The 3 Series—BMW’s longstanding flagship enthusiast compact—was replaced in 2014 by a smaller, cheaper, more agile vehicle in the form of the 2 Series. Overshadowing the earlier 1 Series in all the right ways (looks and performance, to name a few), the 2 got a plentiful M model in 2015 in the form of the M2 and the pecking order quickly changed. Whether you accepted it or not, the M3 wasn’t the benchmark anymore, the lighter and smaller M2 was. And now the second generation of the new kid has arrived. Well, in prototype form, at least.
Recently, I was privileged enough to drive a prototype version of the upcoming M2 on track. It had straight-six power and a manual transmission sending drive to the rear; everything somebody could want in a fast, driver-oriented BMW. But it also felt like it was staring straight off a cliff. It is the last of its kind—a purely internal combustion-powered M car—though it didn’t quite feel like it. Through the course of driving these development vehicles, I was definitely pleased, but honestly, I was also left a little wanting.
If you’re BMW and you’re poised right at the edge of launching an M-branded hybrid SUV, you’d want what could possibly be the last generation of your compact purist driver’s car to be a celebration of that very idea, right? You’d want it to be something special, or at least distinguishable from the car it replaces. That was not the case here.
Camo Doesn’t Hide the Hardware
As these vehicles were prototypes, no exact specs were provided. I was simply told that, in terms of power, it was very close to the outgoing M2 CS, so around the 450-horsepower mark. I was also told this new M2 will share a lot with the M3/M4. Pretty much everything besides the outer skin, in fact. My time behind the wheel consisted of something like half a dozen laps in slightly rainy conditions around the Salzburgring, a short racetrack tucked into the Austrian Alps, with a few long, bent straights connected by fun twisty sectors. These are my impression after a total driving time of maybe half an hour between both an automatic and a stick-shift M2 prototype dressed up in camouflage.
That camo wasn’t hiding much. All the typical BMW M hallmarks of flared fenders and more aggressive fascias were on display in plain view. What underpinned this bolder body was also not a very big secret, as it turns out.
The front and rear suspension are from the M3/M4. The rear dampers are not tuned specifically for the car, but taken from the M3 Touring. The drivetrain, as is typical with the 2 Series, is also taken from the vehicle’s larger siblings. Add all of this up, and the new M2 is not much more than a short wheelbase M4. Is that bad? Dynamically, and especially in terms of price, no. But it does mean that what is the brand’s flagship sporty compact is basically made from components from an admittedly very good parts bin. It’s not a terrible thing, but the sense that this car deserved more than that nagged at me while I was driving. It is still nagging me, actually.
Steering, shifting, braking, and pretty much everything is now electronically operated in the automatic M2. The sensation was nothing short of… consistent. The communication I got from the car on the damp track almost never seemed to change, which introduced me to a sort of spirited driving that I wasn’t used to. I’m more familiar with getting a sense of a car’s limits by probing around with slight changes and feeling out the reply—maybe a more aggressive corner exit here or a slightly hotter entry there. But in the automatic M2, it always felt like I was subject to a safety net that limited how much I could actually play around.
Pushing the limit meant a safe trip back to grip thanks to the endless traction/stability gizmos, but feeling out that actual limit felt difficult. Here, trying to nip an apex or find some grip was a matter of turning the wheel, applying the throttle, and seeing what happened. I am, after all, nothing short of a very average driver, and it was still willing to bail me out when I went a little too deep. It was very forgiving. But there was a lack of nuance. Everything was so precise, so perfect. I’m not sure if I wanted a more challenging drive, but I did want it to bite me at least once.
This feeling was definitely compounded by the automatic transmission’s smarter-than-you operation. After my first lap, I gave up on trying to change with the paddles and just let it do its thing. It definitely was smarter than me, I couldn’t keep track of eight gears like it could, and it seemed to want to be with its electronic friends—the steering, the brakes, the magnetic suspension. I just let it go off and have fun with its buddies. The result was admittedly impressive if also lacking some connection.
BMW’s emulation of good hydraulic brakes and a nice communicative front axle has gotten so good that, in normal driving conditions, it might as well not be emulating. The brakes were a bit touchy, but linear and strong. Likewise, the steering had a nice spring and it was fast enough to make precise and confident adjustments mid-corner. I would comment specifically on the ride, but I was on a pristinely paved race track. Still, it was tight but not jarring, far from soft, but forgiving when it needed to go over something like a trackside curb.
The Manual Version
The real difference came when I switched to a manual car. To be honest, I was intimidated. “The automatic is faster on a track!” echoed the words from every performance car review ever through my brain. “It shifts faster than any manual, just give it up, man!” was bouncing around the inside of my head. The wet conditions combined with the track’s long, curved, high-speed sections didn’t help, either. A bad shift at a buck-20 could be one prototype less. These worries were, of course, completely unfounded. The stick-shift M2 wasn’t a completely different car, but it was a lot more personal. There’s just something about a manual transmission, you know? You could make a religion out of this. Hell, it’s already a cult.
Instead of simply entering every corner as fast as seemed appropriate, having a gear to physically lock into bought back that level of experimentation and nuance that I was missing in the automatic. A stick shift isn’t just about the physical act of changing gears—it’s about being able to carefully control and understand a car’s powerband and how to use it smoothly without an unexpected change throwing a wrench in things. Maybe I was going slower—I get it, the automatic is faster—but I felt much more in control when I was choosing my own gears. Having optional automatic rev-matching absolutely helped, too. It’s more or less heel-toe braking, but for dummies. As somebody with limited track experience, I welcomed it. It lowered the mental load and helped me focus on what was ahead of me.
It was very fun, very capable, and even a little analog, to use a dirty word. If you’re gonna buy an M2 when it’s released, get the stick. But even without it, though, this M2 prototype already felt—get ready for it—old-fashioned.
A Finale This Is Not
More specifically, it felt like the last part of BMW M’s second chapter. The first chapter was about high-revving naturally aspirated engines squeezing power out of the displacements they had. The sounds, the feelings, everything was authentic and balanced and well with the world.
Once forced induction became the norm, though, the second chapter began. We’ve since had two generations of M3, M5, and now M2 where engine sound is piped in or synthesized, turbos are spooled at precisely dictated speeds, and the feeling that these cars are incessantly chasing that first chapter is pretty plain. This is just the way things are despite the fact that these machines are still fun and impressive. Read the writing on the wall, though. When the new M2 launches, it will be the last page of that “second chapter” M car we’re gonna get—the last M car powered purely by internal combustion. Remember our big-nosed friend, the XM? That’s chapter three. Batteries, motors, and inverters have wedged themselves around the table and in ways that can no longer be ignored.
That brings me to this car. What are we gonna do with you? The M2 prototype I drove had—rather unfortunately—absolutely nothing to say about it. If we’re to gauge the new M2 through the lens of a finale, there were no sacrifices made to make this thing just a little more like that special first chapter we were talking about before. Likewise, there was no new technology to push the existing envelope further and say, “Yes, this is not the same as it used to be, but we still got it.” It’s just more of the same of the car it replaces, but uglier. Despite the camouflage, you can still get an idea of what it looks like and, well, it isn’t particularly pretty. True, it doesn’t have a big grille, but that isn’t saying much. Until the new M2 launches, just look at a new M240i versus an old M2. The M240i is a solid aesthetic downgrade.
The bottom line is if you’ve driven the first M2 and you’re wondering what this new car sounds like, you already know. If you’re wondering what it feels like… you already know. It’s objectively good and rewarding but there’s also nothing new here. Is this lack of progress worth celebrating? In today’s automotive landscape, it might be. There certainly are not enough rear-driven, compact manual sports cars anymore. For me, though, it felt like a missed opportunity.
Let’s take a step back and really consider what this thing is: the final machine to carry BMW M’s pure internal combustion torch. It deserves a mountain to die on.
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