Multiple choice

Just where does the 2021 M5 fit into M division’s formidable line-up of sports saloons and coupes? Our handy guide will explain all

Once upon a time it was oh so easy to follow a manufacturer’s model strategy: there was the small one, the slightly bigger one and the grand fromage at the top of the pile. You might get a spin-off or two, but it was generally pretty straight-forward. And then the product planners discovered niches and before long convention was thrown out of the window and the high-performance people carrier was born (remember the AMG R63?) and limos were setting lap times. All very strange. In the world of BMW M, more niches have been avoided than exploited, the focus trained on delivering coupes and saloons that more often than not set the performance benchmark.

Yet even M isn’t immune from seemingly stepping on its own toes, and with the arrival of the new M3 and M4 this year, and the continued success of the M2, there are now two very compelling coupes to choose from. Or, depending how you look at it, two very compelling saloons to choose from. And then there’s the M5 and the M8 family. The former a single entity, the latter a trio of options offering different ways to enjoy 616bhp. To the layperson such a spread of performance cars with very similar remits invites questions about fishing for the same drivers from a very shallow pool. But in M’s case there’s actually a clear rationale at work – as we discovered when we convened a family gathering...

BMW M2 Competition and CS - the hero

If you grew up worshipping the E30 M3 and long for a modern equivalent today, the M2 is your solution. In Competition – or even better CS – trim, it’s pretty much unbeatable for pure driving thrills. Its compact size, power-to-weight and dynamic balance make for one of the most exploitable driver’s cars available. The M2’s compactness provides a pugnacious look reminiscent of the E30 with its box arches and four-square stance. As with the limited edition 1M of the early noughties, the M2 family has firmly established itself as the 21st century remake of M’s original all-action hero, allowing the division to showcase its DNA in its purest form.

BMW M3/M4 Competition - the icon

Regardless of your feelings towards BMW’s new design language, the arrival of a new M3 and M4 is big news in the performance car world. It’s the original pace-setter, the sports saloon that all rivals still benchmark against. But its role has evolved. It’s matured, it’s grown and its performance has increased to levels previously unthinkable for a family saloon (and now an estate car). UK customers won’t get a manual gearbox, but rear-wheel drive remains (four-wheel-drive models will come later). For some the M3 now blends elements of the M5 in its more measured approach, but it will also remain the car on which M is judged. No pressure.

BMW M5 Competition - the legend

The M5 has always been at the very core of the M division but today it arguably faces its biggest challenges from within. At its heels is the M3, a model that has evolved and grown into a junior supersaloon. Ahead is the M8, which in Gran Coupé form might be seen as a more exotic interpretation of the M5 formula. Yet the M5 still retains a clear identity. It’s more focused than any of the M8s, and while the M3 offers space and grace, it doesn’t quite pull off the effortless performance remit as convincingly as the M5. Forty years on, the M5 remains the go-to supersaloon. And if you want a little more edge, this year’s new CS edition will provide it.

BMW M8 Competition - the flagship

It’s easy to consider the M8 family as an M5 reconfigured to whichever of the three body styles you’ve opted for: two-door coupe or convertible, or four-door Gran Coupé. Having two 616bhp four-wheel-drive, four-door M-cars might look profligate, but the M8 Gran Coupé delivers a different driving proposition to that of an M5. Its softer-edged approach makes it more a four-door GT than a hard-nosed supersaloon, yet it retains the level of performance you’d expect. Its two-door coupe relative is equally GT-esque. As driver’s cars that straddle the world of mile-eating GTs, both coupe and Gran Coupé still offer a clear point of difference.

M in the Modern era

The first shift in what M stood for came in 1998, when the Z3 M Coupé made its debut and left many BMW followers scratching their heads. After all, the Z3 wouldn’t be your first choice if you were looking to develop a focused, front-engined, rear-drive, short-wheelbase sports car. And yet the Z3 M turned out to be a brilliant example of what’s possible when you let the engineers have free rein. There was no need to build the Z3 M, no homologation requirements to go racing, no rivals to challenge. It was M having fun. It was also the beginning of M looking at what else it could apply its expertise to within the wider BMW range.

The Z4 M was an obvious successor but market forces saw the first BMW X- car roll into the M workshops for a workout before the first decade of the new millennium was over. In 2000, as a concept car, BMW had fitted a Le Mans-spec V12 into an X5. And then gave it 700bhp, all because it could. Less than a decade later, the X5 M and X6 M were revealed at the New York Auto Show in 2009, the first SUV-based M-cars and the first four-wheel-drive Ms, too. It would take a full ten years for the X3 and X4 to gain M status.

They would also be the first X models to donate an engine to a more conventional M-car, their 3-litre, twin-turbocharged straight-six being shared with the new M3/M4. And, like the saloons and coupes, all four M SUVs have their own distinct characters, which is an achievement in itself  considering the purpose they were originally designed for. In the near-50 years that M has been an entity it has never shied away from breaking new ground or breaking from its own conventions. Not being afraid to experiment and move into new arenas is how the sub- division has survived: change and adapt, because standing still isn’t an option and you will only draw the attention of the accountants if you do! It’s why M lets you buy an X3 M and an M8 GC and a broad selection in between.

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