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Everything you need to know about BMW

BMW is one of the most familiar names on the roads today but how much do you really know about the upmarket German brand? Read our guide for the inside story.

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Ask anyone to name different car brands off the top of their head, and one of the first names that will always pop up will be BMW. But how much do you know about one of the world’s most famous car companies?

BMW has been a fixture in the UK car market for decades, with its popularity steadily increasing over time. It’s now one of the UK’s top-selling brands, with more BMWs sold every year than Toyotas, Vauxhalls, Nissans, Renaults, Peugeots and many others.

The ‘kidney grille’, so named because even in its most recent bloated form it looks like a pair of kidneys, has been hung on the front of BMW cars since the 1930s, and has become as recognisable a symbol of executive market quality as the three-pointed star of Mercedes-Benz.

BMW has never been afraid to innovate – the company was among the first premium brands to launch an SUV and such models now dominate its line-up. It was also an early adopter of electric propulsion, and today there are a growing number of EV options among the extensive BMW model range – in 2023, a quarter of all BMWs sold in the UK were EVs.

Despite rival brands making inroads into BMW’s long-held reputation as the executive car of choice, today cars with that distinctive grille remain objects of desire for many drivers.

So who or what is BMW?

BMW may be one of the most well-known car manufacturers today but that’s not how it started. A German engineer called Karl Rapp founded the ‘Rapp Motorenwerke’ – RMW – in Munich in 1913, primarily making aeroplane engines. Four years later, the company was renamed ‘Bayerische Motoren Werke’ (which translates as Bavarian Motor Works), hence BMW.

Between the wars, BMW added motorcycle engines, farm equipment, railway braking systems and even household pots and pans to its aircraft engines. The first motorcycle was produced in 1923, the first car five years later (it was actually a licenced copy of the Austin 7) and the range quickly expanded until the outbreak of the second world war.

Like every other European car company of its era, BMW was heavily involved in both world wars on behalf of its country. And, like other German manufacturing companies, production during the second world war was one of the darkest aspects of BMW’s history. The company mass-produced engines for German fighters and bombers, using mainly slave labour from Nazi concentration camps. Motorcycle manufacturing also continued, mainly to supply the German army, but car production stopped.

After the war, BMW was not permitted to restart making cars until 1952. The company struggled to make a profit, coming close to collapse in 1959 and almost taken over by its great rival, Mercedes-Benz. However, the company was instead purchased by the Quandt family, whose fortune had been amassed arming the Nazi military. The Quandt family remain major shareholders in BMW today, although the company is publicly traded.

BMW’s rise to success then really began in the 1960s. The introduction of the ‘Neue Klasse’ saloon cars led directly to the 3, 5 and 7 Series saloons, which are still some of the most popular cars in the premium market today. By the 1980s, BMW and fellow German brand Mercedes-Benz were the dominant players in what became known as the executive sector – to drive a BMW company car was considered a sure sign of a successful career.

In the 21st century, BMW is one of the world’s best-known car companies and still making headlines. Not all of them are positive – many recent styling decisions have raised questions, particularly the steadily increasing size of the kidney grille on its vehicles. Plenty of observers consider the gargantuan frontage and overall design of the new BMW XM as several steps too far.

Today, BMW builds cars in Brazil, China, the Netherlands, India, Mexico and South Africa – as well as its home of Munich in Germany.

BMW 3 Series: 1975 vs. 2022

M is for Magic

If there’s one letter of the alphabet that holds special significance for BMW and its fans around the world, it’s the letter M – standing for Motorsport.

The first M model was the BMW M1 – a mid-engined supercar launched in 1978. It even raced at Le Mans, with a paint scheme created by Andy Warhol. That car remains in BMW’s famous Art Car collection, and would immediately become one of the most valuable cars in the world if the company ever decided to sell it.

The first BMW M road car, the M5, was launched in 1984 and M has since been applied to the most potent models in the core road car ranges. Among enthusiasts, the BMW M3 and M5 have earned a reverence almost unmatched by any other major car manufacturer.

Over the years, BMW’s M division has been involved in almost every category of motor racing around the world – currently, it races in GT categories and Le Mans.

Ownership of other car brands

In 1994, BMW bought the Rover Group, a collection of British car brands – beating Honda to what proved a mistaken prize. Rover’s huge losses meant that the British arm was sold again just six years late, but BMW kept the Mini brand name and the Oxford factory that produced its cars. A completely new Mini range appeared a year later – but that’s another story (coming soon).

By this time, BMW had already swooped on another famous British brand. In 1998, Volkswagen thought it was buying luxury car marques Rolls-Royce and Bentley, along with the factory in Crewe. Instead, BMW managed to snatch the rights to the Rolls-Royce name from under VW’s nose, later building a brand-new factory at Goodwood in Sussex to produce an equally new line of the world’s most luxurious cars.

What models does BMW have today?

The current BMW range is enormous, covering its regular models, its all-electric ‘i’ models and its high-performance ‘M’ models. Take a deep breath:

  • 1 Series (hatchback)
  • 2 Series (coupé, liftback, MPV) + M2 coupé
  • 3 Series (saloon, estate) + M3 versions
  • 4 Series (coupé, convertible, liftback) + M4 coupé and convertible + i4 electric liftback
  • 5 Series (saloon, estate) + M5 saloon + i5 electric versions
  • 7 Series (saloon) + i7 electric version
  • 8 Series (coupé, convertible, liftback) + M8 versions
  • X1 (small SUV) + iX1 electric version
  • X2 (small coupé-SUV) + iX2 electric version
  • X3 (medium SUV) + iX3 electric version + X3 M
  • X4 (medium coupé-SUV) + X4 M
  • X5 (large SUV) + X5 M
  • X6 (large coupé-SUV) + X6 M
  • X7 (very large SUV)
  • Z4 (two-seat roadster)
  • XM (M division large SUV)
  • iX (large electric SUV)

The range has expanded and diversified over the last few decades, as customer demand has shifted from saloons and coupés into estates and SUVs. The SUV models are now some of the company’s best-selling vehicles.

More than most car companies, BMW loves jargon (and some frankly unintelligible model and trim names). Estate models are called ‘Touring’, while liftback models are called ‘Gran Coupé’. All-wheel drive systems are called xDrive. Sporty-looking models without M performance levels are called ‘M Sport’. Several M models are only available in the UK in ‘Competition’ spec, even though they’re not racing models. It goes on and on, although its major German rivals at Audi and Mercedes-Benz are just as guilty of jargon jibberish.

Current ICE-powered BMW range (not including ‘M’ models)

BMW 1 Series

BMW 1 Series

BMW 2 Series Active Tourer

BMW 2 Series Active Tourer

BMW 2 Series Coupé

BMW 2 Series Coupé

BMW 3 Series

BMW 3 Series

BMW 4 Series Convertible

BMW 4 Series Convertible

BMW 4 Series Coupé

BMW 4 Series Coupé

BMW 4 Series Gran Coupé

BMW 4 Series Gran Coupé

BMW 7 Series

BMW 7 Series

BMW 8 Series

BMW 8 Series

BMW 8 Series Gran Coupé

BMW 8 Series Gran Coupé

BMW X1

BMW X1

BMW X3

BMW X3

BMW X4

BMW X4

BMW X5

BMW X5

BMW X6

BMW X6

BMW X7

BMW X7

BMW Z4

BMW Z4

Current electric BMW range

BMW i4

BMW i4

BMW i5

BMW i5

BMW i7

BMW i7

BMW iX

BMW iX

BMW iX1

BMW iX1

BMW iX3

BMW iX3

BMW’s electric models

When it comes to electric vehicles, BMW has taken two different approaches. Most of its EV models are electric-powered versions of its conventional petrol models (i4, i5, i7, iX1, iX2, iX3), while the iX (and the now-discontinued i3 city car) are dedicated electric models without fossil-fuel equivalents.

This second approach will become more dominant as the car industry moves away from combustion engines to purely electric power in the next few years.

BMW is already ahead of most of the car industry when it comes to electric car adoption. In 2023, about a quarter of all new BMWs sold in the UK were electric – well ahead of the overall industry target of 22% by 2024 (which several manufacturers will struggle to achieve).

The next big development for BMW’s electric ambitions is the next-generation BMW 3 Series, which is due to be revealed in 2025. This will be inspired by the ‘Neue Klasse’ concept car (whose name harks back to a highly successful model range from the 1960s), shown below.

Where can I try a BMW car?

Enthused by a BMW? You won’t have to travel very far to check out your desired model at a dealer – there are more than 300 of them across the UK. Many, but not all, have Mini dealerships alongside as well.

And you won’t have much trouble spotting a BMW centre on a motor alley either – BMW does not do small dealerships and most outlets tend to dominate their surroundings.

What makes BMW different to the rest?

BMW has always accentuated its sporty credentials; for many years the company only produced rear-wheel-drive cars with chassis renowned for their excellent handling.

The BMW tagline ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ was adopted in 1974 and proved so successful it was not dropped until 2010 – and then brought back two years later. With such chassis allied to the potent engines of the M series, BMW could offer company cars that were anything but dull to drive.

Today rear-wheel-drive cars still dominate the BMW model line, despite the arrival of all-wheel-drive SUVs and now front-wheel-drive models (the 1 Series hatch, 2 Series Gran Coupé and 2 Series Active Tourer). And BMW has maintained the jealously-guarded reputation for its cars offering some of the most impressive handling in the business – any rival going up against BMW knows that the first hurdle it has to overcome is the driveability of the Bavarian cars.   

A BMW fact to impress your friends

The BMW badge design is commonly referred to as a propellor, referencing the company’s origins in making aeroplane engines. But that’s not the case.

The four quadrants in the centre of the badge don’t represent white propellor blades on a blue sky, as the long-standing myth suggests. In fact, they represent the blue and white diamonds of the flag of Bavaria, BMW’s home state in Germany. The confusion has not been helped by some of BMW’s early advertising in the 1920s, which used the logo to represent an aeroplane propellor when it was promoting one of its new aero engines.

The BMW logo has remained largely the same since 1917, with only minor changes over the years. The biggest change came recently, when the company decided to remove the black ring around the edge and make it transparent. However, production cars still use the traditional badge, with the new version mainly used for digital purposes and concept cars.

Summary

BMW has been one of the world’s most successful car companies for many years. Like every other long-lived company, it has endured growing pains, financial struggles and plenty of controversies, but BMW is as strong today as it has ever been.

Other brands have made inroads into BMW’s dominant status in the executive market – notably Audi, and more recently the upmarket electric cars of Tesla. But there probably isn’t another car company in the world that enjoys similarly strong acclaim across its entire model range. 

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Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is a road test editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.