I’m not sure about you, but seeing a brand-new M car for the first time in the metal is a highly anticipated event for me. And so, it was a little over two years ago, on a chilly November evening, that I had my very first drive in what I think might still be the best new M car on sale today.
It was unexpected for a whole number of reasons, but mainly because it was launch night at Chandlers BMW in Brighton for a completely different M Car, the stupendous F90 M5. Next to the M5, was another car that had heavily been breathed upon by M, the M Performance M760Li, which until the launch of the F90 M5 it sat next to, was the fastest accelerating car 0 to 62mph BMW had ever produced.
Yes, you heard right, the fastest accelerating BMW a couple of years ago was a 7 series. Who would have thought that? At 3.7 seconds 0 to 62mph and deploying over 600bhp and 800Nm of torque, it was seriously getting some attention, no doubt bolstered by the small fact that you could take it for a test drive on the night, unlike the M5. Even the Chandlers Technicians were queuing up ahead of the punters just to experience that astounding sledgehammer of a V12. Very tempting.
But I didn’t take this wonderful 7 series with its astounding space time continuum warping power for a test drive that evening. And the reason being, was that another M car was quietly parked up outside in the damp and darkness that I had been gagging to drive since it was first announced back in October 2015. With its outline only partially lit up by the neon lights emanating from within Chandlers showroom, many of the design details were invisible to my eyes, but what was clear to me was that this car was quite different in size compared to both the frankly gargantuan M760Li and M5 models inside. This car was the baby of the M range. This car was the M2.
Announced by BMW in October 2015, the M2 was no state secret and the release was hotly anticipated by journalists and prospective buyers eager to get their hands on it. I mean what’s not to like? A smaller lighter rear wheel drive car with a 3 litre Straight Six engine, albeit with a TwinScroll turbocharger, and available with a 6-speed manual gear box. Read that back: A rear wheel drive BMW with a three litre straight six engine and manual gearbox… I could be talking about any number of 90’s or early 00’s M3’s here. What BMW’s M division had produced was a proper old school M Car.
BMW had learnt an important lesson several years earlier when they launched the limited production run of the 1 series M coupe, or 1M as it became known, the first modern M car to be fitted with a turbo charged engine. This car sold like hotcakes and is so revered that even today used prices aren’t far off the original sales retail price for average mileage examples, and in fact often much higher than the original retail price for the lowest mileage garage queens. The 1M is an outstanding M car, and arguably set a great recipe and enough time for BMW’s M division to create the perfect M baby.
A closer look at the M2 ingredients was enough to convince anyone of the modern approach that had been taken. The engine itself, whilst not an S code engine as in regular M cars, was an enhanced version of the brilliant N55 twin scroll turbocharged unit as used in the M135i and M235i. A double VANOS unit, it gained selected components from the high-performance unit used in the BMW M3 and BMW M4 presented in 2014. Components including the pistons, top piston ring crankshaft and main bearing shells were all enhancements that helped the engine be tuned to deliver 365bhp and 465Nm (343Lbft) of torque, with a 7.5% over boost capability.
The engine was mated with two gear box options, the sweet self-shifting 6-speed manual carbon-fibre friction lining with rev matching technology, or, the superfast M Double Clutch Transmission (M DCT) with launch control. With the optional M DCT and Launch Control activated, the M2 sprints to 62mph in scant 4.3 seconds, the manual a few tenths slower at a 4.5secs.
Keeping this power on the road is BMW’s Active M differential to maximise driving stability. The differential is able to lock between 0 and 100% according to how brave the driver is with his or her right foot, with full locking taking place within 150ms.
The technology in the M2 is not limited to the drive train though. Lightweight aluminium front and rear axles are carried over from the F82 M3 and M4, aluminium is used on the control arms, wheel carriers, axle subframes and stiffening plate of the double-joint spring-strut front. Further weight savings are provided by use of aluminium in the suspension struts and tubular anti-roll bar.
It’s fair to say that overall the motoring press loved this car when the reviews came out. Chris Harris, he now of Top Gear fame, said at the time, “Simply brilliant the M2. It takes you back to when driving was brilliantly simple.” And that sentiment was carried through many of the reviews. Matt Prior, Editor at Large at Autocar agreed, “Smallest M car is also the best. Rapid, brawny and very nearly brilliant”.
Simply put, the less the car, the more the fun. But whilst the M2 was seen as easy to master, (or was that the M2 mastering you?), it was also seen as bit of hooligan. A car which if likened to a bloke in your local pub, would be the punchy one not able to handle his beer too well; all calm and “I love you mate” one minute, all in your face and a bit shouty the next. But as we all know drinking and driving don’t mix, which is just as well for the M2.
But beneath the many written lines of praise at the time, more than the odd grumble surfaced here and there from the M-Car purists. Whilst the M2 has many classic M car traits such as the four exhaust tips, big fat light weight wheels and multi-piston brakes, it did without some others. For example, the M power bulge on the bonnet is missing, the wing mirrors are from the regular 2 series and not of the M exclusive double bridged design. The engine was not an S code; an M Car “must have” right back to the earliest M built cars like the 850CSi – although it’s worth noting the 1M’s engine was also a non-S code example, being an N54 variant. There was also no oil temperature gauge at the bottom of the instrument cluster, and, may god have mercy on our souls, the M gear stick was not even backlit! Now of course I’m being deliberately facetious, but these things are important and this was recognised by BMW who addressed most of these points in the later “Competition” version of the M2, known as the M2C. Fortunately, so full of personality is the original M2 to drive, that all of these complaints are soon forgotten once out on the open road.
Ah yes, my first drive in an M2. That was pretty awesome. Three of us headed out in to the night from the Chandlers Brighton dealership that chilly evening. Ian Bryant, South East Chairman, took first dibs at the controls as we headed towards the South Downs and away from the busy commuter strewn roads. After 15 mins or so it was my turn to have a go. After peeling myself out of the rear of the 2-door coupe, never straight forward at my height (and age!), I settled in to the driver’s seat. After a little bit of adjustment to the seat position and mirrors, I placed my foot on the brake pedal and pushed the start button. A few pops, bangs and gurgles from the exhaust later, I lever the DCT gearbox in to Drive and I ease out on to the A283.
The eagerness of the cracking, and uprated, N55 engine is the first thing that focuses my mind on this dark greasy and cold road. Plenty of turbo driven low-down torque, but a linearity in its delivery that does not abate across the rev range. As the power comes in as the rev’s rise there is in fact an almost normally aspirated feel to the engine which breeds confidence; if BMW’s M Engineers were trying to make a spiritual successor to the S54 Straight Six engine, then I think this is it.
After following the path of the River Adur for a couple of miles we head in to the South Downs National Park and turn right off the commuter strewn A283 road and start climbing up to the Downs themselves, first heading towards Upper Beeding before taking another right and the Edburton Road towards Fulking, (Gesundheit!). It’s now the road narrows and the twists and turns start. The Visibility Package really earns its keep on these dark roads, the LED lights are simply outstanding, but even still, it’s not the lights that are floating my boat, it’s how immediately comfortable I feel behind the wheel of this car.
Instant Crush is not overstating it. This is the first new M car I can remember for some time that I feel so immediately confident in reaching deep in to its driving talents. Within a couple of miles, I am fully leaning on that M Active Differential as I come out of the corners, drifting the back end slightly as I let the torque briefly overwhelm the 265 rear section Michelin’s. Picking the gears through the DCT gearbox, the shifts are quick, purposeful but never too aggressive for the rear end to unstick. This is one playful M car and one, that in a range of M horsepower monsters, let’s you ring it’s neck good and proper without the feeling that it might be wringing my neck right back as the next hedged corner appears.
Eventually we reach Poynings and pick our way slowly through this small village before taking another right onto the Saddlescombe road and back over the South Downs. Here the road surface is smoother and the corners flowing from one set to the next before the big climb up towards the Waterhall Golf Club turn off. This short hill can’t be more than a third of a mile but it’s fairly steep, it’s a perfect way to place to test the mid-range of the Straight Six engine. No concerns there then, the car simply flies. And before you know it, the fun is over and we are queueing to join the A27 for the run back to Chandlers.
As first impressions go, I’ll admit, I was pretty bowled over.
Wind the clock forward two years, and in preparation for this article, I was lucky enough to have a blast around Ashdown Forest in photographer Dean Grossmith’s manual M2, as pictured. Here the roads are tight, twisty and pretty lumpy too. With just myself in the car this time the M2 felt proper rapid, the aggressive turbo delivery of the N55 engine dominating immediate proceedings, particularly noticeable after stepping from the normally aspirated S65 V8 M3 and S54 Straight Six Z4M cars with us on our photoshoot. And I just love this six-speed manual box; BMW just get these things so right. It’s really smooth and accurate in its gear placement, the clutch really predictable on biting point too. Couple this to the 25Kg weight saving over a DCT version and automatic rev matching on down shifts, and it makes for an addictively rapid driving experience. Awesome stuff.
One element of the M2’s driving character that did take a little flack during initial reviews was the initial damping of the ride. On my first drive, and with the car laden down by two passengers, I can’t say I recall this trait being that noticeable, however, on these forest roads the car does initially feel skittish. Push on a little harder though, and the information coming through my seat and steering wheel is exactly what I need to feel where the cars grip is; yeah, it’s a likeable hooligan to drive and the steering is not perfect in its levels of feedback, but frankly as an overall package it’s simply brilliant and it has what they call character. And designing that into a car is not easy.
Driving it back to back with a Z4M and E90 M3, the M2 controls feels lighter and more delicate, but still requiring enough heft to remind you that you are driving an M car, and a proper M car at that.
And if driving the M2 has spread a huge grin across my face, then it is stretched even wider when I stand back and soak up the exterior design. It’s only then I realise just how muscular the M2 is over the standard 2 series. By using the M3/M4 chassis parts, the car is widened by 71mm on the rear axle and 64mm on the front axle. To accommodate this increase, the wheel arches are swollen so significantly that they honestly, at first study, appear to be a well sorted and after-market modification. Couple that to the 10-inch-wide 19” spoke alloys on the rear and the glorious Long Beach Blue paint of Dean’s example, and saying this car has an epic presence is a bit of an understatement.
The M2, a bit of hooligan? Certainly. Instant crush in its appeal? Definitely. But what keeps going through my head is BMW’s eternal brand slogan, The Ultimate Driving Machine… think they might have nailed that pretty closely with the M2. And what price is this “Ultimate Driving Machine” in 2020? Well with Valentine’s day just around the corner, that will be from a very tempting £25,000. I think I’d better start dropping hints immediately!