BMW’s smallest sports car deserves its capital M.
When confronted with the existence of BMW's M division, it’s natural for any gearhead to conjure up immediate thoughts of the nimble M3 or barnstorming M5. These are the originals, after all, and when you’re put on the spot, it’s difficult to envisage anything but the pioneering German super sedans that helped BMW earn its performance halo. They're nothing but legendary, and they fully deserve that status. Still, that doesn’t mean the M3 and M5 are the only notable M cars of the lot. Not by a long shot.
At the first-ever BMW Group Test Fest at The Thermal Club circuit, south east of Palm Springs, I gave the baby 2018 BMW M2 my full attention. Introduced in 2016, the BMW M2 is the more powerful successor to the still-appreciating 1 Series M Coupe. (Seriously, try finding a 1 Series M in excellent condition for under $50,000.) It’s motivated by BMW’s revered 3.0-liter N55 twin-turbocharged inline-6, which produces a stout 365 horsepower and 343 lb-ft of torque when wedged in the engine bay of the diminutive coupe. With that much grunt on tap, the M2 can manage a sprint to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds, BMW claims, but only when mated to the Bavarian automaker’s M Double Clutch Transmission with launch control active.
With the six-speed manual box, the period to complete the same dash increases to 4.4 seconds—to which I say, who cares? Are you willing to give up being the master of your domain for a 0.2-second quicker sprint to 60 mph? The M2 is gifted numerous other enhancements over the 2 Series Coupe, such as an exhaust system with electronically controlled flaps to produce a more throaty note; lightweight axles, control arms, and wheel carriers; an underbody stiffening plate; and larger, wider, lightweight, 19-inch wheels with staggered 245 and 265 tires. Four-piston front and two-piston rear calipers clamp down on beefier-but-lighter 15- and 14.5-inch rotors to bring the M2 to a hurried stop.
An active M differential makes sure you get power to the ground as the M2’s M-developed electric power steering ensures its nose stays pointed in the right direction. There’s even some electronic wizardry in the form of the M Dynamic mode to aid in keeping the M2 the right-way around. That system, while usually set to neuter oversteer, can be set to let the car drift just ever so slightly to give drivers an extra degree of right-foot directional control. For this test, though, the upgrade list rolled on as the M2 we drove around the South Palm course at The Thermal Club was no typical example.
Just like the M4 Competition Convertible we tested during the same day, this M2 had been gifted a full smattering of M Performance parts available from BMW dealers nationwide, including carbon fiber body bits, an M Performance exhaust, an M Performance Suspension Retrofit, and—most importantly—Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires in place of the standard Pilot Super Sport donuts you’d get on a bone-stock M2. As I climbed into the M2, the first thing I noticed was how much I sat in the seats rather than on them. The aggressively bolstered throne gave my fairly thin 6-foot-1-inch frame a welcoming hug, though folks any larger than me may find it a bit tight.
Unlike the interior provided by the Honda Civic Type R, which was the last car I drove in anger on a race track, the M2’s cockpit enveloped itself around me, providing a sense of security. Some may find the high belt line a bit of a hindrance, but I was totally fine with it. I fired up the M2’s engine and we set off from the pit lane. Our first task of the day was to learn the track, and we were to do so by following our instructor over a few laps at much less than full trot. As we centipeded around, the instructor verbally demarcated our braking and turning points—or at least I think that’s what he was doing.
You see, certain performance upgrades can have unintended consequences, and for the M2 I was driving, the M Performance Exhaust was loud enough to completely drown out the radio. I'm all for a crisp, exciting engine and exhaust note, but even owners of Jaguar F-Types might be embarrassed behind the wheel in this. Unless you plan on using your M2 as a full-time track toy, there’s no point in spending the extra $2,540 to deafen yourself and everyone around you. Just skip it. Without audible advice, I matched up the lead car’s movements with the cues provided to us on track. Thankfully, South Palm is flat, so it wasn’t difficult to keep track of our leader, nor was it going to be difficult to hit my marks as we picked up speed for the second go around.
As we exited the last corner, I assumed the lead car would just up the velocity by a tenth. “Okay, let’s go,” crackled a voice over the two-way as he mashed the throttle in his M5. Predictably, I struggled to keep up. The contrasting power levels were put on display and I was left eating our instructor's dust. His car shrunk smaller and smaller in my windscreen until his brake lights came on, then I fluttered up behind in a hurry. On the first corner, I didn’t have much confidence in the M2. Why would I? It’s a car I had never driven before in an environment with which I was totally unfamiliar. As I continued to gather my bearings, I buried the brake pedal and meandered my way to apex before rolling on the throttle again to finish the parabola.
It was the same simplistic exercise at the next corner, though this time I attempted to heel-toe my way down to third gear. The M2 seemed unperturbed with my sloppy footwork, and I again rolled through the corner without any drama. It wasn’t until the third corner that I caught on to what was happening with engine revs. All my effort spent tripping over the pedals was for naught. The M2 was rev-matching my shifts for me. Once that epiphany set in, I didn’t bother with the heel-toe shuffle and simply focused on the task at hand. There’s something to be said for a good set of tires. The Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber provided much more grip than I would ever expect myself to exploit.
Turn after turn, the rear stayed planted and the front damped my half-baked attempts at smooth and predictable steering input. The M2’s M Dynamic mode also came into play here, ensuring my continued aliveness by reining me in when I dipped into the throttle too deep or wound in a tad too much steering lock. Braking, too, was a predictable exercise. My mashing of the middle pedal like a strongman with a sledgehammer trying to ring a carnival-game bell was answered with minimal ABS intrusion (likely due to the extra grip from the upgraded tires) and no lateral movement. Instead, the M2 decelerated itself in a rush of longitudinal G forces and even allowed me to trail brake a bit when diving into certain apexes. I felt like a hero.
Lap after lap, the M2 didn’t give up: there was no brake fade, no clutch slip, and no traction drop-off from the Michelins. Time and again, I hit my marks; time and again, the M2 reacted in exactly the same way as it did the lap before. Just as I was getting into my groove, the lead car slowed down to signal our time was up and the last lap upon us. Upon immediate reflection during our cool down, there was a moment when I tried to bring the car into mental focus. The M2 had made this whole track-driving thing rather easy—maybe a bit too easy. My gross steering and pedal inputs resulted in the Bimmer not giving the slightest of cares as it kept doing what it was programmed to do by its masters at M. Still, shouldn’t this be a challenge? Isn’t that the point?
Personally, I think the main point is to have the most fun someone can have and still drive home alive at the end of the day. On that mission, the M2 succeeds. As I shot my way out of these corners, I had no fear of spinning out. My confidence in the car was absolute. And while an adulterated take on what should be a purely mechanical machine, the M2 gives you just enough assist so you don't end up in the sand. It's quite the wonderful ballet. Once we arrived back in pit lane, I was informed the M2 could—in fact—be put in a mode where all nannies are off, where there is no rev-matching assistance, where I’d be left to my own devices. I don't think I'd bother. The 365-hp M2 was fun enough as it was.
The M2 punches well above its weight class, and does so without the wild visual pretense of the 1 Series M or the gargantuan price tags of other modern M models. You’d think it would have some natural German competitors, too, but it doesn’t. At Mercedes-Benz, the M2's closest performance pairing is the CLA 45, a four-door coupe stimulated by a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that sends power to all four wheels. The Audi RS 3 sedan uses the same formula: a four-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive. That only really leaves the ancient Nissan 370Z as the sole, direct, six-cylinder competitor to the M2, and the Japanese option is so old that its chassis has osteoporosis.
So it’s the M2 you want if you care about acquiring the least adulterated modern M car money can buy, and it's yours for a relative bargain at $54,500. Don't worry about all the M Performance parts. Instead, just give it the stickiest rubber you can fit around its 19-inch feet and have at it. Hell, you can even go for broke and turn off all those electronic aids if you want to make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. But for me, I'll leave the nannies on for now. I want to continue feeling like a hero.