The best used BMW M cars to buy in 2021

It promises to be a huge year for M GmbH; here are the current best buys from 50 years of back catalogue

By PH Staff / Friday, February 5, 2021 / Loading comments

Over the next 12 months, BMW M GmbH will have answered a lot of burning questions: can the M4 be discussed without mentioning the grille? What will an electric M car look like? How much will an M3 Touring cost? And can an M5, even one with as much power as a McLaren F1, really be worth £140,000?

In other words there's plenty to look forward to from BMW Motorsport road cars as the division's 50th anniversary looms into view. Until then, though, we're going to look back and consider the cars which serve as bedrock for its formidable reputation. Because whether you're a fan or not, there's no question that five decades have produced some of the finest performance models money can buy.

And thanks to the ravages of depreciation – and BMW's enduring ability to shift fast cars at volume – there are still quite a few that represent good value, and even one or two that you might call bargains. So without further ado, here are the best secondhand M cars to buy in 2021. Don't blame us if temptation comes knocking…

Up to £15,000…

  • M235i (F22)

Alright, so in the truest sense of the term the M235i isn't a genuine M car, instead a mere M Performance model, but it's too good not to include – especially at supermini money. Though the fast 2 Series formula would gradually evolved into much more serious M2 models (and they're coming, don't worry), there was a lot to like about the 235i on its 2014 launch.

Because while the M135i hatchback had already acquired cult hero status by that point, the coupe equivalent brought over all the good stuff in a far more aesthetically pleasing shape. So buyers still got the same smooth straight-six power, rear-wheel drive balance and smart interior, only in two-door body that worked from every angle. And not just a couple. Best viewed at night.

As such, the M235i was popular, meaning there are plenty to choose from secondhand. Prices now start at £15k, which doesn't seem very much for a rear-wheel drive BMW coupe that isn't very old and comes with 325hp. The optional eight-speed automatic was a good match for the 3.0-litre turbocharged straight six, with the manual offering a more traditional experience for those after it. Given how the current 1 Series and 2 Series Gran Coupe have turned out, hopes aren't all that high for a new two-door 2 Series, due next year. Which only serves to make the old one look more desirable still.

Up to £20,000…

  • M3 (E90/2/3)

Once upon a time, the E46 would have occupied this slot – it being the perennially popular one of 'temptingly cheap M3'. And although those halcyon days of £5k M3s are unlikely to return, the fact is that the newer, more powerful V8 M3 is now cheaper than its equivalent straight-six predecessor.

Though the E9x generation is not without its well-documented problems, no M3 has ever been fault free. Furthermore, where once this car was pilloried for ditching a straight-six motor, now look at it: the 2007-13 M3 offers an 8,300rpm atmospheric V8, with a manual gearbox. It's even available in a four-door saloon body, if you so wish. The S65 was a special engine in its day – with that day being some years ago, the 4.0-litre is going to feel out of this world in 2021.

And it's yours for under £20k! That's why the M3 is here, regardless of what some might say about it being too heavy and too subtle an M car. This very rare manual saloon is for sale at £16,995; it's had the actuators done recently and comes with a BMW service history. There won't be another like it – reason enough to see what the fuss is about.

Up to £25,000…

  • M5 (E39)

For many, the E39 M5 is the definitive M car, and thus a shoo-in. This isn't a pure-bred, motorsport-inspired special, but – whisper it – not many of the iconic M cars actually are. Instead they are great BMWs, overhauled to be faster, better to look at and even better to drive – the 1999-2003 M5 emphatically ticked all three of those boxes.

The E39 was a fine foundation on which to build a supreme supersaloon, but even allowing for that fact the M5 was some achievement. More than 20 years on it still looks fantastic, potent enough for those in the know yet brilliantly subtle to the majority. The engine is a masterpiece, too, the S62 4.9-litre V8 delivering oodles power and torque through a six-speed manual gearbox. Perhaps the M5's greatest achievement, though, was perfectly matching its powertrain to the chassis, offering just the right amount of performance for the available grip. And the size of the car overall, in fact. There's seldom a situation where it feels either inadequately slow or gratuitously fast, being adroitly quick enough just about everywhere. Anyone who's enjoyed about two seconds of acceleration in a new one before backing off might just appreciate that.

With so much going for it, the rise in E39 values is no surprise at all. That it feels so special two decades later should ensure things will stay that way, too, especially with relatively few around. Nowadays you'll pay anything from just over £15k all the way up to almost £50,000, a far cry from just a few years ago. But those values reflect what the enthusiast community has known for a long time: the E39 M5 really is one of the all-time greats.

Up to £35,000…

  • M3 CS (E46)

Hold on, don't get cross. Because, yes, while it is possible to pay almost £35,000 for an M3 CS and get one of the very best out there, there are still examples around at just about half that money. Put simply, the CS is good enough that it had to be included somewhere – even if that is a higher price point than we all expected.

The clever bit of the CS package, as most of us know, was to include some good bits from the CSL – the quicker steering rack, bigger brakes and revised springs, most notably – for not much more money than the regular E46 M3. Back in 2005, a CS cost just £2,400 more than the standard car; given that meant four gorgeous forged wheels as well, the CS became a no brainer.

However, given it was introduced relatively late in the E46 lifecycle – the model arrived in 2005, and production ended in 2006 – there aren't many around. They're well worth seeking out though, which is probably why values have climbed so swiftly; especially as, unlike the CSL, a six-speed manual gearbox was available from the factory. It was standard, in fact, and highly prized today, given the SMG automatic can't compete with the latest generation of autos – whereas BMW manuals have had the same knuckly feel for decades. Though any further appreciation on current values would be a surprise, the quality of the CS package means it'll stay desirable for a good while yet.

Up to £50,000…

  • M2 Competition

At this sort of money, all manner of superb M cars are on offer: depreciation has almost brought the current M5 within reach, not to mention all manner of F82 M4s, as well as classics like the M635 CSI. Great cars all, but the M2 Competition takes this spot. And, to be honest, it does so pretty comfortably.

Why? Because it brings together so much of what was great about BMW M in the old days – a powerful straight-six, a handsome two-door body, a manual gearbox and rear-wheel drive – with so much of what is good about new cars. So there are driving assists that help without hindering, an excellent infotainment system, the comfort to be tolerable on the motorway for hours on end and the efficiency to make 30mpg achievable. The CS might have stolen some Competition limelight of late, but if anything the Comp might be the more significant M2 – and now you can buy one from £40k.

The relative simplicity of the Competition extended to speccing one, too, making getting one secondhand easier as well. Buyers need not worry about whether or not a certain option box has been tick – there's the choice between six-speed manual and seven-speed DCT, and the M Sport braking system is nice to have, but otherwise take your pick. Every single M2 Competition is a fine reminder of how good a great M car can be.

Up to £65,000…

  • M5 Competition (F90)

After a less than stellar F10 generation, the M5 was back to its best for the F90 generation in 2018. Some were perturbed about four-wheel drive in an M5 for the first time, but if anything it served to enhance the experience rather than harm it, as more of the twin-turbo V8's muscle could reach the road. And there was always the 2WD setting, for those feeling courageous.

A Competition followed the standard car a few months later, upping power to 625hp and tweaking the chassis for even sharper responses. The result was an absorbing supersaloon, one as rewarding to drive as it was sumptuous to sit in. Sure, that did make for a two-tonne 5 Series, but it really was hard to think of how much more 'bahnstormer you really needed. What on earth might a CS be like?

Moreover, while a lot of new technologies were introduced for this generation of M5, both standard car and Competition have depreciated like vast, powerful BMWs so often do. Need proof? There are approved used Comps with four-figure mileages out there for £60k – each car was £96,205 brand new, before options. A regular, 600hp car is little more than £50,000. Still a lot of money, of course, but tens of thousands less than new. And about a third the price of a CS…

Up to £85,000…

  • M4 GTS

Is this a contentious one? It would be fair to say that not all who tried the GTS in 2016 were bowled over by it. Some, on the other hand, felt it a worthy M4 flagship, and a 7:28 'ring lap pointed to some serious circuit ability.

Perhaps the biggest issue was price: though very few came to the UK, each M4 GTS buyer was asked to part with more than £120,000 to own one. However good a 500hp M4 might have been – and it was very good, at least in our experience – that's an awful lot to ask for something very recognisably still a 4 Series. Even with water injection.

But now there the GTS can be bought for almost £50,000 less than that. Meaning that all of a sudden the M4 with the cage, ceramic brakes and adjustable KW suspension looks a lot more attractive. This one is for sale at £85,000 with fewer than 1,000 miles; this one is less than £80,000 with 11,000 miles under those slightly divisive forged wheels. And, yes, maybe it isn't quite the circuit car a GT3 RS is, but it's so much better than a standard car on a track: faster, of course, but also better controlled and more rewarding to drive quickly. For something a little different to the road racer norm, the GTS comes very highly recommended.

Sky's the limit…

  • M1

Back in the early days of M Division, BMW wanted to beat Porsche where everybody wanted to beat Porsche in the 1970s: on the racetrack. So it devised a mid-engined project to take on the 911s, drafted in Lamborghini to help with building the cars required for homologation… then it all went wrong. Lamborghini had to pull out, delaying the M1; so much so, in fact, that sports car racing regulations had changed by the time it was ready. The M1 Procar support series was cool, no doubt, but it wasn't quite what was in mind.

All this time later, it's simply another chapter in the M1's fascinating backstory. With just 453 made, and with BMW never returning to the mid-engined sports car (apart from with the i8), the M1 has acquired the sort of allure seldom associated with the brand. It's a proper wedge of 160mph, 70s' exotica, albeit with the familiar blue-and-white roundel on the nose. And two on the back, don't forget.

The fact that the M1 looked so good, that it was powered by the sublime M88 straight six and produced in such tiny numbers ensured it was collectible from the get-go. Nowadays they're lotto win cars, only ever emerging on the market for half a million and upwards. Given its significance to M, the fact that nothing like it has emerged before or since from BMW, that amount of money makes some sense. Perhaps, come the 50th anniversary year in 2022, BMW might see fit to pay proper tribute…

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