I’ve driven them all, on both road and track. My M3 is coming, but did I make the right decision? I’m going to share some driving time and let you know what I think the best modern BMW M car is. Bring out the M2, M3/M4, and the M5!
The BMW M2
For: Most fun to drive. Sounds great. Best steering of the bunch.
I’ve loved the M2 since it came out back in 2016, and with either the N55 or S55, it’s a great car.
The best thing about this in comparison to newer M cars is the steering feel, and the CS version is even better. I get the most feedback in this car, and it’s the most raw-feeling by far.
The engine, especially with the S55, feels somehow more raw and energetic than it ever did in the F8X twins. Perhaps because it’s pushing around less weight and a smaller wheelbase. You get less sound deadening in this car, so while the exhaust might be pleasant, it’s a little boomy, and tire roar becomes a factor.
But it’s fun! The car is easier to drift with the more powerful engine, but either way, it’s a gem. In an autocross setting, it has a balanced feel that doesn’t provoke too much understeer at the limit.
Against: Small. Outdated. Cheap finishes.
I don’t feel it’s right to criticize the car for some cheaper finishes compared to upmarket M products, but let’s be real here: it’s still a $60,000 car. The F-generation of cars, aside from the F10, was never going to win any prizes for fit and finish, and as the last of the F cars, the M2 shows its age.
While I do fit inside reasonably well (I’m 6’1), I had an issue with the A pillars. On a track, you’re taught to look out as far ahead as possible. If you’re making a right turn, you’re looking out the right window. But the A pillar is in a position that really hindered my view. I’ve never had this problem in any other BMW. Something to consider if you’re going to track yours.
The N55 version has the Sport Seats out of my 335, which I thought was a cheap after thought. The Competition version, with seats from the F80 M3, are a much better place to do work.
CS versions are sold out, but if you can find one used, it’s probably the most fun modern M car you can buy.
Verdict: Great fun. Classic M car feel. But with a new version due out soon, it would be prudent to wait if you’re in the market.
The BMW M3 and M4
For: It’s still one of the best all-around cars on the planet.
I’ve spent enough time with the new M3 and M4 to tell you that this car looks good, and better in motion. Sitting next to an older F82 M4, it makes it look a bit dated.
If my original review of the G80 did not convince you, let me try to here. This is a great car. It’s fast, well-balanced, neutral at the limit, and comfortable. It does everything well, and that’s what these cars should always be, regardless of powerplant. While the older F82 might have felt a bit distant compared to the M2, this G version does not. Its steering is almost as sharp, and overall capabilities put a larger gap between M’s smallest offering.
On the highway, it’s comfortable (but not as comfortable as the M5), with subdued tire roar and exhaust notes. With the adjustable exhaust switched off, it’s too quiet. With it on, it becomes a bit boomy, though it’s hard to tell if that’s the fake noise or the real engine. The interior is such an improvement over the last generation, you’d swear you were in an M5.
Keep in mind, this is likely the last BMW sedan you can purchase with a manual transmission. Let that sink in for a moment.
Against: Not getting any lighter. Or cheaper. Stereo is a bit weak. Carbon fiber seats might cripple you and suggest a divorce for your partner.
Here’s something of a back-handed compliment. You can’t feel the weight of this car unless you’re at the absolute limit. But it’s there, asking the tires to hold on for dear life. The E92 was also like this, but the G generation is even heavier. I get it – we like GPS, Bluetooth, ventilated seats and air bags. This means more weight. But it also pushes the M3 and M4 away from go cart and firmly into grand touring territory.
Other niggles are small. The Harmon Kardon stereo is a bit lame – the M5’s Bowers & Wilkins system is much better. Remember the BMW Individual stereo with 1,600 watts in the E9X? That’s not here.
Carbon fiber seats, while beautiful to behold, are so uncomfortable that I started to dread getting into the M4 during a recent shoot. The M3 had the base seats, and they were great. You’re not loosing anything by going with regular seats – they still look good and hold you into place. This is definitely a “try before you buy” item, especially if you’re going to share the car with family members.
I wanted stick, so M3 it was, but…
Verdict: It’s still an M3, and it’s great. But it’s so close to being a grand tourer that you might want to get the daddy of touring sedans.
The BMW M5
For: Looks great, especially in LCI trim. Like driving a big couch that gets very mad very fast.
This is not your dad’s E39. In fact, it’s barely your old F10. This is a big car and so it becomes the most comfortable of the bunch. Out on the highway, if you never touched the myriad of sport settings and just left it in comfort, you’d think you were in a 540i.
But never have I driven a car that has such dual personalities. On the track at full boogie, this car is extremely capable. Line it up next to anything short of a hyper car or something with a battery, and it’ll blow the doors off it.
I often say M cars feel smaller the faster they are driven, and this F90 M5 takes that to the extreme. M xDrive is magical, acting like an additional traction control element on the track. With 617 horses, you absolutely need that grip out of each corner. But it’s still so willing to rotate, even oversteer a bit, if you ask it to.
Steering is the most muted here, but it’s very accurate. This is a wide car that you’ll feel comfortable pushing to the edges of the track because the steering is so precise. The V-8 sounds sublime, with thrust instantly available anywhere in the rev range.
As for people who bemoan the loss of a DCT transmission, do not. The ZF 8-speed automatic is amazing both in the M3 and here. Fast responses, quick up- and down-shifts, and logic that always guesses what gear you’ll want to be in 300 feet down the road.
Against: Really expensive. Doesn’t look all that different from an M550i. So capable you lose any sense of speed.
Forget about the base model – there’s no reason not to get the Competition since there is no manual option. Fully optioned, you’re looking at a car that costs $131,000. Price is subjective, but we are firmly in Porsche territory here.
There is some hope. Scan Cars & Bids, and you’ll see plenty of F90s in the 70-80k range. That’s almost half off. Like any M car, make sure you do a comprehensive inspection if you go used, but that’s the price of a new M3 for a lot more car.
Looks-wise, the LCI M5 is very clean and aggressive, which I love. But park it next to an M550 and it isn’t immediately obvious which one costs more. It should, even if the M5 is the ultimate Q car.
Finally, I can tell you that while this car is very fast, it’s not as much fun as the other cars here. It’s so capable that its abilities are likely beyond all but the most pro of drivers. You get the sense that you’re along for the ride on the track. Yes, the M5 needs you to make it go, but really, you’re just there to turn the wheel.
Verdict: Super fast. Super capable. But no stick, and not as much fun.
So which is the best modern BMW M car?
Any M car is better than no M car, and this decision does not rest on driving dynamics alone. Consider price and actual usability. I could make my daughter climb into the back seat of a coupe, but that sounds like no fun for anyone as I try to reach back and buckle her in.
While the M5 really kicks butt, there is no stick, and with time running out to purchase an M car with a row-your-own option, the M3 still seems to be the best of all worlds. The fun of the M2 combined with the refinement of the M5.
That’s not a mind-blowing revelation, but one that’s still true. All hail the M3, the best modern BMW M car!
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