M2: BMW’s 365bhp go-kart, CAR+ November 2015

Published: 14 October 2015

► BMW M2, a mini muscle M car
► No limits on muscular body
► Lighter weight, more power 

Flip a few pages further through this issue and you will find Georg Kacher’s review of the newly enhanced Mercedes AMG A45. The very definition of the suddenly fecund mega-compact sector, this is a four-wheel drive, 376bhp, 2.0-litre turbo-four A-class, now upgraded with a front limited-slip diff and capable of 0-62mph in 4.2sec. It follows (very) hot on the heels of the second-generation Audi RS3 Sportback, another all-wheel-drive family-sized monster, this one with a 362bhp 2.5-litre turbo-five capable of propelling it 0-62mph in 4.3sec.

Confident statements of significant intent, both. But look closely and you’ll see signs of nerves: a shivering door mirror here, a tiny unanticipated dribble of fluid there. And the reason is staring you in the face – this is the new BMW M2.

Having already slapped the competition around a bit with the M235i – a mere ‘M Performance’ version of the 2-series coupe – M Division has now decided to get serious. Like the limited production 1M Coupe before it, the M2 isn’t so much a jumped up cooking compact as it is a pared down M3, making it something akin to an automotive gym junkie with an addiction to fat-shredding supplements. We’re talking maximum muscle, little frippery, rear-wheel drive – and the kind of personality that comes with a dangerous glint in its eye.

Bespoke engine, but M2’s chassis and transmisssion are heavily M3/M4 inspired

What does that mean? Not the full 425bhp M3 and M4 engine – imagine! – but a 365bhp M TwinPower turbocharged straight-six of similar 3.0-litre capacity, which BMW’s head of M Division Frank van Meel describes as ‘in between’ those fitted to the M2’s greater and lesser siblings: ‘We pushed up the performance of the M235i engine, but that couldn’t be done by just doing some software. So we changed the pistons, we changed the way the crankshaft is integrated into the engine, and we took parts from the M3 engine.’

For the record, the result is a 43bhp increase over the 322bhp M235i, while the quoted 343lb ft of torque is an 11lb ft improvement – still some way shy of the M3’s 406lb ft. But this M3 face-saving Frankenstein vibe gives way to pure cloning with the wholesale deployment of big brother’s gearboxes and chassis components. This propagates a choice of standard M-grade six-speed manual or optional seven-speed M-DCT twin-clutch automatic when it comes to swapping cogs, and a much, much wider set of wheelarches.

‘The M235i is a success story. We sold 9000 units last year, which accounts for 30% of the overall volume. So we were not in a hurry to do any M2,’ says van Meel. ‘Especially if you look at comparison tests of M235i against its competition, there really wouldn’t be a need. But we said, okay, we want to do one. So the differentiation to M235i, which is already a winner, must be really big. So more or less we’ve made a supercar out of the 2-series by putting the M3 chassis under the 2-series car.’

He isn’t just talking about the M3’s forged aluminium suspension components, which are lighter, stiffer and considerably broader than the standard 2-series kit – the M3/M4 has a 1579/1603mm front/rear track, the M235i 1521/1556mm; those arches aren’t for show – but also the M Dynamic Mode driving setting and the Active M Differential. The former flips the car’s personality from fast cruiser to serious bruiser, adjustingthe steering, the drivetrain and the M Adaptive suspension, while the latter combines the potency of a locking gear set with an electronic brain that uses your current driving data to decide whether the diff should be open, partially locked or 100% welded, delivering the optimum dynamic control in any particular set of circumstances. Maybe the M3 and M4 should be getting nervous, too.

‘I don’t think so,’ chuckles Van Meel. ‘Because M3 and M4 are a little bit more, uh, adult, and M2 is going to be really, I don’t want to use the word kinky, but it’s more a go-kart. And of course it still has the package of the 2-series. It’s the entry drug for the M boys, but it’s more like the 1-series M Coupe, and that also existed next to M3 at the time, and was just completely different – the character of this car is completely different too.’

Designers looked to the E30 M3 for inspiration, then presumably chose to ignore its boxy brilliance

It’s also not quite as fast. Van Meel says the M2’s target weight is sub-1500kg, which would be down from the M235i’s 1530kg best (though M Division said the same thing about M3 and M4, and they ended up at 1572 and 1595kg) and go some way towards compensating for the power and torque deficit. But the M2 still needs a couple of tenths more to get to 62mph, taking 4.3sec with the M-DCT and 4.5sec with the manual. If you’re thinking that’s also behind the new AMG A45, and merely on par with the RS3, remember the M2 is relying on its rear wheels alone to put that performance to the tarmac; we’re dealing with a different kind of hardcore here. That word kinky comes up again, to the consternation of Van Meel’s attendant press officer, but it resonates strongly. M2 is going to be a wild ride. 

As for price, well, the M235i starts at just over £35k, the M4 just over £57k (the M3 ever so slightly less), so there’s plenty of wriggle room in between – but since both of the M2’s existing rivals just creep in at under £40k, we’re expecting M Division to be equally aggressive with its power-per-pound ratio, and production won’t be limited this time around.

Options will include an M Driver’s Package, to increase the electronic spoilsport from the usual 250km/h (155mph) to 270km/h (168mph) – ‘because there are a lot of cars on the German autobahn that can do 250,’ says van Meel. M2 customers will want to leave them behind. This stuff matters.

Keeping costs under control, van Meel and BMW’s recently appointed head of design Karim Habib confirm that the M2’s distended bodywork isn’t made of anything exotic, just the usual steel accessorised with aluminium. The look is new, though.

‘I wouldn’t say it’s a departure, but it’s a strong evolution for our M cars,’ Habib postulates, referring specifically to the downturned ‘winglet’ elements in those side air intakes at the front, set to become a new M theme. Habib is also particularly taken with the way the shoulder line fades out above the tail lamps, emphasising the M2’s muscularity. He cites the E30 M3 as a specific influence. We like Habib. ‘I’m really happy with the way it turned out!’ he says.

Transmission options are a seven-speed twin clutch DCT or six-speed M-grade manual

There are four colour choices: white, black, grey and the pictured Long Beach Blue. The wheels are lightweight 19s, with M Compound brakes lurking behind them, and you get a twin-exit sports exhaust. On the inside it’s black leather with blue stitching, with a choice of regular sports seats or optional Recaros – the usual overly-chunky M steering wheel appearing as the only downer in the entire exercise thus far.

The proof will be in the driving, of course. But we have a hunch M2 won’t disappoint. Asked how excited he is about this car, van Meel responds: ‘I think the main point about this car is that M Division put all of its emotions into this vehicle. We do this always, but in the M2 it’s driven to the top. It’s a no-compromise car. Everything we could do, we did. Because we can.’

BMW M2: the rivals

‘If you look at sales of AMG’s A45, if you look at RS3, you see that in this market there is rapid growth’ – Frank van Meel on why BMW is building the M2 now

Powers now been tweaked to 376bhp in the Merc A45 AMG

Mercedes-AMG A45

It’s always been powerful, but AMG’s improved the way the A45 drives as well as pumping power to 376bhp

The Audi RS3 sits with the higher (optional) 174mph limiter

Audi RS3 Sportback

362bhp RS3 wins the autobahn GP, with an optional 174mph limiter – the M2 and A45 are pegged at 168mph

The Golf R420 certainly has the most amount of power, but with the dieselgate scandal in full swing, let's hope it survives

VW Golf R420

Mad 414bhp 2.0-litre turbo Golf is set to make production in 2016, assuming VW survives the #dieselgate fallout

Stepping into a ring dominated by German engineering, the new 4wd Focus RS packs the lightest punch in terms of power, but drift mode could boost fun

Ford Focus RS

Like all M2 rivals the 345bhp Focus is awd not rwd, but a ‘drift mode’ promises to make it steer from the rear

By CJ Hubbard

Head of the Bauer Automotive Hub, road tester, organiser, extremely variable average wheel count