Does the new BMW M2 have what it takes to live up to the legend of its predecessor. Does it need to?
Whether for its plucky, puffed-up stance, fearsome reputation, or scarcity (only 64 were imported), the BMW 1 Series M Coupé, or 1M, has gained an almost mythical standing among South African motoring enthusiasts since its introduction in 2011. Instantly recognisable thanks to brashly chiselled fenders and exaggerated wheelarches, the marriage of a 250 kW twin-turbocharged inline six-cylinder (N54) engine and meaty six-speed manual transmission within a relatively compact, rear-wheel-driven, E82 1 Series Coupé package proved a rather feisty union.
For better, it was a superbly fast vehicle delivering seat-of-the-pants poise and precision to an experienced driver; for worse, a superbly fast vehicle capable of dealing swift (read: new pants required) punishment to an immature hand.
It seems almost fitting that the shoulders of the man who owns the mint-condition 1M featured here, Springbok Schalk Burger, are almost as exaggerated as those featured on the vehicle he’s grown to cherish. All the more reason to take special care of it, then…
Five years since its launch and now, parked squat alongside its successor, the more traditionally named M2 (watch our track test here), it’s immediately obvious from their respective rear track widths that BMW’s M division was keen to make the 2 more forgiving than the 1M. While the M2 is 51 mm wider than its predecessor (and 80 mm broader aft than the 2 Series on which it’s based), it also boasts an M4-mimicking 1 601 mm rear track that contrasts with the narrower and, as a result, less-forgiving 1 541 mm measurement found on the 1M.
Keen to include more M4 influences at all four corners of its newest creation, M GmbH’s engineers shortened the larger car’s driveshaft (by 120 mm) and fitted slightly narrower 19-inch tyres in order to accommodate these items on the more compact M2. There’s familiarity, too, to be found within the cabin of the fastest 2 to date. Here though, the 2 Series package is beginning to show its age. Some testers noted there’s very little besides racy stitching on the impressively comfortable (and widely adjustable) front seats and tacky faux-carbon trim bits throughout to properly echo the performance potential promised by those inflated exterior lines. While the same criticism was levelled at the 1M we tested in August 2011, at least that vehicle, like Schalk’s, offered an Alcantara-clad steering wheel.
On a positive note, the dimensions of the newest M steering wheel (including circumference and girth) are near perfect and the look and feel of the M-DCT-linked transmission lever adds a hint of drama. The six-speed manual transmission is standard issue on the M2 and will no doubt appeal to purists, but it’s difficult to argue against the slick virtues of the optional seven-speed dual-clutch ‘box. A tad ungainly at parking speeds, it’s a transmission that continues to impress both with its intuitiveness when left to its own devices, as well as its ability to mash through its cogs when pressing on.
And press on the M2 does. Featuring a significantly revised version of BMW’s N55 motor, in this application it is fitted with a single (twin-scroll) turbocharger and many of the internal components found in the S55 unit fitted to the M3/M4 twins. Making adequate use of the launch-control function offered by the M-DCT transmission, we were able to shift from standstill to 100 km/h in 4,56 seconds. By comparison, on its test day in 2011, the manual 1M recorded a best time of 5,10 seconds. Where back then the 250 kW (1 523 kg) 1M impressed in terms of in-gear acceleration, its 272 kW, 1 560 kg successor was able to blast from 60 to 120 km/h in just 4,03 seconds.
With a view towards keeping the M2 affordable, familiar M division trick items such as the M4’s weight-saving carbon-fibre roof and distinct double-arm side mirrors (a highlight of the 1M package) were, unfortunately, left out of the planning. Likewise, and less disappointingly, was an adaptive-damping option. Instead, the M2 is left to rely solely on its near-ideal compromise between everyday (although relatively firm) comfort and the handling-optimal stiffness expected of a true M car.
Fitted with bespoke Michelin rubber (245/35 R19 up front and 265/35 R19 at the rear), the M2 makes the most of its optimal 53:47 front-to-rear mass distribution to offer hugely impressive levels of front-end grip combined with neck-muscle challenging amounts of mid-corner cling. Even with the engine and throttle mappings dialled to their most responsive Sport+ settings (as well as an additional 35 N.m of torque unleashed on overboost), any loss of traction from the rear tyres is timeously communicated via the driver’s seat … unlike in the distinctly less forgiving 1M.
The hydraulically assisted steering in the 1M may offer the most feedback, but the electrical system in the 2 is just as precise. Like the fastest 1 Series, though, there’s also plenty of stopping power provided; in the case of the new car, there are 380 mm ventilated front brakes and 370 mm units at the rear. Complementing what you may by now have realised is one of our favourite new sportscars is a distinctly rich and pleasingly not-over-the-top exhaust note more than capable of offering the odd cultured burble once the opportunity presents itself.
Interestingly, the two most exciting BMWs to pass through our garage in the past 12 months represent vastly different solutions to modern motoring. Where the tech-savvy i8 symbolises an exciting future influenced by a pressing need for efficiency, the M2 successfully manages to combine everything that has made BMW such a force to be reckoned with over the years, while still appearing relatively fuel efficient (BMW claims 7,9 L/100 km).
Not only the best current M car, the M2 is also close to being the finest modern example of everything BMW is good at. While the car could arguably be lighter still (for the moment, a lightweight version is not on the cards), there's enough performance on offer to make the smallest M car a genuinely potent performance vehicle. That it successfully manages to offer a dual personality without the need for fussy-adaptive-this and adjustable-that is arguably its trump card.
Enthusiasts will point to the fact that similarly powerful hatchbacks like the Mercedes-AMG A45 and Audi RS3 are both faster off the line than the more expensive BMW but, having recently sampled both of these rivals, we're confident the M2 more than makes up for this minor indiscretion by offering more driver involvement and thrills.
Indeed, so accomplished and well rounded is the newest M car that it resulted in a lengthy debate as to its relative merits against a perennial CAR favourite, the Porsche Cayman S. Is the Porsche's circa-R160 000 price premium (with the five-year maintenance plan) worth it? It's the closest of calls and, while some feel the Porsche badge alone justifies the premium, the majority believes the M2 offers the best bang-for-buck performance and practicality.
*From the May 2016 issue of CAR magazine.