3.4 seconds.
M5’s have always been a very discreet car and this version is no different. It’s not a load mouthed hooligan but a more refined gentleman. It still has a mean presence when it’s on the highway and the only thing that can be seen in the mirror is that bold grille and those xenon headlights storming up from the rear, but instead of pushing its way through, it politely moves other cars to one side as it cruises past. That’s not to say the roar isn’t there, as it most certainly is, it’s just that it doesn’t need to shout about it. This car makes this list as it impresses on all fronts. It’s a sedan that has a sports heart beating under the hood. It can be as aggressive as you want while at the same time remain restrained and dignified.
1988 – 1995 BMW M5 E34
The E34 is the second generation M5 that originally came with a 3.5-liter straight six engine originally used to power the M1 (technically the first BMW to bear the ‘M’ designation and what could arguably be one of the best features of the M1). In later versions, however, the 3.5-liter got an upgrade to a 3.8, enabling it to do 0-62mph in a blistering 5.4 seconds. Pretty impressive in its day for a car that weighed over 1600 kilograms. The upgraded engine bumped up the power from 315hp to 340hp. All that extra power did not mean that the E34 became more difficult to control. On the contrary, this car still drove like a dream, and it was this version that started off the horsepower battle for high performing sedans in the automotive industry.
With the technical witchcraft that only the people in the M Division can do, improving things like suspension and brakes made this car handle like no other. This made it outclass supercars of its day like the well-loved and maybe underreated supercar the Ferrari Testarossa. No wonder it became the standard for all high performance sedans. In fact, it was the leader of the pack in the late 1980s for this category and arguably holds that crown to this day.
1984 – 1988 BMW M5 E28
The E28 M5 is a real diamond in the rough. It was the genesis of the M5 and came to dominate the performance sedan market. BMW took the concept of sedans being soft, comfortable and spacious and quite literally turned it on its head. Just like the E34 model, the E28 had the engine from the M1. That sweet, six-cylinder 3.5-liter pumped out 282hp propelling the car from 0-62 in 6.1 seconds. For its time that was very impressive and even compared to present day cars that is still a very respectable time. The E28 even gave supercars a run for their money in its day. Take the Ferrari 328 GTS of the same era, that could only kick out 270hp. In fact BMW got the recipe for a sports sedan so spot on that subsequent M5’s all owe their existence to this very model.
It’s no wonder then that the E28 was the fastest four-door car on the market when launched. However, you would never get that impression when looking at it. There are no real tell-tale signs that this is a performance car. You could say that it looked quite ordinary and would pass off as any other sedan of the time. Instead, what you got, rather, was discreet styling tweaks like the M badge on the front grille and trunk lid or the 16” alloys that were exclusive to BMW. It’s not until a person gets inside and fires up that glorious engine that the realization comes that there is a real special quality to this car.
1998 – 2003 BMW M5 E39
In 1998 BMW made a massive change with the E39 M5. It was this model that saw the straight six dropped for something a bit more powerful and the body becoming much more streamlined. At its heart beat a 4.9-liter V8 engine that produced near enough 400hp. From a standstill it reached 62mph in 4.9 seconds with the power delivered through a six-speed manual gearbox and with the 155mph limiter turned off could reach a top speed of 186mph. As with all things M, the E39 had the perfect balance of weight distribution, 50% over the front axle and 50% over the rear. And in true BMW fashion this car handled like no other sedan. Of course in a straight line it would be fast but in the corners it gave the driver confidence to be a bit braver and push that little bit harder. Obviously the rear-wheel drive would let the back end go eventually, but when it did, it was just so manageable, leaving anyone grinning from ear to ear when it came back in line.
To this day the E39 is a handsome brute with looks that have stood the test of time. The facelift given to the M5 made the body much more curvy and less bulky of yesteryear. New headlights and a smaller, lower front grille gave it a more pointy stare. Where the bulges on the hood are subtle but noticeable, the wheel arches are quiet and reserved. Inside there was still what anyone would expect with plenty of luxury and comfort. Even with the new design, BMW never lost the art of understatement. It really is a car for all occasions, from the everyday mundane of routine life to the time when there is a set of red lights and all of a sudden the throttle is buried and everything else just ends up being a dot in the mirror.
1976 – 1989 BMW M635 CSi E24
To give you a measure of just how good the engine from the M1 was, it not only powered the E28 and E34 M5, BMW transplanted it into the M635 CSi E24. This time they upped it from 282 to 286hp by adding fuel injection to the engine. It still achieved the same 0-62mph time as the E28 M5, but this car looked so good doing it. The dipped, pointy shark nose front gave it an aggressive posture straight off the bat. With this thing coming up in the rearview mirror, it looked like it was about to eat you whole. Extended front and rear chrome bumpers, long sloping hood, lowered trunk with a raised spoiler on the trunk lid and the striking front skirt became the trademark of the M635 CSi. In the mid 1980s, this car was the epitome of coolness.
Looks aside though this is a phenomenal piece of engineering. The Getrag dog-leg five speed manual gearbox quickly shifts through the gears when pushed on the track and yet this car can be a comfortable grand tourer munching up the miles with ease. Even with all its sporty credentials this car can happily seat two people in the back with room to spare. Driving a M635 CSi is most definitely an experience. There is no need for the modern fancy electronic driver aids that you see in today’s cars like the Audi A7 as this car tells the driver what is going on every second. Whether it’s felt through the fingertips or feet, this car communicates and makes the driver one with it.
2005 – 2018 BMW M6 Coupe E63
After a 16-year gap in production, BMW finally brought back the iconic M6 with the E63 model. In true BMW fashion, the new M6 is just as much a beast as the old M635 when they stopped its production. They took the monster V10 from the M5 and dropped it under the hood, making it roar with the sound of over 500 stampeding horses. They also made it some 100kg lighter than the M5 by putting it on a weight shaving diet. The result was a car that could do a lap of one of the most challenging race tracks in the world, the infamous Nürburgring in 8 minutes and 7.8 seconds. Not too shabby for a big bruiser that can go toe to toe against the almost forgotten Aston Martin V8 Vantage.
Gone is the butch shark nose front that was the signature mark of the M6, and it was replaced with a much softer curve than its predecessor. It still had the aggression but in a more subtle way. In fact the whole car got a facelift. The front skirt got a makeover which made it look very menacing. The dip in the side skirts made them blend in to the car perfectly, as do the classic grilles on the fenders. The trunk however got raised slightly with an all new design. It became a lot more bulky and boxed off at the back. The hood, too, got a whole new look. It was still a long, swooping piece of metal but this time it had a gentle curve and some extra bulges that led your eye straight down to its dipped nose. Even though the design had changed dramatically, this new version has managed to retain the essence and soul of the M6. It’s still a hardcore racer that is great for everyday use.