The surprising origins of BMW M



bmw x5 sepang

Would BMW’s brilliant M cars have come about if not for a key man lured from Ford 43 years ago?

SEPANG, MALAYSIA — The speedo needle climbs past 220km/h and it’s time to stand on the brake pedal. The Sepang F1 Circuit’s first corner approaches rapidly, but as it turns out, I slow down way too early, caught out by my own conservatism. Not to mention my fear of putting more than half a million dollars’ worth of BMW into the gravel.

I crawl past the apex, shuffle the car into the tighter Turn 2, and nail the accelerator to unleash the fury of the 575 horsepower engine. And, as anyone would do in the same situation, I titter like a schoolboy who’s just done something naughty.

In part, that’s because it’s not a low-slung sportscar that I’m attacking the bends of Sepang with, but a BMW X5 M.

bmw x5 m singapore

A big, heavy Sports Utility Vehicle like the X5 is the last thing you would expect to deliver some trackday thrills, but when a BMW comes with an extra letter “M” on the back, it can basically trace its origins to the racing circuit.

“‘M’ stands for ‘motorsport’. All our M cars are developed on the race track,” says Marcel Muhl, the head of sales for BMW’s M subsidiary in our region. “That’s so important for us.”

bmw m1 m5 singaporeThe subsidiary was set up with just 35 employees in 1972 to build racing cars for BMW. Then known as BMW Motorsport, it was led by Jochen Neerpasch, a team manager who had crossed over from Ford’s racing programme. He poached European Touring Champion Hans Joachim Stuck, and lay the ground for a period of enormous racing success for BMW.

The company initially stuck with making racing cars, but homologation rules required it to build at least 400 examples of the BMW M1, if it wanted to field that car on the track. That basically took its cars from road-to-track for the first time.

bmw m1 procar singapore

Today, speed junkies can choose from 13 M models in Singapore alone. Not all of them are what BMW purists call full-fledged “M cars”, however.

The entry-level M135i, for instance, has been tuned by M to deliver a taste of its track-bred models at a relatively low cost. It’s priced at $208,800 with COE, which is slightly less than Volkswagen’s high-performance Golf R.

In contrast, the most affordable M-proper BMW is the M3 Sedan, which costs $345,800 with COE — and that’s before common options.

The price difference, says Mr Muhl, is down to the fact that an enormous amount of re-engineering goes into building a full M model. Compared to a regular BMW 4 Series, for instance, 80 percent of an M4’s parts are different.

The X5 M is another example of how the BMW’s speed-driven sub-brand takes a different approach to things. Unlike a regular X5, it can’t be specified with seven seats, for one thing, and you can’t buy the M model with adaptive cruise control. That’s because it has 10 radiators to cool its enormously powerful engine, and there isn’t space under the bonnet for the necessary radar sensor.

READ MORE > Our 270km/h+ experience with the X5 M

bmw x5 m

BMW doesn’t release sales figures for M models, but it’s likely that the division’s cars are fairly exclusive. By our reckoning they probably accounted for no more than 35,000 of BMW’s 1.8m global sales in 2014.

And just as BMW itself faces stiff competition from Mercedes-Benz, its M cars have their counterparts in the enemy camp. Mercedes’ own high-performance label is AMG, and the sub-brand intends to offer no fewer than 30 models by 2017.

READ MORE > The Mercedes-AMG C 63S is no slouch, either

Lexus is just getting started with its own F Sport series, and now sells a V8-powered RC F, a rival to BMW’s M4 Coupe. That will soon be joined by the GS F, the Japanese brand’s answer to the BMW M5.

READ MORE > What the F is Lexus doing?

As rivals gear up to take on BMW’s M division, Mr Muhl says the brand has a clear philosophy to follow and stay true to its roots. “What do you need when you invite your best friends over for a nice dinner at home? You need the best ingredients, you need the right recipe to cook a nice dinner. You also need a nice table setting,” he says. “That’s what we need if we develop our cars for our best friends: our customers. We want to match the best components together.”

For M’s engineers, outright speed is one thing, but finding the right balance between track use and everyday comfort is the real challenge.

It’s the main reason that even for something like the plush, portly X5 M, speeding toward the first corner of the Sepang circuit at more than 220km/h is just a homecoming.

bmw x5 sepang 2

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Leow Ju-Len
Leow Ju-Len is a lot older than he behaves. He's been writing about cars for 23 years. Someday he might do it coherently. Ju-Len believes in world peace and V8s, but not necessarily in that order.