One letter helped cement BMW’s reputation for desirable, high-performance vehicles: M. Originally, M badges were reserved for mildly-detuned race cars, like the M1 supercar and E30 M3 sports sedan. Now, however, the BMW M is found on a whole range of powerful, fast cars, like the X5 and X6 SUVs. But not every M badge means the same thing.
BMW M Sport
The lowest rung in the BMW M ladder is M Sport. Unlike M Performance or M, which are unique vehicle variants, ‘M Sport’ is actually an accessory package that can be added to almost any BMW. Even luxury models like the 7-Series, 8-Series, and X7 can all be ordered with the M Sport package.
What’s in the M Sport package does differ from vehicle to vehicle. However, Carwow reports that, at bare minimum, it adds unique exterior and interior touches. This includes a few small M badges, darker exterior, and interior trim, larger wheels, a sportier-looking body kit, and a special steering wheel. Some BMWs, though, get even more.
For example, Car and Driver and Road & Track report the 3-Series’ M Sport package adds quicker steering, differently-colored brake calipers, and M Sport suspension. The X5 M Sport package, meanwhile, swaps the sport suspension for an adaptive system. So, although the M Sport package is mostly cosmetic, it can improve handling, if not exactly performance.
BMW M Performance
One step above M Sport is M Performance. An easy way to distinguish between the two is by the badge on the trunk. A 340i with the M Sport package, for instance, will just say ‘340i’; the M Performance version, the BMW M340i, though will actually say ‘M340i.’ And while M Sport is mostly about looks, M Performance adds genuine speed.
Sticking with the 3-Series, the M340i gets a different engine than the standard car. The standard 3-Series engine is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, making 255 hp. The M340i, though, has a 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged six-cylinder, making 382 hp. Car and Driver found the added power dropped the 0-60 time from 5.2 seconds to 3.8 seconds.
Although it no longer has a manual, the M Performance version does get M Sport brakes, M Sport exhaust, larger wheels and sportier tires, additional selectable driving modes, and a standard electronically-controlled locking rear differential. R&T also reports North America is the only market to receive a rear-wheel drive M340i; every other market only gets the all-wheel drive version. Incidentally, the M340i’s AWD is modified compared to the standard 3-Series’.
And it’s not just BMW’s passenger cars that have M Performance variants. There are M Performance versions of the X5, X6, and X7 SUVs, the Z4 convertible, and even the 8-Series luxury coupe.
Not every single M Performance car has exactly the same features. For example, the X5 M50i has standard adaptive suspension and an electronically-controlled rear differential, while the M850i adds on rear-wheel steering, according to Car and Driver. But all M Performance cars have larger, more powerful engines than the cars they’re based on.
The M Performance cars may be the fastest and most-powerful trims available, but BMW officially considers its M products as separate models, due to the extent of the performance modifications. That’s why official M vehicles don’t have trim designations, e.g. the M3 and the X6 M are just badged ‘M3’ and ‘X6 M’.
And where M Performance cars are mostly intended for street-driving, every BMW M SUV and car is designed with track racing in mind. Matt Farah of The Smoking Tire even took an X5 M on a series of track days across the US, and it never broke down. Also, Car and Driver reports that BMW offers every X5 M and X6 M buyer training at one of its M driving schools. Which, considering what the M models receive, is likely very necessary.
The most obvious is even more power. The standard BMW M3 uses the same 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged six-cylinder as the M340i, only in the M3, it makes 425 hp, according to Car and Driver. The M3 Competition boosts that even further, to 444 hp. The upcoming 2021 M3 could offer as much as 510 hp. But the M-specific modifications go further than that.
BMW gives its M cars wider, grippier tires, unique wheels, well-bolstered sport seats, and upgraded brake pad compounds. Multiple metal components are replaced with carbon-fiber versions: the M5 has a carbon-fiber roof, for instance, while the M4 also gets a carbon-fiber trunk lid and engine brace.
BMW engineers further tweak the M adaptive suspension, differentials, and AWD systems. Drivers can also adjust their M car’s engine, transmission, suspension, and driving modes even more than in the M Performance cars.
And you can still get the BMW M2 with a manual.
Which is the one to get?
Inevitably, all these performance and handling features do add up.
The exact price of the M Sport package differs model to model but is usually about $4000-$5000. The M Performance versions add even more cost. The BMW 330i starts at just under $41k, but the M340i’s MSRP is $54k. And the M4 is more expensive still: the coupe starts at $69,150. But which is the best to buy?
Ultimately, the M Performance BMWs are the best value. The M Sport package generally adds very little handling or performance substance. And although an M car like the M5 is extremely fast, both Jalopnik and Motor Trend reported that the M550i offered much the same speed on the street at a significantly lower price. Plus, most of the top-shelf M features, such as oil and transmission coolers, are really only beneficial if you actually plan on track-driving your BMW.
So, although the full M cars are the highest-performance BMWs, they’re not necessarily the ones you want to buy.
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