The ’Ultimate Driving Machines’ that really deserve the tagline

BMW, the maker with one of the most famous grille designs in the business, has been around for over a century and, in that time, has made some of the world’s finest luxury cars although it’s fast sedans and coupes that really put BMW’s name on the map. Here you’ll find our ranking of the 10 best Bimmers as well as some very honorable mentions.

While the genesis story of Bavaria’s leading automaker is still being misrepresented to this day, nobody’s confused when it comes to naming BMW’s strengths among Germany’s leading brands with its transcendental focus on driving pleasure that’s been paramount to building a brand image that identifies with some seemingly age-old catchphrases: ’Freude am Fahren’ (which loosely translates to ’the joy of driving’) and ’the ultimate driving machine’. You can be sure that the cars below are a joy!

Most BMWs are really good

2019 BMW 3 Series
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Trying to rank the best cars of a company with as storied a history as BMW’s is never an easy task because, frankly, BMW’s made a ton of great cars.

While its fierce rivalry with Mercedes-Benz and Audi pushed it to make a name out of delivering driving pleasure, you can't deny that a mid-size BMW sedan or one of the many SUVs in the X family make a great grocery go-getter or family car.

Having said that, we can’t have all the cars BMW’s ever made here so if your favorite Bimmer didn’t make the cut, be sure to share your thoughts on the subject in the comment section below. After all, BMW, a company that’s sold 324,826 cars and SUVs in the U.S. in 2019 alone, more than its rivals from Ingolstadt and Stuttgart have managed, is undeniably very popular.

1957 BMW 507

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You may not be a fan of the blindingly pink 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood once the star of Elvis Presley’s collection but it’s safe to say ’The King’ didn’t lack taste when it came to choosing his cars. The white BMW 507 he bought during his military service in Germany in 1958 is a perfect case in point.

Sure, other stars of the ’50s and ’60s also enjoyed the agile 507, including Ursula Andress and Alain Delon but it was Presley that proved once again that American BMW importer Alex Hoffman was bang on the money.

Hoffman, who can also be credited for pushing Mercedes-Benz to build a street-legal version of the 300 SL, was powerful enough to make his suggestions heard among Europe’s top auto executives and when he put forth the idea that BMW should get back to making sports cars, Munich listened - despite there not being a market for such cars in Germany in the early ’50s.

Albrecht Graf Goertz handled much of the design work for the new car while the oomph came from BMW's first production V-8 engine, a 3.2-liter unit churning out 150 horsepower at first, enough for a top speed of 132 mph.
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As a halo car - the first in BMW’s history - it didn’t really sell but that’s also got to do with the fact that it was obscenely expensive, more than twice the money you’d pay in 1954 for a Jaguar XK140, an arguably better car overall. When production was halted at the end of 1959 just 251 units had been built but the 507 had fulfilled its mission - it put BMW back on the map as a sports car maker capable of making technologically advanced and beautiful cars. The 507 may just be one of the best BMW models in terms of looks.

1973 BMW 3.0 CSL

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In the early ’70s, BMW drivers were getting their collective backsides handed to them by Ford’s Cologne-built Capri in Europe’s most important sedan series, the European Touring Car Championship (ETCC). To stop the humiliating streak of defeats that neither Alpina nor Schnitzer could stop no matter what they did to the 2800 CS, BMW pulled out the cash-filled briefcases and nabbed Ford’s top talent: Team Boss Jochen Neerpasch and top driver Hans-Joachim Stuck.

With the duo now on BMW’s side, Ford’s reign over the ETCC began to crumple as Neerpasch worked hard with BMW’s engineers to shave off as much weight as possible off the 2800 CS while increasing the engine size first to 3.2-liters and then to 3.5-liters. Thus the CS-L (Coupe Sport Light) was born. While part of the E9 family of models, the CSL was distinctive due to its rear wing, something you’d seldom see on production cars in the ’70s.

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The wing was part of BMW’s final push to establish itself as the main player in Group 2 competition.

To get the wing homologated, a 500-unit batch of production cars had to be manufactured but German laws prohibited BMW from selling a car with a wing that big so, to fly under the radar, BMW put the wing in the CSL's trunk and included screws and instructions for each and every owner to bolt the wing in place on his own.

The trick worked and, in July of ’73, the ’Batmobile’, initially ran by the newly formed BMW Motorsport division, began a six-year rule over the European sedan racing scene briefly interrupted by the appearance of Ford’s Capri RS3100 whose career was curtailed by the oil crisis.

2018 BMW M2 Competition

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The M2 Competition is maybe the best compact performance car in the executive class and one of the best BMW performance cars of the last 10 years. So, what is the M2 Competition? Well, let’s start with what it isn’t. It isn’t a standard M2 with bigger wheels and stiffer springs. If the standard F87 M2 features the 365 horsepower and 343 pound-feet of torque N55B30T0 3.0-liter turbocharged straight-six, the Competition’s heart is the M3’s S55 engine with two turbos instead of one.

The numbers speak for themselves: 405 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque in a sub-3,500-pound car. That translates to a 0-60 mph time of four seconds flat if you go for the seven-speed automatic transmission and, with M Driver’s package installed, this pocket rocket tops out at 172 mph.

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Compared to the current M2

Beyond the figures and cheeky performance upgrades such as the carbon fiber strut brace, the M2 Competition is an amazing smoke machine and we love it for how easy it easy to pop the back out through a bend and light the rubber. Let’s see if the M2 CS unveiled at the 2019 L.A. Auto Show can up the ante even further...

Read our full review on the 2018 BMW M2 Competition

1978 BMW M1

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BMW did a Porsche before Porsche itself did it when conceiving the M1.

When going racing, the traditional way of doing it implies you’ll modify a production model to make it quick enough and tough enough to cope with the hardships of racing with a certain class. BMW, however, wanted to build a race car that they would then modify to comply with road car rules and regulations. Porsche did the same thing almost two decades later, in 1996, when they designed the 911 GT1 to be a bona fide race car for the road loosely based on the 993-generation Porsche 911.

The difference between Porsche’s effort and the M1 is that the 911 GT1 was a dominant racing car from the word go while the first mid-engined Bimmer barely even made it into production and onto the race track. Initially, the plan was for Lamborghini to handle the assembly process as BMW had no experience in making a supercar but, as the ’70s drew to a close, Lamborghini swam in financial hot waters and BMW had to backtrack on its initial plans and make the car in Munich.

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The direct result of that was a five-year delay in the development of the Group 5 race car and the birth of a unique series meant to allow for the not homologated Group 4 cars to see some sort of racing action. In short, in order to homologate a Group 5 silhouette GT car, you had to previously homologate a Group 4 car which, in turn, was supposed to be based on a street-legal model with a production run of at least 400 units. By 1979, BMW had barely made 200 units and, instead, BMW Motorsport Boss Jochen Neerpasch pulled some strings and, with the aid of Max Mosley and future F1 Supremo Bernie Ecclestone, got the Procar series going.

The Procar series turned out to be a two-year affair that pitted F1’s brightest talents against BMW’s own touring car and endurance racing veterans in a single-make championship quite like no other, drowning in the intoxicating noise from the 3.5-liter M88/1 inline-six powering the E26. Probably the M1 wasn’t the best BMW ever made but what’s certain is that it was the first BMW to wear the ’M’ badge and the only supercar of the ’70s that you could actually drive on a daily basis.

Read our full review on the 1978 BMW M1

2019 BMW M4 CS

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The M4 CS is the bridge between your run of the mill M4 fitted with the Competition Package and the bonkers GTS with its bespoke chassis, water injection, and added ponies.

The CS (Club Sport), though, grants you access to a set of sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 like on the GTS and the carbon fiber hood is identical too. It also shares some M4 Competition Package DNA through the usage of the same chassis setup and the two models share the lower and stiffer springs, dampers, and anti-roll bars.

With 454 horsepower on tap, the M4 CS is almost 40 horsepower away from the GTS’ power output but what it lacks in raw power it makes up in the way it behaves.

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It feels a lot more connected and, while you may not feel the power advantage over an M4 Competition (a mere 10 horsepower and 37 pound-feet of torque), you’ll surely hear it due to the louder, meatier exhaust note. The M4 CS is our pick for the best BMW model out of the M4 range since it’s not as extreme as the GTS but it’s poised enough to make it thrilling at speed - without breaking your back in the process, although your bank account will surely take a hit considering the $103,500 MSRP.

Read our full review on the 2019 BMW M4 CS

1936 BMW 328

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At the time of its unveiling, the 328 became the best BMW car of the lot. Having said that, we must also admit that the swift, lithe sports car only had to rise above a bunch of compact city cars and mid-size sedans that felt sedated and lacking in character.

But the 328 not only rose above the marque’s other products and its peers in the sports car world, it also took a stab at beating the big supercharged sports cars of the ’60s and won if the track was twisty enough to allow it.

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With an impeccable chassis and a dry weight of about 1,720 pounds in street trim (some race teams trimmed that weight all the way down to 1,322 pounds by ditching the fenders and headlights), the 328 belied the underwhelming 80 horsepower output of its 2.0-liter M328 straight-six engine. Penned by Peter Szymanowski, the original roadster was among the first BMWs to feature the now-emblematic twin-kidney grille design, albeit in a more elongated form. Between 1936 and 1940, the 328 was the best car in the 2.0-liter class in any sports car race and won such prestigious events as the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Mille Miglia in Italy.

1991 BMW M3 Sport Evolution

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BMW was on the back foot when the Group A ruleset in European sedan racing came into effect in 1982 and privateers rushed to the scene with the outdated 528i (E28). While clinching the title in the ETCC ultimately came down to the Jaguar team’s poor reliability record, BMW recognized a new car was necessary and the 635 CSi (E24) was put back into service (a Group 2-spec car had been in use briefly between ’80 and ’81). When the E24 too became obsolete, in 1985, BMW prepared a more compact replacement that would follow in the footsteps of the E21.

The result was the first BMW 3 Series, known internally as the E30. The Group A race car arrived in 1987, one year after the introduction of the road car and changed sedan racing forever.

Widely considered as the most successful race car of its kind, the M3 E30 raced in a variety of guises between 1987 and 1991 and the 'Sport Evolution' model was conceived by the 'M' division merely for homologation purposes - a trend you probably picked up on already in our list.
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If the 1986 M3 was rated at just 192 horsepower coming from its 2.-liter S14 inline-six, 1990’s Sport Evolution put out 235 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 177 pound-feet at 4,750 rpm.

Only 600 units were ever made, all with bigger wings, bumpers, and fender flares and all are analog to the bone. Sluggish by today’s standards, the original M3 remains one of the best BMW cars although some will argue it’s the best BMW period.

2014 BMW M3 GTS

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The E92 generation's last hurrah was this orange, flamboyant M3 with an equally orange roll-bar inside, a plethora of carbon fiber body parts, and a big wing out back.

While it should not be confused with the M3 GTR - the ultimate M3 of the E46 generation, more ’out there’ than even the CSL, the GTS is a serious track weapon. At about 3,500 pounds, the GTS is 140 pounds lighter than any other M3 E92 and with BMW squeezing 444 horsepower out of the 4.4-liter V-8 under the hood, the 0-60 mph time is just 4.4 seconds (there’s such balance in BMW’s world!).

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Purists love to hate on the E92 M3 because of that V-8 engine up front and the rather slow DCT transmission (a point still being made about the current M3/M4, truth be told) but you can’t deny that the GTS is a unique M car, the most extreme version of the only V-8-engined M3 ever and for that reason alone it deserves to be here.

Read our full review on the 2014 BMW M3 GTS

1973 BMW 2002 Turbo

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While the BMW E9 CSL is part of one of the best BMW series of models, it ultimately became a shadow of its former self performance-wise due to the oil crisis. Another legendary BMW model hit hard by gas shortages was the first turbocharged car to be mass-produced in Germany, the 2002 Turbo, one of BMW’s bravest efforts.

"I was at BMW in the early ‘70s. Performance was glorified; no Autobahn speed was considered excessive,” said Bob Lutz, the cigar-chomping industry alpha in Road & Track. “Into this environment, I launched the 2002 Turbo: 170 hp, wide-bodied, and adorned with a colorful front spoiler that had the word ’Turbo’ on it in mirror script so that it could be viewed correctly in the rearview of the car ahead of it. Alas, the 1973 oil crisis intervened, speed limits were imposed, and the media was quick to brand performance cars as irresponsible. BMW took large amounts of heat, and my boss effectively threw me under the bus."

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You’ll agree with us that any car insane enough to cause the sacking of someone like Lutz is noteworthy!

2013 BMW 1M

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"There was no design brief for the 1M, because BMW never had any intention of building the car. It came to be because a bunch of hot-headed engineers were desperate to make something spicy out of the compact E82 1 Series platform, and went begging to the board," says Top Gear’s Chris Harris of what he calls "probably the greatest M car I’ve ever driven."

Harris prefers the 1M over an M3 of similar vintage because it is turbocharged (its 3.0-liter straight-six from the 135i pushes out 340 horsepower at 5,900 rpm), arguing that "[the 1M] didn’t rev like an M3, but that torque meant it was real-world faster. The squat chassis was more fun and it had better steering."

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The best used BMW of the past decade but you probably won’t find one for cheap. Current going rates for one of these are in the $70,000 ballpark, up by almost a grand from the original MSRP.

Read our full review on the 2013 BMW 1M

Honorable Mentions

1979 BMW M535i

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The M535i was the quickest variant of the first-ever 5-Series generation. Featuring a detuned version of the mid-engine M1’s “M88” inline-six-cylinder mill mated to a manual transmission, the M535i made 210 horsepower when new, just 63 horsepower shy off the M1. The M-approved package is completed by some typically ’70s flares and bumpers and more rigid suspension. Sadly, we never got to enjoy the E12 Stateside and, to add insult to injury, the subsequent E28-generation M535i also skipped the North-American market.

1992 BMW 850CSi

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Label it as ’overweight’, ’sedated’, or ’over-complicated’ but the original 8-Series remains a thing of beauty with its clean lines and pop-up headlights even three decades after its release. Not the best used BMW to throw your money at since many things can and do go wrong with it but this coupe powered by the S70B56 5.6-liter V-12, a behemoth capable of 375 horsepower at 5,300 rpm. Fewer cars can make you look cooler.

2005 BMW M3 CSL

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Sure, the DCT transmission - a tech still in its infancy in the early noughties - wasn’t the best but the E46 M3 CSL is the finest E46 M3 and one of the best Bimmers of the ’00s. Only 1,383 units were made of this lightweight (by 242 pounds compared to a normal E46 M3) sports coupe and all sport the 360 horsepower variant of the S54B32 in-line six-pot. We know we’d want one!

1998 BMW Z3 M Coupe

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You can’t skip a car with a nickname as wacky as ’Clownshoe’. The Z3 M Coupe is the hardtop version of the M Roadster, in itself a more compact open-top two-seater spawned by the E36 3 Series with a lot of goodies from the Motorsport division. The same engine, transmission, and similar tuning as the E36 M3 all hide underneath the quirky body of the Z3 M Coupe, a true example of a love it/hate it car. We tend to go for the former.

2014 BMW i8

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The BMW i8’s faults are well-known to both us and you. Yes, the advertised mileage of 23 miles in the all-electric mode is laughable by 2020 standards as it is before you consider that it takes a special set of circumstances for you to actually drive that far without a sip of gas - but the i8 was visionary.

As the first ’i’ car, it looks quite like no other BMW ever and it’s the company’s first mid-engined sports car since the M1. A combined output of 369 horsepower for the updated 2018 model helps the i8 to get off the line pretty quickly (0-60 mph in four seconds and a bit) but it’s not about performance. Look at it, look at the way the dihedral doors go up and down, and check out the cabin and you’ll understand why the i8 is a four-wheeled statement.

Read our full review on the 2014 BMW i8

Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read More
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