New BMW M2 2023 review: an M4 with even more attitude
The M2 is reborn as a short-wheelbase, rear-drive-only version of the M3/M4. The recipe is as good as it sounds
It’s a wicked compound bump in the road, like a booby trap laid by a performance car poacher. One steep up-ramp ridge, sump gouge marks at its base; then a second, surprise kicker concealed from view just after. Fading tyre marks trace their way to a twisted stretch of Armco, suggesting someone’s come a cropper not so long ago. The M2 shrugs it off with ease. One controlled movement through the suspension, no aftershocks through the body. Stable, composed. Thank you, next.
We’re in Arizona, on a fairytale canyon road that dips, dives and toboggan-turns its way across the flanks of Woodchute Mountain. The M2’s relishing it. Good news, eh? Because as the M division enters its 51st (official) year, this is one of the last rear-wheel-driven, manual-gearboxed cars it will ever build. And certainly the last new model powered by combustion alone. So it would be a shame if it was a duffer.
The source material means that was never likely: the new M2 is built on a shortened variation of the 3- and 4-series platform, with the same track width and suspension architecture as the M3 and M4 and the same powertrain, built around the strapping 3-litre twin-turbo straight-six. In the M3 and M4 Competition it turns out 503bhp and 479lb ft, in the M2 a not-exactly-paltry 454bhp and 406lb ft. An eight-speed auto is standard fit, while a six-speed manual is still, happily, an option in the UK (£545).
With a wheelbase shortened by 110mm, it’s a sawn-off shottie version of an M4. When unflattering, covertly snapped pictures leaked last year ahead of the car’s reveal, it looked awkward, a jarring clash of curved and flattened surfaces. In the metal, it’s much more alluring: squatty and purposeful, with short overhangs and widescreen wheelarches. The wheelbase is still a touch longer than that of the previous F87 M2, and it’s a smidge larger in every dimension than before, but it’s still a compact car by modern standards. (And still a tricky one for tall rear passengers to clamber into and out of.) Not necessarily a better looking one than the original, perhaps, and maybe not to all tastes, but it has a great deal of appeal nonetheless. Modern and old-school at once.
That’s echoed in the way it drives. Underway it feels alert, responsive – that elbows-out, four-square exterior stance comes through in the car’s movements – but it’s refined and well-mannered too. It’s an easy car to acclimatise to: driving position, visibility, interior ergonomics, software slickness all feel bang-on from the get-go. That dreamy canyon road where we came in takes a bit of finding – made easier by the big, clear nav graphics on the main screen – and a lot of freeway miles. As with the last car, there’s a fair bit of tyre roar but it’s no deal breaker. What might be when we next drive the car in the UK may be the low- to medium-speed ride quality. Although the new M2 rides on adaptive dampers as standard, evolved from the same units fitted to the M3 Touring, even in the softest Comfort setting they’re still pretty damn firm. That could be a problem on the UK’s particularly three-dimensional roads; we’ll have to wait and see. Naturally the ride’s firmer still in Sport and Sport+ but the body control is so good it never truly feels jarring, just a touch wearying.
We’re cruising at 70mph, the M2 dwarfed by hulking pickups and outsized SUVs. Our test car is a manual, and with the lever stashed in sixth gear the engine is purring at a subdued 2500rpm. (In the eight-speed auto, it would be turning slower still.) Without any corners to play with for the first couple of hours, the engine is the star of the show. And it really shines. With peak torque spread from a lowly 2650rpm all the way to 5870rpm (and peak power at 6250rpm), it has a lovely, flexible driveability. You can cruise around on the groundswell of torque or wring it out and have reward for doing so. You could pull away from a junction in third gear, should you wish, and take it all the way to the ton or thereabouts in one gear.
That manual gearbox is fine rather than fantastic. Compared with the short-throw shift in Toyota’s GR86 or even Ford’s Tremec-equipped Mustang, not to mention the benchmark H-pattern in the latest Civic Type R, it’s a slower, wider-gated, more knuckly-feeling set-up. But then, it has a heck of a lot more torque to deal with than those cars (Mustang excepted), and it’s still perfectly enjoyable to use.
Later, when we’re back at the international press launch base in Scottsdale, I’ll commandeer an auto car for comparison. There’s more urgency in the first few, shorter gears – 0-62mph is two-tenths quicker in auto cars, at 4.1sec – and although it’s a ZF torque-converter in place of the dual-clutch transmission of the old car, you can dial the shift speed and abruptness up and down in three stages. On three out of three it chomps through the gears with clipped punctuation; it’s slurry-smooth on one out of three, and it’s perfectly smooth and fast enough on the middle setting. You can keep both hands on the wheel and use the slightly tacky-looking carbonfibre-trimmed, wheel-mounted paddles to shift manually, or punch the gear selector forward and back like you’re in a DTM car at the Norisring for arms-crossed hairpins.
As was the case for the previous M2, BMW expects only ten per cent of UK customers to pick the manual, albeit with a bigger percentage for early sales to hardcore enthusiast buyers. I’d say it’s worth being among that ten per cent; the manual does give that little extra degree of involvement, the clutch is light enough to be easy in traffic but heavy enough to fit the car’s overall feel, and the pedals are sweetly spaced for heel-and-toeing. And when you’re not in the mood for footwork, the nicely calibrated automatic rev-matching software is impossible to wrong-foot. But the auto is far from a poor relation, and in certain circumstances is a swifter and equally satisfying drive.
All UK cars will get a carbonfibre roof (an option in other markets), which lops 6kg off the kerb weight. That’s still relatively porky for a small, two-wheel-drive car, however, quoted at 1700kg for manual cars and 1725kg for autos. Our carbon-topped test car is otherwise finished in Zandvoort Blue, which looks a little like Hyundai’s signature Performance Blue for its N models. (Maybe it’s a reverse dig, given how many ex-M division personnel have found their way to Hyundai’s N division.)
Back to that canyon road, and a freezeframe moment. As we climb higher and cacti change places with huge snowdrifts for roadside furniture, a convoy of beautiful, clearly breathed-on ’60s 911s comes careering (Carreraing? Sorry…) down in the opposite direction. Seems California isn’t the only state with a penchant for restomod Porsches. One of them – black bonnet, chocolate orange body – does what old 911s are wont to do, ambushing its driver with a surprise snap into oversteer. It’s a tightening corner and we’re almost level as the Porsche begins to slide. I can’t see the driver’s face but can only assume it’s a mask of panic. They react and gather it up before our paths intersect. It’s a moment that reinforces my faith in the M2: it’s stable yet nimble, enough that it feels for all the world like it could have sidestepped a spinning 911.
Crisis averted and now not another car in sight, classic or otherwise. Let’s celebrate the aversion of a multi-generational German sports car pile-up by enjoying the M2’s chassis to full effect. To compensate for the shorter wheelbase and altered weight versus the M3/M4, the springs have been made stiffer at the front and softer at the rear. Like its bigger brothers, it has a great front end and changes direction keenly (gut feel says even more keenly than the longer, heavier M3/M4) but never feels nervous. It’s a good communicator and you’re always nicely in tune with what the rear tyres are up to via the messages through the chassis and the controls.
Those tyres are bigger than the old M2’s – 19 inches at the front and 20 at the rear. ‘As well as the same track width as the M3 and M4, we have the same tyre size,’ Dirk Häcker, M’s head of engineering, tells us later. ‘Compared with the previous M2, that’s a big performance enabler.’ Torque is metered out to the rears via a standard-fit electronically controlled limited-slip diff. As with other modern M-cars, you can mix and match modes for the dampers, steering, engine map, brake pressure and traction control (with ten stages, like big-bro M3/M4, and the more general halfway-off M Dynamic Mode for stability and traction). You can store your favourite settings via the M1 and M2 triggers on the steering wheel to save delving into the menus each time.
The menus themselves are sited on the curved touchscreen and digi dials set-up found on bigger BMW models, which looks a mite squashed into the M2’s smaller cockpit but is slick and user-friendly to operate via both the screen and the familiar iDrive clickwheel. Interior quality feels top-notch. Our test car is fitted with the optional M Carbon bucket seats (complete with their odd carbonfibre codpiece dividers, giving you one channel for each leg) which are hard work to climb into but plumb you nicely into the car. It would be nice if they could sink just a touch lower but this is still a far lower driving position than you find in many performance cars, with plenty of adjustment.
If the gearchange isn’t a stone-cold classic, the speed-sensitive, variable-ratio power steering isn’t standout-special either in terms of feel and feedback. But I like it: it’s direct, fast without feeling nervous, and well insulated from kickback and corruption without feeling numb. It feels painstakingly well calibrated, particularly in its response just off-centre, and that’s perhaps a metaphor for the car as a whole. In every dynamic respect – the tip-in response on the throttle, the way the rear axle follows the front so obediently, the engine’s torque and power delivery – it’s a car that feels as though the details have been sweated over.
You get the impression it will be great on track, too. Soft Michelin Cup 2 tyres are available as an option (but not fitted to this regular-tyred test car), ceramic brakes aren’t. Perhaps the latter may be saved for the as-yet-unconfirmed but strongly rumoured CSL and CS versions. Meanwhile, this cooking M2 is quite the source material to work with.
On the basis of this first drive, it’s a very desirable car. The asking price is chunky at more than £65k, but the M2’s dynamic abilities and feeling of quality, on first impression, warrant it. Compared with the £80k-plus M3 and M4, their short-wheelbase sibling feels like the one to have, for value and for entertainment.
Perhaps its biggest rival is the old M2 – so should you just buy one of those? It’s hard to say without a back-to-back test, but for some tastes the old, rougher-edged F87 model was maybe yet more charismatic, a smaller car with a bigger character.
It’s been a brief, freeway-dominated introduction to the new car but it still has that beguiling, big-engine-in-a-little-car hot-rod feel, and it also comes across as a more cohesive, well-rounded product. Whether that’s for better or for worse – and whether that tough ride quality could knock our provisional four-and-a-half star rating down to four, or if the new G87 M2’s talents shine brightly enough to even nudge it up to a five – we’ll find out very soon back in the UK.
In the meantime, there’s a lot to be happy about. The XM is a curious creation, but the M2 shows that the M division is still very, very good at what it does.
BMW M2 specs (G87)
|Straight-six, 2993cc, twin-turbo
|454bhp @ 6250rpm
|406lb ft @ 2650-5870rpm
|4.3sec (4.1sec auto)