by JETHRO BOVINGDON
here’s a lot of pressure weighing down on the new BMW M2. At least around these parts. The latest M3 and M4 have dazzled us at times (very specific times on a smooth, dry racetrack), but also frustrated, disappointed and left us with palpitations at others. The bad moments greatly outweigh the good, sadly. And to such an extent that we need a hero to restore our faith in the M division. A brand-new M creation that makes a nonsense of mourning those sparkling old normally aspirated engines. One that is focused on interactivity and fun rather than just pumping out massive torque figures and hitting 100mph in the blink of an eye. An M-car that feels light and agile, bubbling with energy and excitement. Like I said, the M division’s new baby is under intense pressure. Fortunately, it has very broad shoulders.
It’s rare that sunshine and a racetrack are not A Very Good Thing in this job, but today – and don’t feel too sorry for me now – the sight of an arc of Long Beach-blue M2s waiting in the Laguna Seca paddock brings mixed feelings. Of course I’m excited. It’s Laguna Seca. It’s warm and dry. Hidden in a pit garage are dozens of tyres and brake pads and, probably, spare M2s should the worst happen. It’s Laguna Seca. Need I go on? I’ve no doubt at all that the next few hours will be an absurd amount of fun. But having been wooed by the new M4 on a lovely racetrack and later betrayed on bumpy, grimy and drizzly roads in the UK, we had hoped our first taste of the M2 might not be on a perfectly groomed surface. However, in the face of these wretched circumstances at Laguna Seca (did I mention we’re at Laguna Seca?), I vow to push on regardless and learn as much as I can about the M2. And later, after laps at Laguna Seca, we’ll get to drive the M2 on the roads around Laguna Seca. Phew.
There’s much to suggest that the M2 will be a new hero car. Smaller and, at £44,070, nearly £13,000 cheaper than an M4, it’s a more accessible car for a start. It’s also very clearly inspired by the 1-series M Coupe, which has become something of an icon. In fact, the wonderfully brutal 1M’s status must be heartening to the M division, as it proves that a non-bespoke and turbocharged engine need not be a barrier to an enthusiastic reception even from hardcore M traditionalists. Having said that, I never quite fell for the 1M. In truth I’m about the toughest audience the new M2 could have, as I still get teary-eyed about those silken, savage old straight-sixes and the previous M3’s beautifully sharp V8, and I openly wept at the passing of the M5’s wildly relentless V10.
I suspect the M2’s 3-litre straight-six ‘N55’ engine, boosted by a single twin-scroll turbocharger, will never be remembered with such vivid emotions. It benefits from an M4-spec crank and pistons, but it’s essentially the engine we’re familiar with from the M235i. Or the new X4 M40i, if you’re being cruel. Even so, it does the numbers, producing 365bhp at 6500rpm and 343lb ft at 1400-5560rpm with an overboost to 369lb ft. BMW claims the 1495kg M2 covers 0-62mph in 4.3sec with the optional seven-speed M DCT or 4.5sec with the standard-fit six-speed manual.
The engine isn’t the only area to benefit from M4 goodies, either. The front and rear axles are lifted straight from the bigger coupe and feature forged aluminium control arms, wheel carriers and axle subframes, as well as aluminium uprights and hollow anti-roll bars. At the front there’s additional bracing to improve rigidity and the multi-link rear axle is solidly mounted to increase precision. And remember when M brakes were utterly useless? Thankfully that era is over and the M2 again utilises M4 hardware – four-piston calipers with 380mm discs at the front and two-piston calipers with 370mm discs at the back. There’s no ceramic option, but these should be more than sufficient. The M2 runs on Michelin Pilot Super Sports measuring 245/35 ZR19 at the front and 265/35 ZR19 at the rear (exactly the same sizes as the 1M’s tyres). It also benefits from the latest generation of the Active M Differential, which can run entirely open or lock up to 100 per cent within 150 milliseconds.
It looks good, the M2. Okay, so it’s not quite as rippling as the sawn-off 1M, but the short wheelbase, wide track and extended bodywork that heaves over those delicious wheels combine to wicked effect. The bodywork is 55mm wider than an M235i’s at the front and 80mm wider at the rear, but you’d swear it was more. There’s certainly no mistaking that this is a fully fledged product of the M division.
‘M division’s new baby is under intense pressure. Fortunately it has broad shoulders’
‘There’s much to suggest that the new BMW M2 will be a hero car’
Time is short and I’m on track first, so there’s not much time to appreciate the view… All the cars running on the circuit (standard save for optional M Performance racing pads) are fitted with the M DCT ’box. This is no bad thing as our guide and BMW factory driver Bill Auberlen is not hanging about. Having both hands on the wheel is very useful indeed.
Immediately the M2 feels markedly different to an M235i. The engine note is deeper, the electric power-assisted steering has more weight and throttle response is superb. This much I can tell just accelerating down the steep pitlane and merging with the tight Turn 2 left-hander. It feels fast, too. I hate seeing peak torque figures at 1400rpm in a sports car because it suggests a clumsy initial rush of acceleration that then just holds steady, going through the motions until the rev limit instead of building towards a memorable climax. Yet the M2’s engine punches hard and clean low down and then builds with real conviction up to around 6000rpm. Hang on until the 7000rpm limiter (very much required when chasing Auberlen) and it does fade away over the last 500rpm, but the delivery is pure and pretty exciting. At least that’s how it seems on the first few laps.
Like an M4, the way the M2 gets into corners is incredibly impressive. In fact, with that stubby wheelbase it’s even more agile, and the front tyres hold their line beautifully. What’s more, the M235i’s occasional clumsiness and inconsistent body control is gone. The M2 feels lighter and tackles each turn with a real sense of the front and rear working in unison and the body being kept in tight check. I’d feared the short, wide footprint might make for hyper-agility but then snappy breakaway characteristics (like the 1M), but the M2 confounds those expectations. Partly that’s to do with the steering’s well-judged rate of response, which harnesses the chassis’ natural ability to change direction but doesn’t try to accentuate it with overly aggressive speed, but from the mid-corner phase it’s simply down to the M2’s inherent balance. Laguna’s corners are mostly tackled towards the top end of third gear, and yet the car feels so natural to drive just beyond the limit of the rear tyres. The fluid, easy transition from driving neutrality to mild, efficient oversteer is fantastically exciting and enjoyable.
Those racing pads make for very noisy brakes but the M2 stands up to the heavy demands around here with impressive resolve. The pedal is short and responsive, the ABS triggers nice and late, and again the M2 defies its short wheelbase and shows real stability. I’m in Sport+ mode, which sharpens the throttle, increases the weight of the steering and selects M Dynamic mode for the stability control systems. It’s a well judged setup for track work. The steering doesn’t go horridly gloopy, as is often the way with ‘Sport’ settings, and the electronics are nicely permissive, only really holding the car back in the slowest double left-hander after the long, cresting straight. Through the quicker stuff it lets you drive into that lovely mild oversteer phase with real freedom.
The first few laps really flow, then. And the M2’s combination of agility, indulgence and endurance are mightily impressive. The M DCT is excellent too – miles ahead of even the convincing eight-speed automatic fitted to the M235i – with its tight, punchy shifts and surgically accurate downshift blips. But after the initial sense of energy and responsiveness, the engine does start to feel a little less sparkling. At low or middling engine speeds the straight-six is keen and sharp, but at the top end it does just run out of puff and can feel laboured. It’s rare that a turbo engine doesn’t gradually feel less impressive on track, and the delivery is sweeter than, say, an A45 AMG’s or even an RS3’s, but there’s such tension and balance in the chassis that you can’t help wishing the engine chomped on right to the cut-out.
Having said that, the quality of throttle response isn’t in question and when you disable the traction control altogether you can reap the rewards. As in M Dynamic mode, there’s still a well matched power-to-grip ratio and the M2’s preferred stance remains mild, accurate oversteer that takes you out over the kerbs with just a tiny corrective input and makes you feel heroic. However, push beyond that and the M2 can be howled around at big angles pretty securely. Turn in hard and off the power and the tail swings quickly as a consequence of the car’s short wheelbase, but once you’re used to the sensation and trust the car’s stability, it’s easy to tweak and play with the M2’s attitude using the broad torque band. This is fun for a while but actually the M2’s strong traction and its more natural cornering state is much the more satisfying experience. Fast and on the edge but never edgy, authentic M division qualities shine through.
Highway 1 is a jaw-dropping road with scenery that stops you in your tracks. You and every other car, motorhome, pickup, Harley and U-Haul truck within a 100-mile radius. After the freedom of the track it’s pretty obvious our road drive, which should be much more revealing, will be heavily compromised and we’ll only get snapshots of the M2’s capabilities. Even so, I’m pretty happy and not least because our designated road car is fitted with the six-speed manual ’box. It’s much better than I remember from the M235i, with a more oiled, easy action that I think suits the engine nicely, encouraging you to use the strong mid-range performance instead of lamenting the slightly fluffy final run to the limiter. Perhaps being on the road is a big factor, too, because suddenly the M2 feels much, much faster.
The road is largely smooth but there’s no disguising that the M2 is a pretty stiff car. The damping feels compliant and controlled, but as often seems to be the way with BMWs, it doesn’t like short, sharp bumps and feels slightly ragged if you hit a patch of really broken road. It’s a huge improvement on the M235i, though, and generally the car feels like it looks – broad and with a low centre of gravity. It retains the feeling of agility and lightness that came through on the track, too.
‘Through the quicker stuff the M2 lets you drive into that lovely mild oversteer with real freedom’
With standard pads and less severe demands, the middle pedal feels a shade too responsive initially, but quickly you get used to that and the bite and feel is such that you can really lean on the brakes into corners. The same can’t be said for the steering, which still has a nice, fluid response but lacks any real feedback in the Normal or Sport settings.
Of course, it’s warm and dry, and the road doesn’t hold any nasty surprises, so the M4’s tendency to erupt into sudden and disconcerting wheelspin isn’t repeated. In fact, a feature of the M2 is its strong traction and – as on the track – a chassis that seems to like to work inside a small, controlled but still adjustable window. You might get a little flick of oversteer through a clear-sighted corner but only a real bung gets the car way out of shape, the sort you wouldn’t really contemplate unless ‘scientifically’ doing so for a magazine test. It’ll be fascinating to see if the M2’s neutral and progressive balance remains when the heavens open and a few more bumps are thrown into the equation. But here and now it marries control and a degree of malleability with real finesse.
When I finally hand over the keys of the M2 to the event staff, there are only a few stragglers left at the circuit. I’ve had an absolute hoot on the track and enjoyed the short bursts of empty road that I’ve found. This is very clearly a car with balance, body control and a hunger to zip between direction changes. And it has its own character, rather than feeling like an M4 miniaturised and with its teeth filed down. There’s still much to learn, of course, and it’s frustrating that I haven’t found that one piece of road to reveal all that the M2 has to give, but I’m excited rather than trepidatious about that moment arriving on a chilly spring day in the UK. We’re going to have to get over the fact that M division engines are now just outstanding for their class rather than intrinsically inspirational, but the M2 feels like the car to start plotting a journey to forgiveness and understanding, even for those of us who’ll never forget what came before.
Engine 3 litre In Line 6
Power 370hp @ 7500rpm
Torque 465Nm @ 4750rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip diff, ESC
Front suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Ventilated discs, 394mm front, 380mm rear, ABS, EBD
Wheels 10.5 x 19in front, 11 x 20in rear
Tyres 295/35 R19 front, 305/30 R20 rear
0-62mph 4.3sec (claimed)
Top speed 180mph (claimed)
Basic price RM498,888
On sale Now
‘The M2 has its own character, rather than feeling like an M4 with its teeth filed down’
In an industry focused on hybrid and EV powertrains and four-wheel drive, how does BMW’s chairman of the board for M division see the future of the M-Car?
Henry Catchpole speaks to Frank van Meel
Frank van Meel took over the reins at BMW’s M division in January 2015. So, a year into his tenure, we sit down with him for an exclusive interview at the Detroit motor show. And having had some fairly disheartening discussions with M engineers in the past about manual gearboxes, it seems a good place to start.
‘We have an equipment rate of over 20 per cent still with manual gearboxes,’ says van Meel. ‘Also, of course, our main market is the US, and they have this more emotional feeling towards driving with the stick. So, the rational side would say you don’t need any manual gearboxes because they are slower and they use more fuel, even though they are lighter, which is still the benefit of them. But there is this emotional side and if there is a market, we’re not going to neglect them.’
This all seems pretty business-orientated, and slightly belittling of three pedals, but then van Meel gives me hope when he reveals his daily driver: ‘Currently, I think I’m allowed to say, I drive a pre-series M2, with a manual gearbox, and I’m really having fun.’
With the switch to turbocharging for the M3/M4 not having been an unqualified success in our eyes, I ask how it’s viewed within M. ‘If you look at dynamics, it is better,’ van Meel says matter-of-factly. ‘It is faster, it uses less fuel, so there has been no trade-off. The only difficult thing was the engine sound, because the V8 sounds like a V8. I think that has been mastered quite well by the M3 and 4, but with the Competition Package we can add a little bit more. Giving back a little bit of this more emotional sound, for those that want to have that… and my wife doesn’t, I must say!’
And the M4 GTS, will that feel as extreme as the old M3 GTS? ‘I think it even makes you feel better while driving than the previous one, because we did a lot of work on the aero,’ says van Meel. ‘On the Nürburgring you see the lateral acceleration and it’s somewhere between 1.4 and 1.5G, which is about 0.5G more than the regular car, because of aerodynamics. We’ve got so much downforce that it’s really fun to drive, and stable and fast.’
I had got the impression from a previous interview with Ian Robertson (BMW’s head of sales and marketing) that BMW’s i and M brands would always be kept separate, but not so according to van Meel. ‘BMW i stands for crossing new boundaries, technology, electrification, while M stands for sports, but there is no contradiction. Right now the electrification, for us, it’s a difficult thing. Not because we don’t want it – we would love to have it because of the i-boost functions, which are really cool – but one of our main principles is weight and power-to-weight ratio and we still cannot make that happen with electrification.’
It seems, then, that we won’t see an M version of the i8, but I put it to him that it’s odd that M has things like the X5 M in its line-up but not a pure sports car. ‘Well, I must say that I noticed in the UK media the X5 and X6 are not very popular!’ van Meel says with a nicely chastising laugh. ‘But I must say those cars, they are crazy. It’s bloody cool to have a car where you sit in the second-floor driving position, that weighs over two tons and that can drive around a racetrack. But I see what you mean. Unfortunately I can’t say there is going to be a super-sports car, but I would love to do one. We’re thinking about it. We would love to do one.’ He smiles.
Frank van Meel’s previous post was as managing director of none other than quattro GmbH up the road in Ingolstadt, so it seems only right to enquire about the possibility of xDrive arriving on M-cars. Given the somewhat frisky nature of the current turbocharged M4 in the wet, perhaps some sort of, admittedly rear-biased, system wouldn’t be a bad thing?
‘We do not rule out any technology,’ he replies. ‘For us it’s more a philosophy of how the car should drive. If a technology allows us to do that and gives us advantages then we will do that. That also goes for a rear-driven car with a little bit more traction. There are a lot of cars with all-wheel drive that sacrifice grip at the front because they have these driveshafts at the front, so the tyres have to be small to fit in the wheel-houses. But then you lose grip at the front axle and you lose agility, and then you have to adapt the whole car. If it could be rear-wheel biased and if the power-to-weight ratio would be like it is today, and if there would be no compromise regarding grip at the front axle, then it might be an idea. But I think from a technology standpoint that is going to be really difficult. The front axle is a MacPherson strut and it gets difficult to do something like that without compromise. Maybe we will find a solution one day, but we are really happy with the overall concept of the M3 and M4 as it is right now, even though on greasy tracks I need to work a little…’
Finally, I ask van Meel if he has a favourite M-car from the past. Without hesitation he says: ‘Yes, the 1-series M Coupe. I think I like it the best because that’s also difficult to drive in the wet! But it gives you the fun.’ If ever there was a response to give us all hope that M is in good hands, I think that is it.
BMW’s new M2 sound a bit soft for you? Then you’ll want to scan BMW’s M Performance parts catalogue to see what takes your fancy from the factory upgrade options – options that are already on offer before even the first M2s reach the showrooms.
There are the usual carbonfibre add-ons for the bodywork (front splitter, side sills, rear diffuser, and spoiler and mirror caps) and inside the carbon-fest continues on the gearlever, centre console and handbrake. And, of course, there are acres of Alcantara available for pretty much every surface you come into contact with.
But it is the bits you can’t see that really interest us, and no doubt you, too. There is a set of uprated brake pads (the discs remain the standard items) to help reduce fade during long sessions on track, as Jethro describes in our review. There’s an uprated sports exhaust, too, which includes a flap that can be controlled via your phone. The exhaust offers two modes, Sport and Track, with the latter said to increase noise from the 3-litre turbocharged straight-six. We’ll have to wait and see what trackday organisers think of the increased decibel level.
However, it’s the chassis upgrades that really grab our attention, specifically adjustable coilovers. The kit lowers the car by 5mm, but additional manual adjustments allow a further 20mm height reduction. The dampers are also adjustable over 16 settings for rebound and 12 for compression, allowing for individual setups depending on the intended application, from fast road use to serious track driving.