The ‘Other M cars’
For a very long time, BMW M had a very limited set of cars it worked on – M3, M5 and M6 were the staples and that was it. But soon enough, tastes began to change with petrolheads and BMW realised there was money to be made expanding the M brand to other areas…
BMW M’s first attempt at branching out came in 1996 with the Z3M Roadster and Z3M Coupe. These were based on the Mazda MX-5 rivalling Z3 roadster and coupe (though we didn’t get the normal coupe in the UK) and used parts from the contemporary e36 M3 to create a small sports car with big power. So under that long bonnet and new power bulge sat the 3.2 litre straight-six S50 engine producing 316hp and 350Nm, which in such a small car weighing only 1400kg made for pretty explosive performance. The Z3M Coupe was the only coupe model we had in the UK, and it’s fair to say it had a somewhat mixed reception on the styling front. It was affectionately given the ‘breadvan’ nickname as it had a slight resemblance to the Ferrari 250 GT Breadvan with the long bonnet and short rear, but it was also known as the slightly less affectionate ‘clown shoe’ for obvious reasons. Styling aside, the Z3M was quite a handful with all that power in a short wheelbase, but keen drivers still found it rewarding and the coupe in particular has gained a cult following in recent years.
As e36 became e46, so Z3 became Z4 and in 2006 we were treated to the Z4M Roadster and Coupe. Larger than the predecessors, the Z4M brought the styling right up to date with a very modern and aggressive look, still with the long bonnet and on the coupe a short tail, though this time with a traditional coupe roofline instead of the breadvan style. The e46 M3 donated the engine again, the 3.2 litre S54 straight-six now producing 338hp and 365Nm. Despite growing in size, the Z4M weighed no more than the Z3M, so performance was still electric with 0-62mph coming up in 5.0 seconds on the way to a limited 155mph top speed. The wheelbase was increased by 50mm which helped with the handling balance and ride too, and the Z4M has stood the test of time as one of the best and most fun M cars of recent years.
The next M-car was undoubtedly their most controversial yet. In 2009, BMW created a new segment by taking the tall, practical X5 SUV and chopping the roofline to give it a coupe-like profile and removing a great deal of the practicality. Incredibly this is now something that has been copied by almost every manufacturer in every segment, but just while everyone was still confused by the purpose of this huge, impractical SUV-coupe, BMW M stepped up and confused people even further by revealing the X6M. This took the M5’s 547hp, 680Nm 4.4 litre twin turbo V8 and stuck it in the nose of a 2+ tonne high-riding behemoth and it’s safe to say that M fans were somewhat triggered by their wonderful tagline of ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ being attached to something that handled more like a boat than a car.
Admittedly the X6M handled far better than it had any right to, with incredibly complex adaptive suspension that enabled remarkably flat cornering. It also had extraordinarily large brakes to help all that mass come to a stop. The X5 got the M treatment shortly after and was slightly better received as at least it kept the practicality element. The X5M and X6M have since had two more models (and seem to show no signs of slowing sales-wise) and now boast 620hp and 750Nm in the latest X6M Competition, which can propel the 2.2 tonne SUV to 62mph in a scarcely believable 3.7 seconds.
As the full-fat M cars continued to be popular, BMW saw an opportunity to exploit that popularity and created the M-Performance sub-brand. This took the style and ethos of M and some of the engineering brilliance, and applied it to models that were part-way between normal models and M. This has now been applied to a large amount of models in the line-up, from the 1-Series to the 7-Series. The M135i created a seriously impressive hot hatch with xDrive and an automatic gearbox, the 2.0 litre turbo engine producing 310hp and providing playful, fun handling. The 3-Series has the M340i and M340d available in saloon and estate, with the M340i having the 3.0 litre twin turbo straight six petrol engine with 382hp and the M340d having the twin turbo 3.0 litre straight-six diesel engine with 335hp. These are the basis for the Alpina 3-series models and are exceptional all-round machines. Further up the range the M550i is basically a more subtle M5, with a 530hp V8, looks that could be mistaken for a 520d M-Sport and a delicious V8 burble from the exhaust. If the 7-series is your thing, the M760Li mated the huge body of a full size saloon to a monster twin turbo 6.6 litre V12 engine with 602hp and 800Nm of torque.
The next step for M-Performance has already been taken, with 2021 seeing the first electric cars with M badges on them in the form of the i4 M50 and the iX M60. The i4 M50 is a Tesla Model 3 Performance rival with two motors, AWD and 544hp based on the same architecture and body as the 4-series Gran Coupe, but with a full-EV drivetrain and a different dashboard with the latest iDrive infotainment system. The iX is a huge SUV style EV and the M60 takes the AWD drivetrain up to 619hp. The looks are a little challenging, but the interior is one of the best available at any price and it drives like a car half its size. If the i4 and iX are anything to go by, the electric revolution will be very good for BMW and the inevitable full-EV M models.