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2020 Awards

BMW M cars: the hits and the misses

Top Gear’s verdict on every M car that matters

  • As truly difficult gigs go, working at Top Gear isn’t so much ‘deciding what houses to save in a bushfire’ as ‘deciding which mildly caustic simile to invoke about a new car’. It’s a good gig. We admit it.

    But then we got the idea to rate M Division’s entire oeuvre, only allowing one of two possible marks: hit or miss. All of a sudden, we were volunteering for hose duty. Because summing up an entire car, only to endorse or dismiss it summarily, is the hardest choice we’ve had to make since our local started offering both IPA and double IPA. Our lives really aren’t all that difficult, are they?

    Anywho, to keep things as simple as possible, we’re only talking about the proper M cars. If we included M-badged cars, we’d have to go through all the skim-milk M Performance cars and every ‘genuine M3’ in a McDonalds car park.

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  • E26 M1: hit

    Even if the M1 ran on diced puppies and needed to be serviced every 1000 miles by an actual archangel, it’d still be a hit in our books. A morally troubling and eschatologically significant hit, but a hit nonetheless.

    But to find out that it’s not just one of the greatest-looking BMWs of all time, but also the most useful and least difficult of all the 1970s supercars? It just makes us treasure our childhood Matchbox version even more.

    Unlike our Matchbox scale replica, the original M1’s gorgeous exterior was made from fibreglass, not metal. Also unlike our version, the original had M Division’s truly excellent 3.5-litre inline six and had never, to our knowledge, been trodden on in the dead of night by our unsuspecting dad.

  • E12 M535i: hit

    The first M Division saloon was the E12 M535i, setting a brilliant precedent that continues to this day in the M5 saloons (and, in brief bursts of joy, in estate versions too).

    And really, it was just what you’d want from a 1970s BMW: straight six, dogleg five-speed manual, sports suspension, limited-slip diff, Recaro seats. And the E12’s styling? Complete chef’s kiss.

    And where the M1 took BMW far out of its comfort zone of sporty saloons, cost a mint and had a hard time keeping up with constantly changing racing regulations – and then there was the whole palaver with Lamborghini going bankrupt instead of building its cars – the M535i was BMW heartland: a fast, good-looking saloon made to embarrass supercars, not copy them.

    Sure, the M1 has been vindicated a hundred times over, but then so has Van Gogh. And he still died penniless. Give some respect to the M535i, a legend in its own time.

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  • E24 M635CSi: hit

    BMW clearly wasn’t completely wedded to the whole ‘M + whatever series the donor car is’ to begin with – it wasn’t until the E28 M5 that the formula really stuck.

    Well, that’s unless you’re Murican, in which case it was the M6. And it came with a different engine setup with less power. Er, this is getting confusing.

    In any case, here are the absolutes: some form of 3.5-litre BMW straight six engine with somewhere around 250 to 280bhp, connected to a five-speed manual and then to the rear axle. It’s the BMW one-two-three punch that’s basically impossible to counter.

    There’s also the small matter of its absolute gorgeousness. We know shark-nose BMWs can’t come back for safety reasons and such, but what if we promised to be really careful and not hit any pedestrians?

  • E28 M5: hit

    Here’s a thought experiment for you: what if you could put a supercar engine in a family car? Yes, we know that’s the exact idea behind the R8-engined Audi RS6 back in 2008, but BMW had that idea in the early 1980s. And the engine in question? Oh, just a more powerful version of the Paul Rosche M88 straight six from the BMW M1. Y’know, nothing special.

    That’s right – while the E12 M535i set the idea in motion, the E28 M5 got the full M treatment, the proper M Division engine (again, the US of A had to make do with a detuned version, but we’re at risk of splitting hairs here) and a blend of speed and subtlety that apparently earned it a place doing bodyguard duty. For whom? BMW execs – who else?

  • E30 M3: hit

    Come on. You knew this was going to be a hit in our books. Because it’s a hit in everyone’s book and, even being the contrarians we are, we can’t disagree in this case. Sure, it’s not fast by any stretch of the imagination, but since when did that matter? At the risk of digressing for the umpteenth time, fast is not where fun lies, unless you’re a) at a dragstrip, b) an actual child who has never driven a car, or c) someone on the internet who somehow managed to learn every single piece of information there is to learn and therefore knows everything.

    Sure, power went up in the Evo versions, trying to smack Mercedes’ return to racing straight back out again, thank you very much, but we’re still talking about a maximum of about 220bhp in the road-going cars.That’s wonderful and more than enough to enjoy yourself even beyond what you think you will, but not fast by any modern definition.

    What the E30 was all about then – and remains about now – is the purity of the drive. And beating those rascals over at Mercedes, of course.

  • E34 M5: hit

    Anyone else seeing a pattern here? Yep, it’s as if the M Division could do no wrong in the early days, at least when it came to road cars.

    The E34 M5, as any of the old car bores will harp on about, is the last of the hand-built M cars from back when M Division was a tiny skunkworks. And sure, handbuilt is one of the fuzzy-wuzzy things that makes you feel better, but really shouldn’t. It’s the same trick pulled on guitarists all the time: one amplifier costs £1,000, but this one is handwired and therefore costs £5,000. After all, the E39 M5 and E46 M3 weren’t hand-built, and they’re some of the greatest-ever road cars, let alone BMWs. Mm. Might have spoiled the surprise for a few of these.

    Anywho, if we can begrudgingly accept that hand-built is better (unless the car in question is British), we should also point out a series of equally important facts about the E34 M5. It’s also the last of the straight-six-powered M5s, the last with round headlamps, and the last with a connection to the BMW M1 – through the admittedly tweaked, modified and renamed engine. But it was far from the last M5 to be absolutely chuffing brilliant. Hand-built, schmand-built.

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  • E31 M8: miss...ed opportunity

    Technically, the 850CSi was a secret M car: it had an S-branded engine, like a real M car (the S70 V12), stiffer springs and faster steering, a new exhaust, a standard-fit six-speed manual, upgraded brakes, a raft of extra cooling – including for the differential – and even four-wheel steering in some cases.

    Although, if we’re being even more technical, the 850CSi is not an M car, because M Division had an M8 planned... then BMW’s higher ups kiboshed the project, believing an 8 Series-based, 550bhp V12 supercar would be little more than a white elephant.

    Apparently, BMW’s projections figured that the M8 would have to cost twice as much as a then-new 964 Carrera to recoup its manufacturing cost and, as a result, wouldn’t sell. So the plan to sell a lightweight, 550bhp V12 manual BMW coupe with pop-up headlights was canned. We’re going to need a minute to recover here.

  • E36 M3: a hit that took 20 years to land

    This is the M3 that people love to hate – too fat, too slow, too luxurious and not powerful enough, apparently. Other insults have been hurled, but no one has time for that.

    But, as historical revisionism seemingly applies to cars as well, you’ll notice that even E36 M3s are now in high demand. Did triffids swing by Earth while we were blind drunk or something?

    The fact is that the E36 M3 was always a good car – the first of the straight-six M3s (we think that caught on), as well as the first M3 that had more luxuries than your average bus stop. It was also the first to reach down and bestow speed and performance to the average driver. Bet you never thought a top-tier BMW would democratise performance, did you?

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  • E36 M Roadster and Coupe: not so much a hit as a deep cut from a brilliant album

    You’d think that stuffing the 3.2-litre straight six from the later E36 M3 into a small roadster would make for a rapid sojourn into the nearest ravine. You might imagine a pocket rocket, best approached with caution and wearing your best pair of kid gloves. You could even be forgiven for thinking that it’d strain like a pit bull on a leash and be just as capable of killing you with a single snap.

    But this is where the genius of the M Roadster and Coupe shine through. They’re less Pit Bull and more Basset Hound: gentle and quiet when you’re not keen on any heroics, but happy to run around for hours if the mood strikes.

    Now that every single car niche has been mined and exploited for maximum profit, most everyone knows about these brilliant little cars, but that didn’t stop them from being underappreciated gems for the two decades up to this point. Like we said: a deep cut, like ‘The Draize Train' by The Smiths or ‘Bambi’ by Prince. You can thank us later for those recommendations, by the way.

  • E39 M5: hit

    Oh good grief was this a hit. This was a ‘Nile Rodgers working with David Bowie’ hit. This was a ‘German rocketeers teaming up with American astronauts’ kind of hit. This was a ‘Thor using Mjolnir to put a few tomato stakes into the ground’ kind of hit.

    The E39 5 Series was already one of BMW’s all-time greats – before the incredible size creep of the generations that followed but after BMW had decades of practice at the large luxurious saloon thing. So adding a 5.0-litre, motorsport-ready V8, a six-speed manual and limited slip diff is enough to bring a statue to tears, let alone a simple man. But we’ll tell you something that is tear-worthy – BMW was going to make an estate version, but backed out.

  • E46 M3: hit

    On a purely personal level, this one is right up there with the E30 M3. And, in a secondhand values vulture kind of way, it’s quickly becoming every bit as ludicrously expensive. Seriously, is there not some kind of moratorium we can call on classic car values? They came for houses, so we shrugged and rented instead. They came for artwork, so we shrugged and put prints and posters up instead. They came for watches, so we quietly killed the dream of owning a vintage Speedmaster and now check the time on our phones instead.

    But when even cars that should be attainable take off into the stratosphere of private equity thieves and hedge fund bros, it’s a bridge too far. So sod them, sod their enablers and sod the entire sad state of affairs.

    It rather feels like we digressed for a second there. So, moving on. We really can see why the E46 M3 is such an attractive proposition – it’s perfectly proportioned, subtly styled and beautifully balanced. It’s also home to one of the all-time great engines: M Division’s 3.2-litre straight six. So if you’re lucky enough to have one, please, for everyone’s sake, don’t tuck it away to speculate. Get it out on the road and let it do what it does best.

  • E60 M5: a hit, with severe caveats

    Let’s just get one thing straight: a 5.0-litre, manically revving V10 in a saloon car? Tremendous. By no means necessary, sensible or remotely acceptable in this day and age, but, for a brief moment at the turn of the millennium, it really happened. The rest of the car was immaterial, really – when you’re talking about a clean-sheet V10 design, with individual throttle bodies and a red line on the far side of 8,000rpm.

    OK, yes, the E60 was also home to a tech overload: fiddling with the severity of the gearshifts from the single-clutch automated manual, dialling in how much power you wanted from the engine, trying to decipher the early-gen iDrive system. But really, that was just an irritating amuse bouche that preceded the excrement-sandwich main course: how often the E60 broke.

    Honestly, these things had more faults than someone trying to play tennis with a double bass – gearbox solenoids and pumps made from chocolate, engine cooling faults, leaking suspension, electrical gremlins... we could go on. And we will – leaking hydraulic power steering, broken throttle bodies, VANOS failures, bearings being eaten alive by the crankshaft and seizing or blowing the engine, iDrive system burning out its logic board, failing adaptive headlights, water leaking into the boot and cabin...

  • E63/64 M6: miss

    It had all the faults of the M5, all the needless complication and heft, and also made you look like you took lunch breaks from your day job in hostile takeovers with the sole purpose of finding homeless people to kick.

    Also, and this is the axe that fells so many modern BMWs, but it was definitely not a looker – especially around the derriere, which has all the grace and litheness of a cinderblock. Let’s just say if that kind of caboose were to be found in a human being’s pants, you could reasonably assume some inexpert drug smuggling or a dire need for immediate surgery.

  • E85/86 Z4 M: miss, but not by much

    Should a car’s totality be judged by how it looks? The rational side of us says no, of course not. The less logical side of us takes one look at the Z4 M and thinks, ‘yeah, that’s pretty much your lot, sunshine'. Because rarely has a car designed to be sporty looked so... well, derpy. Go on, pick another word that better explains the gormless, hangdog face of this thing. Covering it in M badges and sticking a pan pipe’s worth of exhausts out the back is kind of like leaping in front of the goal after the ball’s gone past and the other team’s already slapping each other on the back.

    But that engine. Good grief. M Division’s 3.2-litre straight six could make a Lada Niva worth driving. You could use one to power a mechanical bull and we’d hurriedly change our name to Top Steer and demand a test ride. It literally is the little engine that could.

    If you can somehow forget that you’re driving something that looks like an unhappy suppository, it’s basically an E46 M3 that doesn’t steer properly. But, and here’s an interesting idea to ponder: why don’t you just buy an E46 M3?

  • E90/91/92 M3: hit

    Following the E46 M3 is like following Dark Side of the Moon – a task that barely avoids being crushed under the weight of expectation. But, just like Wish You Were Here, the E90 M3 is a mesmerisingly good hit – just one that never seems to get as much love as its predecessor.

    Honestly, we’re probably bigger fans of the E90 four-door than the E92 two-door – sacrilege, we know, but we cherish the ability to get in the back seat without needing training from Cirque du Soleil. The E92 convertible, on the other hand, is purely for rolling up and down the foreshore at Bondi Beach, trying to pull harder than the backpacker’s rip.

  • E82 1M: hit

    It was a parts-bin special, as pumped up as a presidential ego and as forgiving as a 20-foot fall onto concrete. But it was also a salient reminder that BMW’s M Division is at its absolute zenith when allowed to make merry with a small, rear-drive coupe.

    And making merry was pretty much the 1M’s metier – blending the M3’s back axle and locking differential with a hyped-up, turbo three-litre straight six and an almost worryingly short wheelbase meant powerslides were basically guaranteed.

    One quick caveat: because of that short wheelbase, the basically guaranteed powerslides were nearly always as sudden as the ending on the last episode of The Sopranos. Just ask the car journo that put a brand-new one on its roof...

  • E70 X5 M and E71 X6 M: what do you think?

    There’s an old saying: you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. And by ‘old’, we mean about a decade, from a comic-book movie. But we, as ever, digress.

    Consider Firefly: possibly the best space western... erm, ever, because that’s a very specific genre. It was cancelled halfway through its first season and didn’t even get its original run of 14 episodes to air, because 20th Century Fox. But, with each episode being the rough approximation of celluloid perfection, it’s very much the hero. Now consider The Simpsons, which is rounding off a cool 30 seasons more than Firefly ever managed. And how many seasons ago did you stop watching?

    Now imagine if BMW’s M Division had pulled the pin after the E46 M3. Sure, we would have cried out for more, a la Firefly, but we would never have witnessed the fall from grace that followed.

    So, why did we talk about TV shows for 200 words or so? Well, for one reason, analogies are 90 per cent of what we do here. Also, it’s far more interesting than actually talking about an X5 or X6 M.

  • F10 M5: hit... ish

    At first blush, things don’t look good for the F10 M5 – the transcendent 5.0-litre V10 from the E60 is gone, it’s about 90kg heavier than its predecessor, and it plays synthesised engine sounds through the stereo.

    And on anything less than a perfectly smooth, dry road, you were just asking for trouble if you tried to deploy the full 600bhp on offer. M Division suspension is good, but even it does not possess the ability to wield actual magic. There’s a very, very good reason why the M5 that replaced it went to all-wheel drive.

    Aside from those minor irritations and one kind of hobbling Achilles heel, it was still a quick 5 Series, and therefore excellent. So, in that regard, it’s a hit – just one with an iffy chorus, if you will.

  • F06 and F12/13 M6: hit

    Take the internals of the genre-defining large performance saloon, whack it into a coupe body and dust your hands off and stand back. Not exactly shifting the goalposts, are we?

    Really, it should be a miss – especially the four-door version of the two-door version of the four-door saloon. But it was prettier than the blocky F10 M5, mesmerisingly fast and roughly 10,000 per cent less likely to make you look like a modern-day Patrick Bateman than the old M6. Credit where it’s due, guys.

  • F85 X5 M and F86 X6 M: didn’t we cover this already?

    So have you ever heard of this really cool band called Explosions in the Sky? They’ve been around for ages and ages and they have this really cool post-rock, Mogwai-ish kind of sound, with huge dynamic range and soaring, bombastic crescendos. But what’s really cool is that they’re all instrumentals, so if you’re trying to concentrate on something and don’t want to be distracted by lyrics and singing, it forms a really great background soundtrack to that.

    Their best effort, for our money, is All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone. Seriously, head down to your local stereo store and ask the salesman to demo his best set of speakers with this album. It is so good that he’ll offer you anything from a deep discount to naming rights for his firstborn, so wondrous is that album.

    What’s also brilliant is we’ve spent 100 words talking about something really great, instead of the X5 and X6M. Which... well, you see where we’re going here.

  • F80 M3 and F82 M4: miss

    The Giulia QV is faster and better looking, plus makes the driver seem much more interesting and daring. Sure, the ‘daring’ part is somewhat down to the sword of Damocles that hangs above every Alfa owner. But at least they’re not being obvious, like the M3 owner is.

    And yes, it’s a victim of its own success, but other M3s have managed to rise above pejoratives about their ubiquity and obviousness, and the F80... never really did. Also – and this goes double for the M4 – it was about as spiky as your average mace and half as fun to wield. Cars like the Toyota GT86 and Alpine A110 can be slidey and brilliant for it, because they’re wielding just enough power to stray into silliness without sliding into trouble. The F80/82 had no such compulsion about throwing you into the weeds, and the 3.0 turbo’s minimum of 400 horsepower made sure you got there before you knew what happened.

  • F87 M2: hit

    Not to put too fine of a point on it, but the M2 is possibly the best car coming out of not just BMW, but all of Bavaria. Yeah, sorry Audi.  

    Unlike so much in the car world these days, it’s within the realms of affordability, small enough to actually work on back roads and powerful enough to be entertaining, not terrifying. It’s also, and this feels like it doesn’t get enough attention, the best-looking modern BMW on sale. Not the most taxing remit in the entire world, to be sure, but one the M2 absolutely excels in. It’s a genuinely good-looking, small, fun, rear-drive BMW M car. And it’s as wonderful as that sentence suggests.

  • F90 M5: hit

    This one’s a very personal vote, because the F90 M5 is the car that took yours truly past the 300km/h barrier on some northern German autobahn. And it felt... well, a few things: a) utterly glorious, b) a cathartic two-fingered salute to the Australian nanny state, and c) like it could easily just keep going at that pace until we ran out of petrol or into something rather solid.

    It was so composed and comfortable, in fact, that Top Gear’s hairiest photographer, Mark Riccioni, could process his photos on a laptop in the passenger seat... at 187mph. If that isn’t the Top Gear way to do things, we don’t know what is.

    But so many cars can do fast these days. The F90 M5 is a hit because it manages the same perfect duality of the E39 M5: supreme comfort, with the knowledge that you can behave like a complete spanner at a moment’s notice.

  • F92 M8: miss

    Finally bringing the M8 to market must have seemed like long-delayed gratification for the 8 Series tragics (i.e. us), who always wanted the holy union of M Division and the Radwood-ready original. And what we got was... obviously never going to be that. It couldn’t be – pop-up headlights fall foul of crash regulations, the idea of 16-inch wheels on a luxury car is laughable, and asking for a fuel-sucking naturally aspirated V12 in your BMW is, in 2020, like shopping for a fur coat to wear to a Roman Polanski film festival.

    Instead, we got an NCAP-optimised, twin-turbocharged, active-safety-enveloped boulevard cruiser, taken to the absolute extreme – well, the maximum amount allowed by the corporate overlords.

    And so, like the vast majority of new performance cars, it’s fast to the point of actual silliness but about as involving as lacing up your boots, pulling on a jersey and then sitting on the bench for the entire game. At least the M8’s not horrific to look at, which is more than you can say about a lot of modern BMWs.

  • F97 X3 M and F98 X4 M: do you know how to aim?

    Look, we don’t want to open with ‘look, they were just following orders’, because that echoes something else the Germans aren’t exactly proud of, either. So let’s backpedal like no one else seems willing to do in 2020 and try a different line of reasoning entirely.

    Erm. They did it for the money? Nope, that sounds like the excuse someone gives when some old photographs turn up of them wearing not much and exposing too much.

    Ah, we’ve got it! Idiots deserve fast cars too. Except they probably shouldn’t, given that they don’t have all that much going on upstairs…

    OK then. We have absolutely no way to justify the existence of the X3 and X4 M. Or maybe we really just didn’t feel like it.

  • F95 X5 M and F96 X6 M: probably better if they never fired

    By now, you may have cottoned on to our whole ‘refuse to talk about anything as ridiculous as a gigantic M Division SUV’ schtick. And with it wearing desperately thin, we suppose there’s nothing else to do but knuckle down, make our peace with what we have to do and talk about this really amazing old video game called Grim Fandango.

    Get this: you play a travel agent... in the afterlife, where everyone looks like a Day of the Dead effigy. But that’s just where it starts. Grim Fandango takes you – and the walking skeleton you control – on an increasingly bizarre, gallows-humour hilarious and unerringly entertaining journey through the afterlife, with just your wits and whatever you can hold in your suit jacket to save you.

    The great news is that whatever computer you have, it’ll run Grim Fandango, so you’ll get hours and hours of entertainment and enjoyment for hardly any expense. Pretty much the opposite of the X5 and X6 M, then.

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