All-time best BMW M car – the results!

After 50 years, we asked for a straight-up vote. Thousands of you answered the call

By PH Staff / Saturday, 23 April 2022 / Loading comments

Until its centenary rolls around against the dreary backdrop of a fully electrified 2072, there could be no better year to ask PHers to vote on their all-time favourite M car. Perhaps turning 50 is no great shakes in the pantheon of European carmakers, but it’s a very significant number for a performance subsidiary that started life as a rather more modest Motorsport department.

Partly as a result of its age, the list of M-branded cars is long, but distinguished. This being PH, there were heated discussions about what format the poll should take. Should we preselect the frontrunners? Or perhaps just stick with the best-known generations, clustered together? Or throw everything into a huge melting pot? Not wishing to disappoint anyone (particularly the three people who bravely voted for the G82 M4 Competition) we opted for the free-for-all. And this is what resulted.

Or rather this is the top ten. More than 3,000 of you kindly answered the call, and there were votes cast for virtually every car M GmbH has ever made. We’ve just separated out the frontrunners for your consideration and viewing pleasure. And howls of protest, obviously. But the numbers don’t lie. So without further ado and in reverse order, let’s get pop picking….

BMW Z3 M – 79 votes

If it was good enough for James Bond with a puny 1.9-litre four-pot, then it’s most certainly good enough for us mere mortals with a six-cylinder lump under that long bonnet. Well, it seems you thought so, because you voted the Z3 M the tenth-best M car of all time (narrowly beating out the Z4 M). It’s a worthy choice, too. We didn’t distinguish between coupe and roadster in the poll, but either earns its spurs and we’d argue the latter offers more exhilaration thanks to the opportunity to hear that S50 exhaust note sing as it echoes off the tunnels and trees around you.

Along with the 3.2-litre 321hp six, the Z3 M came with the E36 M3’s limited-slip differential and larger brakes. Plus everyone in the know knew what you were driving thanks to the distinction of oval wing mirrors, more aggressive front and rear bumpers, the wider rear track and the Roadstar wheels, with a seductively deep-set hub at the rear, hooded by those meaty extended arches.

Of course, it also came with quad exhaust pipes – the first M car to sport them. Inside you got more dials – and who doesn’t like extra dials? – and unique M Sport seats. And those sat you pretty much over the rear axle, so you could feel the car moving around beneath you, ready to react to every squirm from the short-wheelbase chassis. Fun? Oh, you betcha.

The example pictured has to be one of the best on offer at the moment. It’s a 1998 car that’s covered just 13,000 miles in the hands of two owners. The Cosmos Black paintwork is described as having a ‘deep lustre’ and is ‘unmolested.’ It also had a new hood in 2016 and comes with Michelin Pilot Sport 3s on mint-looking wheels. Because of its condition, this one is at the upper end of the price scale, but Z3 M Roadsters start from around £15,000 if you’re prepared to settle for more miles.

BMW M3 Coupe (E92) – 85 votes

The clamour of discontentment that greeted the announcement of a V8-powered M3 seems a world away from today’s wider concerns. In 2022, merely clinging onto unfettered combustion is something of an achievement – the idea that gaining two cylinders is an idealogical problem feels like the height of leftover 20th century caprice. Of course, the zealots had the nugget of a point, and the job of succeeding the God-like E46 was never going to be easy – especially when the faults started cropping up.

Happily, ninth place suggests that history looks much more kindly on the E90 generation – in fact, factor in the 27 and 20 votes cast for the saloon and GTS, respectively, and the model can be said to have earned even greater reverence. This is nothing less than it deserves. Larger than its predecessor it might have been, but this was a 420hp muscle car easily capable of keeping up with a 997 Carrera – and yet still accommodate four people in impressive comfort.

They’d never fail to be entertained either, because while it might’ve upset some people with its ghastly vee-shaped configuration, the bespoke S65 unit was an 8,400rpm, naturally aspirated humdinger. It was a perennial International Engine of the Year winner, and with good reason – especially if you chose to commune with it through the magic of BMW’s gnarly six-speed manual. It was beefed up even more for the racy (and pricey) GTS, but in stock format it remains a lovely place to be.

Which is precisely what we have here. Circa £30k will access the best, low-mile stuff – although the saloon is harder to find than the coupe, especially in three-pedal format. We wouldn’t necessarily dissuade you from choosing the seven-speed M-DCT, but we’d be deliriously happy with a manual E92 showing just 30k on the clock. You can of course go much cheaper if you’re happy with higher mileages – and at closer to £20k, the V8 M3 is arguably among the biggest bangs you can get for your 2022 buck.

BMW M2 Competition (F87) – 99 votes

It’s quite possible that it will surprise precisely no-one to learn that the M2 is the most recent M car to find itself in the top ten. The model’s place among the greats seemed assured virtually from birth. Here, after all, was a machine in the perfect mould: a compact, rear-drive, straight-six-fired, manually geared hero-carrier. It even had passive suspension in a no-holds-barred state of tune, so you had to be serious about the business of driving to actually live with one. Perfect.

Factor in the 59 votes cast for the CS version, and 40 for the original M2, and you end up with easily the most popular modern M-badged car since the 1M – the M2’s spiritual predecessor. Whisper it among purists, perhaps, but the newer model is the better car to drive, and it’s also easy to forgive the many (many) buyers that opted to mate it with the dual-clutch transmission – it does tend to make either variant of the 3.0-litre straight-six easier to live with.

The Competition’s emergence as the M2 of choice is a debt likely owed to its comparative affordability (and availability) compared with the tricked-up CS, and its deployment of the S55 motor over the N55 offered in the original car. We won’t get into the mechanical differences here, but the short story is you got more power and the pleasure of telling people it was the same engine that featured in the M3. For much less dosh.

Obviously value for money remains a key factor in the M2’s popularity. A standard model with a healthy odometer reading will likely dip under £30k, even in a supremely robust used market. At the same time, a CS with little more than delivery miles might test the limits of credibility with an £80k price tag. Happily, the Competition – which, on balance, we’d agree is the one to buy – is much closer the former in cost terms. Here’s a 2020 minter at Jardine that’s barely broken in. We’d happily see out the decade with it safely in the garage.

BMW M3 Sport Evo (E30) – 107 votes

What’s the ultimate E30 M3? Well, it could be the ultra-rare Roberto Ravaglia Edition, of which just 25 were made, but how about the Sport Evo or Evolution III? 600 of these were built so it’s not the rarest, but it is the most powerful road-going E30. And it’s good enough to rank at number seven on the all-time list.

The E30 M3 began as a homologation special, of course, but the Sport Evo was needed to hone the car for the latest DTM rules. So this homologation of a homologation enlarged the S14 four-pot to 2.5-litres so it produced 238hp at 7,000rpm – or up to 380hp in race tune. Peak torque dropped slightly (from the Evo II) to 177lb ft at 4,740rpm, but 0 to 60mph was also down to a sprightly 6.1 seconds. To extract the extra performance the engine was bored and stroked, and larger inlet valves and sodium-filled exhaust valves fitted. The pistons were oil cooled, it had peakier cams and an easier-breathing exhaust manifold – and for the road cars, standard cats. How do you tell if it’s a 2.5-litre when you open the bonnet? Easy, just look for the red plug lead casings – the 2.3-litre cars’ were black.

These weren’t the only modifications. The rear axle ratio was revised, and the Sport Evo came with thinner glass, a lighter boot lid, brake cooling ducts below the front indicators, 10mm-lowered suspension, and higher front wheel arches to accommodate the DTM’s 18-inch wheels – the road cars had 16s. Then there was the aero. This included little details like the revised front grille to help the flow of air, but also the more noticeable stuff like the adjustable front splitter and rear spoiler, which had a Monza, Normal, and Nürburgring spec – the latter providing the most downforce.

Because it’s an E30 M3 – and a rare and sort after one at that – Sport Evos don’t come cheap these days. This is one of 25 U.K. cars supplied in red (the other 25 U.K. cars were black) and is offered by First Classics for an eye-watering £189,995. However, the condition is superb after the car’s had a ‘nut and bolt’ restoration by marque specialist RS Garage in Portugal.

BMW M3 (E30) – 129 votes

Well, we’ve had the Sport Evo at number seven on the list, but of course, no all-time-great M car list would be complete without the car that kicked off the M3 legend: the original E30 M3. This was a proper homologation special, with BMW developing the race car and then applying the necessary changes to the road cars to meet the rules. One of which was to build 5,000 of them in the first year, which meant the M3 had to be built on the standard production line alongside regular E30s rather than a bespoke line.

Every body panel was changed bar the bonnet. The wings were flared, the rear screen angle was shallower and this eased the air over the boot lid, which was raised by one-and-a-half inches to help airflow at the rear. Underneath, the suspension design was standard E30 – MacPherson struts at the front and semi-trailing arms at the rear – but those huge wheel arches allowed for wider front and rear tracks. There was also more caster angle applied to the front wheels, revised anti-roll bars and uprated dampers with stiffer springs. Even the wheel bearings were made stronger.

And then there was the engine. The four-cylinder S14 used the iron block from the M10 and an alloy head, which was a shortened version of the M88/ S38 cylinder head, sucking through four individual throttle bodies. Apparently, the S14 designation is for the time it took to get the engine to a prototype state – just 14 days. At 2.3 litres it produced 200hp at 6,750rpm and 177lb ft at 4,750rpm and, famously, sent that through a Getrag five-speed manual ‘box with a dogleg gate – if you’re looking at a European-spec car that is; the U.S. and Japanese cars used a standard gate.

Alongside a highly competitive race car, BMW also produced a lightweight and nimble road car, with beautifully balanced handling and feelsome steering. Plus it had that enjoyable four-pot to rev out to 7,000rpm. This is why the E30 M3 has always been sought after, and why now prices are so high. You rarely find them under £70,000. This Japanese car (with the European ‘box) in Alpine white and just 37,000 miles – in what looks to be spectacularly good condition – is up for £90,000.

BMW 1M Coupe – 134 votes

Count up all the votes for its variants, and the M2 handsomely beat the car that spawned it. But perhaps it’s fitting that the 1M Coupe tops it in the final running. After all, without the 1M there would be no M2 – and BMW insiders will tell you how close the original car came to being yet another good idea on the scrap heap. Certainly the business case was wafer-thin, and it was largely internal enthusiasm for the project that saw it carried through to fruition.

Thank goodness it did. Few mainstream cars are a conduit for their maker’s fervour like the 1M. Helpfully, and probably not coincidentally, the car arrived right at the moment when a purist might have questioned whether or not M GmbH was going soft in its dotage. It had started building SUVs – a strategic decision that made the forehead-slapping over a V8 M3 look about as consequential as complaints about the colour of the Titanic’s lifeboats.

Into this maelstrom of simmering discontentment, BMW launched a car so back to basics that it refused to offer buyers the option of an auto box. Make no mistake, the 1M was intended as a punch in the face to anyone questioning BMW’s ability to prioritise the driver. So much so that if you drove it modestly, you wouldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. The car needed taking by the scruff of the neck, and was only at its best when the fattened-up passive chassis was starting to move around beneath you.

It did not make for the easiest M-car to live with – but quite obviously this was the point. On the right road (i.e. a smooth one) the 1M could take you places few contemporary road cars dared to go. And when it was standing still, it looked like nothing else. That, and the fact only 450 cars ever came to the UK, has earned it an aggressive place on the used market. You can expect to play £40k for a well-used example; a Sunday-best low-miler like this one is fair game at £53,950.

BMW M1 – 149 votes

It’s the daddy. Numero uno. Except it isn’t. The BMW M1 actually came fourth in our poll – although perhaps that’s to be expected when the M cars that followed were generally more ubiquitous and attainable. The M1’s story came off the back of BMW’s relatively new Motorsport department – begun in 1972 and headed up by Jochen Neerpasch – that developed the mighty CSL ‘Batmobile’ coupes into title-winning racers. M division needed a dedicated competition car to whip the Porsches in Group 5 racing, and, in 1978, the M1 was born.

The engine was designed by Paul Rosche – a 3.5-litre naturally aspirated straight-six with individual throttle bodies, four valves per cylinder and Bosch fuel injection. In the road-going version this punted out 277hp and 243lb ft of torque that propelled the mid-engined supercar – BMW’s first and only mid-engined car until the i8 – to 162mph. In the end, just 453 of the glass-fibre-bodied, Giugiaro-designed M1s were made – 399 road cars and 54 for Group 5 racering.

But, as with so many racing projects, after many complications that delayed the car’s build and a change in regs, by the time the M1 became a reality it was rendered redundant. This led to the formation of a one-make series supporting F1 races. Niki Lauda won it in 1979, with Nelson Piquet crowned champion in 1980. As a road car, the M1 was well received. It was practical for such a focused model, had a compliant ride and, most importantly, handled sweetly. Mind you, the M88 engine was its centrepiece – literally and metaphorically – offing great performance and a zinging soundtrack.

What was once a car that was loved but not highly prized is now a megastar value wise. Gone are the days when you could snap up an M1 on a £50,000 budget – cars like this one, with its exceptionally low 1,700-ish miles, will set you back the thick end of £600,000. But for such a rare BMW, one that spurred the M legend, perhaps that’s hardly surprising.

BMW M3 (E46) – 263 votes

And so to the top three. Precisely where we expected to find the E46, to be honest. Why? Well, for the simple reason that alongside the E30, it has come to define everything that we hold dear about M-cars in general, and the M3 (always the flag carrier) specifically. Crucially, it was not only perfectly sized, but also perfectly formed. While the E46 was wheel dependent, BMW has probably never bettered its brilliantly proportioned body; it is one of the few road cars you could credibly stand Harry Hogge next to and actually believe his monologue about shaping it like a bullet.

Into this terrific silhouette, M GmbH poured one of its best-ever engines: the atmospheric (in every sense) 3.2-litre straight-six that marked the end of the line for its generation of mechanical excellence. The unit not only revved to 7,900rpm, it also developed 343hp, which any fan will gleefully tell you was among the highest specific outputs ever recorded for a naturally aspirated engine when it was introduced.

It armed the E46 with serious speed – but of course it would have all been for naught had the chassis not been tailored to masterfully complement it. What resulted was one of the most cohesive and rewarding driving experiences of the last two decades. Plainly younger performance cars would trump its handling limits, but many remain in its shadow when it comes to the job of combining agility and positivity and that implacable sort of deftness that really means something at road speeds.

The E46 M3 is so overtly good that its formerly bargain-basement price was often remarked upon as one of the wonders of the used market. Partly this was a function of the car’s sales success – BMW shifted a boatload – and sub-£10k usable examples were not uncommon. But those days are long gone. Dwindling availability means that even a leggy car is going to cost you £15k; for one in good nick with the more desirable manual ‘box and below-average miles, you’re looking at closer to £30k. Which, frankly, for the right car, is still a bargain.

BMW M5 (E39) – 420 votes

The runner-up in our poll wrote the rulebook for performance cars for years. While the E34 M5 was fabulous car with a fabulous engine, Vauxhall blew it out the water in performance terms when it got Lotus to ‘tweak’ the Carlton. Well, that wouldn’t do. So BMW took the E39 5 series – itself one of the best-engineered BMWs of all time – and used it as the basis for the third-gen M5. It arrived in 1998 and everything about it was pretty much perfect.

For a start it looked subtle yet stunning – recognisable only to those in the know who spotted its deeper bumpers, oval door mirrors, shiny chrome-effect 18-inch wheels and the four big pipes protruding from the rear. Inside it was all beautifully made, as per the E39, but with bolstered front seats and grey dials – with lights in the rev counter that ticked down as the temperature rose to indicate when it was time to deploy all its power. And what power. The 4.9-litre S62 V8 produced 400hp of the stuff backed by the full-force of 369lb ft of torque. And best of all, you extracted that using a six-speed manual gearbox. Yes, this was the last of the analogue M5s, because since then every iteration has needed a flight manual to programme their multiple driving modes. The E39 had a sport button, which your nan could fathom. All it changed was the steering weight and the throttle response – a bit.

Such massive performance in a rear-wheel-drive saloon could’ve been a recipe for ditch-finding disaster, but for a car that could bang off 62mph from rest in 4.8 seconds and (derestricted) climb to around 190mph, the E39 M5 was a pussycat. You didn’t need to fear switching off the traction control because it was so beautifully balanced and broke away so progressively. At the same time, it was wonderfully rewarding because the chassis and the steering – despite what you might have read about its recirculating ball effort – offered precision. Yet it was also supremely comfortable and roomy, and could be ordered with sat nav and a TV. It did the lot.

As is inevitable these days, such an unquestionably great car means values are exploding. The meat of the M5 market is now around £30,000, but cars like this unusual Imola Red example with such low, low miles, shows that the ceiling price of the very best is getting ever closer to £100,000. Bear in mind, though, there are many cars that cost similar money and they weren’t that great in their day, let alone now. But the E39 M5 was, and is.

BMW M3 CSL (E46) – 439 votes

The premise for the CSL’s place as peak M-car is simple: it took almost certainly the best M3 that BMW has ever made and made it noticeably better. You hardly need to know anymore than that – and while we’ll wager that not every vote behind its 439 tally signifies personal experience of what it’s actually like to drive, the enthusiasm for M GmbH’s icon is entirely warranted. The fact is that, not for the want of trying, BMW has arguably not yet exited the shadow cast by the 19-year-old Coupe Sport Leichtbau.

As ever, it is useful to point out that any standout performance car’s myth is built on sturdy foundations. The standard E46 M3 is at third place for very good reason, and much that is exemplary about that car underpins its most famous variant. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the CSL was a statement of intent for M GmbH.

Certainly it took the job of extracting mass from the car very seriously; everyone remembers the carbon fibre roof (a rarity, in period) but the front splitter and rear diffuser were composite too, the bootlid made from plastic and the glass thinned for 110kg of weight loss. Plus, of course, those epic lightweight 19-inch alloys shod in track-biased, tricky-when-wet Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tyres.

The objective signalled by the rubber upgrade was hotly pursued in the chassis overhaul. Hardware changes abounded: firmer, shorter springs, different rate dampers, thicker anti-roll bars, tougher bushes – all of it swapped in purely for the business of doing quicker, better. The cherry on top (if we exclude the lean and extravagantly mean look of the thing) was the tickled 3.2-litre straight-six with its reprofiled camshafts, larger diameter inlet manifold and air-sucking carbon fibre intake. The CSL delivered 360hp, but it was the sharper, angrier sound it made that ensorcelled a generation of impressionable car buyers.

Then there was the way it went. A nailed-on front end and easily provoked rear were virtually guaranteed – it was the gains made in clarity and preternatural alertness that stood the CSL apart from the already terrifically good M3. Having honed the body roll to an afterthought, the car was undeniably firm, but it resisted outright jolts and positively encouraged maximum conviction from its driver. Whether you were a fan of the standard-fit SMG II six-speeder or not, the CSL was virtually unputdownable.

Thus it passed into legend. But not, it must be said, without taking a brief respite in relative affordability. By the time our PH Hero was written in 2013 – the CSL by then a ten-year old prospect – the car had descended from its near £60,000 starting price to £27k at the time of writing. That time has assuredly passed. We discussed the pair currently on sale at Munich Legends just last month; the barely used grey one – offered for £115k – is now under offer. That just leaves the black one, still eye-popping at £92,995 – but an undeniably fine-looking example of PH’s certified all-time best M car.

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