Sampling of BMW’s greatest hits reveals what’s missing from its modern cars

Sampling of BMW's greatest hits reveals what's missing from its modern cars
enlarge / Orange is the primary color of Ars, but it’s just a coincidence that we love this 2013 M3 Lime Rock Park car so much.

Aurich Lawson / Jonathan Gitlin

SAN FRANCISCO—This year BMW invited Ars to Monterey Car Week, a “Comic-Con meets the Oscars” event for the automotive world. Unlike in 2019, when VW let us drive its electric ID Buggy, the Bavarian carmaker didn’t have a new electric concept to show us. Rather, the company is celebrating 50 years of its performance sub-brand M, so it brought a handful of M’s previous hits to California to be ridden.

Also, like most other car companies, BMW is transforming into an electric vehicle manufacturer. Motors can of course be electric, so the Bavarian Motor Works doesn’t even need to change its name. But over the years, the company’s petrol engines have pushed the boundaries, and few other companies – Ferrari perhaps? – can claim to have built so many different acclaimed power plants. So its electric powertrains have a lot to live up to.

M’s engineers have started their craft on BMW’s latest generation of EVs. The i4 M50 four-door fastback and the iX M60 are both more than fast enough to embarrass any full-fat (gas-powered) M car built before 2010, at least up to 200 km/h. It’s telling, though, that neither of these two fast EVs got the license plate as a full M car, and a conversation earlier this year with M’s head Frank van Meel revealed he thinks M has some work to do before we have an M3 or M4 that only runs on batteries.

After driving the i4 M50 and current M3 back-to-back earlier this summer, I can see where Van Meel is from. If I had the money and bought a fast BMW I would buy the i4 because of climate change and because it is a better daily driver. But the M3 was undeniably more attractive to drive.

After several days of driving M cars on some deserted and extremely windy roads along California’s Central Coast. I think not only is Van Meel right, but part of the problem also applies to the cars that currently carry the M decal. And while he may not have asked for my advice, I think I know what M needs to do to make a really great rider EV.

Take the long way from the airport

I went from SFO to Monterey in a current M4 Competition Convertible, the drop-top cousin of the M3. A mid-week, mid-afternoon arrival and the assumption that my car would initially be outfitted with two-piece carbon fiber bucket seats sounded like it was going to be a pretty hellish 150-minute drive in Silicon Valley traffic.

But if you need a while to get somewhere, you have to For real take your time, so there was a better route, through Pacifica, then through many curves and more redwoods, then down to Santa Cruz. The car is a two-door convertible version of the M3 we tested last year, but with more weight, including those carbon seats that are a pain to get in and out of, but give you great support while you’re back in.

My suspicion was correct, and the long road to Monterey was the road less traveled – for about 90 minutes I hardly saw another car on the road. The ZF 8HP automatic transmission works a treat in manual mode, using the paddle shifters to operate the gears. The truth is, I spent much of my time in second gear with the car at peak power, and the car’s 503 horsepower (375 kW) devoured what seemed like an endless series of hairpins and turns all the way to Santa Cruz.