As truly difficult gigs go, working at Top Gear isn’t so much ‘deciding which houses to save in a bushfire’ as ‘deciding which mildly caustic simile to invoke about a new car.’ It’s a good gig. We admit it.
But then we got the idea to rate M Division’s entire oeuvre, only allowing one of two possible marks: hit or miss. All of a sudden, we were volunteering for hose duty. Because summing up an entire car, only to endorse or dismiss it summarily, is a difficult task.
To keep things as simple as possible, we’re only talking about the proper M cars. If we included M-badged cars, we’d have to go through all the skim-milk M Performance cars and every ‘genuine M3’ in a car meet.
10) E39 BMW M5: hit
Oh, good grief, was this a hit. This was a ‘Nile Rodgers working with David Bowie’ hit. This was a ‘German rocketeers teaming up with American astronauts’ kind of hit. This was a ‘Thor using Mjolnir to put a few tomato stakes into the ground’ kind of hit.
The E39 5-Series was already one of BMW’s all-time greats—before the incredible size creep of the generations that followed, but after BMW had decades of practice at the large luxurious sedan thing. So, adding a 5.0-liter, motorsport-ready V8, a six-speed manual, and a limited-slip diff is enough to bring a statue to tears, let alone a simple man. But we’ll tell you something that is tear-worthy: BMW was going to make a wagon version, but backed out.
11) E46 BMW M3: hit
On a purely personal level, this one is right up there with the E30 M3. And, in a secondhand values vulture kind of way, it’s quickly becoming every bit as ludicrously expensive. Seriously, is there not some kind of moratorium we can call on classic-car values? They came for houses, so we shrugged and rented instead. They came for artwork, so we shrugged and put prints and posters up instead. They came for watches, so we quietly killed the dream of owning a vintage Speedmaster and now check the time on our phones instead.
But when even cars that should be attainable take off into the stratosphere of private-equity thieves and hedge-fund bros, it’s a bridge too far. So sod them, sod their enablers, and sod the entire sad state of affairs.
It rather feels like we digressed for a second there. Moving on. We really can see why the E46 M3 is such an attractive proposition: It’s perfectly proportioned, subtly styled, and beautifully balanced. It’s also home to one of the all-time great engines: M Division’s 3.2-liter straight-six. So, if you’re lucky enough to have one, please, for everyone’s sake, don’t tuck it away to speculate. Get it out on the road and let it do what it does best.
12) E60 BMW M5: a hit, with severe caveats
Let’s just get one thing straight: a 5.0-liter, manically revving V10 in a sedan car? Tremendous. By no means necessary, sensible, or remotely acceptable in this day and age, but for a brief moment at the turn of the millennium, it really happened. The rest of the car was immaterial, really—when you’re talking about a clean-sheet V10 design, with individual throttle bodies and a redline on the far side of 8,000rpm.
Okay, yes, the E60 was also home to a tech overload: fiddling with the severity of the gearshifts from the single-clutch automated manual, dialing in how much power you wanted from the engine, trying to decipher the early-gen iDrive system. But really, that was just an irritating amuse bouche that preceded the excrement-sandwich main course: how often the E60 broke.
Honestly, these things had more faults than someone trying to play tennis with a double bass: gearbox solenoids and pumps made from chocolate, engine cooling faults, leaking suspension, electrical gremlins...we could go on. And we will: leaking hydraulic power-steering, broken throttle bodies, VANOS failures, bearings being eaten alive by the crankshaft and seizing or blowing the engine, iDrive system burning out its logic board, failing adaptive headlights, water leaking into the trunk and the cabin...
13) E63/64 BMW M6: miss
It had all the faults of the M5, all the needless complication and heft, and also made you look like you took lunch breaks from your day job in hostile takeovers with the sole purpose of finding homeless people to kick.
Also, and this is the axe that fells so many modern BMWs: It was definitely not a looker—especially around the derriere, which has all the grace and litheness of a cinder block. Let’s just say if that kind of caboose were to be found in a human being’s pants, you could reasonably assume some inexpert drug smuggling or a dire need for immediate surgery.
14) E85/86 BMW Z4 M: miss, but not by much
Should a car’s totality be judged by how it looks? The rational side of us says no, of course not. The less logical side of us takes one look at the Z4 M and thinks, “Yeah, that’s pretty much your lot, sunshine.” Because rarely has a car designed to be sporty looked so...well, derpy. Go on, pick another word that better explains the gormless, hangdog face of this thing. Covering it in M badges and sticking a pan pipe’s worth of exhausts out the back is kind of like leaping in front of the goal after the ball’s gone past and the other team is already slapping each other on the back.
But that 3.2-liter straight-six engine. Good grief. You could use one to power a mechanical bull and we’d hurriedly change our name to Top Steer and demand a test ride. It literally is the little engine that could.
If you can somehow forget that you’re driving something that looks like an unhappy suppository, it’s basically an E46 M3 that doesn’t steer properly. But, and here’s an interesting idea to ponder: Why don’t you just buy an E46 M3?
15) E90/91/92 BMW M3: hit
Following the E46 M3 is like following Dark Side of the Moon—a task that barely avoids being crushed under the weight of expectation. But, just like Wish You Were Here, the E90 M3 is a mesmerizingly good hit—just one that never seems to get as much love as its predecessor.
Honestly, we’re probably bigger fans of the E90 four-door than the E92 two-door—sacrilege, we know, but we cherish the ability to get in the back seat without needing training from Cirque du Soleil. The E92 convertible, on the other hand, is purely for rolling up and down the foreshore at Bondi Beach, trying to pull harder than the backpacker’s rip.
16) E82 BMW 1M: hit
It was a parts-bin special, as pumped up as a presidential ego, and as forgiving as a 20-foot fall onto concrete. But it was also a salient reminder that BMW’s M Division is at its absolute zenith when allowed to make merry with a small, rear-drive coupe.
And making merry was pretty much the 1M’s métier. Blending the M3’s back axle and locking differential with a hyped-up 3.0-liter turbo straight-six and an almost worryingly short wheelbase meant power slides were basically guaranteed.
One quick caveat: Because of that short wheelbase, the basically guaranteed power slides were nearly always as sudden as the ending on the last episode of The Sopranos. Just ask the car journo that put a brand-new one on its roof...
17) E70 BMW X5 M and E71 X6 M: what do you think?
There’s an old saying: You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. And by ‘old,’ we mean about a decade, from a comic-book movie. But we, as ever, digress.
Consider Firefly: possibly the best space western...um, ever, because that’s a very specific genre. It was canceled halfway through its first season and didn’t even get its original run of 14 episodes to air, because 20th Century Fox. But with each episode being the rough approximation of celluloid perfection, it’s very much the hero. Now, consider The Simpsons, which is rounding off a cool 30 seasons more than Firefly ever managed. And how many seasons ago did you stop watching?
Imagine if BMW’s M Division had pulled the pin after the E46 M3. Sure, we would have cried out for more, but we would never have witnessed the fall from grace that followed.
So, why did we talk about TV shows for 200 words or so? Well, for one reason, analogies are 90% of what we do here. Also, it’s far more interesting than actually talking about an X5 or X6 M.
18) F10 BMW M5: hit...ish
At first blush, things don’t look good for the F10 M5: The transcendent 5.0-liter V10 from the E60 is gone, it’s about 90kg heavier than its predecessor, and it plays synthesized engine sounds through the audio system.
And on anything less than a perfectly smooth, dry road, you were just asking for trouble if you tried to deploy the full 600hp on offer. M Division suspension is good, but even it does not possess the ability to wield actual magic. There’s a very, very good reason why the M5 that replaced it went to all-wheel drive.
Aside from those minor irritations and one kind of hobbling Achilles heel, it was still a quick 5-Series, and therefore excellent. So, in that regard, it’s a hit—just one with an iffy chorus, if you will.
NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.