Strangely, I can recall almost every moment from behind the wheel of a Euro-spec 1994 M3 that I drove nearly 20 years ago. In actual fact it was one of the Canadian-spec BF91 cars that BMW Canada had imported and sold instantly (3 days) to just 45 rabid fans thanks to a raucous and high-revving 282 horsepower (at 7,300 rpm) S50B30 3.0-liter inline-six conjoined to a five-speed manual that drove the rear wheels of a more rigidly constructed and lighter weight E36 coupe body shell (halted by vented brakes with floating rotors no less). A few years later an example came up for sale with just a handful of miles on the odometer, and the reseller, a trusting friend, threw me the keys.
These were pre-auto journalist days when I actually had to buy most of the cars I drove, so therefore my sequential bevy of personal BMWs (5), a Jaguar XJ, and countless beaters before these, had been powered by much less potent engines. That M3 was the most awe-inspiring car I’d driven to that point, with handling to match the intensity of the powertrain, the memory of which was indelibly stamped upon my much younger, more impressionable mind. Hence my surprise and delight at experiencing similar elation decades later after being thrown the key to the new M2.
You could say the umpteen thousands of test vehicles from 18 years of auto writing has left me somewhat non-phased when getting behind the wheel of a new BMW, or anything else. Certainly my adrenaline still piques when testing a particularly good driver’s car like the Bavarian brand’s previous V8-powered M3 (the new one is better but the engine is more NASCAR than F1), the lovely i8, brilliant Mitsu EVO X, nutty Nissan GT-R, fabulous Porsche 911 Turbo, or most anything from Aston Martin, Bentley, Bugatti, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Lotus, etcetera, all of which have happened on occasion, but nothing new could ever emulate an enthusiast’s first-ever serious super coupe.
First off, there’s nothing I don’t like about the new M2’s styling. It may not be BMW’s latest design language, without headlamp clusters bleeding into the grille like the current M3, M4, et al, but it still looks sharp. Next to BMW’s twin kidney grille is an angular set of headlamps boasting the brand’s usual corona LED rings, these more traditional BMW influences set atop one of the most aggressive lower front fascias ever fused under a blue and white roundel. It includes a center-mounted “dog catcher” ahead of a visible oil cooler and sharply angled brake vents to the right and left, while around the sides a nicely sculpted set of beltlines initiate by wrapping around tiny fender-mounted engine vents before visually disappearing at the bottom curve of the rear deck lid and top edge of the taillights.
The side rocker moldings are also extended, swelling dramatically as they bend upward and overtop bulging rear fenders, while the trunk gets a tiny lip spoiler on its trailing edge before the car’s hind end gets finished off by a totally unique bumper cap highlighted by vertical rear fogs and an aggressive rear diffuser sporting a quad of chrome-tipped tailpipes.
Stunning twinned five-spoke machine-finished alloys with black painted pockets are encircled by 245/35 front and 265/35 rear ZR19 Michelin Super Sport rubber, supporting the car’s aggressive look. It’s hard to believe, but those sizable rims were just big enough to fit some of the largest cross-drilled ventilated front and rear disc brakes the industry offers, these finished with blue painted M Sport calipers just in case you forgot this wildly provocative BMW is actually an M car.
The previous entry-level M wasn’t, but instead was dubbed M235i similarly to how BMW dresses up its X5 into M guise. I tested 2014 and 2015 M235i models and was duly impressed, but as good as the car was its twin-scroll turbocharged 3.0-liter I-6 with 322 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque could never match the new M2’s identically sized albeit much more potent 365 horsepower six with 343 lb-ft of torque available from 1,400 to 5,560 rpm, the twist increasing to 369 lb-ft on overboost (at least the fabulous little 1 Series M Coupe, or 1M that preceded it had the same 369 lb-ft of torque on overboost); but engine output is just part of the M2 story.
Depending on personal choice, mated to that engine will be one of two brilliantly reactive transmissions, my tester incorporating the 77-lb lighter seven-speed M Double Clutch Transmission (M DCT) with Drivelogic, featuring traction-optimized automatic gear selection for much more intelligent shifting than most drivers could come up with on their own. It also benefits from automated launch control for the quickest standing starts possible. So engaged the new M2 scoots from standstill to 60 mph in just 4.1 seconds, its rev-matching six-speed manual requiring 0.2 seconds more.
While nearly 51 pounds lighter than the M4, which is considerably lighter than the V8-powered M3 Coupe it replaced, and 78 lbs lighter than the M235i, the new M2 is still a substantive 287 lbs heavier than the 23 year-old M3 that wowed me so long ago, yet the two cars are almost exactly the same length with nearly identical wheelbases at 175.9 inches and 106.0 inches respectively for the M2 and 174.5 inches and 106.3 inches for the 1994 M3 Coupe. Changes in modern car design come into play when comparing width and height, however, with the M2 measuring 73.0 inches at the front wheels and 78.1 inches at the rear wheels, with a 62.2-inch and 63.0-inch front and rear track, plus 55.6 inches in height, to the old M3’s 70.7-inch width, 56.0-inch front and 56.9-inch rear tracks, and 52.6-inch height.
Certainly 3.1 inches of added height is never a good thing unless we’re talking headroom and outward visibility, but 6.2-inch wider front and 6.1-inch wider rear tracks, not to mention the new tires’ lower profile and thicker contact patches can only be seen as a positive, enough so to even overcome the new car’s heavier curb weight. Truly, if I’d driven this car instead of the old M3 way back in the ’90s I might’ve been completely overwhelmed by its outrageous performance, its dash to 60 some 1.7 seconds quicker and just 0.2 seconds off the mighty M4’s sprint time. That’s right, the little M2 can nearly keep up to its big brother and comes even closer to matching the 560-horsepower M5 off the line with just 0.1 seconds separating the two, while it nudges out the big M6 Coupe by the same tenth of a second.
No doubt the M2’s meaty rear rubber plays an important role in straight-line performance, but as I learned when first driving my dad’s ’76 VW Scirocco and then comparing it to mom’s ’76 Chevy Malibu (long before ever getting behind the wheel of the aforementioned M3 Coupe), a powerful engine doesn’t help in the corners. Fortunately, BMW builds on the 2 Series’ inherently adept handling by bolting on a lightweight aluminum M Sport suspension that includes aluminum front and rear axles from the M3/M4, as well as aluminum control arms, wheel carriers, axle subframes, and the stiffening plate to the double-joint spring-strut front axle, plus the suspension struts, tubular anti-roll bar, forged aluminum control arms and wheel carriers of the five-link rear axle. BMW goes to even greater lengths designing each component, the beauty of this advanced engineering and reduced mass allowing the M2 to work its magic more freely.
It’s a car that rewards the brave with just enough rear wheel spin for oversteer-squealing glee, yet near unflappable control when reeling it back in. I’m not a drifter, having spent most of my track time trying to maximize traction and therefore achieve the best lap time, but sometimes letting the rear rubber break free before gathering it all back up again is just too much fun to ignore. The rear-drive-only M2 would be a suitable companion for any drift-meister. Simply switch on M Dynamic Mode (MDM), a sub-function of Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), and enjoy the immediate loss of grip.
If you’re at the track you may want to engage M Dynamic Mode Sport plus mode for even greater rear tire smoking fun, but be forewarned that tire replacement is pricey. Of course, the same performance modes are best for maximizing traction and therefore speed around the track without burning through the brake system’s ABS, and while this takes more expertise than doing so with active safety systems engaged it’s a helluvalot more rewarding.
The M2 is perfect for such outings, but don’t be concerned if your driving skills aren’t a match for the likes of BMW’s 2017 DTM driver lineup, which incidentally consists of 2016 (and 2014) champion Marco Wittmann, plus Timo Glock, Augusto Farfus, Maxime Martin, Tom Blomqvist, and (2012 champion) Bruno Spengler. The M2’s Active M Differential has been designed to make skilled amateurs feel like pros thanks to variably distributing drive torque between the two rear wheels, especially helpful in slippery situations like snow, gravel and ice. It was actually developed for motorsport, and works in harmony with Dynamic Stability Control to make the most of available grip.
Likewise those massive drilled and ventilated brake rotors mentioned earlier deliver superb stopping power. They measure 380 mm up front and 370 mm in the rear and include four- and two-piston calipers apiece respectively.
As good as all this is, the firm suspension setup and short gear intervals that make the M2 a thrill on the track may not be ideal for daily driving if you’re more used to the backside pampering of any non-M-tuned BMW road car. In other words, it’s a purist’s delight, but a poseur’s blight.
The M2 is also negatively affected by the 2 Series’ humble roots. This is often the case with outrageously tuned and therefore pricey compacts such as Subaru’s WRX STI and Mitsubishi’s now defunct EVO that I noted earlier, but in those cars’ cases the lack of premium improvements is more glaring than with the M2. At least the 2 Series starts life as an entry-level compact luxury model, so high quality synthetics, genuine metals, carbon-fiber inlays, fabric-wrapped roof pillars, and plenty of leather and psuede surfaces are part of the upscale mix, but those used to spending $52,500 on a BMW sports coupe (which might otherwise buy them a nicely outfitted 4 Series), might balk at the generous use of pedestrian plastics torso height and below.
In detail this means the dash top, each side of the center stack, the top edge of the lower console, and the door uppers are finished in nicely padded pliable composites, while the armrests are done out in beautiful blue contrast-stitched leather to match fabulously contoured sport seats. The door skins feature soft Alcantara psuede inserts, also with blue contrast stitching, while BMW surfaces the dash and lower console inlays in a textured, unvarnished carbon fiber. That’s the good stuff. The not-so-good stuff starts with a hard plastic glove box lid, similarly rinky-dink hollow plastic console sides and lower door panels, which really aren’t much better than a regular economy car’s, like the insides of STI and EVO mentioned a moment ago. To be fair, this is mostly par for the course in this entry luxury class, but some brands do it better.
BMW does in-car electronics very well, however, and the M2 fully benefits. Ahead of the driver, traditional-style analog dials float above a fully featured color TFT multi-information display, the latter also incorporating the ancillary gauges, while the widescreen iDrive infotainment system is among the richest in color, sharpest in resolution, and most feature-filled in the industry with all the expected kit such as a rear parking camera with dynamic guidelines, navigation, downloadable apps, etcetera, plus two stock apps that will appeal to weekend track stars. The first is BMW’s M Laptimer app that times your lap and much more, such as providing GPS positioning and forward acceleration, lateral acceleration (G-force), and acceleration up to a given speed (0 to 60 mph for example) via an integrated accelerometer, while the second app lets you control your GoPro camera from the infotainment display whether you’ve attached it inside or outside the car. Advanced Real Time Traffic Information (ARTTI) has come a long way too, whether using it to find the best driving roads with the least traffic or just trying to get to work on time.
The switchgear used to modulate the multi-info and infotainment displays is superbly designed and crafted, those on the steering wheel especially nice. I’m also a big fan of BMW’s rotating iDrive controller along with its well-organized quick-access buttons. It’s ultra-easy to find and use while driving, and provides fast, precise selection of functions. Also appreciated are the floating side buttons on the dual-zone auto HVAC interface, and the same on the audio system and optical drive interface, but more so for materials and production quality plus style. Together with the two vents just above, BMW has created an agreeable three-tiered visual approach to the center stack that’s both smartly laid out for ease of use and appealing to look at.
As noted, the M2 only just arrived for the 2016 model year so there haven’t been many changes for 2017. Then again, if you’ve got a smartphone that can be recharged wirelessly you’ll probably want to opt for the $1,400 Executive Package that adds wireless device charging, Wi-Fi, simultaneous dual-phone Bluetooth connectivity, a rearview camera, a heatable steering wheel, auto high beams, speed limit info, rear parking sensors and BMW’s Active Driving Assistant that consists of forward collision warning, pedestrian detection, emergency autonomous braking, and lane departure warning. That’s the only option group available, with its standalone extras limited to my tester’s $2,900 automated dual-clutch transmission, $300 Apple CarPlay, $150 floor mats, and $700 for metallic paint—my tester’s finished in beautiful Long Beach Blue.
Its lack of options comes down to BMW equipping the M2 very well from the get-go. Nearly everything mentioned previously is standard, as well as auto on/off HID headlamps with adaptive cornering, and washers, plus LED welcome lights, proximity access with pushbutton ignition, a universal garage door opener, auto-dimming rearview and side mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, dynamic cruise control, a multi-function steering wheel, heated power-adjustable front seats with two-way driver-side memory, great sounding Harmon/Kardon audio, satellite radio, an alarm, BMW emergency assist, BMW’s ConnectedDrive remote smartphone app, and all the expected active and passive safety kit.
Auto start/stop that shuts the M2’s engine down when it would otherwise be idling is standard too, helping the car achieve a reasonable 18 mpg city, 26 highway and 21 combined with the manual, or 20 city, 26 highway and 22 combined with the auto (although understanding that many would rather hear the M2’s lovely engine note at idle, BMW made sure auto start/stop can be defeated).
Speaking from a pragmatic point of view, I can’t see the M2 causing 911 owners with growing families to give up their rides, even considering the BMW’s slightly quicker sprint time, but those looking for a high-performance sports coupe with reasonable rear seat room should consider BMW’s smallest. It offers more rear headroom than the CLA 45 AMG I drove last year, and the more potent ’18 Audi TT RS’ rear seats aren’t much better than the 911’s. If we’re simply looking for the most rear seat practicality in a performance-oriented compact luxury car the four-ringed brand’s S3 sport sedan is probably your best bet, but it’s so far off the pace and price point that it’s in another league entirely. In this respect I like the M2’s balance of two-door styling, rear seat roominess, and even sizable trunk space at 13.8 cubic feet.
As for which M2 I’d choose, despite not getting opportunity to drive the six-speed manual yet, and being thoroughly impressed by the paddle-actuated dual-clutch autobox, I’d probably still lean toward the DIY transmission, especially being that BMW hasn’t adapted the car to an electromechanical parking brake. This ruined my last experience with a manually equipped Porsche 911 that was nearly impossible to launch from a steep uphill standing start without stalling (the auto brake holder bogged down the engine so much it kept cutting power until I was forced to flog the engine at takeoff and therefore burn through costly clutch material). BMW still uses the traditional handbrake for its 3 and 4 Series models as well, and I hope they continue to do so into the future as it’s the optimal sporting e-brake.
In summary, there are a surprising number of entry-level sport coupes vying for your attention, and fortunately they’re all very unique and therefore should appeal to differing design tastes and performance expectations. For me, however, still forlorn over a certain silver ’94 M3 that’s much harder to acquire in pristine condition, the M2 would be my first choice. And that it can be purchased for considerably less than a well cared for version of the much older car (that’s now a revered collector’s item) is just icing on the cake.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press