How can the ultimate driving machine get any better? Well for more than four decades, BMW M has been doing just that, improving the ultimate driving machine into a much more desirable machine for enthusiasts. Initially tasked to run BMW’s motorsport duties, the M stands for, as you guessed it, “Motorsport”.
We were invited by BMW Malaysia to the BMW M Track Experience in Sepang to get acquainted with their latest machines, apart from being briefed with their illustrious history and catch a tiny glimpse of the brand’s upcoming offering. So what has become of BMW M, a team that used to dedicate themselves into making race cars for BMW? Quite a lot, actually.
The current outcome is laid upon us in the paddock of Sepang International Circuit, where a group of latest M machines sit idling and waiting for the participants to have a go in them. Today, BMW M’s core business is mainly on tuning the existing BMW vehicles, but it wasn’t like this in the early years of BMW M.
Back in the 70’s BMW M was only focusing on their racing efforts, kicking off with the 3.0 CSL built for the European Touring Car Championship (ETCC). A BMW 3.0 CS was stripped down and put on a diet to become the 3.0 CSL, before being sent to battle it out in the ETCC. The 3.0 CSL won the 1973 ETCC title, and five more in-a-row from 1975 to 1979.
Soon enough, the success of BMW M involvement in racing paved way to the first proper M-car, the M1. The mid-engined supercar was pretty much a thinly-disguised race car for the road, because it was intended to be BMW’s entry to the World Sportscar Championship. It’s after the M1 where BMW M shifted their focus on tuning BMW’s road cars, and the rest is as they say it, is history.
They don’t simply slap on some nice bodykits and fancy wheels either, on the F82 M4 Coupe for instance, up to 80 percent of the components were redesigned in creating the final product. The changes include the engine itself, the use of carbon fibre for the roof, boot lid, and the drive shaft, as well as aluminium for the bonnet and side panels.
Their range of sweet-revving, naturally-aspirated engines have also went down in the history books, because every M car now uses turbocharging to boost the power output. The inclusion of turbochargers was a pivotal change for BMW M, but it was also deemed necessary to comply with the strict emission rules. Even though they produce more power than their ancestors, purists lament on the absence of a soulful soundtrack from the naturally-aspirated engines of yore, and we do agree with them.
The M machines in Sepang sounded plain bassy most of the time, and as I jumped into the F10 M5 to get my first M experience it didn’t quite stir my emotions as much as when I witnessed an E60 M5‘s atmospheric V10 erupted into life. Nevertheless the M5 is somewhat an important car to BMW M, since the first M car after the M1 was based off a 5 Series.
The twin-turbo 4.4-litre V8 is a far cry from the 3.5-litre straight-six in the E12 M535i. While the original car produces a mere 218 hp and 304 Nm of torque, the V8 dishes out 560 hp and 680 Nm of torque. That’s more than double of what the original car offered 35 years ago. Going down the straights is not a problem for this car, but it’s in the corners where the car’s heft starts to show its ugly rear.
With the DSC fully engaged the M5 feels like a blunt tool to carve corners, the steering is sharp enough but the traction control keeps cutting the power off whenever it detects an imminent wheelspin. And with 680 Nm at your disposal from 1,500 rpm, this thing can light up the rear tyres the moment you flex your right ankle. As demonstrated by one of the instructors in the F14 M6 GranCoupe that shares roughly the identical oily bits as the M5, almost every corners in Sepang can be taken with the steering wheel pointed at the opposite direction when the traction control turned off.
Another car that has evolved is the crowd-favourite M3. The original E30 M3 was fitted with just a 2.3-litre 4-cylinder under its bonnet, then 22 years later it grew up to a 4.0-litre V8 in the E90 M3, before shrinking down to a 3.0-litre straight-six but fitted with twin-turbo in the latest F80. The inclusion of the turbochargers more than compensate the reduced number of cylinders, pushing the output to 425 hp and 550 Nm.
It handled like how I expected it to be, the steering responds so well to your command, and even with every driving aid switched on it feels agile and pointy. It’s beautifully balanced and composed unlike the bigger M5, but like the M5 the engine noise is rather disappointing. However, the brakes were excellent, and these cars were driven hard lap after lap with a few minutes break in between for a driver change.
Apart from going turbo, the biggest change from BMW M is when they first introduced the E70 X5 M and the E71 X6 M in 2009. We were told that during the development of the X5 M, the prototype was a RWD but they decided to go with AWD to make it more driveable on the road.
It was quite controversial at that time, because not only it was their first all-wheel drive vehicle, but it was also the first M vehicle to feature turbocharging. The same twin-turbo 4.4-litre V8 found in the current F10 M5 and the F13/F06 M6 debuted here in the E70 X5 M and the E71 X6 M, but back then it produced just 555 hp and 680 Nm of torque.
The latest incarnation of the beastly M duo is still rocking the same engine, but it now develops 575 hp and 750 Nm of torque. I sampled both the F85 X5 M and the F86 X6 M to finish off my M experience in Sepang, and it was the biggest surprise of the day. The xDrive all-wheel drive system work wonders in the huge X5 M Sports Activity Vehicle (SAV) and the X6 M Sports Activity Coupe (SAC), managing the traction incredibly well in the corners that I swear it felt quicker than the M5 I driven earlier, despite being much heavier than the sedan. Understeer is non-existent, and as soon you exit a corner, gun the throttle and the thing goes like stink.
While the turbochargers might have robbed the aurally pleasure out of these machines, the power delivery is intense, especially when you don’t have to work the engine higher up the rev range to get the peak amount of torque. Do we miss the passing of the naturally-aspirated engines? Yes, but it’s hard to argue when the power figures from the current turbo powerplants are better and at the same time they’re much more efficient than ever.
So what’s next for BMW M? We might not see a diesel mill under the hood of a full-M car anytime soon, but during the event they brought a surprise in the form of the M4 GTS Concept. The concept car hinted at a stripped-down M4 Coupe, and under its bonnet features a water-injection system which cools the air entering the engine, thus increasing the power output figures. It has since entered production, and in the production form it generates more power than the expected eight percent increase over the standard F82/F83 M4.
The M Track Experience in Sepang might not proof much in terms of day-to-day driving, but it’s a strong testament of their cars’ ability and it also serves as a reminder that BMW M is still committed on pushing the performance boundary of a stock BMW.
Although BMW M have changed in their approach in transforming regular BMW vehicles, they are actually constantly adapting to the current consumers’ needs as well as abiding to the strict emission regulations. We have already seen them broke their tradition by building a turbocharged SAV, so it’s anyone’s guess what will they come up with in the future. An M-ified xDrive hybrid-powered 2 Series Gran Tourer anyone?