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I own two BMW M cars, a 1999 M3 and a 2002 M5. I’m a fan of the manufacturer and the M line. But BMW has muddied the M identity by producing so many models in the past couple of years.
This point was brought home yesterday via a discussion on the Facebook page of Bimmer magazine. The question being debated was whether the upcoming BMW 550d xDrive sedan should be considered a M car. It’s a diesel, four wheel drive and comes with an automatic transmission — all attributes that would have until very recently disqualified the car from the designation.
BMW M used to be a fairly straightforward concept. The subsidiary BMW Motorsport GmbH was originally established to assist BMW’s racing program in the 1960s and 1970s. Eventually the focus shifted from racing to producing a higher powered, higher revving version of the BMW 3, 5, 6 and Z series cars, with firmer suspensions and other changes both performance and cosmetic. Basically the M meant that BMW had taken a model already fun to drive and made it even more so, with a special drivetrain and other items.
From Automobile magazine:
“By the time M established itself in the mainstream lexicon, it had already undergone a metamorphosis from race-car builder to street-car tuner. An M badge on the back of a BMW meant you were looking at the fastest, best performing variant of that model. It had rear wheel drive and a high revving, normally aspirated engine, and was nearly as competent on the track as it was on the street. This strategy worked well at M for years.”
Of course there were other things to know, such as BMW’s practice of creating differences between European and North American M versions. To be into BMW has always demanded a mastery of arcane details. But an explosion of M trim options on regular BMWs and the proliferation of M models themselves has really diluted the brand.
In 2000 BMW sold six different types of vehicles in North America, and two of them were offered as M cars (the E36/8 M Coupe and the E39 M5). By 2010, BMW offered 10 different types of vehicles and five of them offered M versions (the E90 M3, the E60 M5, the E63 M6, E70 X5 M and the E71 M6 M). SUVs now come in M versions.
Two years from now, BMW plans to offer full M versions of the new F30 3 series. The sedan will stick with the M3 designation, but the coupe and the convertibles will be know as M4s. Of course you can buy a M Sport package model of the F30 later this year.
And finally, BMW is launching a brand new M Performance line this year, slotted somewhere above the standard car models but below a full M. Here’s how they try to explain it:
All that clear? I’d guess not to many customers. BMW has always been needlessly complex with its list of model options, but the situation is truly getting absurd.
You could argue that BMW is simply doing what customers want. If someone will pay tens of thousands more for a car with some go fast items on it, why not slap an M on every style car BMW sells? 2011 certainly was a strong year for BMW, selling the highest number of cars since 2007.
But as I wrote back in March, it’s getting harder to be a certain kind of BMW enthusiast. The DIY some things, keep the car for many years type of enthusiast. This treatment of the M brand is another manifestation of an overall trend away from that type of BMW ownership experience. And that’s a shame.