With vastly contrasting prices, these BMWs could hardly be more different
by Andrew Frankel
This is a tale of two BMW M-cars. They share the same basic platform and engine architecture, but one costs not far off three times the price of the other.
The more affordable car is the new M2, in real terms BMW’s cheapest genuine M-car – as opposed to models from its deliberately tepid M Performance range – in decades. It is the car BMW wants you to see as the successor to the original 1980s M3.
The expensive one is the M4 GTS, a limited edition (700 units), powered-up, pared-back road-and-track warrior that comes complete with carbon ceramic brakes, titanium exhausts and a spanner to allow you adjust the dampers, ride height and aerodynamic trim.
As you’d expect, the M4 GTS with its £120,000 list price, near-500bhp output and stripped-out interior is a mightily exciting piece of equipment. Offering the best sounding six-cylinder turbocharged engine on sale, looks that leave no room for ambiguity in its intentions and the power-to-weight ratio to deliver fully on the promise of its appearance, this is nothing less than BMW’s answer to the Porsche 911 GT3.
Few cars I’ve driven have a tighter focus. If you’re not in a position to drive it very fast indeed, there is absolutely no point even firing it up because you will enjoy it far more if you just leave it in the garage and look at it. The aforementioned hot 911 is actually a perfectly acceptable companion on the long motorway journeys most of us must take to reach the kind of road or track where such cars are best exercised, but not this one. I concede the possibility that, knowing it was to be used on a circuit, someone at BMW put the dampers on their stiffest settings, but I can only report as I find, and I found the ride quality of the M4 GTS close to intolerable most of the time.
Perhaps you’d be more sanguine about putting up with it if the car offered some kind of landmark experience on the deserted mountain passes of your dreams, but it doesn’t. On the contrary those suspension settings serve only to make the car skip over every significant bump you encounter, compromising traction and often requiring you to use the steering in a straight line.
On the track, of course, its behaviour is transformed. On sticky Michelin Cup tyres, such stiff suspension probably provides more pure grip than any other front-engined car in production, with the only possible exception of the Ferrari F12 TdF. Its brakes are tireless, its gearshifts near-instant, its engine note never less than thrilling and its response genuinely impressive for a turbocharged unit. You can also wrench the back loose and hoof it around on the throttle with close to total impunity, too. But this is still no 911 GT3-basher. Even on what I always imagined was quite a smooth track, the car still jinked about at very high speeds and understeered a little too much in slow corners, as if the diff was working too hard to maintain traction. In truth the more I drove the GTS, the less I liked it.
By somewhat stunning contrast, the M2 is the best M-car I’ve driven since at least the E46 M3, and possibly the E30 original. I drove it on exactly the same roads and the same track as the GTS, and sitting here reliving the drives some days later, I really can’t recall a single significant thing about the car I didn’t like.
With the M2, BMW has recognised that making a fine driving machine actually has little to do with the provision of maximum power or grip. Yes, it needs to be quick enough in both a straight line and around a corner to be invigorating, but just as important is making the driver feel comfortable and confident. Without that the most exciting car on paper will turn out to be at best a disappointment, at worst a menace. And wherever you choose to drive the M2, comfort and confidence go with you. Despite its extended track and stiffened springs its ride is not only good enough to make the M2 an entirely sensible every day commuter car, when you drive quickly it’s also sufficiently supple to soak up everything the road puts in its path. For all its extra power and expensive accessories, I’d be slower point to point in the M4 GTS and more scared, too. Critically, I’d have less fun.
Even on the track, an environment for which the M2 was definitely not primarily tuned, it remains endlessly amiable, indulgent and entertaining. Yes it feels a little soft in the really high-speed stuff, but in slower corners it understeers less than the M4 GTS and is even easier to drift. And it provides buyers with a choice of manual or paddle-shift transmissions, whereas the GTS is a resolutely two-pedal car.
As I mentioned earlier, it is possible the GTS I drove was poorly set up and failed to give a fair account of itself as a result; and for those who have bought one, I hope that’s the case. Otherwise it’s hard to see it’s worth the outlay in any terms other than the fact it is a limited edition and will always have rarity value.
But for £44,000 the M2 is – in relative terms – a bargain and will I am sure already be making BMW wonder why on earth it waited so long to produce another proper, compact M-car. Put it this way, regulars will know I bow to no one in my admiration for the Porsche Cayman S but, while less blindingly capable, the M2 is cheaper, better equipped, has rear seats and is scarcely any less enjoyable to drive. It is, in other words, a triumph.