For the last few years, many car enthusiasts have been complaining that BMW — maker of “The Ultimate Driving Machine” — has lost its driving edge. In fact, if you even Google “has BMW,” it autocompletes the search with “lost its way.” The argument is fueled with accusations that its electronic steering is numb, its cars are overly laden with electronics, its engines are “gigantic pieces of shit,” its heritage has been overly exploited, its cars are bloated and its lineup has been filled with niche-chasing vehicles. Harsh, maybe, but if you’re acquainted with the light, sharp M Cars of yore you’d probably agree with today’s critics.
If you drive the new M2, however, you’d have a hard time seeing what all that fuss is about. The M2 is something of a revival of the short-lived but hugely lauded 1-Series M parts-bin special from 2011 (which many consider one of the brand’s best cars ever); it’s a small, scrappy newcomer into BMW’s ever-expanding M Car lineup with something to prove. Like the 1M, its turbocharged inline-six engine has been worked over; it has suspension and handling bits brought over from the bigger M3/M4. If you squint, both the 1-Series M and the M2 have the air of an E30 M3, thanks to an upright greenhouse and steroidal fender flares. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
The M2 is about as raw of a driving experience as you’re going to get from a German sports saloon car in 2017. It’s not available with an adaptive suspension, so the ride — even in “Comfort” mode — is stiff and unforgiving. The interior is refreshingly spartan, and the only tech/interior trim package you can select gives you a parking camera and sensors and a heated steering wheel. You won’t get a luxurious commuting experience out of the M2, nor should you.
Engine: 3.0-liter turbo inline-six
Transmission: 7-speed DCT; 6-speed manual
Horsepower: 365 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 369 lb-ft @ 1,450 rpm
Weight: 3,505 (DCT); 3,450 (manual)
Consumers are given the choice between a manual transmission (a rarity these days) and a 7-speed dual clutch unit — while I was initially dismayed to find my test car was optioned with the latter, it didn’t take long for me to get over it. In Sport+ mode, shifts are quick and aggressive. You can actually feel the gearbox kick with each shift, as if it’s trying to break loose from the car’s undercarriage. And under hard acceleration, you’ll get to 60 mph from a standstill in four seconds, the car pinning you back into the seat while chirping the tires shifting into second and third gear. It’s glorious.
Similarly, in the corners, the M2 shines, thanks to a wider track and a small, nimble chassis. The car grips hard, easily carrying speed through corners, and turn-in is incredibly sharp. It’s a confidence-inspiring car, and the fact that the M2 has been shown to give the M4 a run for its money on the track — despite having 60 fewer horsepower and costing $15,000 less — is telling of how significantly different the M2’s approach to performance is.
I will readily admit there are still vestiges of BMW’s bullshit here; notably, 1) a steering wheel somewhat lacking in feedback and 2) fake engine sounds piped in through the sound system, but that’s pretty much it. I’ll happily overlook those bits because they’re products of the times, and the fact that the M2 feels as much like an old-school driver’s car as it does is something of a minor miracle. I’ve driven plenty of great cars over the years that were difficult to return, but the M2 is so far the only one to actually evoke a visceral pang of sadness when I had to give it back.
I don’t think the M2 will “save” BMW’s M brand. BMW will likely continue its strategy of cranking out M versions of SUVs (and, uh, SACs) for the foreseeable future. But at least for now, if you’re still looking for “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” BMW will still sell you one.
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