The BMW M Division is known for creating some of the best-performance sedans in history. That isn’t even debatable. It all started with the E28 M5, released over 35 years ago, which set the benchmark for four-door, high horsepower, track-capable saloon cars well into the future. While the original E30 M3 didn’t quite satisfy the same checklist, the second generation E36 M3 certainly did. Since 1985, we have seen 6 generations of the M3 and M5, all building off of the “performance daily-driver” mantra.
With that being said, there has always been an important distinction between the M3 and M5 in terms of overall purpose. The M3 has always been the choice of the weekend track day romper who needs space for a car seat in the back. While the M5 is unquestionably capable of the same shenanigans, it is more at home on long-distance autobahn-esque cruises.
The newest F90 M5 and G80 M3 carry on the M-bloodline and are unquestionably the most extreme siblings yet. While they both know their place in the BMW lineup, the distinctions between them are getting narrower.
In this article, we’ll break down the BMW M3 vs M5 argument, specifically focusing on the newest G80 and F90 generations. We’ll cover M3 vs M5 background and history, M3 vs M5 generational changes, M3 vs M5 size, M3 vs M5 engine and powertrain differences, M3 vs M5 handling, and M3 vs M5 price.
BMW M3 vs M5 – Background and History
Prior to the release of the M3 and M5, the BMW M-Division had been giving it to their competitors on the track for nearly 15 years. Over time, specialized racing technology began to seep into BMW’s street cars, with some models being homologated racecars for the street. That is how the original E30 M3 came about for the general public.
While the E28 M5 was developed as a street car, it was the second-ever designated “M” car to use the two-digit model code and get a proper WBS motorsport prefix on the VIN plate. At the time of its release, it was the fastest 4-door sedan in the world. Beyond simply having a more powerful engine than the rest of the 5-Series line, the M5 featured better handling characteristics, upgraded suspension, and enhanced aesthetics among many other unique performance benefits.
As 3-Series and 5-Series chassis advanced through the years, BMW produced M-variants of them as well. There have been 6 unique chassis of both the 3-Series and 5-Series since 1985, each with their own corresponding M3 and M5. As technology improved, so did the advancements to the M3 and M5. For example, the third generation E46 M3 introduced the SMG transmission, which was BMW’s first attempt at implementing a sequential, semi-automatic, paddle-shift gearbox into a performance street car. The fourth-generation E60 M5 was the first production car to use a V10 engine.
Both the M3 and M5 have used a number of different engines over the years. The M3 has featured everything from an inline-4 cylinder to a V8 through its production cycle. The same can be said for the M5, which has employed everything from a straight-6 to a twin-turbo V8.
BMW G80 M3 vs F90 M5 – What Has Changed?
The current generation of M3 and M5 are dramatically different to the outgoing F80 M3 and F10 M5. The general consensus is that the newer generation of both vehicles is more refined than the last. That is especially apparent in terms of interior quality. The current generation of M3 and M5 have dramatically updated interior technology and visual appeal that many people felt were lacking from the F80 and F10.
Beyond that, in an unprecedented move, both the G80 M3 and F90 M5 are available in xDrive, or all-wheel-drive, form. The F90 M5 is only available in xDrive form, while the G80 is available with or without xDrive. Both feature a new M-xDrive system which is rear-wheel biased and can be manipulated through user controls.
The G80 and F90 both feature similar engines to those that powered their predecessors. The G80 M3 features an S58 engine, first seen in the G01 X3M. The S58 and outgoing S55 engines are very similar on paper. They are both turbocharged inline-6 engines with forged internals and roughly 3.0 liters of displacement. With that being said, the S58 is much more efficient, producing nearly 50 more horsepower in base trim.
The 4.4L twin-turbo S63 in the F90 M5 also got a refresh since it was seen in B44T0 trim in the F10 M5. Higher pressure injectors, larger twin-power turbos, a refreshed intake manifold, and other improvements have boosted the F90 M5’s power by 50 horsepower over the F10.
BMW has also ditched the dual-clutch automatic transmission found in the F80 and F10 in favor of a more traditional ZF style transmission. This is said to only marginally affect shift time while improving daily drivability.
While there are many more changes and revisions between the generations, those are the main ones of note.
BMW M3 vs M5 – Size
One of the most seemingly obvious distinctions between the BMW M3 and M5 is size. The M5 is clearly a lot bigger than the M3, right? Well, not really. In actuality, the F90 M5 is only 5-inches longer than the M3 in terms of wheelbase. The two are actually identical in width. To put that in perspective, the previous F10 M5 was 10 inches longer than the F80 M3 and an inch-and-a-half wider.
For that reason, many of the reasons that you’d typically spring for a 5-Series over a 3-Series aren’t as applicable when it comes to their M-Variants. The 5-Series is generally seen as the larger and more family-focused sedan with more interior room. This time around, both are adequately sized to comfortably fit four adults. The M5’s additional 5 inches in length extends rear leg room a bit over the M3, but not by a make-or-break amount.
Obviously, someone shopping for a performance sedan is looking for a good balance of usability and performance. While the M5 is the slightly better daily driver, handling and track performance is also a key consideration. The common perception is that shorter cars are typically better on the track due to their more pointed nature. With the G80 M3 and F90 M5, that argument is a bit more complicated because they are both big cars. In the past, the M3 was the obvious choice for performance driving due to its lighter weight and shorter wheelbase.
The M3 is still likely the better option for performance driving for similar reasons. The M3 is unquestionably lighter, weighing around 600 lbs less than the M5. The shorter wheelbase probably plays a part in the M3’s improved handling, but it’s really the weight that makes a difference.
BMW M3 vs M5 – Engine and Powertrain
Previous M3 and M5 generations have often featured a dramatic difference in terms of their powertrain. That is certainly true for the G80 and F90 as well. In fact, the engines that power the current generation of M3 and M5 are probably the most significant difference between them.
The previous F80 M3 was the first BMW M3 to feature a turbocharged engine. The G80 is continuing that trend with the 3.0L, inline-6, twin-power turbocharged, S58 engine. The S58 is built upon the B58 straight-6 that has been powering BMWs of all shapes and sizes since 2015. The B58 quickly became a fan favorite in the BMW community due to its durability and tunability. The S58 shares similar construction, but boosts power to 473 horsepower in standard models and 503 in Competition M3s. The M3 is available with both an 8-speed ZF automatic transmission and 6-speed manual.
Like the M3, the F90 M5 shares similar engine DNA with the previous F10 M5. In fact, both the F10 and F90 use the 4.4L Twin-Scroll turbocharged S63 engine. As we covered earlier, the S63 in the F90 is a refreshed and reworked variant that produces 50 more horsepower. That brings the F90 M5’s output to 600 horsepower in standard trim and 617 horsepower in Competition trim. That is truly mind-boggling for a 4-door sedan. Unlike the M3, the M5 only comes equipped with an 8-speed automatic transmission.
The 130 horsepower disparity between the M3 and M5 makes a massive difference in speed despite the weight difference. The M5 is able to rocket to 60mph from a standstill in 2.8 seconds. The G80 M3 still has an impressive 0-60 time of 3.14 seconds in xDrive Competition spec, but it can’t touch the M5 in terms of sheer acceleration.
BMW M3 vs F90 M5 – Handling
We’ve already covered this a bit in the previous sections, but handling is a very important consideration for most people looking for a performance sedan and deserves its own section for discussion. Since both vehicles are relatively new and not many people have owned both, there isn’t a ton of side-by-side information comparing the two. The reports that do exist claim that the M3 feels more “alive” than the M5 on track. There are a few reasons why that is the case.
One element that we haven’t covered in-depth in terms of M3 vs M5 handling is the drivetrain layout of each. While both the G80 M3 and F90 M5 come in an all-wheel-drive xDrive layout, it is optional on the M3. Generally speaking, all-wheel-drive vehicles don’t often outperform rear-wheel-drive cars on track due to their tendency to understeer. While the new generation of M cars feature highly advanced computer-aided assists to reduce that tendency on the M5, understeer is still a factor. Additional weight tends to exacerbate the problem.
Since the G80 M3 is the lighter car and can be purchased with a rear-wheel-drive layout, it is considered the better handling car so far. It is possible to shift the vast majority of the M5’s power output to the rear wheels which improves handling characteristics, but the weight still drags it down. The main gripe from current owners of the F90 M5 is that it lacks the animation of the M3. Multiple claims say that the M5 is so planted and predictable that it lacks excitement.
G80 M3 & F90 M5 – Price
The discrepancy between the G80 M3 and F90 M5 prices is massive. It is likely one of the largest reasons to choose the F80. In base trim, the G80 M3’s MSRP is $70,100 without options. In another tax bracket is the F90 M5, with a base MSRP of $103,700. If you are interested in the Competition model of either, you’ll have to shell out around $7,000-$10,000 more. The M3 Competition starts at $77,100 and the M5 Competition starts at $113,095.
When you start to get into the world of options, that is where the prices can really skyrocket. Alternate wheel options will add an additional $1,300 to the base price of both. Premium leather and trim options range in price from $1,000-$3,000. The Executive Package, which includes gesture control, heads-up display, power tailgate, and heated steering wheel, is standard on the M5. If you want those features on the M3, it’ll be an extra $1,550.
In terms of value for money, it’s hard to argue that the M3 isn’t the better option. While the M3 is down significantly on power and the M5 comes with more standard features, it’s hard to justify the $33,000 price difference.
BMW M3 vs M5 Summary
Historically, the BMW M3 and M5 have served two completely different audiences. Previous generation M3s were made to be the ultimate lightweight, zippy, performance daily driver. M5s of the past were the larger, more luxurious autobahn cruisers meant for speedy, long-distance trips to the lake house. While the current G80 M3 and F90 M5 still conform roughly to those archetypes, they are the most similar M3 and M5 so far.
In terms of sheer performance, the G80 and F90 are each better in their respective domain. The M3 is the better option for the track due to being lighter and shorter. The M5 is the better light-to-light racer due to its M-xDrive system and additional 100 horsepower. The G80 is also said to be much more animated and exciting to drive than the very predictable F90.
If price is a primary concern, the G80 is much better value for money. If you can go without the mountain-moving amount of power that the M5 provides, the M3 is the better all-rounder. Both the M3 and M5 feature a new, ultramodern interior design and are very similar to each other on the inside. The M3’s styling continues to be a very polarizing talking point in the BMW community. If you can’t stand the bucktooth grilles, the G80 might not be the choice for you. With that being said, people are coming around to the new look and even saying that the M5 looks outdated now.
Regardless of your decision, both the M3 and M5 come from a long line of vehicles that haven’t ever disappointed. The G80 and F90 seem to be carrying on that trend.