Car people are just like any other obsessive. They’ll talk to you about stuff that they expect you should clearly understand as being important, even if it’s unclear to you why it might be.
Right now, car obsessives are talking about the BMW M2, a high-performance derivation of the company’s smallest coupe. It is not a major car in the sense that it will sell a million models, because it won’t. It’s a niche of a niche. And yet to the faithful, it’s a sign that the often muddled BMW can produce the kind of car it was famous for: pure, fun, and relatively affordable.
I drove the $52,695 M2 in early February around Monterey, California’s roads, and the peerless Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and let this obsessive tell you: this little coupe will have an outsize influence. It’ll be felt both on the perception of BMW as a brand, and upon other carmakers. The M2 is about to get a wave of great publicity, and companies like Mercedes and Lexus and Cadillac will pay attention. And so should you. Here’s why.
Bayerische Motoren Werke AG is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, but the company and cars we would recognize today as BMWs arrived in the late 1960s alongside a model called the 2002. The 2002 was a funky little thing with a cute pug nose and the famous double-kidney grille. It was the genesis of all sports sedans, the unlikely marriage of a practical four-door and a lusty sports car.
In many ways, BMW was the Apple of its day. It was doing things its own way, bucking the stolid stoicism of Mercedes-Benz’s sedans and the in-your-face brashness of American muscle cars. Design and purity were important, as was the interface between product and user. The 2002 morphed into the iconic 3 Series sedans and coupes, the kind of cars which turned regular drivers into obsessives, and gave truth to its eventual tagline: "The Ultimate Driving Machine."
And, like Apple, BMW eventually tried to be too many things to too many people, maximizing profit and market share. The user interface became muddled (the infamous iDrive system of the early aughts), and the company embarked on an endless parade of new models designed to fill up any bit of market white space. Today you can buy an X1 xDrive28i (a tiny crossover thingy with all-wheel-drive for $35,000) to the range-topping 750 xDrive sedan (an executive cruiser brimming with technology, for $98,000 plus).
It would be wrong to accuse the brand of completely losing its way — the cars are still very much fun to drive. But true believers are correct when they say it’s nigh impossible to find anything with the throwback purity of the 2002.
Then, a ray of sunshine. In 2011 BMW released a car called the 1 Series M Coupe, a small, rear-wheel-drive machine with a six-speed manual and a 3.0-liter inline six engine. (M is BMW’s performance division, in which they upgrade engines, suspensions and anything else that makes the car faster, better handling and a bit more fun.) I wanted one. It was only available for one year, and then it disappeared. Prices for used models have only increased. I regret missing my chance.
And so, yes, I’ve been really and truly excited to the 1M’s successor, the M2.
The equipment on the M2 is absurdly straightforward — a true rarity in BMW-land. Even the name, a straight-up "M2," is welcome relief from the alphanumeric soup that Munich usually offers us, à la the X6 xDrive50i.
This is no supercar — and thank God for it
In an age of ubiquitous all-wheel drive, the M2 is rear-wheel drive only. It has an inline six-cylinder motor with a single twin-scroll turbocharger, which creates a very mortal 365 horsepower and 343 pound-feet of torque. It comes with either a six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual clutch automatic transmission. It weighs around 3,500 pounds, will get to 60 miles per hour in 4.2 seconds, and four grown men will fit inside — with at least two of them complaining about it vociferously.
As for pricing, it starts at $51,700 with the stick shift, with extremely few options other than the $2,900 automatic transmission and a $1,250 "executive package" with a few doo-dads like automatic high beams and heated steering wheel. You can have it in white (at no extra charge) or black, gray, or blue for an extra $550. No special leathers, no autonomous tech, no chance of pushing the price to $100,000 plus.
In short, this is no supercar. And thank God for it.
BMW launched the car in Monterey, using the racetrack at Laguna Seca as a home base. Not far from the track lies Carmel Valley Road. Take it southeast, away from the tony lodges and gated communities and into the canyons and hills, and you’ll discover the most wonderful kind of road. It is full of personality and topographies, a stream of asphalt tumbling down canyons and staggered across hillsides, parting tall meadow grasses and shaded by tall solo trees. But it’s definitely no racetrack; the tarmac is rough and broken and traffic isn’t rushed, so you don’t need a snarling supercar. (I once had one of those out here — a modified, turbocharged Ferrari 458 — and it overmatched the road.)
It is to this path that I take a manual M2. Whenever I think of the area, it is of a particular stretch of road that warbles along like a sine wave, passing underneath several tall oak trees. The M2, in third gear, moves through the stretch in a lyrical left-to-right rhythm, affected by the smooth movements of the steering wheel and a steady throttle.
For all of the $200,000 supercars I’ve driven in the last year, with hybrid all-wheel-drive, rear steering, and advanced torque vectoring, this is all I’ve been looking for: harmony between car and road, a happy tune played out on four patches of dancing rubber. The throw on the six-speed is kind of long, but it feels very mechanical and connects you to the car. (It also performs rev matching automatically.)
I’ve got all the windows open and I can hear the sound of the inline six; I downshift for the next stretch and the car turns into tight corners like it was born to do only this. And it was.
On this same day, I get almost 40 laps with the M2 on Laguna Seca. It is a revered road course built in a cradle of golden hills, and a glorious place to be on a 72-degree day in February. I raced BMW’s iconic M1 race car here last August during the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion. That was an experience so pure I could have distilled it and sold it as grain alcohol.
So I know the track, and know how a great BMW should act out here. And the M2, under the most intense of pressure, retains its poise and sense of purpose. Out of uphill corners, I can feel the differential lock and the rear wheels grab traction and grunt me forward. The rear swings out just enough with limited traction control engaged, and the BMW is balanced even when charging down Laguna’s steep corkscrew. On the track, the cars were equipped with the DCT transmission, which is good, if not anywhere near Porsche PDK good. (I’d rather shift for myself in this car anyhow.)
It is rare to get this comfortable with a car this quickly. Most often, as you begin to push a car to its performance limits, you approach slowly, learning how it shifts weight, what gears it likes, how comfortable it is at the edge. I feel like I’ve known the M2 a long time. It is familiar, but in a dazzling way. It talks to me from the hips. I know exactly what the car is doing at any given time, because the dynamics and shifts of weight happen around my torso. It sounds strange, but the best cars tell you more by kinetics than even by steering or sound.
I am fearless in this car, and it never once lets me down.
None of this is to say that the M2 is perfect — it’s not. The interior is drab and overly plastic. It’s isn’t sumptuous and it’s not luxurious and you won’t be running your fingers over the fine materials. BMW spent its money in other places.
And that imperfection makes the M2 special. It isn’t overpowered, and it isn’t looking to kill you or impress your date. It isn’t using fancy electronic tricks to make you look like a better driver than you are. It is actually better with the six-speed manual. It is more fun on a legal road than it is on a racetrack. It has personality. It is visceral. It’s human and mortal and flawed. It isn’t a megawatt personality. It is a Tom Hardy, not a Tom Cruise. It shows that things don’t always have to be so damn complicated. And it doesn’t have to be all things to all people. I want to own this car. I say that very, very rarely. And at a price of $50,000, it’s somewhat conceivable.
And for all of that, I care about it. I hope you might too.
Check out our hands-on look at the BMW M2 from the Detroit Auto Show: