Car Culture

What Is It That Truly Defines An M Car?

With the M badge now adorning an array of vehicles, is there something that connects them all?

BMW has built an enviable reputation producing practical cars that offer a class-leading mix of luxury and performance. It was one of the first manufacturers to introduce the sports sedan category and has remained the benchmark to which all others are compared to in this segment ever since. The popularity of the most powerful models prompted BMW to introduce a sub-brand that catered for customers seeking a everyday usability with sports car levels of performance. Today, we refer to it simply as 'M.'

The origins of the BMW M division can be traced back to the 1960s where a motorsport division was created to facilitate BMWs ongoing racing initiatives. This division then evolved to offer road-going vehicles, one of the first was the 3.0 CSL, a lightweight version of the existing 3.0-liter coupe. The very first M-car was the 1978 mid-engined M1, an exotic mid-engined sports car that produced 270 hp from its 3.5-liter 6-cylinder engine and showed the world that speed and reliable performance were not mutually exclusive ideals.

The E28 M5 followed in 1984. Fitted with a modified version of the M1’s engine it redefined the performance envelope in the sports sedan segment. The very first attainable M car though was the 4-cylinder E30 M3, introduced in 1985, this four-seater sedan combined a motorsport-derived engine with a superb chassis to produce one of the finest handling cars of its time. The formula was a simple one but as was regularly proven by rivals, a difficult one to perfect. Early M cars featured a bespoke high-revving naturally aspirated engine, unique suspension settings including a limited-slip differential and uprated brakes over the standard models they were based on.

But enough of the history lesson, we have come a long way since those early days and the M badge has been affixed to a vast range of vehicles that at times seemed to be at odds with that once pure design philosophy that originally defined an M car. Pressures from competitors, emissions regulations and a desire to increase profitability have all played their part but surely there must be a common thread that runs through all proper M cars, something that still appeals to the true driving enthusiast. If not, then that once revered letter is in danger of becoming dismissed as a hollow marketing ploy instead of a yardstick by which all sporting sedans are measured. We decided to find out.

The first deviation from the lightweight driver-focused formula actually happened with the iconic E30 M3 itself. The huge demand for this little sports sedan prompted the release of a convertible model, heavier and less rigid. It was built to set lap times around snazzy night clubs rather than any race track. None were officially imported to the US but a handful of imports made their way over here anyway. A convertible model was destined to become a regular offering from then on out and while the chassis may be a bit flabbier and the handling a tad less precise, there is no doubt that fast roof-down motoring can be very enjoyable indeed.

The introduction of the SMG (Sequential Manual Gearbox) on the E36 M3 was not a universal success. Rough and temperamental, they worked best only when driven at the limit and happily we did not get this option until it was in a more refined state in the E46 M3 and sublime M3 CSL. What we did get, was a warmed over 240-hp E36 motor instead of the proper European-spec 286-hp unit, but even with less power the E36 M3 was and is still great to drive. The E60 M5 debuted with a 500-hp V10 engine that would have been equally at home powering a fully-fledged Italian exotic. Hamstrung by that early SMG transmission, we were lucky enough to be the only country that could order this car with a good old manual transmission.

In truth, either transmission option made for a thrilling drive and while these cars can be expensive to maintain, they embody that real M-car essence. Some of the technologies that we were promised would never be fitted to an M-car were all-wheel drive, automatic transmissions and turbochargers. These were all considered to be incongruous with driving pleasure but times have changed and now every one of these systems has been incorporated into the latest M-cars. The very latest M-car is the new 600-hp M5, which incorporates all of these technologies and trust us when we say that this is one of the very best M-cars ever made.

10-years ago, an automatic AWD M5 would have been a disaster but the superb quick-shifting automatic transmission and switchable AWD system serve to enhance the cars capabilities and make its prodigious performance capabilities more accessible more of the time. The turbocharged engine too has been part of the M-car arsenal for some time now. Unlike early attempts, like the pioneering 1974 2002 Turbo, these engines still rev nearly as freely as their naturally aspirated counterparts but provide massive amounts of torque and power while still meeting strict modern emissions regulations.

Turbo lag is virtually non-existent and anyone who has driven an F30 M3 will attest to the fact that it is a perfectly tractable daily-driver while still being capable of immense speeds when conditions allow. The M-DCT (Dual-clutch transmission) also sharpens up the driving experience and there is little doubt that these new-age sedans and coupes live up to the high standards set by their forebears. The allure of that M badge has ushered in a new segment of performance-oriented models dubbed M-Performance, featuring more powerful motors, sportier suspension settings and some visual add-ons to plug the gap between the pure M-cars and the rest of the range.

The M240i is a good example of this sub-brand, offering strong performance but not intended for serious track use. It is a perfect fast road car and brings us to perhaps the most controversial M-cars of them all, the X5 M and X6 M. The SUV and crossover craze has seen most major manufacturers introduce their own interpretations of these vehicles and while the X5 and the X range in general have proven to be capable machines, their heavy body shells, off-road biased AWD systems and lofty ride-height surely wouldn’t be suitable for the M treatment. BMW didn’t seem to think so, and decided to fit the 4.4-liter Twin-turbo V8 from the F10 M5 into the X5.

There is no doubting its performance potential, it can even go around corners better than most normal sedans thanks to a thorough reworking of the suspension and electrical aid systems. But was it right to put an M-badge on it? Most purists don’t think so, even with the massive power and high-tech electronics, it is still a high-riding SUV and comes with the performance hampering characteristics of this platform. Perhaps, it would have been less contentious to have branded it an M-performance model instead. It’s all a moot point really as the X5 M is now well into its second-generation and has found plenty of buyers who appreciate its particular set of skills.

In conclusion then, an M car is defined not by its ultimate power (the E30 M3 only had 197-hp) or by what kind of transmission it has, it is instead characterized by the more subjective traits of how it makes you feel when you drive it. Can it excite you, will it make you want to get up early to go for a drive just for the sake of it? Does it feel like an extension of your sense rather than just another fast yet soulless car? Answer yes to those questions and you will find that they are the traits that truly define the very best M-cars.

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