How to read BMW naming conventions

8 min reading time
BMW has a long tradition of following a clear naming convention. Learn here what the letters and numbers stand for, and how to read their combinations – and discover the hard work that goes into creating a new model name for BMW.

20 July 2021

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“Strategic Naming and Vehicle Identification” – the fact that BMW has an internal department for this demonstrates how much importance the company places on model names. And there is more involved than a short internal brainstorming session. Just the opposite in fact. A new model name is the result of an extensive process, the goal of which is to make the name understandable for customers across the globe. Future strategic developments are also taken into account when new names are created.

The easy way to decipher model names

We will provide you with the key to decoding BMW car names using the example of the BMW 745e. “The first number of the three-digit combination of a BMW stands for the segment or model series,” says expert Petra Marz. The numbers always indicate at what end of the size spectrum the car is located: the larger the number, the larger the car. Even numbers are generally given to the ultra-sporty versions such as coupes. In communications, designations such as sedan or convertible are also added to the vehicle name to make it easier for customers.

These designations do not generally appear on the vehicle itself, however, as it is easy to recognize the vehicle type just by looking at it. Exceptions are SAVs (sports activity vehicles), SACs (sports activity coupes) and roadsters. These BMW concept cars bear an X or a Z in their name as well as on the vehicle itself. The BMW 745e sedan, for example, is a superior-class sedan and the flagship of the BMW brand.

CO2 emissions 49 - 41 g/km (combined)
Fuel consumption 2,1 - 1,8 l/100 km (combined)
Power consumption 18,9 - 17,9 kWh/100 km (combined)

“Virtual displacement” in BMW models

The two digits that come next, i.e. the 45 in the 745e, used to indicate the displacement of the engine (e.g. 30 for a 3.0-liter engine displacement). Today, they indicate the engine’s performance in kilowatts (kW), or its “virtual displacement.” A vehicle with the number 45 has a performance of between 300 and 350 kW. With the universal launch of turbo, hybrid and electric engines, BMW has continued the stringent application of its naming convention.

The last part of the model name includes a lowercase letter that stands for the drive technology. Gasoline-powered cars (injection vehicles) bear an i, and diesel engines have a d. An e in the model name means that it is a plug-in hybrid, as is the case with our BMW 745e PHEV (➜ Read more: All types of EVs). All-wheel drive vehicles have xDrive attached to their name. sDrive stands for front-wheel or rear-wheel drive, but is only referred to in the X and Z models.

The history of BMW naming

BMW model names have not always been as clear, simple and structured as they are today. This becomes apparent when we take a look back at the long history of BMW. The first car BMW ever made was christened the BMW 3/15 PS, a licensed model built in 1929. The “PS” in German stood for “Pferdestärke,” or horsepower, i.e. 15 hp. The 3 indicated the taxable horsepower, which was derived from the 750 cubic centimeters of displacement. Starting with the BMW 303 in 1933, all cars built before the Second World War were given a 300 number (➜ Read more: BMW racing legends). These were development numbers – airplane engines were 100s, while motorcycles were 200s. Popular BMW models such as the 501, 700, 3200 CS, as well as the 1500 which was part of the Neue Klasse (new class) through to the 02 range (➜ Read more: Vintage BMW 2002), started to proliferate up until the 1960s. In and of themselves these names were logical, but they did not follow a strict naming system.

This changed at the beginning of the 1970s with the planning of the next model of the Neue Klasse. According to BMW historian Dr. Annika Biss, group management aspired to develop “a more intuitive solution for the naming of model series.” Giving cars an actual name, such as with the BMW Isetta (➜ Read more: History of the little Isetta), stopped with the Isetta.

The new naming system was not only transparent, but was also easily understandable outside of Germany.
Dr. Annika Biss

BMW Corporate History

1972 was a turning point in how BMW models were named. The new BMW 520i ushered in a clear structure for BMW naming conventions. The system that was created then is still consistently used to name models today. As Dr. Biss explains, some of the company’s new executives had clear ideas about how the new model naming structure should look. The reason behind this was that “the BMW names that had been used up to that point were too inconsistent and the logic of the 1960s offered few attractive options for coherently harmonizing the designation of smaller models with larger motors.” This basic structure has endured to this day, and been carried over into the age of electromobility.

A new chapter: electromobility with an expanded nomenclature

The sub-brand BMW i (for innovation) is being consistently expanded with fully electric models (BEVs). In addition to the BMW i3, the BMW i8 (➜ Read more: The history of BMW i) and the BMW iX3 (➜ Read more: New energy and the BMW iX3), the BMW iX and the BMW i4 now round out the lineup. The series and concept designations will not be any different from the BMW models named above. The BMW i4 can also be quickly identified as a sporty, design-oriented mid-sized model.

Logically, the designation for the type of engine has been removed from vehicles that are powered by batteries (BEVs) and has been replaced by the sub-brand title i. Otherwise, they follow the X and Z model naming system. But of course rules always have their exceptions: the BMW iX is the flagship for electric vehicles produced by BMW, which is why it carries no series designation in its name.

The BMW M also consistently follows the system’s logic

The models of the sub-brand BMW M have stood for performance and for particularly sporty BMW models since the early 1970s. On the vehicle itself and in communications, the M is a badge that stands together with the three Seehaus colored stripes (➜ Read more: The meaning of the BMW M logo). M performance vehicles have the M prominently placed in their name, such as the M340i. In both X and Z models, the M comes before the model name and after the vehicle name, such as the X5 M50i.

BMW M high-performance vehicles such as the BMW M2 or the BMW X5 M are also different in terms of nomenclature. These models do not bear the model name or information about performance, drive technology or drive variations. The focus of these cars is the M. For X and Z vehicles, the M comes after the name. For other models, the sub-brand and segment form the name, such as the BMW X4 M or the BMW M4.

The BMW naming strategy must be future-oriented so that the portfolio can have new vehicles added to it and be expanded without it losing its logic.
Daniela Misitano

Strategic Naming for the BMW Brand

Focus on the future security of the naming system

The main purpose of BMW model names is to provide clarity for customers. In addition, the names must be authentic and easily understood. Customers across the globe must be able to immediately understand why a BMW is named as it is. Through its storied tradition, ongoing expansion and the stringent use of its naming conventions, designations such as the BMW M3 have become firmly anchored in the consciousness of car enthusiasts, and established themselves as a brand. In addition to bearing the family name of BMW, the one thing that links all BMW models is Sheer Driving Pleasure (➜ Read more: The history of the BMW slogan).

The ABCs and 123s of BMW car names

Here is an overview of other codes that BMW uses to name its models or which were used in the past:

  • Ci (old) – at the time when there was still no distinction made between sedans and coupés using even and odd numbers, the BMW 323 Ci (1999/2000), for instance, could refer to either the coupé or convertible variant of the BMW 3 series.
  • Compact (old) – designation for the smaller three-door hatchback generation of the BMW 3 series.
  • Competition (current) – BMW M models with still more sporty designs have “competition” added to their name.
  • CS (current) – at one time this stood for Coupé Sport, but it has evolved over time to Competition Sport, which are the ultra-sporty versions of a BMW M model.
  • CSL (current) – based on the CS code, this stands for “Coupé Sport Leichtbau” (Leichtbau = Lightweight), featuring optimized lightweight technology.
  • e (old) – in the 1980s, BMW brought out the 325e/525e. The e stood for the Greek letter eta and represented a version that was optimized for torque and RPM (➜ Read more: Torque in cars). BMW now uses e for its PHEVs.
  • GT (current) – short for Gran Turismo. GT indicates a hatchback model, for example the BMW 6 Series Gran Turismo.
  • L (current) – cars with an L have a longer wheelbase, which means a smoother ride in the back.
  • ti/tii (current) – this combination of letters was added to the BMW 02. The ti stands for Turismo Internazionale, while tii is Turismo Internationale Iniezione, which literally translated from Italian means Touring International Injection. The latest version is the BMW 128ti.

How do you decipher the BMW code for its model names?

The first number of the three-digit combination stands for the series (in ascending order based on size: 1, 2, 3, etc.). In the past, the next two digits referred to the engine size, but today they indicate the performance. Then come letters such as i for injection for gasoline cars, d for diesel or x for BMW all-wheel drive cars.

Photos: BMW; Author: BMW