The best car from BMW's M Division also happens to be its most affordable...
The BMW M2 is the most accomplished and best bang-for-your buck performance car on the market today.
That may seem like a big call, but we've now spent three solid days driving the BMW M2 at its limit through 19 stages of this year’s Targa Tasmania, and at a racetrack, and... it’s the truth.
There are only a few excellent high-end performance cars under the magic $100,000 mark. The Audi RS3 and Mercedes-AMG A45 are the two most obvious choices, and both have been extremely popular for plenty of reasons (read our comparison of the two here).
But, the BMW M2, which starts from $89,900 (before on-road costs), is a different beast altogether.
With a rear-wheel-drive architecture, plenty of grunt and a solid chassis, the M2 is a far better car than the BMW 1 Series M that it replaces. Where the 1 Series M did its very best to murder its occupants at every opportunity, the M2 is more predictable, with endless grip and a balance and poise that makes its bigger brothers jealous.
Powered by the same N55 engine family as the BMW M235i, the M2 gains substantial changes over its donor car (read the full technical details here). It’s more akin to being a Frankenstein hybrid of M235i and M4 parts, where all the good bits (minus the engine and adaptive suspension) of the M4 have found their way across.
Unlike the folks at Mercedes-AMG, which tend to produce a high-performance model of nearly everything the parent company makes, BMW M restricts its appetite to a limited few. So, when it decides to make an M model, it really goes all out.
The BMW M2’s 3.0-litre six-cylinder twin-scroll turbocharged engine has 272kW of power and 465Nm of torque, though in reality that’s actually 500Nm for those few precious seconds when you can ask it to go into overboost. It can manage a 0-100km/h time of just 4.3 seconds when coupled to the M4-sourced seven-speed dual-clutch transmission or 4.5 seconds when using the six-speed manual.
From the outside, the M2 is a very aggressively styled vehicle. It doesn’t have the big glamour and road-presence factor of the M4, but even so, it’s an insanely wide car for its length (80mm wider than the M235i). That's largely thanks to taking numerous chassis components from the M4, which means it’s using the same suspension setup as its bigger brother.
Its big wheel arches and flared guards, in combination with M-specific front and rear bumpers, really help set the entry model in the German brand’s M division apart from anything else in its segment.
Jump in and the initial feeling may be a little disappointing. BMW interiors are not the best on offer from the Germans and the M2 is most similar to its donor car on the inside. It does carry the BMW iDrive system, which is excellent, and there is a M2-specific steering wheel and carbon fibre-look inserts to set it apart, but there’s none of the leather dash and head-up display or even the M mode buttons that one gets with the bigger M cars.
It’s by no means low-rent, but it's obvious that BMW’s M division has spent its budget on what matters for performance rather than interior bling. That may or may not be a good thing, depending on who’s buying, but ultimately this is a high-end performance car and it’s the performance of the M2 and not its interior that makes it what it is.
We started our road test at Symmons Plains Race Course in Launceston, a 2.4km track with some tight corners and sweeping fast bends. What was immediately obvious from lap one was the torque. There’s just so much torque.
Out-of-corner acceleration is ferocious, but you really need to get it turned in and pointing in the right direction before you apply too much throttle. It’s a very different kettle of fish to its super-hatch German rivals, but it’s also, strangely, much easier to drive than the manic M4.
It has brilliant high-speed manoeuvring ability, with the rear-end feeling well settled for the job at speeds close to 200km/h down the main straight. The brakes are straight from an M4 and although the M2 doesn’t weigh all that much less than its bigger brother, its stopping power is top-notch and capable of dealing with plenty of abuse. We inflicted plenty.
The specially tuned and non-run-flat Michelin Pilot Cup sport tyres are super grippy but will let go on the back if pushed. Unlike the M235i, the rear wheels are wider than the fronts (265/35/R19 and 245/35/R19) and as such, there’s far more opportunity to exploit the additional torque out of corners.
The main issue with the M2’s predecessor was its consistent desire to uncontrollably oversteer. That was compounded by its super intrusive traction and stability control systems that cut the power far too early, forcing many drivers to turn it off completely and then to find themselves in serious trouble.
The 1 Series M was only ever facing forwards, or backwards - there was nothing in the middle (BMW has even admitted that the old M car needed more work). That was great if you love a car with enormous character (and we do still love the 1 Series M), but, for most, it was a handful.
The difference in the M2 is staggering. While the nanny controls still can be a little annoying, once you turn them off, as we did on the race track, the backend simply slides out in a controlled fashion for either a sideways drift or a quick dose of oversteer that is naturally inclined to come back. It’s like the previous-generation naturally aspirated V8 M3, which loved to go sideways but was always easy to control.
So it’s without doubt an unbelievably good track car, but how does it go for a spirited drive on the road?
There are many ways to go very fast on public roads. Most of them run the risk of hefty fines or worse, but a Targa event is an ideal choice for a flat-out road test.
Just a kilometre into the first Targa Tasmania stage in the M2, and it was obvious to us this was no half-baked M. To be honest, we initially thought the M2 may be left wanting the pace of its AWD rivals in these twisty mountainous roads, but while it lacks a little bit of mid-corner acceleration and grip, it makes up for it with pure handling brilliance.
Hairpins, tight corners, sweeping bends over crests, massive bumps mid-corner, loose gravel, slippery moss-covered surfaces and whatever else Tasmania could throw our way, the M2 conquered without fear.
It’s most impressive when it becomes unsettled, for it quickly regains its composure and is off again in a flash. On numerous occasions we hit a big bump at high speed mid-corner and felt the car jump across the road, only to have its suspension soak up the surface and settle down immediately.
In that regard, the suspension (which is modified from an M235i convertible, for its lightweight componentry) is a little on the firm side and, unlike the bigger Ms, it doesn’t have adaptive dampers, so it’s always in the same setting.
As such, it can be a little too firm if daily commutes along poorly surfaced roads are a common occurrence, but this is a performance car and, given how well it handles the bends, we are very keen to forgive it.
As for the transmission, we sampled both the six-speed manual and the seven-speed DCT and, well, they are both very good. You wouldn’t be disappointed with the DCT, but we found the manual gearbox so much more exhilarating to drive at speed and, given it rev-matches on downshifts, it’s annoyingly easy to drive fast.
Somehow, we also felt the manual M2 was noticeably faster when floored on the go than the DCT. If you pick the cheaper manual-only M2 Pure ($89,900) you’ll also save yourself the extra $9000 required for the standard M2 with DCT. (And a few other things. Specification details here).
The automatic transmission is rapidfire in Sport and Sport+, though it lacks the shift-time selector found in the M4 (that’s adjusted in the M2 by using the Comfort, Sport and Sport+ settings). It’s a great gearbox and no doubt the ideal choice if track times are important.
What we love the most about DCT unit was how intuitive it is. In most cars if you find yourself coming hot into a tight corner and grabbing the left paddle for a lower gear, only to realise the RPM is still too high, the gearbox simply ignores the command. Not in the M2. The BMW simply waits another moment before dropping down. It seems like a small thing, but it’s incredibly handy if you’re really moving and want the car to help you, not hinder you. In that sense, it's very different to its rivals that just ignore the command with a tedious beep, requiring you to repeat the downshift request a second later.
The steering is blissfully direct with great feedback and you’ll know when the car is about to tip over the edge well before it’s too late. In its neutral state, the BMW M2 is more likely to oversteer before it’ll understeer, but push it too fast into a bend, hard on the brakes, and it will still show signs of the latter. It’s not above the laws of physics in the same way as the new AMG A45 appears to be. But it’s a lot more fun on the edge.
Our only criticism with its handling is that, when it’s left in standard Sport mode, the rear tyres do tend to get bogged down by the nanny controls cutting power when pushed hard out of a tight corner. Stepping up to the Sport+ mode (MDM) allows for a great deal of sliding before it intervenes – which is great for a race track, but not so good for the tighter roads. It’s almost as though there needs to be a setting in the middle, or more adjustability to the traction and stability systems.
Speaking of drive modes, this is one area where the M2 is not up to usual M standards. It doesn’t have the standard-issue M buttons on the steering wheel or centre console that can be pre-programmed with multiple setting changes for the suspension, engine and transmission mapping.
In its place is the standard-issue BMW Comfort, Sport and Sport+ selector. Worse still, the Sport+ with traction control partially disabled, is the only way you will get access to the full-blown high-performance engine mapping, which in itself is also the only way you will get those consistent deep crackles from the exhaust on the overrun (as the Sport+ mode gives the engine more fuel to burn, or dump out of the exhaust). The M2 can certainly do with better individual mode calibration.
But, even with those shortcomings considered, we needed a good long think on the question of how the M2 might not be the best performance car under $100,000. Three full days were spent testing the car around roughly 200km of closed competition-ready roads that represent the best driving routes Australia has to offer.
Targa Tasmania is regarded as the most challenging tarmac event anywhere in the world and while it wasn’t competing for time, the M2 never felt out of place.
In fact, we pushed the baby M to the brink (and occasionally over) its and our own limits in an attempt to find at least some flaws. But in terms of dynamics, there really isn’t any.
The performance benchmark had already been set extremely high by the Audi RS3 and then the reset by the Mercedes-AMG A45 super-hatch, but the BMW M2 has moved it, yet again, to an all-new level.