No other car here with the exception perhaps of the M1 underlines the M badge ethos as much as the original M3. Conceived to compete in motorsport the M3 is a homologation special built to take the 3 Series racing. Changes over the standard two-door car are significant with its blistered arches containing a wider track, the M Sport engineers even altering the rake of the rear screen to enhance aerodynamic efficiency. Of all the changes though it was the screaming, 200bhp four-cylinder engine that revved up to a 7,000rpm red line that was the most important. Initially a 2.3-litres lump but growing to 2.5-litres and receiving a boost in power too, the E30 in either form can still provide a drive that’s up with the best today. It’s little wonder then that nice ones are becoming increasingly sought after.
E30 M3s from around £6,000
Perhaps the least known of the M cars among all but the most enthusiastic BMW spotters the M1 also came about as a result of BMW’s racing intentions. The first road car to wear the M badge this mid-engined supercar featured a 3.5-litre straight-six that would though time also be seen in other M cars. In the M1 it developed 277bhp, enough to give with M1 a 162mph top speed and 0-60mph time under six seconds. Initially built for BMW by Lamborghini, delays due to the Italian firm’s financial troubles meant it was finally moved to Baur to be built. During that time the rules for the racing series that BMW had planned the M1 for changed, instead the M1 ended up racing in an international single model racing series attracting some big name drivers. Only 399 road and 56 race cars were ever built, the M1 a rare but exquisite beast.
With four M5s to choose from it’s been tricky to narrow the choices down. The current car gets a mention later on, but its predecessor, known as the E39 model if you know your BMW model series numbers, is the only other M5 in this list. It gets here by offering one of the most complete M car packages, its 5.0-litre V8 engine mated to a proper manual transmission unlike the current car’s SMG paddle shifter. Not only is the E39 M5 a hugely capable sports car, it’s got all the comfort and refinement of a luxury saloon. Despite all its power (400bhp) and towering dynamic ability the E39 M5 is a discreet looker and as practical as any other 5 Series saloon. For the family man who’s got the heart of a racer the E39 M5 is a seriously tempting choice – particularly as they’re increasingly affordable used.
E39 M5s from around £12,000
An ever more sought after classic M car the M635 CSI features the same engine as the mid-engined M1, though here it produces 286bhp. That unit is mated to a dog-leg five-speed close-ratio manual transmission, that’s precise but doesn’t like being hurried. A beautiful coupe in any guise the M model really gave this big GT some pace; M635 CSI being able to better (just) the electronically limited 155mph of BMW’s current performance machinery. It’ll sprint to 60mph in just 6.1 seconds so it’s still very quick by today’s standards, but few owners are likely to treat their M635 CSIs so brutally. Replaced by the 8 Series, which never came as an M model, the current M6 is its spiritual successor, but many would argue that the M635 is the better car.
M635 CSIs from around £17,000
The current wearer of the M3 badge might be getting on a bit now, but there’s still huge demand for it. And for good reason, as it’s perhaps one of the most accomplished, all-round performance cars you can buy. The 343bhp, 3.2-litre straight-six engine is a phenomenal unit and when mated to the supremely balanced rear-drive chassis of the 3 Series Coupe body it makes for an agile and fantastically enjoyable driver’s car. It sounds sensational, too. The CS, a slightly more focussed model with quicker steering and an M Track Mode button that lessens the intervention of the stability systems, is even more fun. There may be a new M3 coming soon, but it’ll have to be spectacularly good to really better this machine as an involving and useable day-to-day M car proposition.
E46 M3s from around £25,000
This odd looking coupe with its widely extended wheelarches and coupe-cum-estate looks would never win any beauty competitions, but for what it lacked in good looks it makes up for in shear effectiveness. A coupe version of the M Roadster the M Coupe it features the 3.2-litre straight six of the current M3, producing 321bhp. It gives this coupe fantastic performance, reaching 60mph in just 5.3 seconds. Like all the later M cars it’ll easily reach its 155mph electronic limiter, too. What is so impressive with the M Coupe is the way it performs; this is a real brutish M car demanding respect and needing a fair bit of skill to extract its best. Stick with it though and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most thrilling drives available, in an exploitable, compact package.
With M cars becoming increasingly reliant on electronics and huge bhp figures the M Coupe is perhaps one of the last really unruly, genuinely demanding cars to wear that M badge on its ungainly rump.
M Coupes from around £15,000
E46 M3 CSL and GTR
This pairing of super M3s get a mention here simply because they’re so special. With its lightweight carbon-fibre roof and other weight saving measures the CSL loses 110kg at the scales. However, in addition to the diet the people at M Sport also boosted power up to 360bhp. In doing so the 0-60mph time drops to under 5 seconds. Changes to the suspension, brakes, interior trim and aerodynamics make this perhaps the ultimate interpretation of the current M3 – that is if you ignore the super rare M3 GTR racer-for-the-road homologation race car with its 4.0-lite V8 with 350bhp. Given that the GTR cost upwards of £170,000, the £60,000 cost of the M3 CSL looks like an absolute bargain.
E46 M3 CSL and GTR
Even so, BMW found the CSL troublesome to sell when it was introduced, but it’s now increasingly regarded as M car classic. Get one before they’re all snapped up and hidden away in garages by collectors, and drive the wheels of it. You’ll not be disappointed.
E46 M3s CSLs from around £34,000
No list of the best M cars would be complete without the inclusion of the current M5. Few thought it would be possible to significantly better the previous car (after all with a 5.0-litre V8 and 400bhp the old car is no slouch), but the current M5 really has upped the pace. To do so BMW has installed a manic, high revving 5.0-litre V10 which produces either the 400bhp of the old car, or with the power button pressed 507bhp. Yep, that’s 507bhp. It gives this four-door saloon quite silly pace, so much so it’s perhaps too fast for its own good. The handling is fantastic, the M button allowing you to set it up to maximum attack altering everything from the speed of the SMG paddle shift gearbox, through to the throttle response and the intervention of the traction and stability systems.
Hugely effective, but relying heavily on electronics, the M5 is a quite fantastic achievement, but impressive as it is we can’t help but feel here that in its quest for speed it’s lost some of its core driver appeal – particularly as it’s not available with a conventional manual gearbox.
M5s from around £60,000
While it never officially wore an M badge the 3.0 CSL is the car that really announced the arrival of BMW’s M division. Developed by them for the race track the 3.0 CSL won 5 European Touring Car championships between 1973 and 1979. The road car’s 200bhp and late 7 second 0-60mph time might look modest today – but was hugely fast in the 1970s when the CSL was introduced. Racers developed significantly more power, and continual development to remain successful resulted in the famous ‘Batmobile’ cars with their wildly protruding wings and spoilers. So what it never wore the badge officially, as the 3.0 CSL is the car that started it all and remains a highly sought after and significant machine among collectors of performance BMWs.
Future M Coupe
We could have put the M6 here, but we can’t help feeling that for all its enormous ability the M6 misses the point – particularly as the M5 is just as quick and capable but offers more space and is significantly cheaper. So we’ve decided to include a car that’s not even on sale yet, and not even officially announced. That car is the forthcoming M Coupe. BMW revealed the concept Z4 Coupe at Frankfurt and has confirmed a production car in 2006. The M version hasn’t been confirmed, but given BMW has revealed a Z4 M model there’s no doubting such a car will exist. That, and our spy photographers have spotted it out testing. The prospect of the M3’s 3.2-litre in the light, stiff and agile Z4 Coupe body is very tantalising one, indeed.
Future M Coupe