BMW is one of the most popular automakers in the world, creating some of the best sports cars and sedans in their respective segments. Lucky for us car enthusiasts, the 1990s saw some of the best BMW products ever made.
BMW has been around for a long time, but only really began to gain prominence in the 1970s, building luxury sports sedans and coupes. By the 1980s they had produced the first M3, the first M5, and had a glorious V12 7 Series to battle Mercedes-Benz. Enter the 1990s, when BMW became a rival force in the premium car world, compete with Mercedes-Benz and Audi for the German ‘Big Three’ crown. The 1990s saw the second generation M3, the second and third M5, the second 7 Series, the best 8 Series, the end of the Z1 and the beginning of the Z3, the glorious Z8 and the beginning of the SUV segment as we know it today, the X5. BMW was truly one of the companies that shaped where the auto industry stands today.
So whether you’re looking for a fast sedan, a stylish coupe or convertible, or a large SUV, BMW in the 1990s had it all. With that, here are ten of the greatest BMW creations of the 1990s.
The BMW Z1 was the first in BMW’s line of Z cars (not to be confused with Nissan’s Z cars) and had a rather interesting trick up its sleeve. Built on the E30 platform, the Z1 was powered by the same 2.5-litre in-line six-cylinder engine as the 325i – just in a more attractive and aerodynamic body.
The most interesting thing about the Z1 are the doors. Instead of conventional doors that swing out or up, the Z1’s doors slide down, under the floor. Interestingly, the high side sills provided adequate collision protection whether the doors were up or down, making it perfectly legal – albeit somewhat frowned upon – to drive the Z1 with the doors retracted.
9 E31 850CSi
The original 8 Series was designed to be the ultimate in BMW’s GT line of cars, alongside the 7 Series in luxury, but more sporty so that the owner would want to drive it. The 8 Series was available with two different engine configurations, including a V8 and a V12.
The top version was the 850CSi – which should have been called the M8, but BMW withdrew from the idea. Instead, they put the 5.6-litre S70 V12 in a regular 8 Series and made it one of the coolest manual-speed Grand Tourers ever.
8 E34 M5 Touring
The BMW E34 M5 was the second generation of the car that changed the sedan segment forever. BMW took what they learned from the E28 M5 and applied it to the E34, making it one of the best cars in the world (at the time) even better. The E34 was not only sold as a sedan, but was also the first M5 to be sold as a car.
The E34 M5 Touring is one of the rarest M cars out there, with only 891 ever produced. The E34 M5 Touring was also the last hand-built M car, fitted with the S38B36 3.6-litre straight-six. The E34 M5 Touring was the first of two M5 Touring models ever produced, with rumors that the next M5 will also have a Touring model.
7 E34 Alpina B10 Bi-Turbo
The BMW E34 M5 was the fastest production sedan in the world at the time of manufacture, but then came the Lotus Carlton, which surpassed the M5 in terms of top speed. Alpina came to the rescue, spending $3.2 million in the late 1980s to develop the ultimate version of the E34.
The result was the Alpina B10 Bi-Turbo, a twin-turbo version of the regular E34 535i. Alpina increased the power of the 535i’s 208 horsepower to an impressive 355 horsepower. The additional suspension and tuning upgrades put the B10 Bi-Turbo in the same league as the Ferrari Testarossa supercar. The B10 Bi-Turbo was capable of a top speed of 179 mph and its production run of just 507 units makes it extremely rare.
6 E36 M3
The BMW E36 M3 was the second generation of the famous sports car and had an unsettling time in North America. While the M3 did well in Europe, the E36 M3 was discounted for the North American market due to the cost of the S50 and S52 six-cylinder.
Regardless of the version, the E36 M3 was the model that brought real German sports cars to the public. It is thanks to the E36 that we currently have the M3 and M4 models, both of which were an astonishing success during production.
5 E36/8 Z3 M-Coupé
The second BMW Z car was the Z3, which was introduced in 1995 and remained in production until 2002. The Z3 was available with a range of 4- and 6-cylinder engines, with the US only getting a six-cylinder in-line. The highlight of the range were the M versions, the Z3M Coupeand Roadster.
The Z3M Coupé – also known as the ‘Clownshoe’ – was based on the E36 M3 and had the same engine, transmission and suspension, but in a two-door shooting-brake body style. The Z3M Coupé is one of BMW’s coolest creations – one that they tried to recreate with the Z4 M-Coupé, but it wasn’t quite the same.
4 E38 750Li
The E38 7 Series is probably the best of the 7 Series generations – not in terms of technology and power, but in style and design. The E38 was introduced in 1995, but the best version of the car was the LCI model, introduced in 1998, which featured updated exterior styling, new technology and better engines.
The top model was the 750Li, a 5.4-liter V12-powered luxury sedan built specifically to rival the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The V12 7 Series produced 320 horsepower and 360 lb-ft of torque, enough to propel the luxurious German machine to 60 mph in just 6.9 seconds.
3 E39 M5
The BMW E39 M5 was the third generation of the leading sports sedan and was eventually available with a V8 engine. Gone was the 3.8-litre straight-six and in its place came a superb 4.9-litre V8, mated to a manual gearbox and driving only the rear wheels. The E39 M5 produced nearly 400 horsepower and could reach a top speed of over 286 mph with the M-Driver’s Package.
The best thing about the M5 wasn’t the engine – even though it’s an impressive piece of engineering – but the best thing about the car was the tuning of the chassis. It was so good that several automakers tried to copy it with relative success, but didn’t achieve exactly the same. Even more impressive is the fact that automakers are still trying to improve it, including BMW itself. The E39 M5 is the standard for tuning sports sedans and will likely remain so forever.
2 E52 Z8
The BMW Z8 was a tribute to the original 507 Roadster of the fifties. Introduced in 1999, it was based on the E39 M5 and shared its engine and most of its powertrain, but only got a custom body and interior. The Z8 was built as a grand tourer, but many reviewers found it to outperform the Ferrari 360 Modena – the standard in the sports car segment at the time.
The Z8 was only available with a manual, so Alpina got their hands on it and turned it into a real GT. They swapped the 4.9-litre S62 for the X5’s 4.8-litre M62 and mated it to a 5-speed torque converter automatic transmission, making the suspension even softer. The Z8 was also used by James Bond of Pierce Brosnan in The World Is Not Enough, where it was cut in half by a helicopter with some saw blades.
1 E53 X5
Introduced in 1999, the BMW X5 took the world by storm. It was available with two straight-sixes and three V8s. The original 6-cylinder was a naturally aspirated 3.0-litre, while the other was a turbo diesel of the same capacity. The smallest V8 was a 4.4-litre, which rose to a 4.6-litre as the sportiest version.
The top-of-the-line X5 – before the next-generation X5M was a thing – was the 4.8is, which produced 360 horsepower. All X5 models were four-wheel drive. The X5 redefined the SUV segment and helped spark the sporty SUV trend we have today. It is truly one of the greatest BMW creations of the 1990s.