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The Entertainers: BMW M2 vs. Ford Focus RS vs. Porsche 718 Boxster S

Similar abilities, but vastly different attitudes

Georg KacherwriterSteffen Jahnphotographer

JAGSTHAUSEN, Germany -- In a fast-changing automotive world increasingly dominated by digitalization, autonomous driving, and alternative powertrains, it's refreshing to evaluate a group of down-to-earth playthings such as the BMW M2, Ford Focus RS, and Porsche 718 Boxster S. While they go about their business in markedly different ways, they're all surprisingly good at blending heritage, innovation, ability, and affordability.

Over some 300 miles we assessed each car's strengths and weaknesses, wringing out their turbocharged engines and debating whether rear-wheel drive is more rewarding than four intelligently driven wheels. We argued about whether a mid-mounted, front north-south or front east-west powertrain layout is ideal, if a manual gearbox is truly more involving than a dual-clutch transmission, and how much each car's body style and brand image play into the equation.

One twist of Porsche's left-mounted Le Mans-style ignition is all it takes to make a whole forest of fir trees swing its needles toward the raucous roadster, which is done up in a debatable lava orange over black-brown livery. Flatten the throttle in the 718 Boxster S, and its mid-mounted 2.5-liter flat-four snarls and spins up the rev ladder like a lightweight turbine, with a loudness that can be dialed up further depending on the setting selected. You can hold each gear of the 718's seven-speed PDK transmission to the engine's 7,500-rpm redline if you so desire, but it only takes to 6,500 rpm to summon all 350 horses, with a torque curve as geometric as a modern coffee table—all 309 lb-ft of torque is available between 1,900 and 4,500 rpm.

"The M2's DSC Sport setting plugs the gap between yawn and yell and helps get the most out of the car's powertrain. "

The 350-hp, 2.3-liter engine in the all-new Focus RS can do even better than that. Not only does it lay down a beefier 350 lb-ft at 2,000 rpm, it adds a 15-second overboost bonus of 22 lb-ft. The 2.5-liter five-cylinder powering the previous RS was charismatic, violent, less refined—and a charter member of the turbo-lag fan club. Not so with the new RS, which is flexible enough to cruise along at 50 mph in sixth gear and aggressive enough to hang with BMWs and Porsches from the moment you drop the clutch. Having said that, its six-speed manual could do with shorter throws, throttle response in Sport mode is scarily skittish, and its fake liftoff misfiring is almost as embarrassing as the artificial throttle blipping during aggressive downshifts.

The BMW M2's turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six, rated at 365 horsepower and 343 lb-ft of torque available from just 1,400 rpm, is smoother and sounds better than the four-cylinders, and the addition of BMW's fully variable Active M Differential system helps put the power down with authority. The M2 we have on hand is gothic black inside and out; even its 19-inch wheels are as dark as a coal mine at night. Just about everything is included in the car's generous standard specification, save BMW's M DCT—the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission that is fitted to our test machine. It's a nice option to have, but only as long as the owner is committed to working the paddles. Swift upshifts are particularly rewarding in the car's DSC Sport setting that plugs the gap between yawn and yell and helps get the most out of the M2's powertrain.

"Though a couple of tenths behind the M2 and Boxster during acceleration runs, the Nitrous Blue RS reels them back in and then some through the twistier sections. "

In an effort to more properly test our threesome, photographer Steffen Jahn drew up an offbeat cross-country route dotted with all manner of natural obstacles and winding asphalt. It's easy for a fast car to do well on a racetrack but much harder for it to shine on this trick turf through no-man's land, where army tanks roam freely and tractors covered in mud appear out of the blue.

The Focus RS, which has an adaptive all-wheel-drive system that addresses each wheel individually, is completely at home in this environment. Though a couple of tenths behind the M2 and Boxster during acceleration runs, the Nitrous Blue-sprayed RS reels them back in and then some through the twistier sections. To beat back the RS on these roads, the premium contenders make heavy use of their lightning-fast dual-clutch transmissions to stay on boil during flat-out upshifts.

Unlike other sporty AWD models that make do with only a modest rear bias, the RS hatch sends up to 70 percent of its torque to the back end. In Drift mode it can feel like 150 percent rear-wheel drive, and we enjoyed more than our share of sidestepping antics en route from Stuttgart to Würzburg. But what the Ford lacks is a mix-and-match drive mode configuration. Yes, Drift mode encourages daredevil behavior, but it does so only in combination with a nervous tip-in/tip-out response, jerky steering, and a harsh chassis. Only its Normal mode warrants the most comfortable damper setting, relaxed throttle response, and laid-back steering calibration.

The M2 isn't exactly a role model for comfort and compliance either, with its one-setup-fits-all stiff shocks and spiral-shaped railway tracks that double for springs. Over the really rough stuff, keeping the edgy BMW in line is work hard enough to pepper one's palms with blisters. As soon as it hits smoother ground, however, the M2 duly morphs into a precise and responsive ground-hugger, a deep-voiced yet graceful solo dancer through second-gear corners.

The specification of this particular 718 Boxster S we have on hand clearly favors the sporty side of the ledger, with torque vectoring plus a mechanical rear differential lock, PASM sport suspension, and carbon-ceramic brakes among the options. Its ride proves better than expected. Long undulations are no problem at all, transverse irritations don't have an earthquake in tow, and low-speed ripples and potholes don't destroy the car's self-assured posture. Though the suspension setups of all three candidates are only slightly separated, the Porsche feels marginally less brusque than the BMW or the Ford.

With temperatures hovering not far above freezing during our drive, summer tires were not exactly the best choice of footwear. The M2's standard 19-inch Pilot Super Sports are every bit as uncompromising as the slightly narrower Michelins fitted to the Ford and the optional 20-inch Pirelli P Zeros the Boxster S came equipped with, but they all reveal what each vehicle's R&D team had in mind when conceiving these dramatically different musketeers. With the M2 and Boxster more so than the Focus RS, it's imperative to warm up the tires to get the front end to stick. Otherwise there will be too much understeer and not enough grip during turn-in. The M2 feels planted most of the time, and the feedback through the helm is consistently meaty, but the four-seat coupe becomes much more of a handful when it struggles for grip. The all-wheel-drive Focus, however, is as neutral as Switzerland at the limit, the weight of its steering working in perfect synchronicity with the torque flow and chassis movements.

We're emotionally loaded now, open to persuasions, ready to let the heart speak, to put the feel-good factor on its pedestal, and to let design and prestige color our verdict.

The Porsche is really two cars in one. Despite a few ergonomic challenges, it is beautifully made and has two perfectly usable luggage compartments, is the fastest here, has the sweetest steering, and has absolutely indestructible brakes. If money is no object and you haven't yet been seduced by a boxer engine, try the Boxster.

The BMW M2 wins the impromptu poll at the local pub, the smoke-signals-per-mile ranking, the slidemeister medal. It's the true successor to the E46 M3 of 10 years ago—immensely chuckable, outright rowdy, wonderfully temperamental, and within reach of more budgets.

That the Focus RS has the roomiest cabin with the biggest trunk doesn't even enter this equation because what makes the heart beat faster for the Ford are its keen price tag, its surprise factor, and its admirable and astonishing level of dynamic competence.

One driving day isn't really enough to declare a winner here, but we have no doubt at all that the RS is arguably Henry's finest Ford this side of the GT, and it proved it has what it takes to entertain enthusiasts at the same high level as the Boxster S and the M2.

2016 Ford Focus RS Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $36,775 (base)
Engine: 2.3L turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4/350 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 350 lb-ft @ 3,200 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD hatchback
EPA Mileage: 19/25 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 172.8 x 71.8 x 58.0 in
Wheelbase: 104.3 in
Weight: 3,525 lb (est)
0-60 MPH: 4.4 sec (est)
Top Speed: 165 mph

2016 BMW M2 w/DCT Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $55,595 (base)
Engine: 3.0L turbo DOHC 24-valve I-6/365 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 343 lb-ft @ 1,400-5,560 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Layout: 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe
EPA Mileage: 20/27 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 176.2 x 73.0 x 55.5 in
Wheelbase: 106.0 in
Weight: 3,505 lb
0-60 MPH: 4.2 sec
Top Speed: 155 mph

2017 Porsche 718 Boxster S w/PDK Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $72,650 (base)
Engine: 2.5L turbo DOHC 16-valve flat-4/350 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 309 lb-ft @ 1,900-4,500 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Layout: 2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, RWD convertible
EPA Mileage: 22/32 mpg (city/hwy) (est)
L x W x H: 172.4 x 78.5 x 50.4 in
Wheelbase: 97.4 in
Weight: 3,054 lb
0-60 MPH: 4.2 sec
Top Speed: 177 mph