Track drive in prototype of BMW’s smallest M car finds not as much attitude as some of its forebears

The second-generation BMW M2 Coupe is a car of which its makers are evidently rather proud, and yet still just a little bit protective and secretive about. So secretive, in fact, as to invite a bunch of journalists to drive it almost a full year ahead of its global market launch; and then to decline to answer certain specific technical questions about it.

Such is the curious, studiously managed game of cat-and-mouse that goes on between specialist media and car manufacturer these days: have a drive a drive, be our guest, love it or hate it - but we’re certainly not telling you how many miles to the gallon it does.

It takes time, and lots of button-twiddling, to get to know a modern M-car; longer than a few laps of a track, at any rate. But while the new M2 is a more complex and versatile car than its forebears, it could ultimately be a more rewarding one too.

A new compact M-car coupe is an exciting prospect though, isn’t it? So along we went. Still technically one of the youngest proper M-cars in BMW’s range as well as the smallest, the M2 has already garnered a dedicated and enthusiastic following. It’s got a deeply traditional positioning for fast BMW and something of a pure heart; it’s a base-of-the-pyramid, core-of-the-brand type of model. It matters - and the designers, engineers and technicians who’ve made it clearly know that better than anyone.

Those people certainly didn’t take lightly a particularly key decision that they had to tackle early in the development of this ‘G87’ model. Unlike the previous-generation ‘F87’-model which itself was based on the ‘F22’-generation 2-Series Coupe and therefore related circuitously to the old rear-driven 1-Series hatchback, the new M2 uses BMW’s ‘Cluster Architecture’ model platform now common to all of Munich’s bigger models right the way up to the BMW 8-Series Coupe and the BMW X7 SUV. And that, it turns out, is an influential technical change for the car.

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“We knew the platform would bring some added size and weight,” explains M Division project dynamics manager Sven Esch, “and we had to decide very early on whether to fight with that weight at every stage, sacrificing many things in order to deliver the lowest figure we could; or to accept and work with it, and simply to use the best technology at our disposal to maximise the car’s performance across the board.”

“In the end, it was an easy decision. On one path, you have to accept many compromises, and in many ways you know that the car you’re developing could offer more. On the other, you get so many benefits in a stronger, faster, more advanced, composed and complete product, with only one trade-off.”

Somehow that sounds like a little bit of a cop-out, doesn’t it; because surely weight imposes penalties throughout a car? Well, not to the key people in this case, evidently. And BMW M clearly isn’t lacking in confidence in the end result. “You can decide for yourself,” Esch goes on, gesturing down an empty pitlane at the Saltzburgring circuit. “But we think those few extra kilos are a minor factor.”

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BMW clearly isn’t quite ready to communicate exactly what the new M2 weighs (our man would say that it’s a figure somewhere between that of the old M2 at 1575kg and of an M4 Coupe at 1725-); but they will admit where the majority of its M Division mechanicals - its axles, chassis braces, gearboxes, active locking rear differential, and its turbocharged six-cylinder ‘S58’  engine - come from. “That decision about weight meant we could take as many components as we liked from the M3 and M4 for this car; and that’s really what we did, because we know how good they are,” admits Esch.

“The engine is dialled back a little bit, running at the same power output as the outgoing M2 CS [444bhp] rather than the same level as the M4. The steering, rear differential and stability control all have new calibrations, in order to work on a car that’s 110mm shorter-in-the-wheelbase than an M4. The only hardware changes we made were to fit a firmer coil spring at the front axle to sharpen turn-in; to soften the spring fitted at the rear axle a little, to make the car feel more agile mid-corner and a bit more ‘fun’; and to adopt the uprated adaptive dampers we made for the new M3 Touring, which allow us to replace some of the lateral support that the softer rear suspension spring has cost.” 

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When complicated vehicle engineering is summarised so simply, you wonder why engineering and validation takes years and not weeks. But Sven’s description makes it sound as if the new M2 is some kind of dainty twin sibling of the bigger M4 when, looking at it even under fairly heavy disguise, you can see it’s got it’s own distinct footprint and outline. 

It’s a bit more traditional and less aggressive in its detailing than an M4, but wider-arched and more vacuum-packed in its body volumes also. Not quite as deliciously compact as the old M2 was, and especially not the impish 1M Coupe. But still smallish, and also stubby enough in the hindquarters and long enough in the bonnet to visually convey that sense of energy and top-level, rear-driven power in its stance which so many great compact M cars have traded on over the years. This is a car that looks ready to get off down the road.

The M2 will come to the UK market, all the way from the Mexican production base it shares with the regular 2-Series Coupe, in April 2023. When it does, it’ll be a purer, simpler offering than the M4 it’s related to: rear-wheel drive only, marketed in only one power output and derivative trim level (if they do a ‘competition’ version it won’t be until much later), and available with a six-speed manual gearbox and three pedals or as an eight-speed paddleshift auto. That last factor could make for a particularly hot reception from more traditional UK-based BMW M-car fans who might have liked an M4 manual but have been denied the chance to buy one thus far.

Fairly heavy disguise covered the interiors of both manual and automatic M2s presented to us for initial track testing, and so there’s little to report with any certainty about cabin layout and specification. Both cars had good, low, enticing driving positions and well-located primary controls, though, as well as all-digital instrument displays with extra ‘head-up’ instrument projectors. 

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BMW’s standard seat for the car has a useful mix of easy-sliding hop-in accessibility and comfort, and plenty of lateral support and adjustability for on-road driving. The big-bolstered carbon-shelled buckets of the M3 and M4 will be options, which allow you to sit even lower and considerably better-located and -supported at the controls. The latter are so downright effective that, with regular track driving in mind, you’d have them without a second thought. They’re comfortable enough, too - but perhaps not as easy to berth and exit gracefully as some of your passengers might like.

Two six-lap sessions of the Salzburgring, one each in the manual and automatic, was what we had to get to know the M2; and sadly no road driving. Luckily the Austrian circuit has a varied mix of gradients and undulations, and both fast stability-testing bends and tighter, balance-checking turns with which to form an initial impression.

It turned out to be the impression of a car that’s far from lacking in outright potency, and which is very dynamically capable indeed; but also critically different from the compact M-car mould that its various predecessors have set out. Agile, keen and engaging; but another few degrees more precise, settled, composed and ‘on your side’ than were the most memorable versions of the last M2, which was itself that bit less rambunctious than the 1M Coupe before it.

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You just expect a certain ‘gobby scrumhalf’ charm from a downsized M coupe, don’t you? The kind to make up for in spirit what the car might lack in outright size, power or pace relative to higher-level performance cars. Well, the new M2 doesn’t actually lack much of any of those things, in this iteration at least; and it’s a little bit more interested in simply getting on with the job at hand than sounding off or flexing its muscles when you drive it quickly.

The car handles flat in the body and quite keenly as you turn in - but it’s not overly firm-feeling in its ride, it’ll stick faithfully to its line, and it’s well capable of filtering a mid-corner bump with its adaptive dampers and relatively supple rear axle, rather than hopping and fidgeting over bigger inputs like some of its predecessors have. Only the M2 CS ever had adaptive shocks hitherto; the new one, meanwhile, has BMW’s transformative steering-wheel-mounted M1 and M2 setup buttons, and can therefore flip character as quick as a flash. It’ll go where it’s pointed fast and with confidence-inspiring consistency, and stays clear in its messaging and progressive at the margins of grip. Rear-drive limit handling is adjustable and ready to rotate into a slide too, if you want it to; but the car’s certainly not itching to be juggled and tussled with, or to catch you unawares.

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Does that make it feel like quite as much fun, at both low speeds and high, as some of its antecedents, I wonder? It’s just a little bit open to question - but it’s probably too early to say for sure; especially since we’ve no idea about its road handling manners. But it has all the power and performance it needs and then some, even without the close-stacked intermediate ratios of BMW’s eight-speed automatic gearbox, so it’s no shrinking violet. The manual offers good pedal feel and linear responses under your toes, as well as that familiar springy, slightly long-throw BMW manual shift action.

“We know how important it is that this car has lots of fun-factor,” says Sven Esch, “but we’re convinced that making it an up-to-date modern M car, with all of the grip, chassis composure, high-speed stability and handling precision you expect of our latest cars, was the right decision. The M2 now has everything it needs, and all the systems flexibility of the bigger cars also, so you can choose to drive it exactly how you want. The more you play with it, the better it gets.”