After much shouting and the ruination of several friendships, this is the TG-ranked M car hall of fame
You get 616bhp from a 4.4 turbo V8, 0–62mph in 3.8secs Asia Lamination Machine
Stretches the core values of the M brand a long way. Too far?
A tall SUV that still provides about as much driving amusement as it’s possible to get from an SUV. In the latest Competition iteration, it’s a ballistic block of flats with 616bhp and 553lb ft. There’s 0–62mph in under four, and a 190mph top speed, for less than other big hitters like the Urus or Bentayga Speed. Is it a ‘true’ M car? Possibly not, but it just goes to show the elasticity of the marque’s engineering talent.
Fabric-roofed boulevardier with same 4.4 V8 as Coupe and M5
A little chunky for B-road blasts, needs lots of space
Oft overlooked, 600bhp V8, bonkers in Competition spec, if a bit big. Future classic guaranteed.
Essentially just the 2dr version of the M3, except it’s lost a set of doors and 23kg in the process. Still with the same effortless turbo midrange as the Coupe
The M4 feels firmer on a commute than the slightly friendlier M3 of the same generation, so one for the young people with flexible spines
The car before BMW's grilles changed, and probably one of the best looking modern BMWs because of that – even if it’s just in comparison. Stuffed full of S55 twin-turbo straight-six, the F82 M4 developed 424bhp, up 11bhp over the previous V8, but the bigger news was that torque heaved skywards from 295lb ft high in the V8’s rev range to 406lb ft from under 2,000rpm. That makes this generation of M4 a car that can surf between ratios like it’s not even trying, and lends it a sense of real-world speed and dismissive overtaking prowess that’s hard to beat. But there’s one thing that Top Gear remembers not so fondly about this generation of M4 – if you were incautious in the wet and decided to leave the traction control in a more, shall we say, ‘relaxed’ mode, the M4 became a bit spiky and difficult. Not to be messed with.
A straight-six again, yay! And the option of a six-speed manual as well
The 6cyl came with turbos, so less response and fake, piped noise
The fifth generation of M3 by this point – this time with an in-line six and turbocharging via M Power TwinPower, giving the M3 the kind of mid-range punch most sports cars can only dream of. Enthusiasts grumbled a bit, but you couldn’t argue with the car’s pace, or ability to dominate any kind of road. At under 1,500kg, it’s also the first time the M3 lost weight versus the previous one, and the first time you could option carbon-ceramic brakes.
The ride can be hard enough to make you swallow your tongue
Convertible M3 with a lightweight fabric roof to bring CoG to reasonable levels. Competition xDrive version is astounding.
A 4.4-litre V8 with 560bhp and 500lb ft of torque in a 2+2 Coupe. It’s a flowing GT
Tends to look a bit podgy from the wrong angle. And it’s not an M5, which is somehow cooler
The M6 is essentially the coupe variant of the contemporary M5, so it’s a two-door with 560-odd bhp of 4.4-litre V8, but also a more slippery, lower roofed shape. One of those cars that wasn’t hugely popular – mainly because it cost more than the M5 at the time – this one’s likely to be a future classic. Even if it’s not naturally the prettiest of M cars. Drives well though.
The 322bhp ‘N55’ engine and manual/RWD in a little hatch made it an M bargain
That rear end looked a bit frumpy
BMW six-cylinder punch and RWD in a small, relatively cheap hatchback. BMW M magic on a budget. What’s not to like?
The same drivetrain as the Coupe, but with four doors. So it’s a four-door coupe
Weirdly the best M6 of this generation, but still not an M5
Gotta love BMW’s marketing department; the M6 F06 Gran Coupe is a 4dr version of the mighty M6, itself a coupe version of the contemporary M5, which was a four-door saloon. Huh? But at the time it cost nearly £25k more than the M5. Still, 4.4 V8 with two turbos sees 552bhp, 0–62mph in 4.2 and continent crushing high-speed ability. Not the most nimble of cars, but impressive.
A 4dr GTS with lots of carbon. Hence the name: Carbon Racing Technology
Very expensive to replace the titanium exhaust or CFRP bonnet
An E92 M3 GTS with more carbon and less orange paint. Carbon seats are honeycomb paper-cored. Cool, subtle.
Oft overlooked big GT with the M5’s hardware. Super swoopy and fast. An unsung hero
The Comp version has the M5 CS’s 626bhp, so it’ll get you nicked for speeding. Probably
Essentially the Z3 Roadster with a 3.2 M3 engine stuffed into the front and M Division suspension
Not for the faint of heart, or people with weak wig glue. It’s fast, but not as desirable as the Coupe
The same 507bhp V10 as the E60, but in a larger, more GT-ish 2+2. It’s an ugly child, but it’s yours
The SMG III auto. The United States got a six-speed manual as an option... go figure
Turbo V8 with twin scroll and hot vee. Makes 560+bhp
No natural aspiration for big-rev screaming in this modern BMW. We know why it had to happen, we just didn’t want it to
Familiar territory with the 4.4-litre bi-turbo V8, this time with 591bhp and 553lb ft. Comprehensive super saloon
Thirsty, big, adept at crushing autobahns, but we don’t have those in the UK
Looks good with the roof down, surprisingly agile. Decent cruiser with the dual-clutch box
The Drivelogic M system for the DSG feels really dated now. Not as precise as the coupe
This hard-top convertible actually works really well – it’s a good thing, really
Inevitably weighs a bit more than the coupe and that weight is high-ish, so it’s less agile at speed
An M2 Comp with more power, more cornering bite and more attitude. Bulldog-on-’roids stance, friendlier balance than an M4
Doesn’t sound as special as it looks. An M2 Comp is better value for money
Probably the true genesis of BMW M, being a sports car baiting version of a production model
Some of the plastic bodywork additions can look a bit chintzy, especially with the M sticker pack
One of the best looking cars of the era, and with a 286bhp M88 straight-six, it was rapid for the time
Not rare (5,855 produced), but good ones are hard to find. Life is unfair
No roof allows the M6 sound to sing. You can make your ears bleed with that V10 rock concert
Single-figures mpg if really pushed, a little on the soft and squidgy side for a true M car
Four turbos, 44mpg, AWD. All in an estate that gets to 62mph in just over 4.5 seconds
It’s diesel, and only LHD as the xDrive set-up doesn’t fit with RHD
Has 507bhp 3.0 bi-turbo and does 0–62mph in under four seconds
A neat silhouette that makes you gasp when you turn the lights on. Like a giant mutant rat in the garage
Easy pace, looks good with the roof down, makes a nice noise, excellent swanning about car
You could tell that someone chopped the roof off it when you tried to drive fast
Subtle exterior mods, 625bhp, big brakes and 3.3secs 0–62mph – it’s an M5 with sharper teeth
Feels good at the track – but it’s a heavy saloon, so not inherently a go-to track weapon
Over 500bhp of BMW TwinPower tomfoolery, 8spd auto and optional xDrive AWD
Arrival of ‘the’ nose treatment. Any design that relies on “you’ll get used to it” as a motto, is a bit weak
Limited run of 1,500 with lots of carbon, 10bhp more and 40lb ft increase over M3
It cost £26k more than a standard M3 when new. That’s a big jump
More boost to give 70bhp and 37lb ft more than the M4. Seriously aggressive
Stumpy rear wing and gold wheels look a bit ‘tuner’. Too hard for B-roads. Needs a track to shine
Subjectively it’s the best M5. Has the same 400bhp V8 as the contemporary Z8. Understated rocketship
Could be considered a little too understated by people with zero taste. But ignore them, they’re idiots
This one of the best BMW M5s ever made, from what’s probably one of BMW M’s most accomplished periods. Featuring a naturally aspirated 5.0-litre V8 that actually revs, a manual gearbox and the kind of understated but sophisticated style that M did so well. Still stands up now, if you can get a good one.
The next more-door M3 after the E36
The V8 motor and a twisty road would definitely make passengers want to vomit
The year after the E90 coupe hit the shops came the more-door. Same car, more practicality. Gawkier, though.
High-revving straight six is one of the greats with double VANOS. This car works
Also the car that got the ‘automated manual’ SMG gearbox
The third generation of the M3 – a badge which by this point is carrying the weight of expectation. Powered by the now iconic straight six, nat-asp 3.2-litre S54 motor, it produced around 343bhp at the start, rising to nearly 360 in later iterations. This was the golden age of BMW M3 sales – the car was widely appreciated, with 85,000 sold during its six-year production run – the most successful M model so far.
Surprisingly refined, but still with the 3.2 6cyl from the M3
Doesn’t mean it won’t bite you if you switch the traction off
It’s the one that everyone looks at and wishes it was a Coupe, despite being really rather fast, fun and good.
Only 356 produced of this homage to E36 precision
If you want it in any other colour than British Racing Green you’ll have to paint it
It’s 1995 in Germany and you’re in the market for something rare groove and homologation special. Step forward the M3 GT, a honed E36 with the S50 3.0-litre straight six and 295bhp. That’s 98.7bhp per litre. All 356 units are painted British Racing Green (paint code 312 for the win), the interior is green, and all passengers eventually turn green. Whether from the GT’s pin sharp handling or the colour choices, we’ll never know.
It’s basically a cheap CSL
It’s not a CSL. You will always know that it’s not a CSL
Basically, this is some of the best bits of our number one car, for less money. With a sweet, nat-asp, 338bhp 3.2 straight-six, the CS still gives 8/10ths of the CSL experience.
Had a 5.6-litre V12 bored, stroked, cammed and forged to make it an early Nineties manual monster
The 850CSi never officially got an M badge, even though it really is one
If you want imposing, a long-bonneted V12 2+2 scores high on the scale. Forget the lesser, non-M fettled V8 or 850i, the 850CSi was an M8 in all but name, one of the last true bahnstormers. Powered by a 5.6-litre, M70 naturally aspirated V12 engine, it had a decent chunk of go-faster M engineering thrown at it: racier camshafts, lighter pistons and a forged crank to complement a motor both bored and stroked. That’ll be around 385bhp and 406lb ft all told – modest numbers by today’s standards, but in the late Nineties, this was a monster. There’s a six-speed manual, limited slip differential, and a host of other M-specific tweaks, from suspension to aerodynamics, and every CSi got bigger Brembo brakes. Which, to be fair, it probably needed. Interestingly, it’s also one of the rarest of the M-breed specials – only 160 were made in its three year production, meaning that they command solid prices these days as enthusiasts broaden the ‘retro’ ideal.
Had 315–340bhp of goodness and there was an M5 Touring too
Days of it being ‘underappreciated’ are long gone
The first Touring from BMW M, possibly the most subtle of the M5s ever. Straight-six, 3.8 litres, 340bhp. Class.
First model of the fourth generation of M3. Standard carbon roof
V8 didn’t – quite – have the soul of the 6cyl ‘traditional’ BMW M3
The two-door version of the fourth generation of M3, this one got a high-revving V8 engine with 420bhp.
Cracking RWD Z4 Coupe with 343bhp
There’s a Z4 3.0 Si Coupe. This isn’t it, so don’t get confused. A bit lardier than the Z3
The Z4 M Coupe is a bit more grown-up and progressive than its Z3 predecessor, but no less quirkily attractive – and rapid for the time.
Saloon with supercar 507bhp V10 shoehorned into the front of it
This was the last gasp of naturally aspirated M5s
Slightly less deranged than its Touring brother (see 11), the E60 M5 still embodies the notion ofa brute in a suit.
More bang for buck value than you can shake a 321bhp stick at
Caught in rusty limbo between classic/retro and just ‘old’
The first M3 to feature an inline-six engine, the E36 took on a level of practicality mixed with performance the E30 never bothered with.
It’s an estate with a totally ridiculous 507bhp, 5.0 V10
The electrics can be tricky and expensive...
A high revving 5.0-litre V10 with 507bhp and rear-wheel drive in an unassuming estate car body. Does it get any better?
M2 with over 400bhp, bigger brakes and better cooling
It’s actually a bit heavier than a standard M2
Undoubtedly one of the best modern M products, the M2 Competition offers M3/M4 levels of go in a smaller, neater package.
It’s got even more power than the M5 Comp at 626bhp
It cost £40k more than the Competition version
Big. Brutal. Incomparable. The first ever BMW M5 CS elevates the M5 to new heights. And then bonfires its own rear tyres for fun.
As good to drive as it is awkward to look at
Often called the ‘Breadvan’ or ‘Clown Shoe’. Neither are cool epithets
A closed version of the Z3 Roadster from BMW M, Chris Bangle’s M Coupe has become an iconic shape among enthusiasts.
It’s Fire Orange and has a stubby wing. Oh, and a 4.4-litre 450bhp V8. Roll cage, coilovers, Lexan rear windows, 1,530kg all in
It’s Fire Orange and has a stubby wing. This is not the most subtle of M3 specials, and a divisive one at that
Loony to look at, sublime to drive. Options included ditching both radio and aircon for max weight saving and discomfort. But the truth of the matter is that although the GTS had a stupid wing and was only 50kg lighter than stock, it transcended the sum of its parts to be something entirely special. Also: roll cage.
A special project that escaped, it’s a 1 Series with M3 bits, originally limited to 2,700 units
It was so good BMW ended up making over 6,300. Hang on, that’s not bad, is it?
If there’s been a more instant classic, we’re yet to see it. Compact, pugnacious and determined.
The first ‘proper’ M5 sports saloon. One of the fastest street-legal cars of the time
There are no bad things. Although it has no airbags, so don’t crash
The first true M5, the E28 sported the engine near-unchanged from the delicious M1, inveigled into a luxury saloon body.
Not technically an M model, but the mother of dragons
The famous ‘Batmobile’ CSL (so named because of its aggressive aero), first wearer of M stripes, progenitor of M design cues for the next 50 years.
The first official ‘M’ car happened to be a wedge shaped supercar. Procar is immense
Low volume supercar failed to set BMW accounts dept alight; only about 400 road cars built
Is the M1 a true ‘M’ car? The argument exists mainly because the M1 is a mid-engined supercar where Ms are more traditionally ‘tuned’ daily drivers. But this is where M actually started – a 277bhp straight-six wedge of Giugiaro’s best work, originally intended for the heat of competition. It never made it to its race series, instead appearing in a specific Procar championship. But motorsport’s loss was our gain; the homologation rules gave us a legendary car, and the birth of a global brand.
One of the greatest production successes to come from racing homologation. The M3 is the go-to genesis of the sports saloon
Buying the ‘right’ version can be a minefield. Go Evo, or go home
For many, this is where the debate about the ‘best’ M3 begins and ends. Launched in 1986, it originally featured a 200bhp 2.3-litre four with individual throttle bodies, dog-leg five-speed manual and more box-arch than you could ever want. But it’s the Sport Evolution (1989–90) cars that rule; a bigger 2.5 and 238bhp makes it iconic.
A true ‘special’ with comprehensive upgrades and lighter weight. Still revered as the best ever M3. And that’s some title
SMG only. Currently many argue over the validity of a manual conversion
After 432 emails, 12 calls to IT, a WhatsApp group that descended into caps lock and one near punch-up, the best BMW M car ever, as voted for by a ragtag assortment of TG journalists, is the M3 CSL. Specifically the E46. A more polarising choice than you might think, given that BMW’s M history is a deep well of talent, with more spectacular cars on the roster, and that the E46 CSL is a flawed gem. Flawed because among all of the careful curation of lightweight materials – it weighed 110kg less than the contemporary M3 thanks to carbon composite use, thinner glass, an aluminium bonnet and other tweaks – the automated manual SMG gearbox only really worked at the very top of the rev range, and was jerky everywhere else. But on its day, the CSL embodies what M does best: taking a shopping BMW and making it into a car that ignites the senses, elevating the good to the great.
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