Sorting through BMW’s M Series
Sure, auto racing is cool, but what’s the point? Competitive edge or a need for speed are well and good, but companies who sponsor motorsports need a return on their investment. Brand recognition is one benefit, as is the trickle-down effect when race car tech is applied to road cars. The result is vehicles that are faster, sharper, and more powerful thanks to motorsports pedigree. No brand has capitalized on this as successfully as BMW’s M division.
Standard BMWs are a solid basis to build upon, and over the years M has created some truly legendary vehicles. Their focus is always on sharp handling, excellent feedback, and driver engagement more so than outright acceleration. M cars’ engines celebrate peaky, high-revving performance, and as such are meant more for twisty roads and tracks than drag strips. They’ve become regarded as some of the best driving, most fun cars ever made.
The M stands — fittingly — for Motorsport. Founded in 1972 with a pure focus on making race cars, the M division converted normal BMWs into dominant winners. Realizing they could capitalize on their growing recognition, M debuted their first street-legal car in 1978: the mid-engined M1. To this day it’s the only truly bespoke M car; all other M-badged vehicles have been based on standard BMW models. A year later, the 5-Series based M535i was released.
The M535i paved the way for the M5, the highest-performance version of BMW’s midsize sedan. Besides the handling M cars are known for, the M5 has featured some unusual — and powerful — engines over the years. The timeless E39 generation M5 had a 400 horsepower V8, considered one of the M division’s finest powerplants. After that came the E60 model, packing a 500 horsepower Formula 1-inspired V10 that screamed to a 8,250 RPM redline. Today’s F90 M5 sends upwards of 600 horsepower to all four wheels via a twin-turbo V8, launching it to 60 in about three seconds.
The M3 is an automotive institution, the epitome of putting a powerful engine in a small car. With a four cylinder generating about 200 horsepower, the original E30 M3 thrilled drivers with its agility and composure at the limit, sparking BMW’s competitors to create sporty small vehicles of their own. The E46 generation M3 is often regarded as the ultimate expression of BMW M, with a smooth-revving inline-six, brilliant chassis, and no-frills design.
M added muscle to the E90 M3 by shoehorning a 400 horsepower V8 under the hood, and made it available as a coupe, convertible, or sedan to suit any preference. Today’s M3 is a sedan only, while its coupe equivalent is the M4. In either case a twin-turbo 425 horsepower inline-six resides in the carbon fiber-reinforced engine bay.
As the M3 increased in size and power over the years, purists longed for a car with the accessible power and smaller proportions of its earlier generations. Their prayers were answered with the M2, a compact coupe that harkens back to the original E30.
While not as powerful or practical as bigger M models, the M2 prioritizes putting a smile on the driver’s face — perhaps not a critical metric for hot laps at the track, but certainly for the real world.
X5 M & X6 M
As the automotive market evolved and crossovers have become popular, M has adapted in stride. M zealots decried the creation of the X5 M and X6 M (and more recently, the X3 M and X4 M) as a dilution of M’s spirit, but these big-bodied SUVs pack the presence and power worthy of the brand. They share a twin-turbo V8 with the M5, and all-wheel drive for better traction in inclement weather — or off the line. Their extra mass certainly make them less suited for a track, but the extra space and capacity their SUV bodies provide make them more usable day-to-day.
M’s prevalence continues to grow as they apply their touch to new and varied BMW models. Now, “M Sport” models (the 440i GranCoupe, for example) feature some of the looks and oomph that full-fledged M cars have while remaining more livable.
It seems people are willing to pay extra for the power and aura that comes with the mighty M badge, and in that sense, BMW’s motorsports investment has paid off fantastically.