On two occasions in the past week I've had brow furrowing moments where someone made reference to a "real M car." The most recent being the comments on Chris Harris' comparison of the M6 GrandCoupe, E63, and Jaguar XFR-S where someone said "Finally maybe people will respect the M5/6 as real M cars." ...this raises a lot of questions, the most obvious being "what the hell does that even mean?"
The phrase a "real M car" is used A LOT in modern automotive journalism. Watch or read any outlet's coverage on a car BMW M has touched and the phrase is bound to turn up. It is often referenced as a comparative benchmark with no explanation of what it means. In reality, it is completely subjective nonsense. But that fact doesn't stop journalists, enthusiasts, and even members of BMW's marketing department from making the assumption that everyone has settled on a mutually understood, albeit completely nebulous, standard of excellence.
Now that we've gotten how ridiculous the whole idea is out of the way...let's get down to what a majority of people are talking about when they say it. When you hear someone say "real M car" more often than not, they are referring to one of two periods in BMW M's 40 year history.
The first being a time when "M" literally meant "Motorsport"
The 3.0CSL "Batmobile" was a homologation special for the European Touring Car Championship.
The M1 was a homologation special that ended up ineligible for its class due to rule changes by the time it came out.
The E30 M3 was a homologation special for Group A Touring Car races. The ultimate form being the Sport Evolution of 1990; technically the last road car they built solely for the purpose of being able to race it.
They were "race cars for the road" in the literal sense and were built because race rules said they HAD to be. The more hardcore of the BMW M purists consider these the only "true M cars" ever made. They tend to view BMW M more as a religion that "heretics" took and perverted when they made the subsequent road cars.
The BMW 3.0 CSL, E30 M3, and M1 are spoken of in hushed, reverent tones. Modern M cars are false prophets to be denied and shamed.
These are the people that aren't going to be pleased until BMW starts selling street legal race cars again. They want the new M3 to come with a triangulated and seam welded chassis, Ohlins suspension, radio/cruise/climate delete, non-adjustable race buckets, fire supression, etc. They risk a stroke every time they look at a X5 M or M6 GranCoupe.
The next group are those that would (and do) argue that the last "real M cars" are from the early '00s. The E46 M3, the E39 M5, and the E36/8 M Coupe being the last cars made before BMW M "sold its soul for higher profits." It was a time when senior executives of BMW M were saying things like "there will never be a M SUV" and "turbocharging would fundamentally change the character of the M brand." And even with the E60 and E90 that followed, it felt like some of the old guard were still there, pushing for high-revving naturally aspirated V-8s and V-10s while their direct competition went forced induction. Then came the turbos and SUVs...and these people (myself included) threw up our hands and yelled "it's over!" Oh, THE BETRAYAL! Many of these people haven't set foot in a BMW dealership since on principle alone. They lament that luxury has begun to take a priority over sportiness in modern BMW M, that the balance has shifted the wrong direction. But they forget that when the 3-series, 5-series, etc get heavier and larger, the M variants can only do so much to combat the bloat. Current electric steering can only approximate the directness and feel of hydraulic steering. Adaptive suspension can only hide so much weight. We're still in a transition period with young tech, it will get better, but patience is part of the process.
Both groups have valid complaints about the direction of BMW M and one aspect they agree on is the that ///M has begun to feel like a trim level you spec because you want the most expensive and luxurious variant of a BMW model. You buy a M5 because you want everyone else to know you spent more on your car than your neighbor with the 550i. You buy a M6 GranCoupe because you want a M5 in a better looking $23k suit. The choice to move up to a ///M car is one of one-ups-man-ship and not a statement that you care about dynamics over comfort. There are enthusiasts that still buy into the classic idea of BMW M when purchasing new, but they are a rare breed. The question then becomes, does any of that matter as long as the cars are great? There's an argument to be made that non-sporty buyers end up babying the car and you end up getting a great deal in a few years on a M5 that hasn't been abused.
In either case, it is widely thought that BMW M doesn't mean what it used to. That the introduction of things like M-sport dilute the brand and further bring into question what it means to be a "real M car." I tend to think it is more of an issue with perception and competition. BMW M has the gift/curse of being around long enough to have an established legacy and the expectations that come with it. A brand where things once considered sacred are now long gone. So there's some merit to the perception that the principles have been thrown out in the pursuit of sales and profit. But these changes are necessary to stay competitive in a market where your competition is willing to do anything and everything to usurp you. AMG, Audi GMBH, and Jaguar have gone from out-of-their-league "also ran" cars to legitimate competition that meet or exceed BMW M in areas they once dominated. Cars like the E30 M3, E28 M5, E46 M3, and E39 M5 stand out because their contemporaries never held a candle to the driving experience they provided. The E30 had no direct competition in the US. The E28 M5 blindsided every other German manufacturer with a saloon that was outperforming Ferrari.
The RS4 and C63 challenged the E90
in ways the C43 and B5/6 S4 never did the E46
E39 M5 owners never felt heat from the E55 or (C5) S6 the way the F10 is from the E/CLS63 and RS6/7.
So while AMAZING in a vacuum, BMW M's current offerings seem less impressive compared to their direct competition this time around. If that is discouraging, remember that competition is good.
"The BMW M you once knew is gone"?...not exactly.
- They can't and don't need to produce road going race cars in extremely limited quantities
- The cars they're based on moved upmarket, got heavier, and areas that were considered taboo by old school BMW M were tapped to stay competitive
- The other guys got better
The good news? BMW M knows they have a problem. Recent interviews with executives a ///M acknowledge the stiffer competition from AMG and Audi and that they are focusing heavily on weight reduction and the dynamic improvements that come with it.
And yes, BMW is selling more cars than ever, like that's a bad thing. No, they aren't still hand-built in Garching...and Macs aren't still built in SanFran garages. But increased production means a cheaper economy of scale, increased profit, and the ability to take chances they otherwise wouldn't. They have invested heavily in volume carbon fiber production to reduce the weight of all their cars in the future and continue to pursue tech that will likely put them years ahead of their competition. (Who doesn't want a M3/4 with a carbon tub?) They also know that with Audi and Mercedes readying relatively "affordable" RS and AMG models like the RS3 and A/CLA/GLA45 they need to have a presence in the sub-$50k market.
Am I disappointed that BMW M has "changed"? Sure. But I've also accepted that they've had to. A lot of enthusiasts act like the mere existence of modern M cars takes something away from the classics. The fact that the M5/M6 have lost some of the feel and feedback doesn't make the old cars any less appealing. In fact, it makes them even more special than they already were.
Cherish the past, accept the present, and anticipate the future. They are listening to feedback wherever feasible, but they can't repeat the past.
There is no such thing as a "real M car." It is a myth.
I just hope no one tells BMW, Audi, AMG and everyone else...because I never want them to stop chasing it.
Thanks to Michael Lee for the header photo. His flickr page is chock full of amazing photos from Richmond Cars & Coffee and much more