OT review: the 2018/9 BMW M2, midterm

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I make no secret of the fact that I’m a bit of a petrolhead; at least to the extent possible in Malaysia given the heftiness of our taxes and limited market affordability leading to a fairly uninspiring range of choices for the motoring enthusiast. That’s partially offset by affordable petrol and lax speeding enforcement, but given the state of traffic in Kuala Lumpur – the opportunities to enjoy it are few and far between. Nevertheless, I’ve often made my transportation choices emotionally driven rather than rational; the last time I did the latter, it was competent but not very fun. My options boiled down to either something completely impractical but fun (like a Lotus Elise) but cheap enough to afford a second family car where I would spend most of my time (and thus itself have to be tolerably interesting) – or something that could do double duty and have four seats (but not necessarily four doors). Some of you may recall I had a Z4 some time back. It turns out the limits of the car weren’t that high, no matter what one did to the underlying oily bits – there remained this delayed feeing to the steering that felt too indirect and vague for my liking. And whilst the 2.0T motor put out a healthy ~300bhp at the crank after tuning and on the right fuel, there was always a feeling of fragility given how often it would knock if not on RON 98 or RON 100. Fast forwarding a bit though several sensible diversions, I arrived at the M2 after a) waiting a very long time for a manual transmission and giving up, and b) somewhat regretting the F56 Mini Cooper S I purchased previously.

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It turns out I’d waited so long that not only was there one available, it was the facelifted (minor changes to suspension, engine mapping, cosmetics around the lights, interior trims and dashboard) version. And then two days after paying the deposit, the M2 Competition was announced*. Fortunately or unfortunately – it wouldn’t be available in Malaysia, and even if it was, I’d expect nothing less than a silly waiting list given both international anticipation how long it took just to get a ‘normal’ M2. Apparently we locally assemble most models sold here, so we don’t get standard build slots – dealers have to fight HQ for them to be slipped into the queue somewhere. The real kicker out of all of this is simply that there are no test drives for exotic metal before you buy – you do so in blind faith that it won’t be bad. I figured the M3 was pretty good and most of the reviewers I respect said the M2 was even better, so why not? The obvious question is why not just go for the larger, four door M3: aside from the size, and the near-50% increase in cost over an M2 here, it also felt quite…well, boring at anything other than extralegal speeds. Too grown up, too secure, too unshakeable and not very dramatic (other than the torque wave which demands respect on everything other than a dry surface and in a straight line, and even then…) – in other words, not fully usable. I wanted something usable enough to make normal commutes special and fun at civil speeds, but powerful enough to still feel fast. And I feel strongly about buying a performance car new, because I intend to use it – and I want to know how it’s been driven and maintained to give me the confidence that it’s going to do what I expect it to do when pushed. (And having attended manufacturer track days and seeing how the demo cars were treated, I really would not recommend going that route).

*This one, a major change: S55 engine and adaptive dampers from the M3/M4, larger 6-pot brakes from the standard M5, new seats, adjustable everything and the all-important M buttons on the steering wheel.

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Fortunately, it turns out that the auto hacks were right: the M2 is really something quite special. What makes it so isn’t power, grip, acceleration, handling, luxury or any one single area: it’s really embodied by the term balance. Firstly, it’s the right size – slightly shorter (but wider) than an E90 3-series, and about the same width as the previous E46 M3; this makes it feel compact, nimble and precise. But it’s not so small (like my previous Mini) that you feel stability starting to be compromised at higher speeds, or interior room limited with more occupants; it has the stability of a much larger car. Secondly, the power delivery is linear – the single-turbo N55 3.0 straight-six is not explosive and abrupt like the torquey S55 twin-turbo six in the M3/M4; the torque builds in a way that you can modulate it with your right foot rather than being a constant plateau. It feels turbocharged, but in a progressive way. There has been much debate about the engine not being a ‘real’ M engine since it lacks some things (what things?) and the ‘S’ designation of its larger brothers; however it has the forged pistons and crank from the S55, along with uprated everything else. It doesn’t feel inadequate in any way, and for the first time – I am of the opinion that whilst the chassis can handle more power (more on this shortly), the experience wouldn’t necessarily be improved by it. 370bhp isn’t a huge number in today’s world; there are trucks and family minivans that probably have more. But none of them deploy it quite in the same way the M2 does: you can really use almost all of the power all of the time, because the chassis is simply so well balanced. That’s probably a good thing, because most tuners have examined the M2 and concluded that significant work is required before the engine can produce more power reliably; there are no quick gains to be had.

We can’t talk about the powertrain without discussing the gearbox: I wanted the manual; slower be damned. I got the DCT, which is better around town since your left foot doesn’t get tired, but really is poor as an automatic driven slowly. It either holds on to gears too long or changes up too early, leaving you with insufficient torque when you’d expect it; you’re just better off driving it as a manual, in which case the ‘box is fantastic: instant changes in sport plus, and civilised but fast ones in other modes. Just beware as the car tends to roll backwards on hills – there’s no creep from standstill in forward or reverse gears until you give it a prod with the throttle. BMW somewhat overcomes this by having a brake hold function for a few seconds to allow you to switch your right foot between pedals before the car starts to slip.

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This brings me to the next Big Thing: the M2 has electric power steering, but a passive suspension setup. The comfort/sport/sport plus settings do nothing other than alter steering weight, throttle mapping and tractor control; you need sport plus to do slides, have launch control and open the exhaust valve for a better soundtrack, but it isn’t really necessary. It’s one of the few modern cars where pressing buttons and changing modes doesn’t really change the character of the car that much: this is a good thing; since the modern era BMWs, I’ve come to prefer a single setup that’s well sorted rather than a host of ones that are not-quite-there; comfort tends to be lazy and unresponsive, and sport plus hard and jerky. Actually, the M2’s best mode is probably the one labelled TRACTION; pressing the traction control button briefly relaxes the traction control, allowing for the back to move around a bit rather than switching it off entirely (that requires a long press) but also enables a little easter egg: an engine map that alters timing and fuelling so that you get pops, crackles and burbles on downshifting. It’s immature, but immensely entertaining especially in tunnels and carparks. I suspect it would sound better still with the bypass valves open and this mode engaged, but you don’t get both – bypass valves are the preserves of Sport and Sport Plus only, with no accompanying crackles.

In this case, lack of adaptive anything means the car always handles, accelerates and grips the same. It means you know how it’s going to behave all the time, and the limits don’t change with the modes (as they would with adjustable dampers). It’s predictable and usable; your muscle memory learns this car’s responses over time and provides inputs intuitively. I’ve had moments in the wet and at the limits of grip (and perhaps prudence) where the beginnings of a slide were felt and caught with a small wrist flick; the point is you can feel things coming; if you don’t catch it, then you probably weren’t paying attention. You’d think that a single suspension mode would be inadequate for hard driving or too stiff around the usual urban potholes; surprisingly, this has perhaps the best passive damping setup I’ve driven. Body roll is present but minor, and telegraphs grip levels – which are immense, both as a consequence of a wide track, suspension geometry from a much larger/heavier car, and super sticky Michelin Pilot Supersports (245/19 front, 265/19 rear) as standard. The limits are much higher than you think – and only safely approachable on a track. Yet hard bumps are damped and feel rounded off; there’s no crashiness, but instead plenty of information coming through the seat and steering wheel.

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One of the four things I believe would elevate this car from outstanding to legendary is the steering: sadly, eco-concerns have robbed us of the fantastic hydraulic steering we got up to the E90 generation; those wheels felt alive. This electric setup is a lot better than the Z4’s (and subsequent models) – but still not as good as fluids. I don’t have much to say about the brakes other than I’ve never found them inadequate; 380mm rotors with 4 piston callipers upfront do a good job without fade, but have this odd duality of feel – normal road-car at the upper portion of pedal travel where position is proportional to braking force; yet this feels insufficient for hard driving. The stopping power is there, you just have to press harder – the pedal doesn’t move much further, but you get a lot more bite. (This is actually quite similar to race cars, allowing for better pedal modulation). You get used to it eventually. The other two things are minor: it really needs front parking sensors so you don’t scrape the low lip; and the ‘upgraded’ Harman Kardon sound system is still pretty poor. I park conservatively, and replaced the stock speakers with Bowers + Wilkins units from the M760 – surprisingly, a straight interchange with no modifications to the mounts required. Lastly, the bear in the room: it maintains the standard 1/2-series fuel tank, which is a woefully small 50 litres. 50 litres! For a car that returns 20mpg on average in town when driven carefully, or high-20s-not-quite-30 on a highway cruise, this makes for extremely limited range. You genuinely do get range anxiety in traffic jams if below half – it’s worst at low speeds in start-stop crawls. And you tend to fill it up very often because it just makes you want to drive it.

You’ll notice I’ve said nothing about the way the car looks – that’s highly subjective. Personally, I like the aggressiveness – especially the fender flares – but in some areas it’s a bit too much (the front ‘fangs’) and the integration of the rear bumper is a bit bulgy. Yet despite this, it’s still a normal 2-series coupe in practicality, which means a surprisingly large rear bench (though two seats, not three) that has as much head and legroom as my previous E90 3-series. Let’s just say the toddler doesn’t complain, and can’t reach far enough to kick my seat. The materials are very good, but you can tell it’s still got origins from the bottom of the BMW family tree; there are some hard plastics which you wouldn’t find in say a 7-series. There are nice touches, too – open-weave carbon fibre panels on dash and door, widescreen touch-panel for the infotainment system, and a clever dash design that mimics the cleanness of an LCD – but has real mechanical gauges, which I actually like better than LCD panels. The steering wheel and gear knob – the two most important touchpoint in any car – are really spot on. I do wish they’d kept to the old centre-return indicators though; the new ones stay down, which is confusing after so many generations of BMW where they were trying to convince us the opposite was the ‘right’ way to do things!

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I hate to use the word ‘compromise’ because of its typically negative connotations, but that’s what the M2 is: perhaps the best compromise out there today, in the best possible way. It is a perfect balancing act (note that word again) between practicality and performance, and more importantly, genuinely accessible, useable performance that involves the driver and rewards an effort made to learn the car and its limits. It’s fast enough to show a clean pair of heels to anything not exotic, and yet remain easy to drive daily, with good visibility (not something you can say of a lot of sportscars) and a comfortable interior, with the conveniences and usability you’d expect of an evolved design. There aren’t any really strange quirks or major deal breakers; even maintenance isn’t a disaster (in Malaysia, BMW includes all costs for the first five years of ownership). You can drive quickly and smoothly and not feel any less stable at speed than if you were in a much larger car (like the previous G12 730i we owned) – or make your passengers leave marks on their seats. And that sound when you start it? Mechanical music of the very best kind. It’s the only car I’ve driven in recent memory that makes you look for any excuse to take it out – which is reflected in the odometer climbing at double my usual pace – and perhaps the highest compliment I can give. For once: the hype was true. MT

Photographic notes: this series was shot with a Hasselblad H6D-100c, mostly the 150mm (some 35-90mm), three naked speedlights triggered with pocket wizards, and postprocessed with PS Workflow III. Modern cars tend to be a strange mix of concave and convex surfaces designed to look good (obviously) and catch light in such a way as to appear interesting; this helps us as photographers because unless a car is very convex, you tend not to need big modifiers. Metallic paint helps, too. The biggest challenge here? Color. The M2’s signature shade is ‘Long Beach Blue’, which shifts from blue to green (and is usually somewhere between turquoise and cyan) depending on light – the front and back of the car really can appear two different colors depending on what ambient is doing. This is where a grey card and a perfectly calibrated sensor come in handy.

Sadly, there are no referrals for this and you can’t get one off Amazon…

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. I don’t know why you bothered talking about indicators, most BMW drivers don’t seem to know what they are…..

  2. Patrick Kristiansen says:

    Colour me jealous! That is my dreamcar right there. Lovely portraial of it too.

    Though living in rural Norway, I’d have to go for the M240i Xdrive. And with Norwegian taxpolicies, it will be a 220i Xdrive. The M’s cost $80-90000 around here. Even fourteen year old e46 M3’s are easily $50000. In Norway, horsepower equals drowned polarbears, so they charge accordingly.

    • I’m all for polar bears (probably more than the next guy) but modern technology has meant that horsepower and environmental impact aren’t necessarily correlated anymore…my M2 for instance uses less fuel and has comparable CO2 emissions to the Honda Civic I had from about ten years ago. And there are still plenty of those on the roads. Our taxes are simply down to government protectionism for the local car industry and their inability to make something economical or desirable (or both), forcing price measures to make people buy them…

  3. Andrea Pizzini says:

    I really loved reading this! I found it refreshing to hear you talking about soemthing else than camera gear. Wish I could own the M2 one day 😦
    Greatings from Andrea….sonyalpharumors.com

  4. Samuel Jessop says:

    Great write up. I am in the middle of a car free period, trying to save and having nowhere to park, but this makes me miss being behind the wheel. I also greatly miss having a tripod with me all the time.

    The reproduction of the paint colour here is really special by the way.

  5. Gibran Hashim says:

    Interesting to note that they’re locally built. I always thought the local M cars were CBU. Also interesting to note they won’t be selling the competition here considering all M2s henceforth are the competition spec ones. In the UK at least. Also doesn’t bode well for those wanting the M5 competition here.

    • They’re not locally built – the M cars are imported; only the volume models are locally built (as the tax savings then make sense).

      I was told a couple of days ago they are going to sell the Competition here, but it’s 20% more expensive and has that fugly conjoined nostril/ dissolved septum…pass, thanks.

      • Gibran Hashim says:

        Ok, that makes sense – misunderstood the part about the build slots. I think that whole new grille makes it look better! More aggressive. As they say, one man’s meat…Hahaha.

  6. I rented an M6 recently. That was mad.

    I do like the M2, but think in your position I’d have gone for the Evora 400.

  7. L. Ron Hubbard says:

    Great review, and great photography (as usual). I SO much wanted to buy an M2, but I am a manual transmission only guy. I will never, ever buy an automatic until I am compelled to due to lack of availability. Given that I’m 50 years old, I think I’ll get through my life without a slush box, as I’ll buy used over new to keep rowing my own gears if I have to. I live in a cold climate area so FWD or AWD is a must and BMW doesn’t make a manual shifting vehicle that isnt RWD only. That’s a non starter. So instead of buying the M2, which I test drove and it’s wonderful! (gear box aside), I drive a Ford Focus RS. Not quite as refined as the BMW, but staggeringly powerful and incredible handling.

    • But there’s a manual transmission option – I just couldn’t get it in my part of the world because the M2s are special import only, and in very low numbers. I think it actually has something to do with the customs department not being willing to do the whole duty recalculation on a different priced vehicle (which is also why we don’t get configuration options). That said: in the end, I’ve come around to the DCT; the trick is to treat it like a manual without a clutch: shift yourself, and all is well with the world. I even use the lever rather than the paddles as it just feels…right, somehow.

      AWD/Manual: I thought the X3 had a manual option, and I know the 3 and 5 both have 4WD options and manuals.

  8. My wife drives a manual shift 2005 Minicooper S with the pop & burbling exhaust sound on deceleration in low gears. Bought new and still very low milage, she loves it. I drive a 2014 BMW X3 SUV for a good (if not thrilling) driving experience and practicality for bike racks, vacations, and snow.

    I liked your description of how you chose the M2. We all choose cars from time to time and face tradeoffs and priorities so your post has broad appeal though car enthusiasts might not find it on a photography blog. It is nice to be able to enjoy the things we use on a daily basis. Poorly designed things chafe. Well designed things please whether they provide practcality or extreme performance excitement.

  9. Congrats Ming! I looked at this back in 2016, but the long wait lists and nasty winters up here in Canada pushed me towards an Audi S4. Now that the RS3 is out, I am even more conflicted about which way to go…

    • Thanks. I can’t say I blame you; with your weather I’d probably go AWD too. But since I live in the tropics, and the oil and tires are always warm…RWD it is! Long waiting lists here too; took 18 months to get my car – to the point that I landed up getting the facelift despite ordering the original…

      • I have had two prior BMWs (E30 and E39) and an MX-5. Drove them all in the winter, with proper winter tires. Never had an issue with traction (was amusing to fly by 4x4s on all seasons in the MX-5) but obviously ground clearance was difficult in heavy snow. However, after one winter in the S4 it will be very hard to go back. Right now the new M5 with AWD is out of my price range, but that would do quite nicely for me. Although the thought of an AWD M car seems strange to me.

        • At least you get the best of both worlds with the M5 – RWD, rear-bias 4WD, and full 4WD when you need it. I admit I like the balance of the M2 though…you can use all of the power and still feel very much in control.

  10. No secret? Well maybe, but I didn’t know… and if I had there are a couple of Scottish country lanes I would have taken you down in a rather nifty 2012 C63.

  11. Even your car reviews are different(in a good way).

    Off Off Topic ; You have been awfully quite on the new XCD lenses :D. And have you seen the new Zeiss camera ? :O

  12. Beautiful photographs, Ming! I sold my 228i only a year after purchasing due to discomfort due to the offset pedal position (in light of the transmission tunnel). My understanding is that they angled the seat in the M2 (gently) pointing away from center to address the issue. Sigh. My VW Golf pales in comparison. I thought my 228i was quick; surely I would get arrested driving an M2. I love your conclusion about the hype, BTW. Nice.

    • Thanks! Actually I think that’s a LHD problem: the RHD cars have the opposite relative pedal layout (ie gas is on the outside of the tunnel) so our seats are actually straight.

    • I love those beautiful photos for the car.
      Two weeks ago, I was wondering which one to pick when I decided to sell my 2012 Volvo S60 T6 AWD Polestar – among BMW 4 Series, Caddilac ATS and Golf TDI. Finally I picked up a pre-owned Golf TDI for its precise handling (I felt it’s as good as as a BMW) with great mileage.

Trackbacks

  1. […] screen 27″-32″ setup is positively claustrophobic (and unproductive). Hell, I even miss my car and my polar bears. Sometimes these feelings concentrate, and leave you with an odd sort of […]

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