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We Celebrate BMW's M High-Performance Brand's 40th Birthday with Our 5 Favorites

By Jacob Brown | May 16, 2012
It's funny how time flies when you're having fun. And what fun the BMW M division, the company's motorsports offshoot, has been. BMW M came on the scene in 1972, complementing what connoisseurs had already found out with the "Neue Klasse" cars the automaker started making in the 1960s. BMW already built incredibly competent, capable sports sedans. The M brand took it a step further, bringing BMW's racing know-how to the road. If the technology worked on the track, BMW M made sure you could put it in your garage. Said "Maximum" Bob Lutz, who worked for BMW in the 1970s: "With sports always being a driving force at BMW, also while the Company was developing dynamically in the business world, it was only obvious at this point that we should concentrate and consolidate our activities in motor sport." Happy 40th birthday, BMW M, and without further ado, here are top five favorite M cars to celebrate the occasion. Paragraphimage BMW M1 BMW had been competing in motorsports for years before building the BMW M1 in 1978. But the M1 was genesis for the road cars. It was supposed to be designed and engineered by Lamborghini, but the Italian automaker ran into financial peril, and delays ensued. Rumor has it BMW had to make a forcible entry into Lamborghini's facilities to get its design plans back. But oh, it was worth it. With a 277-horsepower inline-6 displacing 3.5 liters, the M1's 164-mph top speed made it one of the fastest cars in the world at the time. The M1 was built for homologated racing with a production run of 400 cars, but by the time it came out racing rules had changed. The car didn't get its fair shake on the race track, but its engine lived on in other road-going M cars for more than a decade. Paragraphimage E30 BMW M3 The E30-series BMW 3 Series was the car's second-generation model. But it was really the car that put BMW M on the map for the buying public. While looking similar to other 3 Series of the same vintage, the M3 came out in the U.S. in 1987, sharing hardly any of its body panels with its siblings. Aluminum replaced steel. A high-revving 2.3-liter four-cylinder with 195 horsepower replaced BMW's conventional 2.5-liter inline-6. The car went on to dominate touring car racing, and the road-going version won the hearts of enthusiasts worldwide. BMW was only supposed to make 5,000 cars originally, but cranked out 17,970 over its six-year model run, including 765 convertible models and 600 Sportevolution cars with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine; neither of those special models were officially imported to the U.S. Paragraphimage E39 BMW M5 Versions of BMW's venerable 3.5-liter inline-6 whose origins dated back to the M1 lingered on in the BMW M5 until the mid-1990s. But how do you replace such an iconic engine? Easy: With a roar of thunder by way of a new 4.9-liter V-8 in the 1998 BMW M5. It looked understated, carrying only a new front bumper with a wider airdam up front and a rear bumper equipped to handle the M5's four exhaust pipes. It had a few badges here and there on the outside. But under the hood, its 400-horsepower engine eclipsed its competition. Its six-speed manual was also rare in a vehicle of its size. Yet, it could be driven like any other 5 Series model, or it could be let loose as the monster it really was. With a production run that ended in 2003, the E39 BMW M5 set the bar high for its future M5 models, almost too high. Paragraphimage BMW M Coupe Although it was based on the BMW Z3, it was simply known as the M Coupe. Or the shoe. Or the bread van from Hell. Whatever you called it, though, it was fast. And it was insane. Sharing a basic platform with the BMW Z3 of 007: Goldeneye fame, BMW engineers added a hatchback roof that stiffened the chassis to be 2.7 times stronger than its convertible stablemate. When it came to the U.S. in 1998, it shared the BMW M3's 3.2-liter inline-6 that made 240 horsepower. The cars couldn't have been more different, though, as it was significantly lighter than that four-passenger coupe or five-passenger sedan. With a much shorter wheelbase, it was also more of a visceral sledgehammer to the M3's scalpel. BMW subsequently replaced the M3 in 2001, giving it a much more powerful engine, and, fortunately, the M Coupe was allowed to get it, too, for its last two model years. Because, surely, 315 horsepower is wholly more necessary for a car this outrageous. Paragraphimage F10 BMW M5 There's every indication out there to have you believe performance cars are a dying breed. Gas is getting more expensive. Kyoto is knocking on our door. Polar bears don't have as much room to run about as they used to. Fortunately, BMW isn't laying down; it's just changing with the times. The current-model BMW 5 Series has lost some of its mojo versus previous generations—but not if you're opting for an M5. Sure, it's more luxurious, more refined, and has an electronic sound resonator hooked up to the car's stereo to make you think you're hearing the engine. But outside that, it's an utter hoot of a car—better than the V-10 model that preceded it. Whispers of it challenging the beloved E39 M5 above for being fun to drive are even circulating. With a twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8 capable of producing 560 horsepower, it can hit 60 mph in under 4 seconds, one of the few BMW M cars that can do so. Yet, with a more efficient engine, it can top 20 mpg on the highway—a more than 30-percent improvement over its predecessor. It's just a sign of things to come. Paragraphimage Honorable mention: BMW X5 M There's absolutely no reason for the BMW X5 M to exist, which is why we love it all that much more. At more than 5,000 pounds, it's the heaviest BMW M product to ever reach production. With 555-horsepower, a trick all-wheel-drive system, and massive tires at all four corners to aid traction, it's also one of the quickest. It's not a one-trick pony, however, as it can handle with the best of them, too. And it'll even get the kids to school with plenty of time to spare. It may not make sense as an M car in the traditional sense, but who says the brand can't evolve in its 40 years of existence?
  • 2012 Bmw X5 M Front Quarter
  • 2013 Bmw M5 Front Quarter
  • Bmw M Coupe Side Profile
  • E39 Bmw M5 Front Quarter
  • Bmw M1 Front Quarter
  • E30 Bmw M3 Front Quarter