BMW M5 vs The Greatest M Cars: CAR+ archive, October 2011

Published: 09 December 2015

► 10 of the greatest M cars, tested in Wales
► Twin-turbo M5 vs rev-hungry family rivals
 ‘The turbocharged M5 has depth of character’ – but is that enough?

Ben Barry referees the new M5’s toughest group test – the best M cars ever

The new M5 brings the total number of BMW M cars to 16, not including different bodystyles or mid-life model upgrades, but including significant specials like the M3 CSL and GTS. Then again, should I have included the E36 M3 GT or US-only Lightweight too? Oh dear, it’s all starting to unravel. People will write in to complain. And that’s the thing: people care about M, which is why these cars bear the burden of history and expectation on their broad wheel arches like nothing this side of a 911. Where does the new M5 stand in relation to the icons that went before? That’s a huge question, a question necessitating a two-day trip to the deserted roads of North Wales to drive 10 of the best M cars ever. Needs must and all that.

Whichever M you lust after, it will always link back to the E9 3.0 CSL of 1972, the seminal M car they dubbed Batmobile. This one’s from BMW’s heritage fleet and it’s absolutely gorgeous. You sink into a tilted bucket seat that feels more like an Austin Powers-style ball chair than anything motorsport-derived, but you quickly appreciate the incredibly comfy seat base and that its low-cut sides offer cocooning support below the arms.

There’s a whiff of vinyl, loads of headroom, and a breathtakingly panoramic view of the Welsh moors through the heavy curvature of the windscreen and stick-thin A-pillars. It’s soothing in here. Reach right into the back seat to grab your seat belt and you’ll see the end-plates of that huge rear spoiler cutting up like a double dorsal fin breaking through the bootlid.

The CSL isn’t an M car, but it is the genesis of M Division and was the first car to be built by BMW Motorsport – the clue is the red, violet and blue stripes that echoed the race cars’ more lurid graphics. You’ll see those same colours stitched into the 1M’s steering wheel, next to the boot badge of any M car, flecked into the upholstery of the E30 M3 Roberto Ravaglia we’re also driving. They’re the Nike swoosh of performance car logos.

To fully understand the CSL you need to go back to the late 1960s and very early ’70s, back to when Ford was dominating the European Touring Car Championship with the Capri RS. This clearly vexed BMW, so they poached Ford’s Jochen Neerpasch and handed him the task of running BMW Motorsport. Result? Capri stopped winning, CSL won all bar one of the championships from 1973 to 1979. That’s why this car matters.

BMW M5 vs the greatest M cars on CAR+

Turn the key and the CSL’s 3.0-litre straight six settles to a pulsating, breathy idle, and as you move off you heave at the heavy steering. Then we’re up and running, slotting the long gearstick from an upright first to a nonchalantly laid-back second, the engine note deep and warm. Now the steering lightens up, and you feel the slop at the top of the rim, but trust in the decent amount of precision and weight after that. On 195/70 R14 Yokos and soft suspension, the ride has a beautiful compliance. Eventually you get the confidence to push harder; you rev the engine harder, but it feels like it doesn’t really want to run past 4500rpm despite the 6400rpm redline. So you turn into corners faster to gain momentum and the CSL rolls over and leans heavily onto its loaded front wheel and the steering firms up and you’ve suddenly got a battle on your hands – you certainly feel more respect for the blokes who thrapped this thing around the Nordschleife.

The M dynasty proper begins with the M1 supercar. CSL man Jochen Neerspasch wanted to beat Porsche in the World Sportscar Championship and to win Le Mans, although changes to rules ultimately left the M1 high and dry until Max Mosley invited a grid of M1s to every F1 weekend. But nevermind the race cars: the road car was pretty exotic, what with a steel-tube spaceframe clothed in glassfibre, Giugiaro-designed bodywork and a tricky out-sourced production tie-up with Lamborghini that eventually collapsed, BMW instead turning to coachbuilders Baur.

The M1 always seems like a strange place for M cars to originate from – it’s an amazing looking thing with some pretty special ingredients, but it has precious little in common with the cars that followed – it’s a wedgy, two-seat, mid-engined supercar for heaven’s sake. The crucial link, though, is its 3.5-litre engine – it’s a peach of a lump, one that took as its base the CSL’s M88 competition-spec 3.5-litre engine, but moved it on with a twin-cam, 24-valve head to produce 277bhp and 243lb ft. This is also the basis (with two cylinders lopped off) of the 2.3-litre in the E30 M3. But, dear oh dear, it’s the E30 I’d want in my dream garage – Jethro Bovingdon and Chris Chilton both get on with the M1, but I can barely drive it. My head scrubs the rooflining, my knees only just clear the steering wheel, the pedals are hugely offset towards the centre and it’s hard to press the accelerator without snagging the brake pedal. And I’m no Sasquatch – I’m 6ft 1in.

In here it’s like looking at a vision of the future with the benefit of hindsight – its dashboard appears lifted from an ancient space shuttle, and over your shoulder you’ll see what looks like a barbecue griddle obscuring the engine and a slatted rear blind that tapers in line with the C-pillars. I set off in heavy rain and the single wiper clears a broad, rakish windscreen while pop-up lights vaguely illuminate the gloom. Like the E30 M3, the M1 uses a dog-leg ’box with first being down and offset to the left, the remaining gears stacked in a closely spaced H. Have a rummage when you’re stationary and the gears feel like they might be too close, but they’re easy to slot on the move. The thin steering wheel is nicely weighted and precise, the suspension soaks up bumps and remains nicely controlled, the front points neatly into corners, and the engine is fantastic. Unlike the E9 CSL, this thing really likes to rev and it pulls enthusiastically up to 6700rpm with its own take on the busy metallic yowl that defines a naturally aspirated M.

10 of the greatest BMW M cars tested in Wales, only on CAR+

Really the M1 is closer in spirit to the Audi R8 than any other BMW, and that, Alanis Morisette, really is ironic, seeing as the R8 takes a Lamborghini as its base. No, it’s the original E28 M5 that really sets the mould for every other car to leave M Division – so subtle that few spot its potential, hugely comfortable and practical, and with a raucous turn of speed that its unadorned body ably disguises. Just 187 were handbuilt by BMW Motorsport from 1985 to 1988, and this immaculate example comes from Classic Heroes.

Just like the new M5, you could send your grandma out in this car and she’d never know it was anything other than a quickish luxury saloon – the ride is beautifully supple, the 3.5-litre M88 six purrs with a lovely fluffiness and you’ve got plenty of creature comforts – sumptuous electric leather seats with huge buttons in the centre console to adjust them every which way, air-con, electric windows and sunroof. Plus there’s plenty of headroom, a large boot and even ample space for four six-footers. Yet if you’re that tall you’ll drive with your knees splayed either side of the large steering wheel, and you’ll turn it a surprising amount – it’s a pretty slow and lazy rack.

There are a few clues to this car’s Jekyll and Hyde character: prod the throttle at 85mph in fifth and the M5 eagerly piles on speed; throttle tip-in is pleasingly aggressive. But you need to really rev this engine for it to sing – flow down a twisty road between 70 and 90mph and it just feels right to have it screaming in third and fourth, the rpms constantly north of 4500rpm and regularly buzzing close to 7000rpm. That supple ride does come at the expense of some control, however: there’s a decent amount of turn-in roll and when you do break the ample dry-weather traction in second gear, it slips quickly into squidgy oversteer. Made me whoop, though.

Despite the M5’s cult status, it’s still the E30 M3 that defines M. Born for touring-car racing, the original M3 was built from 1986 to 1992, and today values are continuing to rise –you’re unlikely to find one for under £10k and later Sport Evos are into £40k. Relative rarity has eased up E30 values, but its genuine motorsport kudos helps, as does the fact that it’s still a fantastic thing to hoon about in, despite the compromises – the left-hand-drive-only layout, the dog-leg gearbox.

After driving the straight sixes, this 2.3-litre four pot buzzes and vibrates harshly – you feel it when you grip the suede gearknob, touch your foot on the clutch pedal, feel it under your seat – but I absolutely love it. Drive it hard across the moors and you’re constantly in range of the redline, and on the shorter straights I find myself briefly banging it on the limiter in second rather than bothering with an upshift. Then it’s a case of turning in and working the 225/45 R16 front tyres and getting on the throttle early – there’s no need for traction control here, because the power is so modest and the chassis so well balanced. The thing is, you can drive the E30 like that in the wet too, where the more powerful newer cars – the new turbo cars in particular – demand far more restraint.

At one point I head off on a food run and instinctively take the E30, squishing into its supportive Recaro seats and just smiling all the way to the shops. It’s like an old Audi Quattro in that you’ve got all the basics you expect from a modern car while still feeling like you’re in something classic and different. Is the new M3 GTS better? Of course it is – it’s sharper, faster and far more thrilling – but the E30 still feels special.

Classic BMW M cars tested and rated on CAR+

Next we’re into the oddball Z3M, this one for sale at Dove House Cars. It’s M’s first two-seat coupe, the last to lack traction control, and it combines E30-style semi-trailing arm suspension with the next-gen M3’s 3.2-litre six and a smaller bent-banana bodyshell. I like the bizarre looks, but I can’t get on with the driving position, and if you’re tall you probably won’t either. But there’s still a sense of occasion when you clamber into the comfortable-if-slippery leather seats and scan the retro, chrome-rimmed dials, grip the chromed gearknob and find your way around the controls. The glasshouse cuts low, so you feel a little exposed to your side, but the side windows taper up and into the A-pillars and all you can see over the tips of the windscreen wipers is the summit of the bonnet’s bulging power dome.

Head off down the road and you’ll notice that every input to the steering takes its effect, but that it’s vague at the top. The ride is nice and smooth, the nose points keenly into corners and grips well when you lean on it, the gearshift is generally slick and the engine, once again, is brilliant. The Z3M came with two flavours of 3.2-litre engines – the earlier cars got the E36 M3 Evo engine, the later ones the E46 M3’s lump (combined with the introduction of traction control). This one gets E36 power and it’s smooth and revs freely, with a kick from 3000rpm and a breathy metallic roar that just soars and soars. Strangely though, this car doesn’t feel as rapid as its stats would suggest, and it doesn’t have the final, savage kick of the E46 3.2. And no, M experts, I don’t think the double Vanos (variable valve timing) system needs replacing. I’d hold out for a later E46-engined Z3M.

Or, better still, the awesome E46 M3 CSL, or Coupe Sport Lightweight. Just 422 were built for the UK from what the plaque on the dash tells us was 1 July 2003 to 31 December 2003 (was someone really banging out a CSL on New Year’s Eve?) and while its 355bhp is no giant leap beyond the Z3M – or the 338bhp standard M3 – the effect of its power hike plus a 110kg saving is night and day. This is a savage powerplant, the carbon airbox giving an instantly recognisable, buzzsaw shriek. Like the Z3M there’s that kick at around 3000rpm, but the delivery thereafter is so much keener and the final chase to the redline deliciously intense. Then you press the Sport button: it takes a knife sharpener to the throttle response and – whoah! – this thing is alive! Almost a decade on, the CSL’s 3.2 still feels like one of the best engines ever. It is. Don’t fool yourself that a 1M with a similar layout but double turbos will be even better – it’s a very capable unit, but it can’t compare with the intoxication of an E46 CSL.

Just like the turbocharged 1M, the first M to shirk natural aspiration, (okay, the X5/X6M came first, but they’re not really M cars at all in the traditional sense), the CSL was controversial back in the day: it sold for a £20k premium over the M3 (and used values quickly tumbled), it came on slippery-when-wet Cup tyres that demanded owners signed a disclaimer, and, while the E36 M3 had introduced us to the idea of a clutchless manual gearbox, the CSL was the first M car ever to arrive without a third pedal.

Classic, naturally aspirated, rear-wheel drive M car action on CAR+

Today, it’s that same ’box that spoils it, with ponderous, sometimes jerky shifts that mute a little of the dialogue between car and driver – the new dual-clutch DCT is a giant leap from this. And yet the CSL is still brilliant. They came in Silver Grey Metallic or, less commonly, Sapphire Black, and you’ll tell one apart from a stock M3 by its 19in alloys, front airdam with asymmetric air inlet (see the echo in the old CSL?) and ducktail bootlid. There are big changes inside too: you slip into a fixed-back bucket seat, grip a suede wheel (worn and bobbled on this 17,000-miler) and notice the masses of carbon on the door cards and centre console; the smattering of functional looking Allen key bolts too. Even the rear seats are new, with token padding in the centres and hard plastic where you’d expect an armrest. Still, I’d sooner have compromised rear seats than none at all, à la GTS.

Like many CSLs, ours now wears regular rubber, in this case Conti Sport Contacts (better in the wet, less sensational in the dry) but it’s still a fabulous thing to drive. I charge over the moors with that bwooorr barking, and the sheep – content to gnaw the grass when I pass in the Z3M – run for the hills with that insane sheepy panic in their bulging sheepy eyes.

The CSL’s ride is stiff, but not awkwardly so, and its balance is amazing, little powerslides coming quickly but feeling instinctively easy to control. But after jumping between the CSL and the new M3 GTS, it’s easy to find fault: the steering feels narcoleptic in comparison, and it takes a while to adjust to the disconnect between the arc you think you’re describing with the steering and the reality of the larger radius that the rack and front tyres have settled on – and this is a swifter rack than a regular M3. Compared with the GTS, the front end also feels fuzzy. Finally, and a common M complaint this is too, the brakes are below par, grumbling under hard use like the two curmudgeons on The Muppet Show balcony. And yet I’m continually drawn back to the CSL’s red-raw drama.

Launched in 2005, the outgoing E60 M5 feels every inch the CSL’s big brother. It too is a naturally aspirated screamer, this time a rabid V10, which played on Munich’s engine tie-up with Williams F1. And it too has a ponderous clutchless manual, though in this case it’s a seven-speeder, and it seems even slower: changing gear can be like the steering wheel is saying ‘come here… bit closer’ and you lean in as momentum is briefly lost and then – wham! – it’s like being slapped around the face, so uncouth is the change. Added to this is the fact that the M5 has five different shift speeds available at a press of a button, independently selectable for both manual and automatic modes. Sensibly, the new M5 reduces this to just three. I play around with all the speeds and, frankly, it’s a bit bewildering – why would you ever want the painfully slow first setting? Why is the best compromise somewhere between three and four? Then you turn off the traction control and a secret computer game-style level opens up, giving an even fiercer sixth shift speed. Presumably the logic is that the intensity of the shift could trigger the traction control, causing an awful tangle between drivetrain and Tarmac – now that tangle’s resolved by the rear wheels slipping. Good logic.

Is the M3 GTS a proper M5, given it has no rear seats?

So you sink into the comfy leather armchair, fire the V10. It settles to a bassy burble and an almost diesely tick. Set off and you’ll notice how good the ride quality is and quickly bond with the nicely weighted steering. Just like the first –gen M5, there’s nothing here to let on you’re in a 500bhp über-saloon. Then you turn off the traction control, unleash that magic sixth shift speed and flatten the accelerator. Unlike the twin-turbo F10 M5, this motor’s not big on torque, with 348lb ft at 6100rpm, but it still pulls keenly from low. There’s a kick at 3000rpm, and the sound morphs to a more top-end, higher-pitched meshing that’s underpinned by a lovely mellifluous warble. The exhaust adds a distant, thunderous cacophony. Now you’re really moving, but a glance at the head-up display confirms you’re using half of the revs. So you click the left paddleshift and it locks you into manual, you push past 5500rpm and the V10 warps into hyper drive. It’s a funny feeling, like you’re running on a travelator, and your neck muscles strain as the gs force your head back. Keep it revving, take it beyond 8000rpm, pull a paddle and – whack! – the rear axle’s a cricket ball and it’s just ben cracked for six. It’s proper Lamborghini-style brutality, this.

And it’s not just all drivetrain-related thrills: this is a great car to drive, with plenty of turn-in grip and bags of traction. The ’box is a black mark, but should it deter you from picking up a V10 family saloon for well under £20k? No chance. As I clamber out, awestruck, I’m wondering just how the new M5 can top this. We’ll get to that later. First the M3 GTS.

To put the GTS in context, it’s worth recounting a chat I had with ex-M boss Gerhard Richter ahead of the current M3’s launch in 2007. With the world a changing place and rivals like Porsche making a killing out of the Cayenne SUV, I asked what the M ingredients should be, whether he’d consider 4wd or diesels or things like that. Richter’s reply was simple: ‘Every M car should be rear-drive with a high-revving, naturally aspirated petrol engine.’

Months later Richter was replaced, and by 2009 the X5/X6M turbo SUVs arrived. Hardcore fans were not impressed. That’s why, I reckon, we got the GTS. It starts with the standard M3 coupe bodyshell, its pared-back interior fitted with broad Recaro buckets that are more generic-racer that the CSL’s special-feeling chairs, but they fit more comfortably. There’s no iDrive, no sat-nav, an optional half roll-cage. The standard 4.0-litre V8 swells to 4.4 litres, lifting outputs from 414bhp and 295lb ft to 444bhp and 325lb ft. There’s uprated, fixed-rate suspension, 70kg less to lug about and, for once, some proper six-piston front brakes and four-pot rears.

I jump from the 1M to the M3 GTS, and the M3’s adrenalized throttle response has me kangarooing down the road, but it takes just seconds to acclimatise; seconds too, to notice how good this dual-clutch shift is – it’s the third M car to be offered only with a semi-auto, but the first to get it right. The changes are both smooth and rapid-fire crisp, and there’s no thwack here when you upshift at the redline in the sixth of those shift modes. Cossetting auto, lap-time slasher – the DCT does it all.

I remember the M3s on the press launch having numb-feeling steering at the dead ahead, but this set-up is fabulous – every millimetre evokes a response, the rack’s as rapid as you could ever need and it feels like there’s a much cleaner, much more direct link to those hard-working front Pirelli P-Zero Corsas than you get in the M3 CSL. Of course, the unique-to-the-GTS stiffer fixed-rate suspension helps this, but it isn’t such a compromise: its ride is calmer and more compliant than the fidgety 1M.

Which M car is the best according to Ben Barry on CAR+

I do my first cross-country blat with the traction control on, but the GTS feels so instinctively right, so absolutely in sync with itself that I quickly turn it off and drive as fast as I dare over these challenging roads, never once feeling like it might bite. Accelerate early and you’ll get a crisp, easy transition into a powerslide while the engine blares a kind of triumphant trumpet blare. This is what it’s all about, it seems to be saying; go on, do it more, like that, that’s it, bwwwwooop, bwoop, bwop. I’ve driven this car on track, on the road in France, and now in the UK, and the more I drive it, the better it gets. Faults? Honestly, in terms of pure driving appeal there’s nothing I can single out for criticism. Like it, want it.

But here’s the rub: the removal of the M3’s rear seats diminishes the everyday appeal that’s so long been core to the brand, and with just 136 built, the very car that M made to prove it still knows how to crank out a great performance car is destined to remain a well-kept secret. Making matters worse, it costs £117k – more than a 50% hike over standard.

On the M3 GTS launch at Ascari last summer, M had another treat for us: a passenger ride in a 1M mule. Like the M3 GTS, I reckon this car was hastily pushed through to assuage fears of M losing the plot. But there’s a sub text too: this is the first turbo M car, marking the transition between naturally aspirated past and forced-induction future. What better way to soften us up for that U-turn than by releasing a car with no real predecessors?

Yet for all that it heralds a new dawn, the 1M is a pleasingly trad kind of M car – it comes only with a six-speed manual and fixed-rate dampers; punchy engine up front, drive to the back, limited slip diff; so far, so familiar. You notice a few things compared with the 135i on which it’s based: the steering feels quicker and meatier, the front end more dependable, the shift action shorter (and slicker than any six-speed M yet, I reckon) and the 3.0-litre bi-turbo lump really kicks. I think it’s a way of giving a regular street driver an instant level of differentiation from the 135i, plus it’s a visceral jolt that substitutes for the top-end fireworks that’ve defined M for decades. The turbos actually stream on boost with as little as 1500rpm on the dial, so while the 1M doesn’t bark or sonically mutate as you pile on the revs, it does offer up a thumping dollop of boost on demand: tickle the throttle at 85mph in sixth and you’ll touch 100mph in the blink of an eye. The problem is, this makes the 1M’s on-limit behaviour harder to read than, say, the M3 GTS. Combine its power delivery with a short wheelbase and the often-spiky ride quality and you’ve got a car that can snap sideways quickly, particularly in the wet. For this reason, it took me a while to work up to completely disengaging the 1M’s traction control. Yet when I did, in the dry, it actually proved to be pretty benign, gripping well and wiggling its hips when provoked in a transparent, predictable kind of way. But in the wet, on the road? It’s halfway-house DSC for me.

Is the 1M a better car than an M3? I don’t think it is. It’s a very, very nice thing and it may just be faster than its big brother, but I prefer the M3’s balance, engine, throttle response, ride quality and practicality. I also prefer the M3 GTS’s steering, which emphasises how the 1M rack is all about speed and weight, not feel.

So, is the latest M5 the greatest M5 ever?

All of which brings us to the new M5, which has downsized by two cylinders but added two turbos, in a set-up that’s similar to the X5/6M. Versus the old M5, power and torque shoots up from 500bhp and 384lbft to 552bhp and 502lb ft. First impressions? The ride quality in Comfort is fantastic, with a pillowy but well-controlled pliancy underpinning all of the body’s motions. The sumptuous seats instantly warm you to the idea of a long drive. Then you poke around and play spot the difference; this time there are just three shift modes, not six. You can tailor the dampers, throttle response and steering separately, where previously it was dampers and a Sport button for steering and throttle. And this time there’s no Power button to unleash all the bhp. There’s still lots to figure out, but I prefer this logic.

Prefer the gearbox too: the shift of the dual-clutch seven-speeder is a quantum leap on from the lumpy E60, just as we’d expect given the DCT M3. Great engine as well: the throttle response is Bruce Lee aggressive in Sport, as if the engineers have sat around and thought, right, the journalists will moan about a soggy throttle response because of the twin turbos. Cue badly synced preamble to a martial arts showdown: ‘You want throttle response? Take this!’ Actually it’s very good, and you appreciate its precision as you flex your right foot up and down through corners. Naturally it’s a very potent powerplant, and, yes, it does have a kind of mono delivery in comparison with the old M5, but M has made an effort to make it sound interesting. Back in and out of low throttle loadings and you’ll hear a background bass-drum dum; go in more aggressively and you’ll get a dum-tishhh, like a comedy drumroll after a bad pun. But this isn’t bad: it sounds like a living, breathing, industrial monster when you wake it up, and there’s a depth of character that the 1M can’t summon.

Traction, naturally, is trickier than the less torquey E60 M5, but it’s still good and, in the stability control’s middle setting, it strikes a well-judged compromise between allowing you to enjoy a lurid slide and not letting things go too far – when it cuts in you’ll already be in the brace position.

As a car to cover ground very quickly and in absolute comfort, and as an everyday proposition, the new M5 ticks all the boxes, but it is also fair to say that the last frisson of excitement, that bonkers bit of drama that defined the old M5 when you wound its incredible V10 out hasn’t quite been substituted. What’s interesting is that when you drive the M3 CSL, then jump in the M3 GTS, there’s a big gulf in their ability – the GTS is significantly better. Yet despite a similar period having elapsed between the two M5 generations, the new M5 doesn’t really move the dynamic needle. The gearbox is better, yes, the ride is even smoother, sure, the interior nicer, and it’s still laugh-out-loud great to drive – it’s a superb five-star car, but it isn’t a giant leap on from its predecessor when it comes to entertainment.

So, where does that leave our greatest M car rankings? In terms of the classic cars, the M1 and the E9 CSL are too archaic to consider using every day – they’re really museum pieces that are fun to dust off once in a while. But the E30 M3 and E28 M5? These really are daily driver classics, with enough mod-cons to avoid a culture shock if you’ve stepped out of something contemporary, plus entertaining dynamics, rock-solid residuals and a still plentiful supply of spare parts. If I had to choose, I’d lean towards the E30 as the more rewarding driving tool.

During this shoot, we debated what an M car should be, and of course the thrills side of things dominated, but we also talked about practicality and value and everyman accessibility. Seen in those terms, I find myself dithering between E60 V10 M5, new M5 and the E46 CSL. All things considered I’d vote E60 M5. It’s such good value, such an all-rounder and the engine is incredible.

Shaken down to pure driving thrills, I’d pick the M3 GTS – it’s a fabulous piece of kit with a great drivetrain, chassis, steering and gearbox. The complicating factors are the price and the lack of rear seats, but I’m not going to sit on the fence here – it’s the best, the one I most want to drive. The M3 GTS, then, is the greatest M car of all time.

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator