Two BMW cars parked outside building
Bonhams Auction Dubai, BMW 3.0 CSL and BMW M1 (09/2010)

BMW’s Best Sports Cars

With its sporting heritage going back to its earliest days, BMW truly lives up to its official motto: “The ultimate driving machine”. Throughout its history, BMW had its ups and downs, but what can’t ever be questioned is the brand’s constant pursuit for performance and thrilling driving experiences (both on two and four wheels).

In its brightest moments, BMW created a number of truly spectacular automobiles, and these 10 BMW sports cars can be considered the all time greatest—not only for shaping the Bavarian brand, but for helping shape the whole automotive industry.

#1: BMW 328

BMW 328 Rolling Shot on a Public Road

The opening car on our list wasn’t BMW’s first foray into sporty cars, but it became the most successful one. The straight-six 328 sports roadster proved itself both in the hands of gentleman drivers and BMW’s own racers, winning at some of the era’s most prestigious events.

This car’s biggest triumph was at the 1940 Mille Miglia, a legendary road race through Italy, where a specially prepared lightweight closed top car put BMW on the international map.

While the 328 didn’t have a direct heir, or at least not a successful one, it set important groundwork for BMW as a sports car maker. The industry has changed and evolved since then, and so has BMW. But a straight-six, rear wheel drive layout remains in its DNA to this day, and the 328 is there to thank for that.

#2: BMW 507

Elvis Presley's BMW 507 Static Side Shot in a Studio

Regardless of the fact that the 507 was arguably BMW’s biggest flop, it was also one of the brand’s greatest sports cars. Not only did the plush roadster look stunning, but with a 3.2-liter V8, it was quite an exotic cruiser to drive back in the late 1950s.

But, with no brand recognition other than the fact that Elvis had one, the 507 just didn’t find a way to many customers. While it was losing the battle to Mercedes-Benz and its 300SL, BMW was also bleeding money due to production costs, hemorrhaging money on each car it produced. Alongside other unfavorable factors, the 507 eventually brought BMW to bankruptcy—but that low moment actually kickstarted BMW’s great transformation.

Yes, had it not been for the 507, BMW as we know wouldn’t have existed. After the Quandt bailout in 1959, BMW took on a different direction. First came the nimble rear-engined BMW 700, and then the Neue Klasse completely transformed the company, putting it on a path of constant progress. And that brings us to the next car on the list…

#3: BMW E10 2002 Turbo

BMW 2002 Turbo Front Static Shot at Hockenheimring

Being the most immersive of the bunch, the charmingly boxy E10 2-door sports sedan eclipsed the rest of the Neue Klasse range, practically becoming an entity of its own. When BMW moved on to the first 5 Series in 1972, the 02 Series was still there—and the sporty 2002ti and 2002tii still sold like hot cakes both across Europe and North America.

During the second half of the 1970s, forced induction became the hot new thing in the go-fast industry, and BMW adopted this trend as a pioneer, turbocharging its venerable 2.0-liter M10 four pot.

The 2002 Turbo was the most powerful factory-built E10—a 170-horsepower, 2381 lb rear-wheel-drive sports sedan. Driving it on its limits was a frightening experience due to its notorious turbo lag, and so was seeing it in the rear view mirrors.

The double turbo inscription on the front lip was a tell for lesser cars to move over for the ultimate driving machine to zoom by. As the most extreme version of a car that saved and shaped modern BMW, it is a definitive all-time great.

#4: BMW E9 3.0 CSL

BMW 3.0 CSL Batmobile on a Mountain Road

In addition to the Neue Klasse that consisted of compact sedans, BMW presented the New Six range of executive sedans powered by straight-six engines. The coupé soon joined the upmarket range, and BMW saw potential to race it in the Group 2 category. To homologate it, BMW took the plush E9 3.0CSi and re-engineered it from the ground up, creating a true sports car out of it and naming it 3.0 CSL.

The abbreviation stood for Coupe Sport Lightweight, meaning that the car was primarily lightened—which was achieved through aluminum panels and a strategically-punctured monocoque chassis. In its final form, the CSL got a special aerodynamic body kit, earning the nickname “Batmobile”.

Not a single of these efforts were in vain, as the 3.0 CSL dominated the racetracks, first across Europe, and then in the United States as well. Thanks to the 3.0 CSL, BMW made a triumphant return to the top echelons of touring car racing, where it remains to this day. Meanwhile, its success in the United States strengthened the brand’s presence even more, paving the way for the E24 6 Series to become a bestseller in North America.

#5: BMW E26 M1

BMW M1 Side Static Shot

Founded in 1972, BMW Motorsport was originally an in-house racing department preparing existing cars for competition use, and its first blank sheet project was ambitious. It was faced with numerous hurdles, and it was flawed, but ultimately, it was amazing.

It was the BMW M1, the Bavarian brand’s first (and some would argue only) supercar. The two-seater wedge sported a Dallara chassis, Giorgetto Giugiaro’s bodywork, and an in-house mid-mounted 3.0-liter M88 inline-six.

It was supposed to be built in cooperation with Lamborghini, but after the Italian carmaker bankrupted, the development was finished by Italengineering, a company founded by regrouped engineers from Sant’Agata Bolognese.

Finally, the M1 was supposed to race under Group 5 regulations, but as that didn’t happen, BMW created a short-lived but memorable one-make league: the M1 Procar Championship. A support series during 1979 and 1981 Formula 1 seasons, the M1 Procar Championship saw ex-Formula 1 racers driving these cars around European venues while BMW was meeting Group 4 homologation for the cars.

Finally, the M1 Art Car, painted by none other than Andy Warhol, competed at the 1979 Le Mans, scoring a respectable second place in its class. Though BMW M1 ended up heirless, it paved the way for BMW Motorsport to create legends with each subsequent project, which makes it an integral piece of BMW history.

#6: BMW E30 M3

BMW M3 E30 on a Mountain Road

Safe from a few outings, the inaugural 3 Series codenamed E21 didn’t produce any memorable racing success, but the next generation made it all up with the E30 M3. The first M3 was built to meet Group A homologation requirements, and underneath the bodywork enhanced with flared fenders and a new trunk, it was quite different from the regular E30 2-door sedan.

The chassis was stiffer, suspension and brakes were uprated, and finally, there was the S14 four-pot and dogleg transmission. In its original form, it was a 2.3-liter 16-valve 190 horsepower unit, whereas the Sport Evolution variant had the S14 upgraded to 2.5 liters and 235 horsepower among other changes.

The E30 M3 took DTM by storm, recording victory after victory, but its success didn’t stop there. It scored more of them in the BTCC, ETCC, WTCC, 24-hours of Nürburgring, and the Australian Touring Car Championship. Moreover, the road-going version could be easily converted to a race car, so it also proved itself in various other events, including rallying and numerous local championships.

Becoming the most dominating touring car of all time, the E30 M3 ended an era of 4-cylinder 2-door sedans in the most glorious way possible, closing a chapter that BMW started with the 2002.

#7: BMW E46 M3 CSL

BMW E46 3.0 CSL on a Race Track

The third generation M3 is universally regarded as the best one BMW ever produced. When it appeared in 2000, the E46 M3 was an instant hit and a benchmark for all front-engined rear wheel drive sports cars onwards.

Pushing all the right buttons even 20 years later, this M3 is one of the hottest collector cars at the moment, especially in the highly limited CSL guise. The legendary nameplate made a comeback in 2003, and what BMW did with the M3 is nothing short of legendary.

The M3 CSL was an engineering exercise, wherein BMW M boffins took the already well-balanced E46 M3 and made it more agile and performance-focused. The S54 engine was pushed to produce 355 horsepower (17 more than in the M3), and was mated to revised Getrag SMG II exclusively.

The suspension geometry was uprated too, the steering was made more responsive, and the car got bigger wheels with semi slicks to handle all the extra power in a new diet package. That being said, the CSL lost 243 lb through extensive use of lightweight materials inside and out.

Composite materials, thinner glass, and carbon fiber were used throughout, but the most impressive feature was the CSL’s carbon fiber roof—which not only lowered the overall weight, but also brought the center of gravity closer to the floor, improving overall performance in one more way.

All these upgrades made the CSL competitive with contemporary mid-engined exotics, and BMW hit a jackpot—easily creating an all-time great M Car.

#8: BMW E60 M5

BMW E60 M5 Static Shot

Each BMW M5 was always a benchmark sports sedan, but it also followed the same basic recipe. The E60 M5, on the other hand, was completely different.

With the E60, BMW made a brave departure from classic forms, venturing into an all-new design direction. The BMW M followed suit and resulted in an M5 like no other, courtesy of the S85 V10.

Unrelated to any other production BMW engine, this V10 was derived from BMW’s F1 programme and tamed for road use. It revved up to 8250 RPM, producing 500 horsepower—more than enough to turn an executive sedan into a full-blown screaming supercar.

The E60 M5 wasn’t a perfect car by any means. Criticized for its unorthodox looks, lack of engagement due to its clunky SMG automated manual transmission, high upkeep costs, and reliability issues, it was the first M5 met with mixed reception. On the other hand, nobody could deny its outright amazingness once the M Mode was engaged.

Now that it has matured as a turn-of-the-century classic, while its successors have turned out to be even more complicated and tech-filled, E60 M5’s flaws are all forgotten—and it is appreciated for being the last of the naturally aspirated, analog M5 sedans. Its singular nature makes it a standout BMW sports car that left a mark in history.

#9: BMW E85/E86 Z4M

BMW E86 Z4M Coupe Rolling Shot

In its history, BMW produced a number of Z Cars, sporty 2-seater roadsters and their closed top derivatives, but only one of them endured through more than one generation. The experimental Z1, light Z3 and retromodern flagship Z8 all wrapped in one generation cycle, while the Z4 was there to stay.

Now in its 3rd generation, the Z4 was presented in 2002 as a modern roadster with less-retro-more-modern looks—complementing the E60 5 Series and E65 7 Series sedans—and a sleek fastback coupé inspired by the Mille Miglia-winning 328 followed in 2006.

The same year, BMW M presented its take on the two as well. Borrowing a lot from the E46 M3, the Z4M became one of the most driver-focused modern BMWs. What made it so particularly amazing was a combination of the proven S54 straight-six with a six-speed manual, uprated brakes from the CSL, and a quicker steering rack from the M3 Competition Package.

Thanks to exceptionally high torsional rigidity, the Z4M Coupé utilized all these M-specific bits and pieces considerably better than the open top counterpart. That being said, the Z4M Coupé offers one of the most immersive M Car experiences, and the fact that it’s so far the last M Car in the Z family makes it an even more important piece of BMW’s heritage.

#10: BMW E82 1M

BMW E82 1M Drift on a Race Track

Starting with the E36 model, the 3 Series was constantly growing in both size and weight, which became the most obvious when the mid-2000s E90 M3 got a V8. On the other hand, lukewarm reception of the E46 3 Series Compact completely killed that idea, so a need for an entry-level car within the BMW brand gave birth to the all-new 1 Series in 2004.

Originally, it was a hatchback that bravely shared the rear-wheel drive layout with its bigger siblings, and the coupé followed in 2007, hand in hand with the idea of a fast 1 Series. First came the 2007 1 Series tii Concept, a clear nod to the 2002tii, and an M version followed in 2011.

In all honesty, it was a parts bin special, as the 335-horsepower twin-turbocharged N54 engine came from the Z4 sDrive 35iS, while suspension and brakes came from the E92 M3. But, it was also brilliant, and it had a 6-speed manual, so nobody really cared.

Officially named 1 Series M Coupe to avoid conflict with the previously mentioned mid-engined supercar, but colloquially known as the 1M, the M-treated 1 Series Coupé rekindled the BMW fanbase with fun compact cars. Being built around the entry level 2-door, the 1M was light, spirited, and a blast to drive. As such, it was an instant hit and limited production made it even hotter.

Most importantly, the 1M has proven there’s a market for a successor, hence the M2 and all its derivatives. The M2 range is unanimously hailed as the most fun you can have in a modern BMW, and that’s all thanks to the 1M’s impact on the enthusiasts.

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