BMW is entering a new electrified era, which means that (gasp!) our exhausts definitely won’t be getting any louder (especially if you don’t want the CHP to know where you live). But this doesn’t mean that we can’t revisit some of the greatest BMW sounds of all time, straight from the track.
BMW has engineered quite the menagerie of engines, from four-cylinder configurations all the way up to V12 designs, which means that we’ve heard a lot of different exhaust notes over the decades. For road-going models, exhaust noise is often suppressed by things like a silencer or packed muffler in order to conform to decibel limits and meet local noise regulations. While removing your catalytic converters to increase air flow will certainly make your car louder, you won’t be making any friends with local law enforcement, the environmentally conscious, or the driver behind you in traffic, which is why street-legal, mass-manufactured models aren’t the best place to pick your favorite exhausts. While I’m sure most of us can agree that the raspy tone of the E46 M3’s inline-six, the high-pitched V10 whine of an E60 M5, or the deep, guttural growl of an E90/2/3 M3 are music to our ears, nothing quite compares to the roars of the beasts that dominate racing tarmac.
Motorsport has and will always be the proving ground for automotive engineering—and if you’re looking to hear exhausts at wide-open throttle, you’ve come to the right place. Put any race-car-spec BMW on a track and listen to it thunder through a chicane, and chances are you won’t be disappointed with what you hear.
BMW’s motorsport legacy goes back decades, with significant performances in the arenas of F1, WEC, IMSA, DTM, and others. With a different set of racing regulations for each motorsport division, you get a unique sound every time—something that has always captivated me. For enthusiasts like us, driving a car is not just a mode of transportation, it’s an experience; carving the canyons, tearing up the tarmac, and roasting rubber just wouldn’t be the same without a screaming exhaust note filling the cabin the entire time. There’s just something about the noise of an engine turning over, idling, and blaring to redline that awakens the wannabe race-car driver in all of us.
I’ll admit, I’ve entrusted myself with a rather difficult task: I have way too many favorites to choose from. Naturally, I’m very indecisive, so rather than ranking my favorites in any particular order, I’ve decided to rank their exhaust tones by category.
Best Downshifts: E89 Z4 GT3
Powertrain: Naturally-aspirated P65B44 4.4-liter V8
Output: 500–515 horsepower (with/without air restrictor)
Transmission: Hewland/XTrac six-speed sequential
Motorsport Division: FIA GT3, GTE (Grand Touring Endurance)
Years Active: 2010–2015 (GT3), 2012–2015 (GTE)
There’s a reason why the Z4 GT3 is often regarded as the best-sounding GT3 car ever. No forced induction and a beefy german V8—all the ingredients you need for an automotive thunderstorm. You can feel the V8 scream to redline, and each violently loud downshift around the apex imitates thunder cracking down from the heavens. If Thor had a car, this would be it.
Best Acceleration: BMW-Williams FW21-26 F1 Cars
Powertrain: Naturally-aspirated 3.0-liter E41 V10 (2000), P80-P84 (2001–2005) V10
Output: 750 HP
Transmission: Williams seven-speed longitudinal sequential
Motorsport Division: Formula 1 (F1)
Years Active: 2000–2005
A V10 F1 car like this needs no introduction. The turbo V6 power plant used in F1 today has received immense backlash for having a blatantly non-F1 exhaust tone, but the Williams F1 car certainly didn’t suffer from this criticism. While I wasn’t a fan of the new V6 sound, it took me a while to fully understand why. Although I was not alive to fully appreciate the V12 and V10 era of F1, I know that it will never be replicated. For many, the ear-splitting scream of a BMW-engineered V10 isn’t just beautiful, its nostalgic—a representation of some of BMW’s greatest feats of engineering, driven all the way up to a deafening 19,000 rpm.
Best Launch: M3/M4 DTM
Powertrain: Naturally-aspirated P66 4.0-liter V8
Output: 460–480 HP
Transmission: Hewland six-speed sequential
Motorsport Division: Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM)
Years Active: 2010–2013 (M3), 2014–2018 (M4)
Launch control is a glorious thing, and the DTM-spec M3 and M4 do it best. There’s nothing quite like a V8 bouncing off the purposefully lowered rev limiter and then leaving fat tire marks on the tarmac once the rear rubber has hooked up. If you’re a rally-car fan like me, you’ll appreciate the sentiment. While the 2018+ four-cylinder turbocharged models also sound brilliant, they don’t compare to these naturally aspirated beauties, in my opinion.
Best Gear Changes: E46 M3 GTR
Powertrain: Naturally-aspirated P60B40 4.0-liter Flat-Plane-Crank V8
Output: 444–493 HP
Transmission: H-pattern non-synchro, carbon clutch using straight-cut gears
Motorsport Division: American Le Mans Series (ALMS)
Years Active: 2001 (ALMS), 2003–2004 (24 Hours Series)
The E46 M3 GTR bangs into gear with a satisfying clunk, a sign of good old-fashioned engineering. Oh, and it sings—like Steven Tyler hitting the high notes of “Dream On.” The sound of those straight-cut gears to others may be shrill and discordant, but to me, they’re magnificent. This flame-throwing, fire-breathing thoroughbred had risen from the ashes to claim its throne from Porsche’s legion of 911 GT3s, producing a highly competitive season for both manufacturers. Its carbon clutch may be finicky, but once it gets going, the V8 snarls and roars. Its sound is so recognizable that the Need For Speed video game franchise even used a virtual iteration of it in Need For Speed: Most Wanted. Clearly, there’s a reason why this game-changer is as famous and recognizable as it is.
Best Deceleration/Turbo Blowoff: F13 GT3/GTLM M6
Powertrain: S63 4.4-liter TwinPower Turbo V8
Output: 585 HP
Transmission: X-Trac six-speed sequential
Motorsport Division: IMSA, GTLM (Grand Touring Le Mans), GT3
Years Active: 2016–2017 (GTLM), 2016-Present (GT3)
The GTLM and GT3-spec M6s are somewhat of an odd man out compared to the rest of this list. Both models employ the S63 power plant, which was the first turbocharged engine that BMW approved for the GT3 and GTLM classes, and I am glad they do. While many motorsports enthusiasts argue over whether or not the actual exhaust sound is good, they should instead be focusing their ears on the engine itself. The M6 GTLM makes all of the right turbo noises, and the chattering of its blowoff valves remind you that this is no ordinary M6.
Best Overall: E26 M1 Procar & Group 5 M1
Powertrain: M88/1 and M88/2 inline-six
Performance: 470 HP (naturally-aspirated Procar), 850–1,000 HP (Turbo; Group 5)
Transmission: five-speed manual, dogleg pattern
Motorsport Division: BMW Procar Series
Years Active: 1979–1980 (Procar)
It’s impossible to talk about the best-sounding BMW race cars of all time and fail to mention the M1. The M1, in my opinion, is one of the most iconic BMWs ever built, and for good reason. It is part of not only BMW’s motorsport legacy, but of automotive history. The straight-six engine configuration that we’ve all come to know and love is BMW’s bread and butter, so it would be absurd not to list the M1 and its M88 in this ranking. Still not convinced? Niki Lauda, a man who needs no introduction, even raced the M1 Procar himself—unifying two legends as one. That’s how legendary the M1 is. Our favorite procar’s birthright will continue to live on, producing perhaps one of the best sounding inline-six engines of all time. Headphone users beware: If you do look up some videos of this beast online (which I highly recommend that you do), check your volume. You’ll thank me later.
Honorable Mention: McLaren F1 GTR
Powertrain: Naturally-aspirated S70/2 mid-mounted 6.0-liter V12
Performance: 627 horsepower
Transmission: Six-speed manual, six-speed sequential (long-tail)
Motorsport Division: BPR Globar GT, FIA GT Championship
Years Active: 1997 (Most notable year)
While not a true BMW, the Mclaren F1 GTR wouldn’t really exist if it weren’t for BMW’s involvement with powertrain design and engineering, and because of their collaboration, we have perhaps one of the most emblematic supercars in automotive history. With the V12 engine threatened with extinction at the hands of modern-day racing regulations and road-car emissions legislation, now is as good a time as any to listen to it scream down a straightaway.
I may have just discussed by favorite BMW race-car exhausts of all time, but don’t let that sway you; do yourself a favor and listen to them for yourself. Put your headphones on and turn the volume up, because these race cars are almost worth going deaf for.—Malia Murphy
[Photos via BMW AG, BMW Motorsport, Car Throttle.]