For the hardcore, the M2 CS is close to perfection.
If you ask a hundred people how their car could be better, around ninety will mention size or space. This is why cars get bigger. It's why the Mini is no longer mini, why the crossover has replaced the sedan as the people's choice, trucks are more imposing than ever, and the BMW 3 Series is now the size of a turn-of-the-century 5 Series. The problem with increasing the size of a small car renowned for its performance is that it becomes unwieldy. For the BMW 3 Series, this turning point came for the E90 generation, which grew for the sake of space, while the compact E46 3 Series from the turn of the century was just about perfect. The full-blooded performance version of the E46, the M3, is to this day considered one of the greatest sports coupes ever built. The only thing that trumps it is the E46 M3 CS (Competition Package outside the UK), and only because you'd have to be certifiably insane to try and daily drive the stripped out CSL model.
Because the 3 Series grew in size, it left room for a new entry-level BMW. As a result, the 1 Series was born, spawning its own M car in the 1M Coupe. Subsequently, the 1 became the 2, and in time, the BMW M2 was born. The M2 has a footprint almost identical in size to the E46 M3 but has the benefit of everything BMW and its M division has learned about building performance road cars since the E46 generation, including what not to do. Now, for one model year and a production run of around 2,200 units, the German automaker is making a CS version of the M2. The 2021 BMW M2 CS comes with more power, less weight, and some significant chassis upgrades. We fell in love with it over a week of driving one and decided that, despite a change in name, the M2 CS is simply BMW's greatest M3 so far.
BMW has tried a V8 in a production M3, but a straight-six has the best balance of weight, torque, and smoothness for the car's general size. The E46 M3's naturally aspirated S54 six-cylinder engine is one of the automotive world's delights. However, the current twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-six in the M2 is a masterpiece. It manages to be refined yet raucous as it delivers its 405 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque. When straight six's ferocity is unleashed, the 7,600-rpm redline comes with a thrust that inspires grins for the driver and terror for a passenger not ready for the violent surge. However, the M2 CS gets the upgraded version of the engined pulled directly from M4 and delivers 444 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque to the back wheels. The difference is palpable, and the automatic transmission car will deliver 60 mph in a scant 3.8 seconds, or 4 seconds with a supremely competent stick shift driver.
BMW's M2 and M2 Competition already act like an extension of the driver, complete with a telepathic response to inputs. The suspension demonstrates that the word "compromise" wasn't used much in the design process, as it's a harsh ride. The payoff for that harsh ride is a level of grip even the most ardent of E46 M3 owners could only dream about. The M2 CS upgrades the suspension with BMW's adaptive system, but honed for the track to make it an even stiffer ride.
Even in 'comfort' mode, you're not getting a cushy experience. However, mixed with a hotter tune on the electronic limited-slip differential, you've got a short stubby car even more allergic to understeer and less inclined to feel twitchy exiting a corner. In M Dynamic Mode, the electronic wizardry relaxes, and the M2 CS is more willing to wag its tail on a whim, leading to a scintillating experience on any back road that no other M car of today can match.
The list of sports cars with either only a manual transmission or a manual option is dwindling. BMW's M2 gives buyers the option, and neither choice is wrong. The manual is a slick piece of mechanical engineering that the snobs will appreciate doing the three-pedal-shuffle with all day long. For us, though, the highlight is the dual-clutch transmission. In normal auto mode, when you just want to concentrate on steering and enjoy the flow of a long road, it's close to faultless in finding the right cog at the right time. In manual mode, shifts are super fast and equally smooth even when grabbing gears with the right pedal mashed into the floor. Combine the aggression from the engine and the transmission's smoothness, and even if you were blindfolded in the passenger seat, you'd immediately be aware that this is one of BMW's finest M cars.
A normal M2 comes with enough interior tech and comfort to make for a useful daily driver. However, BMW doesn't believe someone driving an M2 CS needs a comfortable leather armrest. After all, if you're relaxing, you're not driving hard. There's also nowhere to stash your phone as you don't need the distraction. The dash cluster is pared down, giving you just digital dials for the critical stuff - speed and revs - and there's nothing too flashy going on; just a great quality interior with plenty of Alcantara and a little M car flair. The bucket seats have no lumbar support, but they're supportive enough to corner hard and comfortable enough to spend time in doing so. Some may oppose the thick-rim steering wheel, but in our time with the car, it was something we appreciated.
Because it's a CS and not a CSL, though it's not a stripped-out racer like the E46 M3 CSL was. It's a comfortable place to be with excellent infotainment, but without the excess weight of all-out luxury.
Looks are subjective, but you're reading something written by someone that unashamedly loves a small, fast BMW and is forever smitten by the E46 3 Series generation. To him, and many others, the current M2 feels like a true evolution of that concept. The shape and bodywork are inspired by the E46's silhouette but, if anything, are both as sophisticated and more aggressive than the golden generation of M3. From the inside, it offers the same excellent visibility often lost on modern cars, particularly when glancing over your shoulder before changing lanes, and, perhaps most importantly, it doesn't have an absurdly sized grille slapped on the front. It drives a nail into the coffin of anyone that argues BMW's big-grille design is because the engines need more airflow - the M2 is simply perfect in its proportions.
While the title of this article states the M2 CS is BMW's greatest M3, that's not strictly true. The M2, in general, is BMW's greatest M3; it's just a case of which is perfect for you. The M2 Competition is anything but a standard car. It's a joyous ode to the purposeful compact sports coupes of old but imbued with the back road and track performance that modern engineering provides. It's a sign that BMW's M division still knows how to build great cars, and the CS just hammers the point home.
The M2 is not perfect, though, and neither is the CS. There's a lack of feel in the steering that we haven't felt in a BMW for quite some time, although the sheer absurdity of its performance stops you from noticing until you specifically look for it. The stiffness of suspension is perhaps a letdown, as we hoped the CS's softer setting would be a little more forgiving. However, these are just small caveats in a car that's mesmerizing in every other way, and one we won't hesitate to recommend to anyone looking for the best small sports coupes on the road.