BMW M is now 20% of BMWNA’s total sales in the US. That number is both impressive from a brand success story as it is a business success. Surely that means BMW’s average unit price for each car sold is higher because of it. But has that growth come at the expense of the BMW M brand itself? We drove three of M’s latest products back to back to back and came away with some thoughts.

Let’s start with the latest product to challenge expectations of what an M car can be. The BMW XM Label Red is both the most technically impressive M product we’ve driven in years and one of the most disappointing. It’s epically rapid for a 6,000 lbs car and oozes a vibrant design direction that shows how far BMW M can go on one end of the spectrum. It looks aggressive and sounds like an M car at certain moments but in our brief experience it simply doesn’t feel like an M car. Behind the wheel it’s incredibly impressive no doubt. But it in our time with the XM in and around South Carolina mountains roads it never reached the engagement levels of even an X6M.

On the other end of the spectrum is the new manual transmission equipped M2 which has all the ingredients of the classic BMW M formula. It’s responsive, engaging and at times demanding. In short its attributes are why so many of us fall in love with the M brand. It’s not perfect as the 1>2 gear change can be long and cumbersome and the weight is higher than we would love to see. But I could say the same thing about the E46 M3. The critical thing is that it is engaging and begs you to drive it hard.

Then there’s the M3 CS – the current enthusiast halo product from the brand. Despite the weight and despite the torque converter auto, it’s a total revelation. Even more than the recent M4 CSL, the M3 CS feels closer to the core DNA of the M brand. It has all the comfort of a family sedan yet all the performance (and more importantly) the engagement of the best M cars. This is a car that can do 0-60 is 2.7 seconds while comfortably carrying four adults with luggage for hours. But more to the point the feedback that it delivers to the driver is as good as anything in recent memory from the brand. In fact it’s hard to argue against it being the best four door M car of all time. It’s that good.


Driving these cars back to back to back made it clear the M brand still knows how to create exceptional driver’s cars that map directly back to the roots of the brand. It also underscores the M brand’s ambitions to play in different parts of the performance category. But does this breadth water down the brand? For enthusiasts I think there’s a little question it is doing that. From our own qualitative observations the XM customer seems quite different than what we’ve seen from the traditional M3 buyer. Is that a bad thing? Only if it drives core customers away from the brand. While we don’t have data on that (surely BMW is looking at this now) we can’t imagine it’s not turning some away.

But more importantly to us is that it’s muddying the water in terms of what the brand stands for. BMW M can claim it’s goal is to be the “Ultimate Driving Machine” in every category. But is that what the BMW XM actually is? It’s not close to what the Cayenne Turbo GT can accomplish nor is it as easy on the eyes (it’s also 1,000 lbs heavier). And then there’s the M Performance products. They have been hugely successful for BMW and have added material profits for the brand. But they are also confusing customers and obfuscating real M products in BMW showrooms and in the minds of potential buyers.

There’s no argument that M Performance products are excellent products if you’re looking for a daily driver. Which begs the question; should true M cars stand for something less ordinary and more special? Should M reconsider the way they divide up their cars putting the more pure performance machines at a different level than the M Performance or even its current M crossovers?

For years BMW M had purity on its side with a clear technical strategy that wasn’t about speed but about engagement. They were all rear wheel driven cars with manual transmissions and close to 50/50 weight distribution. No matter what Audi or Mercedes could create, BMW always had the upper hand in terms of the heart and soul of the enthusiast market because it started with a level of engineering purity and product consistency that no one could match.

Yes the manual is dead and all wheel drive has to be part of the future given the levels of power and torque that is demanded by consumers. But that doesn’t mean there still can’t be powerful and unique reasons to believe for the M brand. Potential owners want to latch onto brand that stands for something unique, consistent and delivers value other brands cannot.

Pure BMW M won’t be the fastest cars on the market. They won’t be the cheapest and they may not even be the best looking. But they can be the best. And they must be the ultimate driving machine.