BMW M2: Munich's mighty mite

The smallest M-car has just undergone its first refresh. Good news is that the facelift is exactly that - nothing mechanical has been altered.

SOME years ago, the parent of a friend of mine asked me what was so special about BMW M cars.

It was just that, she drove one, and all in all it didn’t seem that much different to the mainstream models.

As it transpired, there was a very good reason why she felt that way: Her ‘M3’ was actually a poor doppelganger.

What she had was a 320i sedan with a M Sport body kit. A perfectly good machine but no sledgehammer.

Thing is, she had no idea that what she had wasn’t what she thought she had. After all, the car looked fast and, moreover, it had that magic letter on the boot.

But there’s the thing: There is lightweight M and then there is proper M. The badge and all that it promises has become so marketable that BMW has muddied the waters somewhat.

It took no small amount of explaining these shades of grey. That the M Sport styling kit her car had come with, and the M Performance suspension and wheel upgrade that BMW metes out to quite a few models, does not a true M make.

Anyone who has trouble comprehending that needs only to drive, even for a minute or so, the real thing: Far more specialist in their development, these products are far more sensational and focused as result. I’m not suggesting that only the brave need apply but would certainly not disagree with the thought that some M products are so utterly snarly, rip-your-head-off beasts that they basically straddle the line that distinguishes a road car from one developed more for the track.

That stands especially true of the model that serves as the entry point to high-performance BMW ownership.

The M2 is the smallest and most cost-effective passenger car-base member of the M family, because the M3 is no longer so strong in either of those aspects any more.

Actually, the most famous M road car ever is not actually the M3 any longer; a few years back Munich’s marketing division cold-shouldered history and reallocated the badge to a sedan, while re-naming the coupe (a shape that, until then, was synonymous with the M3 badge) an M4.

So, anyway, the M2 is as the M3 originally used to be: A compact, agile and relatively cost-effective rear-drive sports car that is entertaining to drive. It’s also got a piece of the M3/4 as you find it now, insofar that the cars all have the same engine, though it has been detuned for the new baby.

All M-cars are designed to put driver desires first, yet the M2 is particularly singular in that respect. It is so driver-oriented that the fact that it is a four-seater is almost of no great consequence. Anyone seeking to buy this machine for any use beyond their personal pleasure will have very little luck arguing its potential as a family model.

The regular 1-2 Series car from which it is drawn is already very compact, but the M2 is all the moreso because it is a three-door with a lower roof line. In addition, the sports seats take up even more room than the regular items. So, in summary, it’s awkward to get into and out of the back seats, and if you do achieve that, there’s no head or legroom anyway.

In a way, this is a good thing, because there will be occasions when the last thing you want to do is passenger in this car anyway, so intense is the focus on delivering fine handling and astounding grunt. The car’s dimensions might say Chihuahua, but it’s bite is wholly Rottweiler.

So it’s a race car for the road, then? As someone who has a road car that has been rebuilt for racing – yes, admittedly, it’s ‘just’ an MX-5, but still – I was surprised how alike the M2 was in its feel to my own lowered, stiffened, lightened and retuned little rocket. If you like your suspension almost granite hard and brakes and steering to be so direct as to almost seem driven by intuition than physical input, then this is your car.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that it sometimes almost seems too raw for road use. In some circumstances, it quite potentially will seem that way. Allowing it to be a first car for a fledgling driver wouldn’t seem prudent. But then, no M car should serve time bearing an L plate.

No, everything about the M2 suggests it has to be considered a selfish choice. Including the price. It’s not cheap. Brand talk about this being the model with best chance of brining younger buyers into the brand surely presumes that that clientele comprises sons or daughters of sheikhs or internet moguls.

The model lists at $117,050 bog standard, but the one on test was stickered at $119,150 because it had a $2100 Driving Assistant, an option which provides with approach control warning, lane departure warning and pedestrian warning with light city braking.

There is also other technology aboard though it not, by any means, at the same advanced level as a Five-Series, Seven or the latest X3. The mapping interface, for instance, is clearly from an earlier generation and it doesn’t ‘do’ smartphone mirroring.

The quality of the cabin really fails to support the car’s cost. I mean, assembly is good, but basically it’s all stock 2 Series Coupe into which all the usual M bits have been crammed: So, sports seats and steering wheel in nice leather, bespoke instruments, various badges and swatches of carbon fibre here and there.

The mid-life refresh – a ‘life cycle impulse’ in BMW-speak - changes are not extensive. They add up to new bi- or full-LED headlights, LED tail-lights, revised cabin trim and a new speedometer and tachometer cluster.

There’s no justifying the outlay on those grounds, then. Even though it sits the best part of $20k clear of the M4, you can buy hot hatches that are just as belting as the M2 for a lot less.

I know a bloke who considered this car, then subsequently went and bought a Focus RS. He agrees the Ford hasn’t the same badge pedigree, let alone fit or finish. It might be mechanically less robust, too, given he’s already had to replace a clutch – admittedly, he is a big fan of showing off the drift control feature. But he has no doubt that, on the fun scale, the car that saved him near on $40k in spend is pretty much on par with the one he passed up.

I tend to agree. But sometimes you cannot measure this kind of experience on by dollars alone. The big allure of the M2 is that it is a small and compact and carrying a walloping turbocharged engine that barely fits into this engine bay.

Yes, it’s somewhat detuned, back to 272kW and 465Nm, which should make it less ferocious than the M4 since, when they are each put on the scale, the respective kerb weights are a lot closer than you might imagine, the smaller car being pudgier than it looks at 1520kg kerb weight.

In an outright sprint, the M4 wins: 4.1 seconds to 100kmh versus 4.3s. Otherwise, smaller is better. The power-to-weight is indecently good, so too the dynamics and the visual kapow.

Let’s start with that. The M2 at the kerbside suggests there isn’t a German word for ‘subtle’. Being similar dimension to the old E36 M3, it is not a standout for size as such, more through being – thanks to the fat rubber atop 19-inch alloys, extended wheelarches and hunkered stance – rather reminiscent of that particular car as it was in full DTM livery. The vaguely iridescent Long Beach Blue – and just a note that M body colours are named after race tracks, not surf spots - paint was a splendid finishing touch. Some performance cars look all the worse for such addenda, but with this one only seemed to draw stares of appreciation and envy.

Start it up in the street and it captures everyone’s attention; the pre-facelight version of this car had a trick denied this one, a small switch that, when triggered, made it riotously raucous. Triggering the ‘Armageddon’ mode could never be accident because the switch was in the boot.

Anyhow, the new one doesn’t have it so I’m not sure if it is as loud as it used to be. But I do know it – because he came and told me - that it is still loud enough to have alerted a neighbour at the farthest end of our sub-division. He wasn’t narked, just curious about what was the source of the guttural start-up soundtrack.

Had he ridden with me when I took the car out over a favourite rural test route, he would have discovered that the turbo six has quite a strong vocal range, becoming quite operatic as the revs rise. BMW with the M4 indulged with the equivalent of autotune to make that car sound better than it really did, but in this instance there is no evidence of any such electronic trickery. It’s all sounds quite natural.

In some markets the M2 runs with a manual six-speed, and I’d imagine it’d be awesome fun too (though the footwell is such a limited confine that bigfoots such as I might find pedal placement a bit too close), but here we just take it with the optional seven-speed M-DCT dual-clutch automatic transmission.

I cannot say it is not a good thing. The shift from neutral to first or reverse when cold can be a bit jolty, and there’s an occasional mechanical clunk as it disengages drive when the car is on the brakes at an intersection, but it is still a pretty decent transmission that suits the performance theme and it’s racy attitude. The shift quality smooths out as the car warms up and becomes all the more fantastic the faster and harder you drive.

You can allow it to auto-shift but that’s wussing out. Automated manuals are still manuals in my book and, sure enough, this one is all the better when you interact with it, shifting either with the stubby, tactile little shift lever between the seats, or with the pleasantly solid paddles behind the wheels.

BMW attests this version is 0.2 seconds quicker to 100kmh than the full manual, and I’ve no doubt they’re correct. I’ve no doubt about the accuracy of the speedo, either. Which is sobering; it will with little provocation show you some very large numbers. I hadn’t especially gone searching for great speed; it’s just one of those cars that seems bent on demonstrating that it can give it, with little effort.

Fortunately, the M2 does fast with precision and agility. A friend who is good at drifting tells me this car is really easy for that level of exercise; I’ll take his word for it. Assuredly, you would not be wise to unshackle the traction control completely when hoofing, at least not to start with. Not that there’s need to. The car is calibrated to wag its tail a bit even when the aids are interacting.

Not that it’s edgy. In fact, the overall balance is what really impresses. Unless you specifically ask it to be otherwise, it's very neutral in its cornering attitude. The electronically controlled Active M Differential is clearly a wondrous thing. There’s just a small whiff of understeer to stabilise the turn in, translating through to a hint of oversteer if you nail the exit right, but overall it has great grip and poise, and the stoppers and steering are as good as you’d hope. All in all, it is as precise, fast and as direct as it should be.

If there is a criticism, it's in the ride. Generally, the M2 isn't too aggressively set up, but it does lack the adaptive dampers meted the M3/4, a slightly odd omission given it has a ton f other trick electronics and that clever differential. Anyway, there’s a definite degree of firmness that you just have to put up with.

And it will simply be you. Chances are, unless the person who rides beside you in a car happens to also be a rally co-driver, they’re not necessarily going to enjoy it much.

It’s one of those cars in which it is better to be a participant than a passenger. Even though they couldn’t live with it, I could.

In this BMW fanboy’s perfect world, the M2 would be garaged in with two equally deranged past purist desirables, the original 2002 Turbo plus the 1 Series M Coupe.