BMW Motorsport was born in May 1972, conceived to support BMW’s racing endeavors. If it had stopped there, it still would have been a historic outfit. Only BMW Motorsport (renamed BMW M in 1993) didn’t stop at racing; it eventually branched out to create some of the best high-performance road cars of all time, funneling its racing know-how to BMW dealerships around the globe. Nearly since its inception, BMW M has generated legendary sports cars, coupes, sedans, wagons, and (much later) SUVs, all sporting the coveted M badge. Click through for what we think are the best cars to rock that magic letter:
This article is updated whenever a new model merits inclusion or an existing model’s rank from Car and Driver changes. It was originally published July 2018.
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
1972–1975 E9 3.0 CSL “Batmobile”
BMW M’s first touring coupe, the 3.0 CSL, appeared in the ‘70s, and not only did it achieve what was then the fastest production-car lap time at the Nürburgring Nordschleife, it took home six European Touring Car Championship trophies. Nicknamed the Batmobile because of its aggressively flared fenders and massive rear wing, the 3.0 CSL became the face of BMW’s motorsport efforts in its day. In fact, toward the end of the race car’s dominating career, its inline-six engine eventually came to produce nearly 800 horsepower. Though not badged as an M car officially, the 3.0 CSL is M’s first foray into developing road cars.
Six years after the 3.0 CSL’s debut and in the midst of its dominating Touring Car success, BMW Motorsport moved to enter Group 4. Initially working with Lamborghini, BMW designed the M1, its first and, until the i8 plug-in hybrid came along, only mid-engined sports car that would then field the series. Under Group 4 homologation requirements, a road-going version of the M1 was made available. The sports car’s 278-hp engine made it among the fastest road cars available in the late 1970s. BMW also developed their own one-make racing series for the M1, called Procar, which acted as a support series for Formula 1. Fittingly, the M1 would be the first BMW ever to wear the coveted M badge when it debuted for 1978.
1984–1989 E24 M635CSi
The M1’s six-cylinder engine found itself a new home in 1984: the engine bays of the Euro-spec M635CSi. The M635CSi, nicknamed the Shark, initially boasted 286 horsepower and reached 62 mph in 6.4 seconds in our testing. Top speed was a heady 158 mph, and we declared that “James Bond would feel right at home in an M635CSi.” When the M635CSi reached the North American market in 1987, it was badged M6 and used BMW’s less powerful S38 engine in place of the M1-derived M88.
1986–1988 E28 M5
Having previously introduced an M535i version of the E12 5-series in 1979 (the first M-badged 5-series), BMW Motorsport released another, based on the new E28, in 1985. It didn’t stop there: Later that same year, BMW rolled out the first-generation M5 that built on the M535i’s sport-sedan base with a 286-hp 3.5-liter inline-six pulled straight out of the legendary M1 sports car and shared with the M635CSi. Like that 6-series, though, the M5 we received in America used a 255-hp six. That M5’s 6.3-second zero-to-60-mph time in our hands barely lagged behind its M6 sibling’s, while its 147-mph top speed edged that coupe’s by a few mph. It was easily the fastest four-door production car in its time.
1990 E30 M3 Sport Evolution
After BMW withdrew from F1 racing in 1986, its motorsports division turned its attention to touring-car racing. This pivot eventually birthed one of the most revered M cars ever made: the original M3. The two-door’s DOHC 2.3-liter four-cylinder spun up an aggressive 192 horsepower and powered M3s to more than 1500 overall race wins, including two European Touring Car Championships and two DTM titles. Homologation required that at least 5000 road-legal variants be sold to customers, but more than 17,000 M3s ended up being sold globally over its production run. In 1990, BMW M released 600 M3s in lightweight, racing-spec Sport Evolution guise. Representing the zenith of the venerated M3, the Sport Evo sported a larger, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine making 235 horsepower along with adjustable front and rear spoilers, a modified suspension, and lightweight components that cut the curb weight by around 77 pounds. The M3 evolved.
1993–1997 E31 850CSi
BMW’s original 8-series lineup—as opposed to the rerun replacing the 6-series for 2019—consisted of the 840Ci, powered by a 282-hp 4.0-liter V-8 engine; the 850i, powered by a 296-hp 5.0-liter V-12; the 850Ci, powered by a 322-hp 5.4-liter V-12; and the top-dog 850CSi, powered by a 376-hp 5.6-liter V-12. Think of the 850CSi as the M8 that nearly happened (that project was scrapped). It was developed by BMW M and featured a lowered sport suspension, variable throttle linkage and rpm limiting, distinctive front and rear lower spoilers, and many other racing-derived upgrades. It might be an atypical M car—in that it technically isn’t one—but it attests to the typical M formula, and soon BMW will actually (finally!) build an M8 coupe, lending the 850CSi greater historical credence.
1993–2003 E36/8 M Coupe
With bigger and more powerful brakes, unique wheels, a firmer suspension, and special design elements inside and out, the M coupe looked and handled altogether more purposefully than the humble Z3 on which it was based. Power initially came from BMW’s DOHC 3.2-liter inline-six (pulled from the E36 M3), which punched out 240 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. For 2001, the M coupe was upgraded and given the E46 M3’s S54 inline-six, which made 315 horsepower and 251 lb-ft. In our 2001 review, we described the M coupe’s engine as having “the kind of thrust that feels fluid, inevitable, addictive, and corrupting.” Those accolades translated into a 4.8-second sprint to 60 mph and a governed top speed of 162 mph in our testing.
2000-2003 E39 M5
The M5, already having made a name for itself as one of the 20th century’s fastest sports sedans, adopted eight-cylinder power for the first time in 1998. Thus was born the peerless E39 M5, whose sonorous 5.0-liter V-8 produced 394 horsepower at 6600 rpm and 368 lb-ft of torque at 3800 rpm and was matched to a six-speed manual gearbox. The E39 M5 we pitted against the Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG and Jaguar XJR in a 2000 comparison test hurtled to 60 mph from a rest in 4.8 seconds. Between its communicative controls, drop-dead handsome looks, and business-like cabin, the BMW earned our praise for being “the most desirable sedan in the world.” Even today, the E39 still is considered a benchmark sports sedan
2003 E46 M3 CSL
BMW M released yet another amped-up version of the M3 in 2003: the M3 CSL. Borrowing its “coupe sport lightweight” nomenclature from the legendary 3.0 CSL, the M3 CSL focused heavily on reduced mass. Carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic was used for the center console, door panels, front and rear bumpers, and roof, which was left unpainted. The rear window glass was thinner, the trunklid was made from sheet-molding compound, and features including the air conditioning and radio were stripped out. These efforts dropped the M3’s curb weight by 243 pounds to just a hair over 3000 pounds. Naturally, BMW added more power to the M3’s 3.2-liter inline-six, knocking output up from 343 to 360 horsepower. A button on the microsuede-wrapped steering wheel activated a Track driving mode, and with the launch control function activated, acceleration to 62 mph took just 4.9 seconds by BMW’s estimate.
2007–2010 E61 M5 Touring
Today, several BMW M cars are powered by V-8s, but eight-cylinder M cars have only existed since 1998, when the then new E39 M5 made its debut with one. The next-generation E60 M5 took things up a notch (well, two—we mean cylinders) with a 5.0-liter V-10 inspired by BMW’s F1 engines. The 10-cylinder engine produced 500 horsepower at 7750 rpm and 383 lb-ft of torque at 6100 rpm, and it redlined at a screaming 8250 rpm. What truly made this generation of M5 so special, however, was that it saw the station-wagon body style rejoin the lineup. Because who doesn’t want a V-10 in the nose of their family hauler? Unfortunately, the Touring never made its way onto North American roads (we only received the sedan), but that doesn’t take away from its being one noteworthy M car.
2010–2014 E71 X6 M
All-wheel drive didn’t find its way into BMW’s M cars until 2010, when, naturally, the grippier drive system debuted in the original X5 M and X6 M SUVs. Both muscle haulers were powered by BMW’s corporate V-8 (then also found in the X5 and X6, 5-series, and 7-series). For M duty, the mill came upgraded with twin-scroll turbochargers and the brand’s first ever crossover exhaust manifold. Of course, BMW fans called blasphemy on the tall, heavy X5 and X6, but these M buses’ 555 horsepower and 500 lb-ft of torque helped deliver sub-5.0-second zero-to-60-mph acceleration times. With BMW’s xDrive all-wheel drive and active chassis features (along with ludicrously wide rear tires), the SUVs were surprisingly fierce in the corners. In our 2009 review, we dubbed it “an irrational SUV that begins feeling fairly rational at about 130 mph.” With M-badged SUVs now a pillar of the M lineup, these originals deserve recognition for setting the pace—a high, rapid pace, that is.
2011 E82 1-series M Coupe
As BMW’s core models continued to grow ever larger—following industry trend, of course—so, too, did the M cars they underpinned. That’s what made the 1-series M coupe so refreshing in 2011: It was smaller than the contemporary M3, sized more like a two-generations-old E36 M3 coupe. Even so, it came with a thoroughly modern twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six spitting out 335 horsepower and 370 lb-ft of torque. The little M coupe raced to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds and had an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph, and it handled smartly (like a go-kart, we said back then) thanks to its all-aluminum suspension that was originally designed for the E92 M3 from the same era.
2016 F82 M4 GTS
For 2016, BMW made the M4 GTS—a very special-edition M4—available to around 300 lucky Americans. Their prize? An M4 coupe running an innovative water-injection system, which helped boost the twin-turbocharged inline-six’s output to 493 horsepower—up from 425 in the base coupe—and helped shove the two-door around the Nürburgring in a swift seven minutes and 28 seconds, 24 seconds faster than a regular M4. The GTS also set a time of 2:52.9 around Virginia International Raceway at our annual Lightning Lap test, almost eight seconds quicker than a standard M4.
2018–Present F90 M5
Described as the “world’s fastest-moving tailored suit” by Domagoj Dukec, BMW’s vice president of design, the sixth-generation F90 M5 is the quickest ever M car to reach 60 mph, according to BMW, making the run in 3.2 seconds. It is powered by the latest, most muscular version of BMW’s corporate twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8. With 600 horsepower and 553 lb-ft of torque, the V-8 is 40 hp and 53 lb-ft stronger than its predecessor and utilizes turbos pushing 24.5 psi of boost. A new M-specific all-wheel-drive system dubbed M xDrive helps distribute that might to the pavement and helps the M5 to achieve its serious acceleration numbers. Its 2.8-second rip to 60 mph makes it the quickest sedan we’ve ever tested.
2016-Present F87 M2
Some might consider the BMW M2 the greatest modern M driver’s car, and its sub-$60,000 starting price makes it that much sweeter. The little rear-wheel-drive coupe debuted with a turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six that conjured up 365 horsepower at 6500 rpm. A six-speed manual was standard—and still is. Today, the M2 is available in 405-hp Competition guise, and there’s also a limited M2 CS, which has the M4’s 444-hp twin-turbo six under the hood.
2019-Present F92 M8 Competition
More reality warping missile than car, the M8 Competition Coupe and Convertible (and standard M8) arrived in 2019 as the king of the M lineup. BMW’s S63 twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8 is at the heart, with 617 horsepower on tap in the Competition (and 600 horsepower in the M8). Paired with BMW’s M xDrive all-wheel-drive system, which favors the rear wheels, and sticky Pirelli P Zero PZ4 rubber, the M8 launched to 60 mph in 2.5 seconds in our testing, and when we kept our foot Hulk-smashed into the pedal, we passed through the quarter mile in 10.7 seconds at 129 mph. We could do without the eye-incinerating Java Green Metallic paintjob, though.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below