If 30 is the new 20 and 40 is the new 30, BMW’s M division is hitting the prime of its life. The high-performance car builder turns 40 this year, and we’ve rounded up our eight favorite cars, one for every five years of the performance subsidiary’s existence.
1972-1975 BMW 3.0 CSL: The Leader
BMW’s first M-division-fettled car was the 3.0 CSL, a racing version of the BMW 2800CS coupe that raced in European Touring Car Championship events. The car was powered by an inline-six-cylinder engine (3.0 liters in early models, 3.2 liters in later ones), which made around 200 horsepower. In 1973 BMW sold the 3.0 CSL to customers as a homologation special, which used thinner steel and less soundproofing than the 2800CS on which it was based. The result was a 204-horsepower race car for the street, one that often wore an aero kit so aggressive the car was nicknamed the Batmobile. The years of BMW M making hopped-up road cars heavily based upon race-spec vehicles had begun.
1978-1981 BMW M1: The Superhero
It had to be one of the stranger automaker tie-ups in history: in the late 1970s BMW looked to make a supercar and contracted with Lamborghini to build and develop it. Lamborghini eventually left the project thanks to some financial insecurity, but the project went on and the M1 was launched to the public in 1978. It was no Miura–it was powered by a 3.5-liter inline-six–but it made 273 horsepower and propelled the car to a top speed of 160 mph. It didn’t hurt that the M1 was one of the most distinctive BMW designs ever built, thanks in part to the M1’s mid-engine layout. If you ever see one, count yourself lucky: only 456 were ever built.
1985-1988 BMW M5: The Sleeper
The idea of a sleeper car had already been around for years before BMW M previewed the M5 at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1984, but the M5 may be one of the better iterations of that idea. The M5 might look like a simple luxury sedan, but beneath the hood lay the 3.5-liter inline-six-cylinder engine making 282 horsepower (260 in U.S. specification, thanks to a catalytic converter) from the M1. Those numbers might be matched by many mass-market mid-size sedans today, but it was enough in 1986 it was enough to make the M5 the fastest production sedan in the world. In later years, iterations of the M5 were powered by V-8s (with and without turbochargers), and even a V-10. Morning commutes for mid-level executives, it would seem, would never be the same.
1986-1992 BMW M3: The Benchmark
It’s nearly impossible to speak to an automotive journalist about BMW M cars and not end up listening to some long soliloquy about the E30 M3, and during that soliloquy, it’s nearly impossible not to hear the word “benchmark” used at least once. As you’ve no doubt heard before, the E30 M3 is said to have a legendary blend of performance, handling, and usability.
The stock M3 was already quite different from the 3 Series–the M division grafted in new body panels, upgraded the brakes, suspension, wheels, and tires, and fitted a better four-cylinder engine underhood–but we reserve a special respect for the Sport Evolution version, a 600-unit special edition that used a bored-out, 2.5-liter version of the stock M3’s 2.3-liter motor and made 235 horsepower. Considering the Porsche 911s of the time had almost identical power outputs, the M3 Sport Evolution was a true everyday sports car.
2004 BMW M3 CSL: The Loud One
By 2004 a few things were known: the BMW M3‘s S54 inline-six-cylinder engine’s days were probably numbered, and a new BMW 3 Series was on its way to replace the E46-generation car. In the face of all this adversity, the BMW M division must have decided that the car should go out with a bang, because it introduced the M3 CSL. And bang it did.
The CSL (which was never sold in the U.S.) had 17 more horsepower than the stock M3, but engineers went crazy with weight-saving modifications. The aerodynamic kit was lighter, and the car used thinner glass. Sound insulation was at a minimum, and base-model cars had no air conditioning, radio, navigation, or electric seats. The trunk liner, infamously, was made out of cardboard. The M division finished the package by giving the car a tweaked sequential manual transmission, a lightweight exhaust, and a less-intrusive traction control system.
The result was a car that was louder, rougher, and faster than the M3 upon which it was based. If the M3 was something that was home both on the track and on the street, the CSL was a brash, hard-riding version that could care less about creature comforts.
2007-2010 BMW M5 Touring: The Family Hauler
Between 2007 and 2010, BMW made what could be one of the strangest M cars ever. It was called the M5 Touring, which means that it had a V-10 engine, five seats, and a hatchback.
The M5 Touring was motivated by exactly the same 5.0-liter V-10 engine making 500 horsepower as the M5 sedan, and it sent that power through the same seven-speed sequential manual gearbox as the sedan. But the addition of a station wagon body style made the car that much more bonkers: it could get from 0-60 miles per hour in about 4.5 seconds, but it could ostensibly do that with a load of groceries or luggage in the back. There will undoubtedly be a few strange, high-performance station wagons to come, but there will probably never be another V-10-powered station wagon again. We’ll remember the M5 Touring’s strangeness for years to come.
2010-Present BMW X5 M: The Controversial Pioneer
Quick: name the first car to have both an M badge and a turbocharger. Now name the first one to have an M badge and all-wheel drive. The first M badged car available exclusively with an automatic transmission. You should have named the same car three times: the BMW X5 M.
The BMW X5 M (and its X6 M sibling, which shares its running gear and went on sale around the same time) is a controversial figure around BMW fan circles, because it’s just about the polar opposite of the CSLs and M3s that helped M gain notoriety. It’s heavy, has two turbos, and only two pedals. But in M’s quest to broaden its appeal, the X5 M was the first of a few pioneers. In the years since, M has released its first diesel-powered car (the M Performance-labeled M550d xDrive), and the new mission is clear: take cars that people buy, and make them faster, no matter the powertrain or body style.
2011 BMW 1 Series M Coupe (1M): The Return of the Benchmark?
BMW M purists were probably busy wiping the tears out of their eyes (after watching M unveil two hi-po SUVs) in 2010 when M boss Dr. Kay Segler announced late that same year that a hopped-up 1 Series coupe would make its way to dealers. The 1 Series M Coupe was born, and quickly nicknamed the 1M.
At first glance, the car wasn’t a whole lot more than a tweaked 135i coupe, with a 335-horsepower version of BMW’s twin-turbo inline-six-cylinder engine, but it also got upgraded body kit items and better suspension, brakes, wheels, and tires (courtesy of its big brother, the M3), and the result is a slightly insane, somewhat unforgivinghoonmobile that will send serotonin to your nervous system as quickly as it will send your body down the road. The E30 M3’s image may have been tarnished by a parade of slushbox’dluxo-trucks, but the 1M brought the lunacy of a high-powered coupe back to the BMW M brand.