The 3 Series – BMW’s longtime flagship among compact-class enthusiasts – was replaced in 2014 by a smaller, cheaper and more agile vehicle in the form of the 2 Series. Overshadowing the earlier 1 Series in all the right ways (looks and performance to name a few), the 2 Series got an ample M model in 2015 in the form of the M2 and the pecking order quickly changed. Whether you accepted it or not, the M3 was no longer the benchmark, the lighter and smaller M2 was. And now the second generation of youngsters is here. Well, at least in prototype form.
I recently had the privilege of driving a prototype version of the upcoming M2 at the track. It had straight-six power and a manual gearbox that sent the drive to the rear; everything you could wish for in a fast, driver-oriented BMW. But it also felt like staring straight off a cliff. It’s the last of its kind – an all-combustion engine M-car – although it didn’t quite feel like it. In the course of driving these development vehicles I was definitely satisfied, but to be honest I also had a little to be desired.
If you’re BMW and you’re about to launch an M-branded hybrid SUV, you want what could be the latest generation of your compact, purist driver’s car to celebrate that very idea, right? You want it to be special, or at least different from the car it replaces. This was not the case here.
Camo does not hide the hardware
Since these vehicles were prototypes, no exact specifications were given. All I was told was that it’s very close to the outgoing M2 CS in terms of power, so around the 450hp mark. I was also told that this new M2 will share a lot with the M3/M4. Actually pretty much everything except the outer skin. My time behind the wheel consisted of about half a dozen laps in light rain conditions around the Salzburgring, a short circuit in the Austrian Alps, with a couple of long, twisting straights connected by fun twisty sectors. This is my impression after a total driving time of maybe half an hour between an automatic and a camouflage clad M2 prototype with a shifter.
This camouflage didn’t hide much. All the typical BMW M hallmarks of flared fenders and more aggressive aprons were on display. What underpinned that bolder physique wasn’t a very big secret either, as it turned out.
The front and rear suspension are from the M3/M4. The rear dampers are not specifically tuned to the car, but are inherited from the M3 Touring. As is typical for the 2 Series, the drive train also comes from the larger siblings of the vehicle. Put all of this together and the new M2 isn’t much more than a short-wheelbase M4. Is it bad? Dynamically and above all in terms of price, no. But it does mean that the brand’s sporty compact flagship is basically made up of components from what is admittedly a very good parts kit. It’s not a terrible thing, but the feeling that this car deserved more than that nagged at me as I drove. It actually still annoys me.
Steering, shifting, braking and just about everything is now electronically operated in the automatic M2. The feeling was nothing short of… constant. The communication I got from the car on the damp track almost never seemed to change, leading me to a kind of spirited driving I wasn’t used to. I’m more used to getting a feel for a car’s limits by trial and error easy Changes and groping for the answer – maybe a more aggressive corner exit here or a little hotter entry there. But in the automatic M2, it always felt like I was exposed to a safety net that limited what I could actually play.
Pushing the limits meant a safe ride back to grip thanks to the endless traction/stability gizmos, but finding that actual limit felt difficult. Here you had to try to catch an apex or find some grip by spinning the wheel, accelerating and seeing what happened. After all, I’m nothing short of a very average rider, and it was still willing to save me if I went a little too deep. It was very forgiving. But there was a lack of nuance. Everything was so precise, so perfect. I’m not sure I wanted a more challenging ride, but I wanted it to bite me at least once.
That feeling was definitely reinforced by the smarter operation of the automatic transmission. After my first lap I gave up switching paddles and just let it go. It definitely was Smarter than me, I couldn’t keep tabs on the eight gears the way it could, and it seemed to want to be with its electronic friends – the steering, the brakes, the magnetic suspension. I just let it go and have fun with its buddies. The result was admittedly impressive, if somewhat lacking in coherence.
BMW’s imitation of good hydraulic brakes and a nice communicative front axle has gotten so good that it might as well not be imitated under normal driving conditions. The brakes were a bit touchy, but linear and strong. Likewise, the steering had nice spring and was quick enough to make precise and confident mid-corner adjustments. I would comment specifically on the ride, but I was on an immaculately paved circuit. Still, it was tight but not bothersome, far from soft but forgiving when having to go over something like a curb.
The manual version
The real difference came when I switched to a manual car. To be honest I was intimidated. “The automatic is faster on a track!” the words from every performance car review ever echoed through my brain. “It shifts faster than any manual, just give it up man!” bounced around in my head. The wet conditions combined with the track’s long, twisty, high-speed sections didn’t help either. A bad shift at a dollar-20 might be one less prototype. Of course, these concerns were completely unfounded. The Stick-Shift M2 wasn’t an entirely different car, but it was was much more personal. There’s just something about a manual transmission, you know? You could make a religion out of that. Hell, that’s a cult.
Rather than simply entering each corner as quickly as felt appropriate, having a gear you could physically lock into bought back the level of experimentation and nuance I’d lacked in the automatic. A stick shift isn’t just about the physical act of changing gears – it’s about carefully controlling and understanding a car’s powerband and using it smoothly without an unexpected change throwing a wrench into things. Maybe me was I drive slower – I understand the automatic is faster – but I felt a lot more in control when I chose my own gears. The optional automatic speed adjustment also absolutely helped. It’s more or less heel-toe braking, but for dummies. As someone with limited track experience, I welcomed it. It lowered mental stress and helped me focus on what was ahead.
It was very funny, very capable and even a little bit analogue, use a swear word. If you’re buying an M2 when it’s released, get the stick. But even without it, this M2 prototype already felt – get ready – dated.
It’s not a final
More precisely, it felt like the last part of the second chapter of BMW M. The first chapter dealt with high-revving naturally aspirated engines that draw power from their displacement. The sounds, the feelings, everything was genuine and genuine balanced and good with the world.
However, when compulsory induction became the norm, the second chapter began. We’ve since had two generations of M3, M5 and now M2, where engine sounds are injected or synthesized, turbos are spooled at precisely prescribed speeds and the feeling that these cars are incessantly chasing that first chapter is pretty straightforward. That’s just the way it is, although these machines are still fun and impressive. But read the writing on the wall. When the new M2 hits the market, it will be the last page of this ‘Chapter Two’ M car we’re going to get – the last M car powered purely by internal combustion engines. Remember our big-nosed friend the XM? This is chapter three. Batteries, motors and inverters have squeezed themselves around the table in a way that can no longer be ignored.
Which brings me to this car. What are we going to do with you? The M2 prototype I drove had – unfortunately – absolutely nothing to say. If we’re to judge the new M2 through the lens of a finale, no sacrifices were made to make this thing just one little more like that special first chapter we talked about before. Likewise, there wasn’t any new technology to further push the existing boundaries and say, “yeah, this isn’t the same as it used to be, but we still got it done.” It’s just more the same as the car it replaces, but uglier. Despite the camouflage, you can still get an idea of what it looks like, and well, it’s not particularly pretty. True, it doesn’t have a big grille, but that’s not saying much. Until the new M2 comes out, just look at a new M240i versus an old M2. The M240i is a solid aesthetic downgrade.
Bottom line, if you’ve driven the first M2 and are wondering how this new car sounds, you already know it. If you’re wondering how it feels, you already know. It’s objectively good and worthwhile, but again, there’s nothing new here. Is this lack of progress worth celebrating? That may be the case in today’s automotive landscape. There are certainly not enough rear-wheel drive, compact sports cars with manual transmissions anymore. To me, however, it felt like a missed opportunity.
Let’s step back and really think about what this thing is: the last machine to carry BMW M’s pure combustion torch. It deserves a mountain to die for.
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