First drive: 2016 BMW M2 Coupe [Review]

The smallest M matures into its heritage.

For as long as BMW has been building a car slotted beneath the 3 Series, BMW enthusiasts have been clamoring for an M version. When the 1 Series finally got that treatment for the 2011 model year, fans rejoiced--until they saw the production caps, anyway.

Since, the BMW faithful have been champing at the bit for a new model below the M3/M4. When the 2 Series replaced the 1, the critical success of the baby M seemed to all but guarantee a successor. The compact model occupies the same segment that the 3 Series once did, making a series-production M variant something of a product planning inevitability.

A ///More perfect unionThe M2 badge is as new as the car. For reasons that are only of interest to BMW enthusiasts, the M2's predecessor wasn't an M-anything, but rather the "1 Series M Coupe." With no such barriers preventing the christening of the 2 Series's high-performance variant, the M2 nameplate was born.

If you're not familiar with BMW's recent naming conventions, even-numbered M variants refer to two-door models and odds refer to four-doors--M3 Sedan vs. M4 Coupe, for example. As such, the M2 is a 2+2, measuring just over 176" in length and weighing in between 3,450 and 3,500lbs depending on configuration (curiously, according to BMW's published figures, it's the manual transmission model that pushes it past the 3,500lb mark).

Subtle flairVisually, the M2 takes the M235i's exterior aggression and dials it up a notch or two. The lower grille and fog light surrounds get a more angular treatment, but the front end is otherwise almost indiscernible from that of its less sporty sibling.

Things change in the profile, however. Where the 2 Series normally boasts a protruding character line that runs from the trailing edge of the front fender all the way to the tail lights, that bulge encounters the M2's punched-out rear fender before it can make it that far. This serves to exaggerate the M2's hips, and betrays the wider rear track and makes room for the 10-inch-wide rear wheels.

The more obvious changes continue in the rear. The most stand-out feature here is a set of four exhaust tips, protruding in matched pairs on either side. The rear reflectors are vertical on the M2 (they're horizontal elsewhere in the 2 Series lineup) and the trunk is finished with a subtle lip spoiler. On the base 2 Series, the character line would wrap around the rear and form the trailing edge of the decklid. Here, a beveled edge sets off the wide fenders from the rest of the rear end.

Interior dress-upThe aesthetic upgrades abound inside as well. Like the exterior, the coupe's interior doesn't go over-the-top, but there's no mistaking this for the cabin of a BMW performance car.

There are "M" badges and M-themed accouterments just about everywhere you look, from the steering wheel to the shift knob, the seat back cushions and the door sills. The wheel is a double-whammy, prominently branded with an "M" logo at its base and also boasting tricolor M-stitching along the inside of the rim.

The seats are an upgrade to those in the M235i outside of their "M" logos and M-blue contrast stitching. If you look carefully, you'll notice the side bolstering is significantly more aggressive.

Our testers were all painted in Long Beach Blue Metallic, making the blue interior stitching a nice match for the paint job. It's found just about everywhere you see leather in the M2's interior, with the curious exception of the parking brake handle. The brake lever boot, however, gets the contrast treatment.

Elsewhere in the cabin, you'll find all the usual go-fast interior dress-up, including extensive use of carbon fiber trim and the occasional suede or Alcantara insert.

As is the trend these days, BMW's infotainment system sits atop the dash with a hide-away-style display mated to BMW's long-enduring iDrive controller. The infotainment suite includes the usual goodies found in premium/luxury performance cars, including navigation, integrated apps (including the GoPro app for control of your cameras and accessories) and various status screens for the car's vital systems. The driver can also customize the M2's driving modes to a degree, though it lacks the level of individualization available from Audi's drive select.

Where it mattersOK, so it looks and feels the part. What's under all that exterior sizzle?

Fundamentally, the M2 is still a 2 Series. It features a MacPherson strut suspension up front and a multi-link setup in the rear. In addition to the aforementioned wider track, the M2 sports wider wheels (19x9s on the front, 19x10s in the rear); correspondingly wider Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires (245/35 ZR19s in front, 265/35 ZR19s out back); along with up-sized brakes featuring four-piston front calipers, two-piston rear calipers and a track-oriented (and Nürburgring-tested) pad compound.

Under the hood, things are bigger and badder too. The wick has been turned up on BMW's TwinPower inline-six. The 3.0L unit makes 365 horsepower at 6,500 RPM and 343lb-ft of torque from 1,400-5,560 RPM. An overboost function thickens up the midrange a bit, adding 26lb-ft to the peak torque figure between 1,450 and 4,750 RPM. BMW is quick to point out that this gives the M2 a heftier torque figure than that of the last-gen M3's V8. Take that for whatever it's worth.

BMW pairs the TwinPower six to two transmissions. The standard gearbox is a six-speed manual. For those who prefer absolute performance to a more engaging drive, a seven-speed M-DCT twin-clutch transmission is also available. For those who choose to row their own, BMW claims a 0-60 sprint will take 4.4 seconds. Upgrading to the M-DCT unit knocks two-tenths off that figure, and the M2's standard launch control feature will make sure it happens every time.

No matter which transmission choice you make, BMW throws in its "Active M Differential," which is an electronically-controlled multi-plate limited slip unit integrated with the M2's chassis management module to deliver optimal lock-up under all conditions.

Putting it to the testTo be a proper sport sedan (a coupe, in this case, but allow us some leeway), a candidate must be equally at home in its more mundane role as a commuter car as it is setting fast laps. BMW gave us the opportunity to do both, allowing us free reign of California's Monterey Peninsula as well as its iconic motorsports venue -- Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

There was a catch, however. While we had access to both six-speed and M-DCT models, their purposes were segregated. The M-DCT was relegated to track duty, and the six-speed kept on the street. Ostensibly, this gives each the chance to shine in its appropriate environment. Frankly, we'd have liked to give both equal time in both settings, but beggars can't be choosers.

By virtue of the event schedule, we first jumped into the M2 in the pit lane at Laguna Seca. After some voluntary recon laps with an instructor, we were set loose behind professional drivers in a lead-follow setup. After a few warm-up laps, our professional guide started to put the pedals down and encourage us to extract all we could from the baby M car.

In hindsight, we'd have done this the other way around and gotten some acclimation time with the M2 on the street to build up familiarity and trust in the machine before hammering it around a world-class race course. As it was, we found the M2 a little tough to read. While it behaved predictably for its size and weight, we couldn't get an accurate feel for the front end. The lack of granularity in the EPS system's feedback was to blame.

We could place the car accurately enough. From the top of the hill before the corkscrew to the left-hander before the front straight was surprisingly easy to execute with precision, but determining the amount of available traction up front going into and out of the faster sections of the track was not so easy. At an unforgiving venue like Laguna Seca, that's mildly disconcerting.

If we'd had the opportunity to feel the car out a bit more on the road before taking to the track, our confidence and comfort level likely would have allowed us to push harder with more confidence early on. Instead, it wasn't until the last couple of laps that we started to trust the front end to be there when we needed it. By then, there was little time to poke and prod at the car's ultimate limits. There's no doubt in our minds that the M2 is an incredibly capable and worthy track partner, but we were never quite able to make it click.

That left us with the street drive portion. Heavier on scenic views than twist and turns, the route took us from Laguna Seca out to Big Sur and back. For us, it functioned as a cool-down session after the hectic environment that was the track test, and with the adrenaline out of our veins and the roads clear of traffic, we were able to settle into the groove that we never found on-track.

What we discovered was strange. Perhaps the cars we had on the course were a little heat-soaked and tired from hours of lapping, or maybe the tuning for the different transmissions just alters the M2's feel more than we'd expect, but driving the big-engined Bimmer on the streets just worked. The engagement of driving a six-speed alone can't explain this, especially since you can only disable its automatic rev-matching software by fully disabling the traction control, but we'd be lying if we said it wasn't a contributor. The acceleration in each gear felt punchier. The steering felt more alive. The car seemed happier than its track-bound brethren.

This isn't a bad thing. Like any car built with more than one mission in mind, the M2 has inherent compromises. It has electric power steering because that contributes to improved fuel economy, but at the expense of steering feel. It has Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires and track-ready brake pads because they allow the M2 to shine on a track, but at the expense of all-weather traction, shiny wheels and, ultimately, the owner's bank account.

Even the ultimate driving machine is ultimately a street-driven one, and as such the compromises should err in that direction. Are we in love with the steering? No, we're not. Are we thrilled with the artificial flavor in the exhaust note? Again, no. But as a package, the M2 works, and without the nickle-and-dime build sheet experience that some other manufacturers put you through.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe 2016 BMW M2 is a worthy addition to the M-car lineup, boasting impressive on- and off-track capability. BMW rarely puts a foot wrong when it comes to its high-performance offerings. The M2 is no exception.

2016 BMW M2 base price, $51,700.As-tested (street): Executive package, $1,250; Long Beach Blue Metallic paint, $550; Destination, $955; total, $54,455As-tested (track): M-DCT transmission, $2,900; Long Beach Blue Metallic paint, $550; Destination, $955; total, $55,150

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior photos courtesy of BMW.

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