By Shari Prymak
The M2 may be a completely new nameplate for BMW’s M brand, but there’s nothing new about its formula. What BMW has done is taken their smallest, lightest car, and beefed it up with aggressive bodywork, a more powerful engine, and all the best bits from the larger, pricier M3/M4 twins. The result is an M car made in the mold of some of the M greats that’s talented enough to go from a track star to an everyday runabout on request.
In many ways, the M2 is an updated take on the limited production, and highly collectable, 1M. In both cases, BMW took the bodywork of their smallest coupe, and stretched it over the suspension bits of the larger M3, completing the look with flared fenders and aggressive bumpers. The difference is that the M2 looks far better. It’s just as aggressive looking as the 1M, but with better proportions and a far sleeker look thanks to its longer profile.
The 1M isn’t the only car from BMW’s past that draws parallels with the M2. One of the best challengers from the classic M portfolio, and the one that I brought along for comparison, is the E36 M3.
BMW has compared the M2 to the classic 2002 Turbo and E30 M3, but it’s really much closer to the newer E36. Both cars share a modestly powerful inline-6 engine, standard manual gearbox, and a rear-wheel drive chassis with fixed-rate suspension. The M2 also echoes the E36 with similar compact dimensions. In terms of both wheelbase and overall length, both cars are within millimetres of each other.
To make this comparison even more interesting, the M3 here is a rare (1 of 45) 1994 Canadian Edition. Unlike the standard North American spec M3, which came with a dressed-up 3-Series engine with 240 horsepower and 225lb-ft of torque, the 1994 Canadian Edition came with a proper M engine, with goodies like six individual throttle bodies, producing 286 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. To put those numbers in perspective, the Acura NSX, a full-blown supercar of the same era, made less power. This clean example, owned by BMW enthusiast James Kelsall, has 175,000 kilometres on it and is a fine example of the breed.
On paper, the E36 is up against touch competition. In addition to the suspension, the M2 also gets the latest M3’s brakes, steering, electronic M differential lock, and a choice of a 6-speed manual gearbox or M DCT. Interestingly enough, the one bit that isn’t a true M component is the 3.0L, turbocharged inline-6 under the hood. It’s an N55 unit that has been given a few heavy duty internals and cooling bits, which allow it to produce 365 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque. Given the fact that true M engines tend to be a bit finicky and high-strung (S54 or S85 anyone?), simply using a beefier version of the engine from BMW’s non-M models might actually be a minor bonus for reliability and servicing costs.
As it turns out, this carefully chosen set of components is a major win, because the M2 is one of the most engaging, fun to drive cars to come from BMW in a long time. Its chassis is hugely capable, feeling agile and poised with excellent overall balance. It moves with incredible speed, yet it doesn’t have to be canned to be fully enjoyed. It feels alive and thrilling at normal speeds, not just licence-removing speeds. The M DCT gearbox offers both lightening quick gear changes and the ease of use of an automatic. It’s a convincing option, but the standard 6-speed manual would still be my pick for a car as involving as this.
The M2 offers a thrilling driving experience and true track day capability, but not at the expense of daily driver comfort and practicality. Like BMW’s of old, the passively-sprung suspension is tuned one way to do everything well. It’s taut enough for aggressive cornering, yet comfortable enough to handle broken asphalt on the daily commute. The back seats are just spacious enough for two adults to manage, and the trunk is surprisingly large. All sorts of the latest gizmos come as standard equipment, but there’s no sunroof because, for the same reason it lacks electronic suspension, this is meant to be a less complicated M car.
In terms of simplicity, however, the M2’s got nothing on the E36. The interior is basic by modern standards. Luxuries that often get taken for granted, such as leather, power seats, and automatic climate control, are all absent here. This is a more serious driver’s car, and the driving experience reflects that. The sense of theatre and connection to the road are elevated to a level beyond that of the M2. The steering feels alive and the chassis more delicate. The naturally-aspirated engine is no match to the modern car’s turbocharged unit in terms of grunt, but it’s more rewarding to wind out thanks to an intoxicating engine note.
The M3 is, unquestionably, the more involving car here, but it’s not the more well-rounded one. Though it lacks the same sense of occasion, the spirit of the E36 is alive and well in the M2. And for what it gives up in character and involvement, it gains in refinement and daily usability. The E36 would be a pleasurable ride for sunny weekend blasts, whereas the M2 would be pleasurable year-round.
Despite being the cheapest M car in the BMW lineup at $61,000, the M2 is arguably the best of the lot. Not only is it more fun to drive than its larger and heavier showroom mates, it’s a more authentic M car that proudly carries the torch once held by its folkloric predecessors. Anyone who believes that the true M cars are behind us needs to drive the M2, because the Ultimate Driving Machine is alive and kicking.
For more details, please visit the BMW Canada website.