There are some car companies where you can instantly name the classics. There are a few, well-defined automotive achievements that define the company's history.
With BMW however, this is a bit difficult to do. This is a company that has been manufacturing awesome vehicles for decades now. And although you may find some of their newest iterations a bit disappointing in terms of driver engagement or being weighed down by electronics, it's hard to argue with much of what they have created in the past.
These are just a few of the cars that have helped the company earn its reputation as the "ultimate driving machine."
Also known as the BMW New Class, and no, this doesn't mean that the vehicle was first produced in the year 2002. In fact, it started production long before that, in the 1960s. It's lifespan expanded into the late 70s, and it later went on to become the iconic 3-series, which is immortalized by driving enthusiasts all around the world. Both are popular choices for restoration projects, and can be had for pretty cheap today, regardless of what part of the country you find yourself in.
The most desirable and coveted of all of these cars is the "tii" trim. With its four cylinder turbo motor, it was one of the most successful touring cars of its day as well. This begins a theme that you will find common throughout this list of cars: performance oriented and racing pedigree.
BMW E46 M3
Many purists of the brand often regard the E46 chassis M3 to be the last "true M3" ever built. In a lot of ways, this is very true. BMW is a company that hedged its reputation in the 1990s on its bulletproof, naturally aspirated, straight six engines. The E46 was the last car of its kind to have one of those motors.
When combined with the cars perfect, not-too-bloated size, extremely great handling, and looks both inside and out which will never go out of style, the E46 will always be that bedroom poster car for many people, and there's a good reason for it.
The M1 did something special for the company that had never been done before- it launched among that elite tier of car manufacturers that can call themselves the makers of exotics. This is something that many companies try to do, but few succeed in the manner that BMW did with the M1.
It doesn't hurt when you enter in an agreement with Lamborghini, who certainly known a thing or two about iconic styling. Take a brilliant DOHC I6, put in the middle of the car for excellent balance, and you have the makings of something truly great. This car put out 273 horsepower and could fly at more than 160 miles per hour in 1978. Want a point of reference? The equivalent 5.0 V8 in the mustang of the time put out about half the power despite having two more cylinders at its disposal.
BMW E39 M5
This one is a personal favorite of everyone who enjoyed Alex Roy's book The Driver. From 2006 to 2013, this was the car that held the Cannonball Run transcontinental race record from New York to California.
Part of what made this car so great and memorable is that it represents the end of an era: the mechanic 5-series. After this car, future generations of the 5-series were weighed down by electronics, massive V10 engines (with questionable reliability), and automatic transmissions. The E39 was simple: a big naturally aspirated V8 up front, mated to a 6-speed manual transmissions. There were no 2-pedal configurations.
Additionally, it boasts a classic design. Just look at pictures of this monster, both inside and out. There will never be a time when the E39 M5 doesn't look good and classy. There is a serious argument to be made here for being the best four door sedan ever built. And even by Beemer standards, that's saying something astonishing.
If you're looking for some great financial investments, consider picking up one of these Z8s! Granted, it'll cost you well into the six figures ($200,000+ depending on mileage) but hey, it's a lot more fun than a Roth IRA, and these Z8s continue to shoot up in value.
Meant to pay tribute to the classic 1950s BMW 507, the Z8 was a very rare, low-production roadster. In fact, only about 2,500 ever made it onto US soil. They produced around 400 horsepower, and could be had with a 5-speed automatic (Alpina design) or 6-speed manual gearbox.
Oh, and if the car looks familiar, you may be thinking of the Fisker Karma. Henrik Fisker designed the exterior of the vehicle, and the beast of a V8 is a lot more fun than the Karma. While not the best handling or performance car ever built, it sure was nice to look at, as well as cruise around in on a Sunday afternoon.
BMW E30 3-series
There are lots of people who will probably disagree with this choice, believing that the top of the line E30 M3 should be down here instead of the standard 3-series. And while the E30 M3 was a fantastic car in its own right, the standard E30 3-series is arguably the more groundbreaking BMW.
As mentioned earlier, the E30 is the car that BMW built after they had perfected the 2002. It brought perfect handling and racing-quality driver feel to the masses, combined with rock solid reliability. It had perfect weight distribution, in a perfectly sized little package, with the ever-simple front-engine, RWD drivetrain configuration.
These cars can still be found for under $5000 to this day, and are real steals when you consider the potential. They are also extremely popular for those looking to get into competitive motor sports, and consistently are among the most common of budget autocross and LeMons racing teams. And while they aren't fast at all by today's standards, they truly encapsulate the "ultimate driving machine" slogan. No list of great BMWs would be complete without the E30 chassis, standard 3-series or otherwise.