It’s one of Germany’s “Big 3,” the automotive behemoth from Bavaria whose very own tagline is “the ultimate driving machine,” so you’d better expect the cars live up to the hype.
BMW is one of the world’s leading auto manufacturers when it comes to blending performance and luxury. Along the way, the brand has created some truly legendary, unique, and absolutely cutting-edge vehicles – along with one or two oddballs we can’t help but love. From all-out performance cars to quirky microcars and everything in between, BMW’s reputation is well-earned, and has spawned dozens of future and current classics.
It wasn’t easy picking the best of the best, but we’ve narrowed our list of the “10 best BMWs” to the fine machines you see here:
If you close your eyes and picture the classic convertible of your dreams, chances are good you’re thinking of the BMW 507 Roadster. Planned as a competitor against the Mercedes-Benz 300SL drop-top, the 140-horspower V8-powered 507 had a lengthy list of celebrity clientele back in its day. The sad reality, however, is that the 507’s production costs nearly bankrupted BMW. The brand lived on, thankfully, and the 507 is still regarded as one of the most gorgeous German vehicles ever created. Even Elvis Presley owned one, pictured above.
It may not be the ultimate driving machine, but how could the quirky Isetta not make our list? The diminutive 2-seater was wildly popular with the micro-car crowd and had a decent 8 year lifespan. The 1-cylinder engine pumped out a wild 13-horsepower (hold on folks!) and could be pushed to a breezy 50 mph. The Isetta’s strange style still has its fans, even to this day, making it one of the most highly sought micro-cars in the world.
BMW’s “New Class” of cars arrived in the early 60’s to help revitalize a brand that was seeing its entire range of luxury and economy cars sinking fast. Sporting a brand new unibody design, these square-edged sedans had an independent rear suspension and quickly became BMW’s most popular vehicles. One of the best and rarest examples is the 2002 tii, the touring model that also featured direct injection. Powered by a 130-horsepower 2.0-liter inline-4 engine, the ’02 tii is considered the first of a new breed of luxury sport sedan.
The M1 is one of the most unique products in BMW’s history. Being the first car produced by the carmaker’s M-division, the M1 is also BMW’s only mid-engine vehicle to date. The car was devised solely to accommodate homologation requirements for BMW’s Procar Championship series—meaning BMW had to build a limited-run consumer version of this race car. With 277-horsepower on tap, the M1 had a top speed of 161 mph. The edgy Giugiaro-styled body (and the fact that less than 500 were produced) make this a very rare and valuable piece of BMW history.
7 Series (E38)
The cornerstones of BMW’s reputation have always been performance and driving engagement, but with the 3rd generation 7 Series, its engineers proved they could do all-out luxury as well as the industry titans, without losing that fun spirit. Sporting looks that still hold up today, incredible interior space, and a pair of potent powertrains in the 4.0-liter (later 4.4-liter) V8 and 5.0-liter V12, as well as the 7 Series’s first diesel engine in Europe and elsewhere abroad, the E38 is the ultimate 7 Series. In fact, it was so good that it was chosen to be James Bond’s ride of choice in the 1997 film Tomorrow Never Dies. If it’s good enough for 007, it’s good enough for us.
A pinnacle of design and performance, the M-powered “E39” 5-Series was a sophisticated midsize sedan with loads of power and agility. The V8 engine it housed produced nearly 400-horsepower. Meanwhile, the M-tuned suspension, 4-wheel vented disk brakes, and more responsive electronic sport throttle settings made this one of the era’s must-have luxury cars. It also starred in BMW’s “The Hire” short film marketing campaign, winning the hearts of gear heads around the world.
The Z8 was a love letter to BMW’s roadsters of the past; a confluence of classic design and modern engineering. The Z8 was made up of an aluminum space frame and housed a powerful 400-horsepower 4.9-liter V8, which made it clear this car was made more for driving not posing (though it sure looked good, even standing still). The unique design was penned by Henrik Fisker, famed designer of the Aston Martin DB9 and founder of Fisker Automotive. When production of the Z8 ended, BMW tuner Alpina made a more relaxed version of the roadster. We still prefer the harder-edged original.
What should be an easy decision ultimately turns out to be the hardest choice, particularly when choosing the best of the best. The M3 has been the last word for some time when it comes to a sophisticated European sports sedan, and we have to say our favorite is the E46. The E46 M3 offered 333-horsepower (in U.S. spec) from a sublime 3.2-liter inline-6 cylinder engine. This allows for a sub-5.0 second zero to 60 mph sprint. It’s lauded to this day as a spectacular example of a true sports car.
1-Series M Coupe
Putting an M badge on a BMW takes a great deal of consideration and is usually reserved for the best the brand has to offer. So the decision to give their entry-level coupe the M treatment was a head scratcher. What resulted was a car that won the hearts of everyone who drove it, and is destined to become a future classic. Powered by a 3.0-liter twin-turbo, direct injection straight-6, the mighty 1-Series M had 335-horsepower, channeled exclusively through a 6-speed manual gearbox.
With the world’s gas supply starting to dwindle and the effects of global warming growing more intense than ever – not to mention America’s undying thirst for SUVs and crossovers – the future of the high-powered sports car looked bleak. That is until BMW had its say, of course. With a total system output of 349 horsepower and the ability to run 23 miles gas-free, the i8 hybrid proved that hybrids don’t have to be boring, and the future of the sports car is pretty bright after all…and has kickass doors.