2016 BMW M2 Review: A Driver’s Car for the Ages

2016 BMW M2

2016 BMW M2 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The old adage goes: “Never drive your heroes.” And as far as new cars go (it debuted just this past January at the Detroit Auto Show), the BMW M2 is a bona fide, real deal, card carrying hero. It’s been hailed as the most important enthusiast car to come from BMW in years, and a successor to either the ’60s-era 2002tii, the original E30 M3, the 2011 1 Series M coupe, or some combination of the three. Jeremy Clarkson named it his favorite M car of all-time. It’s graced more magazine covers than its rivals, the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 4Matic, and Audi S3 combined. And as the M3, M4, and M5 are getting powerful enough to overwhelm their respective chassis, the M2 promises to be the true driver’s car of the greatest performance division in the world.

It’s the automotive equivalent of the five-tool player being called up without spending a day in the minors, a LeBron-like small forward getting drafted out of high school, or a rookie quarterback starting week one in the NFL. After months of greatests, bests, and other superlatives heaped onto this little car, we were nervous that the M2 couldn’t possibly live up to its divine, all-things-to-all-men performance car reputation. That’s just too much for any semi-affordable real-world performance car.

2016 BMW M2

2016 BMW M2 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

And yet, it does.

So far as heroes go, the M2 is the athlete that stops to shake your hand and chat and pose for the selfie with you and photos with your kids and signs everything you hand them. It’s the cheapest capital-S-Supercar on the planet. At $54,495 fully-loaded, the M2 will get you nods of approval from 911 owners, Ferrari guys, and Lambo bros. It’s the de rigueur driver’s car to have, after all, and by now, just about every gearhead on the planet knows it. And like most modern supercars, there’s just enough input from the car to make you feel like a better driver than you probably are; when you’re taking the twisties at your max it makes you feel like the hero. And like a true pal, if you don’t need nannies, it’s set up so they’re refreshingly easy to turn off.

But performance aside, it’s also a surprisingly livable car. It’s notably small, but it’s plenty roomy inside, and there’s enough trunk space that you won’t need to make many sacrifices on a big grocery run or weekend trip. We wouldn’t want to be dealing with two child seats in the back, but other than that, it’s quiet (when you want it to be), comfortable, and well behaved, like you’d expect from any daily driver. In our week daily driving an M2 we fell head-over-heels for the thing. Of every car we’ve tested this year, this one was the hardest to give back. 

Exterior

2016 BMW M2

2016 BMW M2 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The first thing you notice about the M2 is its size. It’s small; at 14.5 feet long and six feet wide, it’s small for a modern car – especially a modern performance car – and it looks it. For reference, the ’86 E30 M3 was 14.3 feet long and 5.5 feet wide. The current M4 (nee M3 Coupe) is comparatively massive at 15.5 feet long and 6.3 feet wide. This gives the M2 its classic BMW coupe proportions, and draws its comparisons to the 2002tii, E30, and 1-Series M. It has a tall, airy greenhouse that offers great visibility, and the long hood/short deck design screams performance in a way that never gets old.

And the M2’s aero kit and flared fenders also convey power without going too deep into boy racer territory. The corners are stretched 3.1 inches in the rear and 2.1 in the front to accommodate 19-inch wheels, and the big air dam up front cools the turbocharged straight-six. Overall, the aerodynamic revisions account for a 35% reduction in lift, which will come in handy if you plan on driving the thing in anger, like it’s supposed to be.

Exterior pros and cons

2016 BMW M2

2016 BMW M2 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Of the four available colors, our car’s Long Beach Blue Metallic is the one to get. It’s a $550 option, but it’s the one that will forever be associated with the M2.

+ Some of the best proportions of any car on the market, regardless of segment.

+ Long hood/short deck and tall greenhouse bring comparisons to BMW legends. Bring ’em on.

– The aero isn’t too in-your-face, but you don’t exactly have a sleeper on your hands either.

– The M2 certainly has its angles, but its bulging lines lead to a few that aren’t great either.

– Fake fender intake is a nod to the bigger M cars, but it’s still a fake intake.  

Powertrain

2016 BMW M2

2016 BMW M2 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

If you’re cynical, then M2 is the greatest parts-bin car on the planet. If you’re not, then it’s an ingenious use of BMW’s performance components. While the company’s M cars have historically used S-designated engines (S14, S54, S65, etc.), the M2 has the N55, a straight-six engine that was found in the 3 Series between 2009 and 2015, and currently powers the more buttoned-down M235i. But this is no stock mill; BMW added high-compression pistons, and crankshaft main bearing shells from the current M3/M4. It also receives a new sump with extra baffle, an oil-return pump (for serious track duty), a thorough computer reprogramming for a bigger turbo boost, and a rerouted oil system for said turbo.

On top of the M3/M4 bits under the hood, the littlest M car borrows its 19-inch rolling stock and brakes from the M4, and its front and rear subframes, suspensive, and cutting-edge active differential from the bigger cars too. The result is a stiff, competent, and powerful performance car that sticks to the road like glue, out-handles more powerful cars, and overall drives like an M Division greatest hits package.

BMW offers a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic – one of the best in the business – as one of the few options on the M2, but our car had the more exciting standard six-speed manual. On top of near-perfect 50/50 weight distribution with the manual gearbox, it has a smooth little short-shifter with a light clutch, and directs the N55’s 365 horses and 369 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels with ease. The M2’s engine, gearbox, and suspension work together in such harmony that you’re surprised they weren’t designed from scratch to work with each other.

Powertrain pros and cons

2016 BMW M2|James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

2016 BMW M2 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ The 365-horse N55 may not have been designed for this car, but it feels like it was.

+ World-class handling in any situation.

+ Short-throw shifter and light clutch are fantastic, and won’t tire you out in stop-and-go traffic

– Suspension is pretty unforgiving on rough roads.

– Like all modern performance BMWs, simulated engine noise is pumped into the cabin via the stereo to augment the real thing. 

Interior

2016 BMW M2

2016 BMW M2 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Like the narrow, upright exterior, the M2’s interior is a bit of an old-school throwback. The first thing you notice is the black plastic – lots and lots of black plastic. Then you may notice the rough, textured raw carbon fiber accents that break up the monotony a little bit. Or maybe the Long Beach Blue accent stitching on the seats, door cards, and shifter, or red/blue/purple M Division stitching on the steering wheel. Or the cigarette lighter.

Behind the beefy steering wheel (which is lovely and appropriately retro, reminding us of the ’80s/’90s M-Tech wheel) is an upright, narrow instrument panel with two big analog gauges that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a first-generation 3-Series. There are modern-day comforts like the iDrive wheel on the console, and infotainment screen atop the dash, but all that black, and no-nonsense instrumentation, gives it a timeless vibe that recalls some of BMW’s most legendary cars.

There isn’t much room in those back seats, but up front, the power sport seats with electronic lumbar and bolster support are fantastic, and keep you comfortable whether you’re pushing the car to the limit, or cruising along in highway traffic. They’re so comfortable, in fact, that they do wonders softening the blow from that firm suspension on rough roads.

Interior pros and cons

2016 BMW M2

2016 BMW M2 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Business-like and old-school in all the right ways.

+ One of the best steering wheels in the business, and the simple, analog instrument panel behind it telegraphs that this is a driver’s car.

+ The seats keep the front passengers comfortable in everything from stop-and-go traffic to spirited driving.

– The carbon fiber breaks things up texturally, and the contrast stitching is nice, but there’s a lot of black in here.

– Those simple, analog instruments can get washed out in bright sunlight.

– Don’t plan on using the back seats much unless you have some very short friends.

Tech and safety

2016 BMW M2

2016 BMW M2 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The BMW 2 Series earned itself a “Safety Pick +” rating from the IIHS, and that carries over to the M2. That said, aside from from the Active Driving Assistant system available in the Executive Package, there isn’t much added safety tech to weigh the car down. Instead, BMW has focused on tools that make the M2 go faster, and easier to handle at speed.

The M2’s biggest safety assets are likely its aforementioned M4 ventilated brakes, which are four-piston up front, and two-piston out back. They stop the car without biting too much, and are as manageable in traffic as they are on the back roads.

But the most noteworthy tech in the M2 are its driving modes. In “Comfort,” it’s a fun, lively car that zips through traffic and still crackles a little when you let off the accelerator. But in “Sport” and “Sport+,” it becomes an entirely different animal. The suspension firms up even more, the steering gets a little heavier, and the straight six really comes to life. This little flick of a switch is where the car transforms from a 2 Series into a full-fledged M Car. And while we’d like to keep it in Sport+ all the time, Comfort keeps the car on its best behavior in rain or traffic, and does wonders in making this car a convincing daily driver.

Tech and safety pros and cons

2016 BMW M2

2016 BMW M2 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ With its dash-mounted infotainment screen and console-mounted iDrive wheel, there’s nothing in the M2 that’s out of place for anyone who’s familiar with other BMW models.

+ “Sport+” is what you want to be driving in for the full M2 experience.

+ That said, comfort makes it a joy to drive in any condition too.

– Don’t come here looking for added tech; the Executive Package offers some goodies, but this is a driver’s car.

The drive

2016 BMW M2

2016 BMW M2 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The M2’s Jekyll-and-Hyde personality is this: playful puppy and world-class corner-carver. In day-to-day traffic, you go about your business quietly and comfortably, but when you hit that fifth stop sign in a row, you rev close to the 7,000 RPM redline and smile to yourself as you shift up and listen to the tailpipes cackle – one engine sound that BMW doesn’t pipe into the cabin. But it never tires you out; it’s there for you, and the light clutch, comfortable seats, and well-bred road manners make it a joy to drive even on the most routine errands.

But on the open roads, it’s a pure, visceral driving experience that ranks as one of the best in the world. We had the Michelin Sport Cups singing as we wound through the country roads of the Poconos, shifting down for a corner, then shifting into fourth and letting the car pull and pull and pull. After a few hours of this, and dodging the wrath of the State Troopers (they only stopped by while we were taking pictures), it was back to Comfort mode, and a long, crowded highway drive back to the city. Quiet, comfortable, and smooth, just like it was all a dream.

Wrap up and review

2016 BMW M2

2016 BMW M2 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The M2 is too complex and pricy to be the second coming of the 2002tii. It’s too heavy to be the next E30 M3, and it has too much carry-over from other models to be another 1 Series M. But that’s fine. The M2 is the M2, and frankly, there’s nothing else out there like it. It’s a pure driver’s car; there are flashier and faster performance cars out there, but chances are they aren’t this easy to drive every day or as easy to push to the limit while staying somewhere close to the boundaries of the law.

BMW’s latest M Car isn’t an attempt to recapture past glory; instead it’s a throwback to the gentleman’s track car. It’s a true “race on Sunday, drive on Monday” machine – though we’d recommend changing the tires after a track day. The only car in its price range that offers as much fun on the street as it does on the track is the Shelby GT350. But while the Snake is more powerful, its exotic Voodoo V8 and interior compromises would make it a lot harder to live with every day.

The M2 then, really can be all things to all men. It’s a special car: one that people have been talking about for months now, and one that they’ll be talking about for years to come. But you can also drive it every day. Just buy a set of winter tires, and you’ll likely be set. And the good news is that BMW isn’t making it a limited-run model like the frustratingly scarce 1 Series M, so there will hopefully be plenty to go around. But go out and buy one the next chance you get, because in a decade or two when they start appreciating as fast as the E30 M3, we old-timers will be kicking ourselves over how we could’ve gotten one at sticker price way back when, and debating how BMW’s latest performance coupe stacks up to the legendary M2.

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