Virtually every car in M division history is covetable, but which are the absolute best?
We asked our staffers what the best BMW M car ever is.
After several wasted hours, a few minor arguments and a complete loss of any semblance of productivity, here’s the answers they came up with…
James Disdale: BMW M5 [E34]
While values of its E28 forebear have shot up and its E39 successor is lauded as one of the best M5s, the E34 is largely overlooked, yet to me it’s one of the most magnificent M cars ever.
With its crisp lines subtly enhanced by a small front spoiler and turbine wheels, its elegance hides real muscle in the form of a howling 315bhp 3.5- litre straight six. Later cars are faster still, thanks to a 340bhp 3.8-litre engine and six-speed manual gearbox. The steering is slow by today’s standards and the chassis is a little soft, but it’s beautifully balanced, and it’s tiny so never feels unwieldy.
It was built tough, but you will still need to find one with a history so clean that you would eat your dinner off it, while rust is a very real problem. It’s getting rare, too, but keep looking and you should find that £20,000 (one-fifth of what you need for an E30 M3) buys you a tidy E34 M5 that will be just as happy as a daily hack as it will be as an entertainer.
Andrew Frankel: BMW M3 [E46]
There are so many candidates here, but we can dismiss the SUVs, purists will focus only on the coupés and saloons and all bar the abnormally brave will steer well clear of anything with a V10 under its bonnet.
The best rule of thumb with M cars is that less really is more, and it always has been. Such cars are cheaper, lighter and better to drive than their high-powered overweight brethren.
All second-hand cars are heinously expensive right now, but a five-year-old BMW M2 for £27,000 looks tempting and less than £20,000 is probably enough to secure an E90-generation M3, complete with its screaming naturally aspirated V8 and, crucially, the standard manual gearbox.
But if there is one outstanding used M car, it has to be an E46 M3, built between 2000 and 2006. Powered by a searing straight six and with astonishing chassis balance, in terms of value for money and driving pleasure delivered, this is the greatest M car in the world today.
You can pick up leggy cars for as little as £16,000, but it might be cheaper in the long run to set aside £25,000 and get a late-model, low-mileage coupé. And avoid the SMG gearbox…
Mike Duff: BMW M3 [E90]
While many have lost money trying to second-guess the market for used M cars, it’s clear that the 2007 M3 is already on an upward trajectory, one driven by the fact that it is, with the exception of the ultra-rare E46 M3 GTR, the only V8-powered M3.
The engine is a technical marvel, closely related to the 5.0-litre V10 in the E60 M5 and with the same linear responses and love for revs. Peak power comes at a heady 8300rpm.
It has some of the same weaknesses, too, including a tendency for hard-used examples to spin their rod bearings, but there’s a good infrastructure of specialists and many owners have opted for proactive, rather than reactive, replacement.
But while the E60 M5 has to work with a recalcitrant and jerky automated manual gearbox, the M3 got the option of a much smoother, much smarter dual-clutcher. This suits the car well, and most buyers in period opted for it, but the rarity of the six-speed manual now means it carries a premium.
The rest of the driving experience has aged similarly well, although running costs will always be high: matching the official 23mpg economy figure from a tank can be regarded as a very good score.
There are plenty of cars to choose from, albeit more early examples than later ones. The majority are E92 coupés, followed by E93 coupé-cabriolets (worth considering if you can live with the heavy folding hard top, as these are cheaper), while E90 saloons are both the rarest and priciest but also, to my mind, the best looking. Think of it as a baby M5 with a decent gearbox.
Richard Lane: BMW 3.0 CSL [E9]
Everybody knows the 1973 Batmobile, but fewer know the carburetted 3.0 CSL that preceded it. For me, these earlier, rarer CSLs are perhaps the purest expression of BMW road racer, and better still, they’re more elegant than the Bats, which along with fuel injection added the chunky wings and draping bumpers for an almighty but also comical level of presence.
The carb CSL was tidier and such a focused exercise in lightweighting. The doors, boot and bonnet were all made from aluminium, while the steel for the wings and roof was thinner than that used on the donor CS. There was no front bumper, the rear side windows were made from acrylic and the rest were made from thinner laminate. Insulation was mostly binned, as were boot and bonnet locks in favour of latches. More fundamentally, the CSL ditched power steering and minimalist Scheel buckets were fitted to hold you in place while the M30 straight six and limited-slip differential got to work. About 180kg was saved (roughly double that achieved by the new M4 CSL).
Only 169 were made and none officially sold here, as the car somewhat undermined the luxurious front that BMW’s UK concessionaires preferred to present. For more, read Martin Buckley’s excellent story in Classic & Sports Car (February 2021).
Felix Page: BMW M5 [E39]
It’s easiest, I think, to pick my hands-down ultimate BMW and affix an M badge to the rear to arrive at my dream M car.
And so it could only be the E39-generation M5. Because how on earth could taking one of the best-built, most handsome and perfectly balanced saloons of all time and endowing it with 394bhp’s worth of free-breathing V8 power be a recipe for anything but greatness?
My colleague Matt Saunders said it best in remarking that it’s “unlike its modern antecedents in its simplicity, versatility, mechanical authenticity and deep-rooted analogue charm; and yet not unlike them at all in its ability to pin those neat little door mirrors back and then hurl itself into the middle distance at a rate that makes it feel more than contemporary enough”.
But it’s the subtlety and professionalism with which the E39 M5 conceals that firepower and deep-seated driver appeal that makes it such a product of its time (which, probably not coincidentally, was just as I was learning my crankshafts from my calipers) and lends it such unrivalled cult status in a modern context.
Fast BMWs have lost some of that understated approachability in recent years (albeit while making substantial gains in nearly every other respect), which is only making the relatively staid older models look like the more sophisticated choices.
Matt Prior: BMW Turbo [E25]
Is this an M car or is this cheating? Yes, the first BMW road car with a ‘proper’ M badge was 1978’s M1 and M division wasn’t founded until 1972, the year that this concept car, the Turbo, was released. But look at this and then the M1 and you can see where it all started. Right here. So I’ll say this is my favourite M car.
The M1 was on the front cover of a BMW book by Stuart Bladon (a former Autocar staffer) that I bought as a kid, but it was the Turbo pictured inside that made my knobbly knees go weak. Its graduated paint couldn’t have been more ’70s and its chromed rims, gullwing doors and wheel half-covers were more Panthermobile than car.
Yes, it had a turbo four rather than the straight six the M1 got, it didn’t spawn a race series and, given that there were only two and both were show cars, it probably wasn’t built to handle, either. But still, when I was 10, I wanted one, and it’s still my dream BMW now, M or not.
Matt Saunders: BMW Z3M Coupe [E36/8]
The Z3 M Coupé isn’t a great-looking thing, and nor was it raved about as being one of the greatest-handling M cars when it arrived in 1998. But while teenaged me couldn’t imagine himself ever owning an E39 M5 or even an E46 M3, there seemed something arbitrarily attainable about the little E36/8.
Its clandestine skunkworks conception probably made it even more appealing. One look at this car tells you that it was the work of engineers messing about with off-the-shelf parts after hours, not a design studio. Its proportions are all wrong. But put it all together and see it out in the wild and somehow the Z3 M Coupé just comes together. It’s ugly but lovely. It has one of BMW’s all-time-great M engines and power way beyond the bounds of what’s sensible for a four-metre-long car.
So even though examples rarely sell for less than £40,000 these days, it’s still enticing to me now.
Illya Verpraet: BMW M535i [E12]
Modern M cars are all impressive, sometimes frighteningly so. But if I had to choose one example from M division’s illustrious history, I would go back to the original. Not the M1, though: while that may have been the first, it didn’t lay the foundation for future M cars.
I associate M with outwardly restrained cars that pack a big punch and handle with verve, and the first model in that mould was the M535i, based on the original BMW 5 Series, the E12.
Although it didn’t use a pure Motorsport engine, it set out the recipe for the classic M car in most other ways. Our road testers at the time called it “indecently fast” (it was actually quicker than the sportier-looking M635 CSi) and found the handling utterly confidence-inspiring and adjustable.
Today, its relatively low grip levels, dogleg manual gearbox and naturally aspirated straight six would be a perfect antidote to the 21st century’s grip-and-power monsters.
The styling, too, was significant. The E12’s design in general, from the pen of Paul Bracq, informed practically every BMW up until the 1990s: boxy but perfectly proportioned, with quad round headlights and the forward-leaning ‘shark nose’ grille. M models then add subtle but unmistakable enhancements and a more purposeful stance.
Piers Ward: BMW 1 Series M [E82]
The 1 Series Coupé was my era of M car. Although I grew up devouring everything that Chris Harris and Steve Sutcliffe wrote about the E46 M3 (including a memorable line about doing “a Winston” to turn off the ESP in it), it was the experience of a 1M that sealed the M deal for me.
There are more obviously desirable M cars, and you will see plenty of them on these pages, plus plenty of more valuable ones. But the reason I’ve put the 1M here is because it’s relatively attainable, and I mean that from both financial and driving points of view.
It’s the simplicity of the engineering offering. In my view, this was peak BMW, before it (and lots of others) tied themselves in knots with heavy, complicated drivetrains and multiple buttons for suspension settings: a twin-turbo straight six making 335bhp, an electronically controlled mechanically locking limited-slip differential and two driven wheels: job done.
There are still purer driving experiences to be had, but the way the 1M delivered all of its pace and poise while still being useful as a daily commuter wasn’t something that many could replicate. That’s why I would love one today: I wouldn’t have to adjust my lifestyle one iota in order for us to bond and every single journey would be better in it. That’s dream wheels in my book.
Steve Cropley: BMW M3 CSL [E46]
The classification that I apply to the E46 M3 CSL is ‘radical all-rounder’. To me, it created a pinnacle among ICE cars, conceived 25 carefree years ago, before electrification began to twist and even blunt the direction petrol cars were taking. But it’s not so special that you can’t use it.
It’s smaller, neater and lower than the bulky cars that have appeared since, especially after BMW’s race-mad engineers took the trouble to remove an impressive 110kg from its structure. It weighs less than 1400kg at the kerb – not too much, given it has a hotter (350bhp) version of the yowling atmo straight six on which, up to then, BMW had based much of its reputation as a maker of driver’s cars.
Whenever you drive an M3 CSL, you know that you’re in something carefully configured for driving. The control weights are meaty but beautifully matched; the responses are prompt and accurate; and the firm suspension is damped well enough to allow it to be a car you use a lot.
And because of its rarity and its optimal nature, its value is never going away, even if you do often find yourself behind the wheel. If I were to own one, I know I would drive it all the time.