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A Hoon’s Guide to Understanding BMW

Greg Kachadurian May 11, 2017 All Things Hoon 31 Comments

Of all the car manufacturers in business today, few have a lineup as large and confusing as BMW. There was a time when the assortment of numbers and letters they used to identify their models followed sound logic and everything was easy to understand, but those days, for the most part, are long gone now.

Their North American lineup consists of more than two dozen different cars (including M variants) and with each comes an additional array of terminology that only makes it all more complicated to keep track of. Since I’m the only Hooniverse contributor who still loves them enough to understand it all, I figured I’d create this handy guide to the current BMW lineup so we can all git gud together.

After reading this, you’ll be able to interpret the numbers, letters, and monikers more effectively than you’ve ever cared to before. Now when someone tells you they bought a BMW 440i xDrive Gran Coupe with M Sport, you’ll know exactly what they’re driving and can accurately determine if they deserve to be slapped in the face.

BMW 101

BMW uses a series of numbers, letters, and other brand-specific terminology to identify all their cars. Those unfamiliar with the brand will just see a huge wall of numbers and meaningless words when looking up BMW models, but once you get used to it, it’s still an efficient way to tell everything apart, even if it is a bit more complicated now. It’s really just a matter of taking the name one figure at a time to understand exactly what you’re looking at. Here are the basics.

Series: If there’s a number worth knowing more than any other, it’s that of the car’s Series or model (and I bet 99% of you already know this). Some car companies have unique names for their models whereas BMW has always had a single number or a short alphanumeric set to do that (see above).

As of now, the Series range from 1 to 7 for standard passenger cars and X1 to X6 for the SUVs. Even numbers are usually coupes and convertibles while odd numbers are sedans and wagons. For the SUVs, odd numbers are normal SUVs and even numbers are stupid, ugly, useless abominations they call “coupe-like SUVs”.

Engines: Another series of numbers making up every standard BMW’s name is the engine code. In the days when BMW still gave a crap, two numbers following the Series would correlate directly to the engine’s displacement. Back then, a 330i meant you had a 3 Series with a 3.0-liter engine. Now 330i translates to a 3 Series with a 2.0-liter engine.

One thing that’s stayed the same is the little letter at the end which designates the fuel type – i” for gas, “d” for diesel, and “e” for hybrid. In a handful of instances, they’ll also use “is” for gas-powered cars with more performance borrowed from some of the M cars, but they seem to be phasing this out.

The way they seem to indicate engine specs these days is by using a scale where the higher numbers are bigger or more powerful engines. Typically BMW will use the same couple of engines across the entire lineup where possible, so you’ll see these two numbers being used in plenty of different models. Each specific engine gets its own designation here, so a 240i, 340i, 440i, 540i, 640i, and 740i all use the exact same engine.

In North America and Europe, here are the engines you’ll see most of the time. BMW is currently upgrading their lineup to the new engines with these designations, so some of the older cars will have different engines and numbers for the time being.

  • #20i – turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder gas engine
  • #28d – turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder diesel engine
  • #30i – turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder gas engine with more power
  • #40i – turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six (pictured – with some extras)
  • #50i – turbocharged 4.4-liter gas V8
  • #60i – turbocharged 6.6-liter gas V12 (only offered in the 7 Series)

Drivetrain: BMW will also give you an option for all-wheel drive in most models. Their in-house AWD system is called “xDrive” and the inclusion of this is reflected in the car’s name. So a 340i xDrive is a 3 Series with the straight-six engine and AWD, whereas a 340i is a 3 Series with the straight-six engine but with RWD instead. “sDrive” is another drivetrain term they use only on the Z4 and SUVs to show they’re RWD for reasons I’m not entirely sure of.

Body Styles: As is normal, BMW offers different body styles for nearly every Series. What isn’t normal is the lengths of which they go to here. Aside from your normal Sedan, Coupe, Convertible, and Touring/Sports Wagon, they also use the terms “Gran Coupe” and “Gran Turismo” to describe new vehicle classes they’ve come up with for no reason.

A “Gran Coupe” (above, left) is a Coupe that’s been stretched to include a bigger back seat and two more doors. The idea is that it’s a sedan which looks like a coupe, but what it really means is that it’s a sedan with less back seat headroom. It’s currently available on the 4 Series and 6 Series – and yes, BMW will really sell you a sedan based on a coupe that’s based on a sedan in a different Series.

Meanwhile, “Gran Turismo” (above, right) is their attempt at replacing wagon versions which aren’t always sold in America. It’s basically a taller and uglier sedan with more trunk space.

Other BMW terminology you’ll see includes various other options available on most models like “M Sport”, “Individual”, and “iPerformance”.

M Sport is a package available on many cars and SUVs that adds a much more aggressive appearance package inspired by full-blown M cars and other unique hardware to improve handling. If you see plain “M” badges on a sporty-looking BMW, it’s either a poser or an M Sport car. Individual is BMW’s catalog of special paints and cabin materials that can be ordered from presets or customized to your tastes. Most often these are designated by fancy “Individual” door sills. iPerformance models are ones that are plug-in hybrids but still have a decently powerful gas engine working with the added batteries.

With that explained, now it’s time to put it all together.

How BMWs get their names

BMW’s naming scheme is designed to concisely identify a car by its Series and essential equipment. Believe it or not, there actually is still some logic left in how they give cars to their names. Much of the terminology is used across different model ranges and it all means the same thing regardless of which car it applies to.

The basic formulas BMW follows when naming cars, SUVs, M cars, and electric cars are as follows:

Standard passenger cars: Series + Engine + Fuel Type +  Optional xDrive + Body Style

Example: 650i xDrive Coupe

  • Series (one number): On cars, the first number in its name indicates the basic model or series we’re dealing with.
  • Engine (two numbers): The engine a BMW is fitted with is indicated by the next two numbers.
  • Fuel Type (one letter): Immediately after the two numbers which indicate the engine is a single letter to show whether it runs on gas (i), diesel (d), or hybrid power (e).
  • Optional All-Wheel Drive: Cars that have BMW’s AWD system will have “xDrive” tacked onto the end of its name. Rear-wheel-drive cars won’t normally have anything listed in this spot.
  • Body Style: Finally, the chosen body configuration BMW pulled out of their ass this week rounds out the name. Note: body styles aren’t always shown in badging.

Standard SUVs and crossovers: X + Series + Drive Configuration + Engine + Fuel Type

Example: X3 sDrive28i

  • X + Series: BMW crossovers and SUV models are still classed by their numbers, but also have an additional “X” in front to differentiate them from the cars that share the same number. Example, X5 SUV as opposed to 5 Series Sedan.
  • Everything else is the same as it is with the cars, but the remaining characters are all slammed together and there are no additional body configuration options that need identifying.

Roadsters: Z + Whatever Number They Feel Like + Drive Configuration + Engine + Fuel Type

Example: Z4 sDrive35is

  • As of now, no roadsters are currently in production but whatever is replacing the recent Z4 should be coming out soon. When choosing names for roadsters, I guess they just increase their numbers as they go on. To that effect, the next one could be called the Z5.

M Performance Models: M + Series + Engine + Fuel Type + Optional AWD + Body Style

Example: M240i Coupe

  • For a handful of models, BMW offers a more high-performance variant that isn’t a full-blown M car. These are identified by having an M in front a full name that would identify an otherwise standard car. In the 2 Series example I used, the 240i is the standard car, the M240i is the more sporty M Performance model, and the M2 is the faster and more capable sports car.

M Models: M + Series + Body Style and X Series + M

Example: M4 Coupe and X5M (SUV)

  • M of course signifies that a car or SUV has been reworked by the performance specialists at BMW M (Motorsport) to be an even faster and more sporty offering. When a car or SUV earns the M badge, all of the other terminology found in a standard car’s name goes away. These cars have special engines, track-ready suspension, and more aggressive looks but much of the same luxury and technology found in standard cars.
  • Note: In a handful of examples, there are other terms included in an M model’s name as is the case with the M4 GTS and M4 CS. BMW doesn’t explicitly state what these words stand for anymore, but uh… whichever one sounds faster is indeed the faster one.

i Electric Models: i + “Series”

Example: i3

  • “i” is BMW’s electric sub brand of vehicles. Separate from other hybrid versions of standard cars, these “i” models are built from the ground up – independently from other cars – to be electric or advanced hybrids from the get go.
  • “Series”: I put that in quotes because the numbers they use in the “i” range don’t seem to really correlate with the numbers used in other BMWs. They’re sort of forming a new range here. If the i3 is a city car and the i8 is a sports car, we’ll see them fill in that range with other sedans, SUVs, and lord knows what else.

In conclusion…

If there’s anything you can take away from this, it is still possible to look at a BMW badge and decode it more easily and understand what went into it. They have an ambitious plan to crank out new and improved models at a quicker rate over the next few years, but now you’re prepared for it.

Their once simple lineup was easy to interpret and understand, but the same can’t exactly be said now with their dozens of variants and pointless niche market cars. But despite all that, they still follow some of their own rules and you can still tell what’s in a car going only by its name – as originally intended.

As for which BMW buyers deserve to be slapped, I’ve armed you with the knowledge to decide for yourself. If “Gran Coupe” or “Gran Turismo” is in your criteria for a slapping, you’ve learned well.

Editor’s note: five alcoholic beverages were consumed during the making of this guide. I think I’m okay.

  • 0A5599

    TL, DR.

    I got through the first three paragraphs, then I saw that the first model listed, the BMW 101, had pictures of six different cars. No way to absorb that, so I won’t try.

    • Greg Kachadurian

      Haha! Don’t worry, I don’t actually go through each and every model. Even I don’t have the patience for that. That picture was just there for reference.

    • Alff

      I’m not familiar with the 101. Sounds underpowered.

      • It’s pretty good, actually. 10.1-litre engine. It’s number-rhetoric to avoid using a four-digit model code.

  • Now that I’ve made my peace with the various flavors of Isetta (I think), I’m still trying to sort out the 700 Coupe, 700 Sport, 700 Cabriolet, 700 CS, 700 Luxus, 700 LS, 700 LS Luxus, 700 LS Coupe, and 700 RS, which I think are all at least somewhat different from one another, although I’m not even sure about that. Some are more straightforward than others, but somewhere in the middle it all becomes a bit murky.

    https://assets.hemmings.com/story_image/491791-1000-0@2x.jpg

  • All I need now is a cheat sheet with black and white silhouettes for IDing them in the wild.

    Now Brad can explain us these in a future feature:
    911 -> 964 -> 993 -> 996 -> 997 -> 991, all called “911 (something) (GT)/(S)[4:1] {turbo}”.
    and
    986 -> 987 -> 981 -> 982 (aka. 718).

    • Greg Kachadurian

      I feel that might even be more confusing lol. It works way better for planes and ships than BMWs. And Brad actually did do this a while back. It’s what kinda gave me the idea to do this. http://hooniverse.com/2016/09/08/how-to-tell-porsche-911-generations-apart/

      • That article is more along the silhouettes, but still leaves us wondering what a “996 911 Carrera GT3 S4 RS ClubSport 3.5 turbo 911” is. Good they offer nameplate delete for free, your detailer is grateful if you picked that…

  • Mike Zaite

    M2 don’t bother worrying about anything else. Walk in and just say “An M2 please.”

    • Do you mean the M2 Coupe (465Nm) or the M240 Coupe (500Nm)?

      (“The client is not always right.” – Enzo Ferrari)

      • Mike Zaite

        I mean what I said. Power alone doesn’t make a whole package.

  • Batshitbox

    Batshitbox’ Guide To Understanding BMW:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Npo0cmp-VY

    • Maymar

      I, for one, look forward to the Pramalot package for the X1.

  • Monkey10is

    Disappointed that you took the easy route and only explained the models current in the US market:

    Now come over to this side of the Atlantic and explain to everyone what a ‘2 series Active Tourer’ or a ‘2-series Gran Tourer’ is (hint: Neither are a proper 2-series, and an ‘Active Tourer’ is not the same as a ‘Touring’ but a ‘Gran Tourer’ seems to be).

    • Monkey10is

      …And then:

      We also have a 1-series, and an X1. When they make a higher performance version of the Z3 or Z4 (or is it only when they make a coupe version of the Z3 or Z4?) it gets an ‘M’ added on the end. Some 7-series have an extended wheelbase so they have an ‘L’ in the name as well. Strangely given their love of adding extra letters there does not seem to be a naming convention to distinguish between the pure electric and range-extender hybrid i-cars.

      • Greg Kachadurian

        I would’ve needed another 6 pack to cover all the European models too! And this was meant to be a more general guide to how stuff works over there rather than “here’s every car they currently build”. But I did include the full range from 1-7 and X1-X6, they just weren’t all pictured or detailed (not enough room). I could’ve gone through all the Euro engines too I suppose.
        And we haven’t had an M roadster in several years. The last Z4 sDrive35is “replaced” the M version. To keep things simple(r), I only talk about current naming schemes.
        I did forget about the long wheelbase part though and I’ll add that in when I’m back at my computer.
        As for the Active Tourer… I made a conscious decision to ignore that thing’s existence years ago 😉

        • outback_ute

          Not difficult to do, I have only seen a couple on the road.

          Mind you the rot set in back in 1976 when they put a 3.2L engine in the 533 & 733!

        • Monkey10is

          Thank you Greg. Despite my snark, your post was a great summary — I admire your patience for even trying to parse BMW’s current naming convention.

  • longrooffan
  • linkpin

    One sausage, 24 lengths.

  • What I’d really love to know – and which is probably beyond the scope of applied science, let alone a single Hooniverse post, is how BMW arrives at its E and F model prefixes. When things ticked over to the F01 7 Series in 2008, it left a load of gaps in the E-range.

    Has me wondering if prototypes filled the voids. Was there an E37 show car between the 3erand 7er’s launch in the nineties?

    One thing’s for sure – with so many variants there’s no way The Carchive will keep up.

    • “Oooh, today’s it’s the X1M Gran Active Touring Tourer with the.. Diesel?”

      When archaeologists excavate the Carchive and hit the section with letter B, they’d wonder what kind of temple that was.

    • Greg Kachadurian

      I’ve been wondering that too, and I don’t think anyone really knows what logic they follow when picking chassis codes. They’re already in the Gs with the new 7 and 5 Series. I guess when they finished up with the Es they just decided to pick one letter for an entire generation of cars. So they’ll continue filling out the G codes as they redesign cars, release the H-something-something 7 Series in several years, and start again.

    • Maymar

      Given that there’s the one code that gets used to refer to a generic lineup (ie – E90), but also chassis codes for each body style (like, isn’t E91 the coupe and E92 the wagon? Something like that) – I assume they leave a certain amount of space between the general codes in case they release future variants (could be wrong though).

  • Zentropy

    It’s definitely a mess, but BMW has never been perfectly logical in their naming schemes. I used to drive an E30, and at that time the 325i had a 2.5L I6 engine, while the 325 (or 325e) had a lower-output 2.7L I6. Yet when that same 2.7 was used in the E28, it was called a 528e. The 533i had a 3.2L six and 535i a 3.4L six.

    • My 318ti has a 1.9L four.

  • Krautwursten

    And now a guide on understanding BMW drivers, please.

  • HuntRhymesWith

    Maybe someone here knows: when did the names stop corresponding with engine displacement? Was it the E23 745i (Turbocharged 3.3L M30 described as a 4.5L because “it made as much power as a 4.5L”)

    What was the last model whose name corresponded to engine displacement? Is it only the normally aspirated motors?

    From this guide, it would appear BMW does not make a normally aspirated motor anymore. Is that really true?

    • Greg Kachadurian

      They were slowly moving away from that for quite a while. There have been a few examples named here where the name and displacement didn’t match, even while most other models did. It became a problem when they started using different versions of the same basic engine across different models, so that’s what forced them to go with different numbers.

      The last ones I know for certain to be accurate were built last decade. The E8x 130i, E9x 330i, E60 530i, and probably others using the same N52 3.0-liter straight six are the ones I’m thinking of.
      [edit] Oh… and now that I think of it, the new F30 320i is technically correct too since that has a 2.0-liter turbo four. I think that’s the only one.

      And correct, BMW no longer builds a naturally-aspirated engine.

  • SlowJoeCrow
  • AlexG55

    One thing that’s stayed the same is the little letter at the end which designates the fuel type – “i” for gas, “d” for diesel, and “e” for hybrid

    Well, since 1990 and the E30 325e, which wasn’t a hybrid- the e stood for “efficiency”, but efficiency from a relatively large unstressed straight six.