When BMW debuted its line of M Performance cars, it was mocked by journalists and critics for cementing the common critique that BMW’s “M” was starting to stand for “Marketing” rather than “Motorsport”. Those M Performance cars weren’t full-blown M cars but standard BMWs that were slightly tuned by the famed M Division and many enthusiast felt that they cheapened the M brand.
Joke’s on them, though, as BMW’s M Performance lineup has proven to be hugely successful and has actually produced many outstanding cars. Fans and owners of M Performance cars dubbed them M Lites; sort of the light-beer version of the real deal M cars; and many of them have massive cult followings. So now that there’s quite a large back catalog of M Lites, which of them is the best?
What is the Point of an M Performance Car?
Before we dig into which M Lite is best, let’s first take a look at their purpose. The purpose of any M Performance car is the same; it’s designed to be a halfway point between the standard BMW version and the proper M version. It’s supposed to be fast, agile and capable but also comfortable, luxurious and premium. Usually, M Performance cars are significantly cheaper than their M Division counterparts but price isn’t really an important aspect of their existence. Instead, M Lites are designed to be cars for people who only want a bit of performance, without the harder edge that comes with M cars.
So to determine which of the very many M Performance cars that have existed and currently exist, we need to determine which of them serves the aforementioned purpose best. The best M Lite won’t be the one that’s the fastest, most exciting or best looking but the one that best serves its purpose and best fills a need. So let’s take a look at which is the best current M Performance car and the best one that’s not on sale; one you can find on the used market.
Best Current M Performance Car — BMW M550i
There are currently quite a few excellent M Lites. Cars like the BMW M340i, X3 M40i and X5 M50i were all seriously considered and we actually had a difficult time choosing between the BMW M550i and the X3 M40i, as the latter is absolutely excellent. However, in the end, we chose the M550i because it best fit its purpose.
The BMW M550i is probably the best example of an M Lite because it has its own unique flavor from its true M Division sibling. Drive both cars and you’ll immediately notice that they’re two very different cars, with their own unique sets of skills. The M550i is not a poor man’s M5 and it’s not the car you get because you can’t afford an M5. It’s the car you get because you like its skillset better than the M5’s.
From the moment you set off in the 5 Series M Lite, especially after having driven the M5, you’ll quickly realize just how much more comfortable it is. It’s soft — pillowy soft even — and quiet. The BMW M5 is a much harder-edged, more aggressive and louder machine. The M550i is almost as fast in a straight line but don’t take that to mean it’s trying to be an M5 because it isn’t.
Try and hustle a BMW M550i on a race track and you’ll quickly learn that track use is not what it’s meant for. It will understeer, its steering itself will prove numb and its brakes will cook long before you finish your session. However, drive the M550i on a long road trip and you’ll be glad you’re not in an M5. It’s smooth and comfortable and quiet, with a luxurious interior and cushy seats.
The BMW M550i is one of those cars that just so happens to be ballistic in a straight line but speed isn’t its main intent. It’s a big, squishy but shockingly fast, executive grand touring machine, which is exactly what it’s supposed to be. So because it best fits the M Performance bill, with its own unique flavor from its M Division sibling, it is the best M Lite currently on sale.
Best M Performance Car on the Used Market — BMW M140i
Again, there were a few cars that we seriously considered in this spot, as there have been some really good M Performance cars in the past, cars like the BMW M550d Touring. However, the best used one was easier to choose than the best current one. It’s the BMW M140i.
The BMW M140i, the old rear-wheel drive hatchback with a funky mug and a stonking 3.0 liter turbocharged I6 under its hood, was one of the very best cars BMW has made in the modern era. Not only was it seriously fast but it was also great to drive, with a tail-happy, pugnacious attitude that couldn’t be found in other BMWs. It had great steering, a balanced chassis and felt like a proper BMW, something that can’t always be said with today’s BMWs.
Not only was it fast and fun but it was also affordable and practical. Being based on a 1 Series hatchback, the M140i was the cheapest performance BMW you could buy and yet it was one of the very best, making it the best value of the entire brand’s lineup. But because it was also a hatchback, it was a practical and very usable daily driver, even for city-dwellers.