Monterey, California — To hear BMW tell it, the electric exotic i8 rests atop Munich’s product lineup, the “halo” car that shines its high-technology glow over the whole range. Ask those of us who still enjoy driving, though, and the new 2016 BMW M2, much nearer the bottom of the scale, is the hottest prospect in years, the real ultimate driving machine of 2016.
BMW revealed the car at the Detroit auto show in January, and now we’ve just driven it down the Pacific Coast Highway and at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. BMW touts this car’s lineage through the 2002 Turbo of 1973, the E30 M3s of the late 1980s, and its most immediate predecessor, the limited-production 1M of 2011-’12. It’s a worthy heir, a modern interpretation of a real driver’s coupe.
Make no mistake: The i8’s exotic materials, concept-car-like design and advanced technology add up to an amazing thing, a huge leap toward what’s coming next. But what’s coming next? Insert one hyphen and our machine made for driving becomes a “driving-machine,” the autonomous car that is itself in charge of the journey rather than the driver’s partner on an adventure. You sit back, let it handle all the tedious tasks of getting people from the white “Home” dot on a Google map to that red drip that denotes your “destination.”
The M2, though … our first exposure comes from the passenger’s seat in the Laguna paddock. Fire it up, and there’s that sound! A proper inline-six in the best BMW tradition, the N55 twin-scroll turbo 3.0-liter’s exhaust note has to fight its way past the turbocharger built into the manifold, but the tuning says “let’s have a go.” There are four tailpipes with an electronically controlled flap function that opens when the driver gets on it. The operation varies through the Driving Dynamic Control settings of Comfort, Sport, and Sport+, and can be customized via the console control screen. From outside, it just sounds awesome. Inside the cabin with the windows closed, it needs some electronic enhancement (amplification of “key frequencies,” the engineers say) to deliver the emotive responses a driver craves, but such is the trade-off for turbocharging’s advantages.
This mill offers 365 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 343 lb-ft starting at 1,450 rpm. We’re told an overboost function bumps that to 369 lb-ft; if you need a squirt, just press past the détente in the gas pedal, and you’ve got 74 lb-ft more than the previous generation E90 M3 could deliver.
Zero the odometer, open the route book, and it says “go to Laureles Grade.” As a California-based pal said, “Nothing feels good on Laureles Grade.” Its contours and road surfaces challenge the chassis engineer’s art to extremes as the road climbs up to the pass and down into Carmel Valley. It’s a Friday morning, relatively low traffic, and even from the shotgun seat the M2 just feels right, buttoned-down but in no way punishing. At this price point, the light-weighting exercise can’t be as extensive as in the M3/M4 that cost $14,000 more, but BMW has rightly chosen to pare the unsprung mass with all-aluminum suspension components. The subframes and special chassis stiffeners are also made of the alloy. Low-compliance bushings throughout tie the suspension to the chassis. As the flared fenders attest, the track is widened, as BMW did with the previous 1M, by 2.1 inches in front and 3.1 out back.
Designwise, the body widening can’t be said in itself to improve on the standard 2 Series appearance (not as stubby as the 1 Series, it’s still not long enough to resolve the lines smoothly). Still, with the 19-inch light alloy wheels in “ferric” gray, the M2 presents itself nicely, at least in the Laguna Blue Metallic paint ($550 extra over standard white, as are the gray and black metallic alternatives) that all the cars had at the press intro.
Those wheels wear model-specific Z-rated Michelin tires, wider in back (265/35) than in front (245/45). They’re noisy, and in a frequency that is hard to drown out unless you’re comfy with really loud music. That road noise may be the biggest sacrifice an M2 owner will have to tolerate for the performance advantages; the tires probably contribute their share to the great chassis feel.
As the driver works the gears, steering, and braking along Laureles Grade, the sensations through the soles of our feet and the seat cushion make it easy for an attentive passenger — in this case, us — to read the pavement texture and contours of the road, and yet there’s no jarring and very little head-toss. Roll, dive, and squat? All are insignificant. It makes us eager to swap seats. Which we won’t get to do until 44 miles later, after we’ve enjoyed the sights all the way down to Big Sur.
Maybe it’s watching people play in the water, but it strikes us that the joys of driving a performance car are akin to those of surfing, combining a sense of balance and control with movement, grace, and connection to a well-crafted tool. That’s what we had in mind as we headed back north to get our turn on the racetrack. First, though, this scenic road had its own pleasures to offer. With the positive and precise six-speed manual shifter, BMW says the M2 can get to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds; the seven-speed DCT can do that deed in 4.2, thanks in part to a launch-control function.
With abundant torque on a wide band, there’s no need to work the clutch pedal and gearbox as much as in the days of the peaky E30 M3, but we do it for fun — a rev-match feature helps execute perfect shifts, down and up. This can be turned off, but only after disabling the traction control and other assists for track use. We’d prefer having the option to deactivate it for heel-and-toe practice on the road without giving up the safety margins of full stability control.
None of this experience is as raw and visceral as the original M3’s four-cylinder screaming up to its naturally aspirated redline above 7,200 rpm while the stripped-down chassis telegraphed messages direct to the driver’s vagus nerve, but remember: The payoff for more discomfort back then was less than 200 horsepower and 60 mph acceleration in the high 6-second range.
Consider: Once, while cruising in fourth gear in this M2, we saw a chance to pass slower traffic on the two-lane PCH and opted not to downshift — the car got from just under 60 mph to triple-digit speeds so quickly we worried about those “speed limits enforced by radar” signs, but the M2 completed the pass in about half the expected distance. Another kind of safety margin at work.
Going back over Laureles Grade, the steering wheel and pedals prove less talkative than the passenger footwell was in delivering information about the road. The electric-assisted power steering is nicely weighted in both its settings (“Sporty” and “Very Sporty,” the engineers joked), telling the driver exactly what he or she needs to know, but not much else. In the straight-ahead position, the assist turns off to save energy (good for 0.6 mpg, BMW claims) and we thought, paying close attention, we could detect the difference just as it re-engaged for a turn. It’s not objectionable, and there’s no significant free play on-center. And brakes? Fixed calipers, four-piston in front and dual at the back, painted blue with the M logo, clamp onto 15-inch front and 14.5-inch rotors. Perforated and ventilated, these have gray cast-iron braking surfaces and aluminum hubs, again to reduce unsprung and rotating mass. Retardation rates are easily managed through a pedal with great feel over a medium-long travel, so it’s a doddle to scrub off a couple miles-per-hour or bring the whole show to a rapid stop. They also make some high-pitched noises thanks to the performance pads, but not predictably.
One definition of a sports car is one that you can drive to the track, on the track, and home again. The 2016 BMW M2 qualifies. And how. Thanks to the usual electronic aids you can disable for track-day use (but revive themselves if the sensors detect imminent disaster) and the Active M electronically controlled multi-plate limited-slip differential, the M2 driver can explore his or her own limits in confidence that it’ll still take you home. In Sport+ with DCT off, drifting comes easily, and adjusting your line with the accelerator pedal is always an option.
The M2 is also built for track-day abuse: There’s a suction system in the sump to make sure the turbo is always supplied, and an internal pump moves oil rearward under heavy braking to ensure adequate lubrication. There’s a second oil cooler for the DCT gearbox and a second radiator to keep the engine temps down.
M2s provided for track use all had the seven-speed DCT, a $2,900 option. Some car writers nowadays aren’t so good with a clutch pedal, and clutch replacements don’t come cheap. Besides which, the DCT is faster, painful though it remains for some of us to admit. We’ll even confess this now: We used the paddle-shifters mostly, tried the console lever, but we also let the trans take care of its own business so we could focus on our braking and turn-in points for several hot laps. We had to overrule it only once to get a downshift over a short stretch. Remembering to poke your moccasin through the resistance at the bottom of the gas-pedal travel yields not only overboost but also, usually, a downshift to maximize thrust. (A reminder from experience: When adjusting your seat in pit lane, allow for full pedal travel while forced back into the cushion.)
We’ve driven faster cars at Laguna Seca, but none that were easier to get up to speed quickly or more forgiving when the driver, inevitably, errs. Once we’d reached our own modest limits, there was lots left in the M2. Evidence: Driving instructor and M-Sport team racer Bill Auberlen’s car had worn-out brakes and exhausted tires after a long day of lapping, and still we struggled to stay within a dozen car lengths after four hot laps. (We were also told he was one-handing his way around, with a two-way radio in his other hand.)
So, we’re not winning any IMSA races any day soon. Pursuing Fast Time of the Day at a local track day isn’t out of the question for an M2 owner, though, and the exercise sharpens your skills for the daily grind. To make it all the more enticing, BMW offers two apps via its Connected Drive Services, one to manage your GoPro and one to manage the M Lap Timer that records speed, longitudinal and lateral accelerations, rpm, gear, steering angle, accelerator position, and fuel consumption. Electronics, too, can be a good companion on the journey. Just don’t let them have all the fun of driving.