You don't need and M badge to be cool.
BMW's modern reputation is built on the 3 Series and 5 Series being comfortable luxury cars with a sharp handling edge. As a result, the brand has built a strong appeal to people that see a car as more than just a way of getting from A to B. Sometimes, the lack of an M badge doesn't mean BMW's hardcore tuning division hasn't been involved to some degree. It's easy to forget that some of the most exceptional BMW's made so far aren't a direct product of the Motorsport division's engineers being given free reign. These are just some of our more modern favorites.
For BMW purists, the turn-of-the-century E46 generation is often cited as the greatest BMW 3 Series yet. It was still compact, it wasn't overridden with electronic driving aids, and had an incredibly well-balanced chassis that still holds up today. Our favorite is the E46 330ci; it's the coupe version and the most powerful E46 generation engine available before you step into an M3. The 3.0-liter straight-six was the most powerful of the legendary M54 engines and worth the admission price alone. The 330i or 330ci are often derided as "the poor person's BMW M," but that misses the point. The E46 embodies what a 3 Series should be and the 330ci is the most rewarding version for enthusiastic drivers who don't want to compromise daily driving comfort.
In the mid-1990s, the first BMW 8 Series also had the first V12 engine in a road car hooked to a six-speed manual transmission. The 850CSi was the top of the trim line and BMW's flagship, and a performance monster. The M division bored and stroked the 5.0-liter M70 V12 to 5.6 liters, creating 372 hp and 402 lb-ft of torque. It also gained rear-wheel steering, a revised suspension system, and the brakes from the M5. Only 1,510 were built, and it's the car on this list that's closest to a full-blooded M car without the badge.
In 2004, BMW started building the little 1 Series hatchback, and in 2008 it came to America in coupe form. The 135i is the sportier model with lower M turned suspension, six-piston brake calipers at the front, and a limited-slip differential. Under the hood is the twin-turbo inline-six from the matching year's 335i coupe. The 300 hp the engine produces is exactly right for the car, and the six-speed manual is a delight. It makes this list because it's such a lot of performance in a smaller car, and just as importantly, it was relatively affordable. For these who couldn't get hands on the 1M Coupe, this was a worthy replacement.
The E39 M5 is widely considered the benchmark full-size performance sedan. However, let's not forget that the E39 5 Series without an M badge was still a phenomenal fun-size sports sedan. In 540i trim, it packed a version of BMW's M62 V8 engine making 282 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque. Alongside an impressive list of standard equipment and technology, it was also a beautifully smooth and composed ride, yet sharp and well behaved on a back road. Like the E46 3 Series, purists will tell you it also struck the perfect balance of enough electronic driver aids to keep you out of trouble, but not enough to nanny the driver when they wanted to have some fun. Inside, the E39 5 Series was immune to the BMW bean counting department, as it was the epitome of luxury for its time.
Ok, the M240i does have an M in the name, but it's not a full-cream M car. It has exactly the right amount of M in its DNA, though, and is the modern spiritual successor of the E46 3 Series. Its dimensions are close enough not to make a difference, but the performance and dynamics are cranked up considerably. Under the hood is one of BMW's finest engines to date, the turbocharged 3.0-liter B58 straight-six engine that also features in the new Toyota Supra. It develops 335 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, and features M tuned dynamic adaptive suspension. It's the most nimble modern BMW, and its impeccable dynamics can lead to heretical statements being made. Statements such as, "I would take one of these over a low-mileage E46 M3."
We look forward to your comments, but you are wrong. The BMW i8 is a marvel of engineering that came ahead of its time. A mid-mounted turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine sits behind the driver and works with an electric drive system to make 369 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque to all four wheels. It's an odd experience to drive a car so smooth and quick, as the relentless torque doesn't match the aural experience. Lose the drummed in 'loud = fast' formula, though, it's an addictive car to drive and feels like you're in a video game. You don't need a virtual reality headset though, you just need to drop $147,500 on a BMW i8. That might still be possible, as they have only just gone out of production when this was written.
Once upon a time, BMW made one of the most beautiful cars the roads have ever seen. Despite celebrities, including Elvis Presley, falling in love with it, the historical 507 nearly ruined BMW. However, it's remembered for its beauty, and that's what inspired the Henrik Fisker-designed Z8. At the time, reviewers weren't completely sold on how it drove, but only people devoid of any soul can't appreciate the full scope of its retro-inspired beauty. Under the hood was a 395-hp BMW S62 V8 engine, but the softer and more refined Alpina version came with a tuned BMW M62 V8 making 375 hp. Only 5,703 were made, and 2,543 of those came to the US.
The E30 318is is a cult classic, not a bestseller. It's bigger 325iS brother got a six-cylinder engine, but the 318iS got the DOHC 16V four-cylinder M42 engine. It was the most advanced engine to go into an E30-generation car, and it was a little belter. People love the 318is because that little engine was lighter than the six-cylinder, and helped the E30 become wonderfully lively in the corners. The other reason it's so fun to drive is that it had a smooth-shifting Getrag five-speed manual and stiff M Tech tuned suspension. It was BMW respecting its sporting customers and delivering a relatively inexpensive performance sedan for the masses. Considering the now-outrageously-priced E30 M3 also had a four-cylinder engine, the 318is was a true M car on a budget.
Despite the insistence on the crazy grilles at the moment, BMW has still got it. The German engineers rebooted the 8 Series and delivered a drop-dead gorgeous luxury coupe that is just as comfortable cruising across a continent as it is rampaging through a twisty road in the countryside. The M850i xDrive Coupe is the top of the range and packs a 4.4-liter twin-turbocharged V8 engine with 523 hp and an even meatier 553 lb-ft distributed to all four wheels. It hits 60 mph in just 3.5 seconds thanks to one of the best transmissions on the market - BMW's super smooth and lightning-fast eight-speed automatic with launch control and paddle shifters. As a grand tourer, there's not much better on the market, and its turn of speed leaves you wondering if the M8 is actually worth the extra money.
In 2008, the BMW 7 Series punched the Mercedes S-Class on the nose. The level of technology grew from the previous generation, and the bespoke interior was exceptional. The crowning glory was the powerful yet silky smooth addition of a twin-turbocharged 6.0-liter V12 engine. It made 536 hp and 553 lb-ft of torque. Despite the Li being the long-wheelbase model, had a surprising edge to it when the owner decided to move from the back seat to the front. The mix of power, refinement, driving dynamics, and rear-seat luxury make the fifth generation 760Li one of the best 7 Series to grace the road yet and a worthwhile place to end this list.