BMW M2 vs 1M Coupe vs E30 M3 vs 2002 Turbo
New M2 faces its toughest test as it meets the BMW M car legends
Any new M car is going to suffer the Spanish Inquisition. That’s just how it is. And because the new M2 is the smallest and theoretically most accessible BMW to wear that famous badge (if you can call £44,070 accessible), the heat’s really on this one.
Of course, as Top Gear’s newly anointed coupe of the year, we already know it’s better than good. But how does the M2 stack up against arguably the toughest competition of all, not from its rivals up the autobahn in Stuttgart and Ingolstadt, but from its own Bavarian backyard? Back-to-back with the 1-series M Coupe, an E30 M3 and a 2002 Turbo is a pretty fiery baptism for the newbie, and an opportunity we absolutely couldn’t resist.
Words: Jason Barlow
Amusingly, today’s interrogation is actually happening in Spain, although there’s so much rain falling out of the sky the torture in question is closer to water-boarding than anything medieval or religious. Famously rear-drive cars on virginal, zero-grip Spanish tarmac… what could possibly go wrong?
The M cars rep has been forged on the back of unadulterated driving hedonism, but for me the alarm bells started ringing when BMW traded its genius ‘ultimate driving machine’ tagline for ‘efficient dynamics’ a decade ago. The brand has lately splintered into so many directions – still can’t get my head round the 2 series Active Tourer or 4 series Grand Coupe, I’m afraid – that it’s a relief to find yourself simply looking at the self-possessed, wide-bodied M2 and thinking, ‘yep, want one’. No questions asked.
Sixty miles later, I’m parking the M2 in my ever-evolving dream garage. It feels fast, handy, and eminently chuckable, just like an M car should
More by accident than design, TG.com also finds itself driving away from the airport late at night in an M2 fitted with the manual gearbox and various bits from BMW’s Performance Parts options list. The optimum spec, perhaps. Ours is white, with black carbon aero add-ons including a very trick looking front splitter, side blades similar to those fitted to Ferrari’s 458 Speciale, and a rear spoiler. But the star turn here is the M Performance exhaust, which is controlled via a Bluetooth connection and can take the car’s exhaust volume from audibly naughty to technically illegal on the road via a little cylindrical device that lives in the recess in the centre console. Push a button at the top to prime, and pin your lugholes back.
It certainly enlivens the various tunnels that stud the Malaga-to-Estepona motorway, although I’d hold off on one of the other options, the coil-over suspension that drops the ride height by close to an inch and offers 16 rebound and 12 compression settings. Turns out the regular M2 is plenty firm enough, to the extent that it’s finding bits of Spanish black-top to get jiggy with that even a worn-out hire car would sail serenely over.
Jigginess is a price worth paying, though. The M2 immediately feels like a car in which you can do very serious business indeed. The driving position is perfect, the wheel is the familiar fat-rimmed M job that some people grumble about but I personally love, and there’s Alcantara and stitching and a general, overwhelming sense of M-ness.
And it really goes. The engine is a 3.0-litre straight-six, dishing up close to 370bhp and 369 torques, single turbocharged rather than twin, as is the case with the M3 and M4. It also borrows M3 pistons and main bearings. Peak power is at 6500rpm, but the torque arrives in such a relentless wave that you just monster along in a junior supercar kind of way. Sixty miles later, I’m pretty much parking the M2 in my ever-evolving dream garage. It feels fast, handy, and eminently chuckable, just like an M car should.
The next morning brings a trio of potential nemesises (nemesi?), and some ludicrous weather. Fast and handy? The BMW 2002 wrote the book on that. Mind you, the Turbo is a rather different proposition. A mere 1672 were manufactured between 1973 and 1975, and as the first production car to use turbocharging – a technology still in its mewling, kicking infancy back then – it's fair to say the 2002 Turbo’s reputation precedes it (sideways and then backwards). Its KKK turbo and Kugelfischer injection are renowned for needing constant fettling, not to mention a sun-dial to measure the arrival of boost.
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But what a gorgeous looking car. This particular example has also just emerged from a two-year resto courtesy of BMW GB’s heritage guys, and its engine is fresh from a total rebuild. Guess what: they’re a scant 20 miles into the running-in period. I promise to stay clear of the business end of the rev counter, but frankly, I’m happy enough to paddle in the shallow end of the Turbo myth, enjoying an engine whose block would go on to do service in various BMW-powered Brabham F1 cars – in the era when 1500bhp was the norm in qualifying spec. (Apparently they’d leave the block outside or even urinate on it in order to determine its fitness for purpose – the Spartans used to do something similar with their new-borns.) Like all cars of this vintage, the 2002 Turbo’s pillars are slender, its glass area deep and wide, giving you panoramic visibility. And, like all cars pre-giant alloy wheel madness, the ride quality is amazingly compliant. Sometimes you’ve got to wonder at the nature of progress.
I drive lots of old cars, so the 2002 Turbo’s heavy steering and slightly hit-or-miss gearchange are nothing to worry about. But then my attention wanders slightly, there’s suddenly more revs on the dial than I realised, and with a buzzy, whistling whoosh the big turbo arrives as if the elephant in the room has suddenly decided to sit on my head, and we catapult forward. Sure, 170bhp isn’t much by today’s standards, but this car still feels genuinely rapid when it gets on boost. We get through, oh, half a dozen corners before the back end steps out, which is fine and hardly unexpected. But it also steps out in a straight line at one point, which is probably not so fine. I suspect the old-school rubber and shiny road surface are as much to blame as the car or its sledgehammer turbo.
The first decent motor my old man owned was a crash-damaged-then-repaired E30 BMW 323i (Alpina body kit and wheels, cheekily badged as a 325i). Now there was a car with a reputation for tail-wagging lairiness. He couldn’t afford to insure me to drive it apart from a one-week-only once-in-a-lifetime spell when I was 19, but it all comes rushing back the moment I get into the pristine M3 you see here. The feel of the controls, the driver-oriented dash, even the smell: I love these cars. The E30 was a European Touring Car hero in the late 1980s/early ’90s, and the homologated M3 road car was and remains enormously desirable. (More than ever, in fact. This is the Roberto Ravaglia 500-unit limited edition, of which only 25 were imported to the UK, and cost £27,500 in 1989 – now you’d need close to three times that to get a good one.)
Like the Lancia Delta Integrale, the wheelarches have the perfect amount of period flare-age, pumping up the square-rigged regular E30 silhouette just enough. The only carry-over part from the stock E30 3-Series is the bonnet, and the rear glass is bonded and more aggressively angled to improve airflow across the big rear spoiler for more downforce. (To what effect I don’t know, but it looks about as aero-efficient as my garage.)
Having sampled a 3-Series with a straight six back in the day, I couldn’t work out what the fuss was about the M3’s four-pot. More than 25 years later, I’m finally finding out – this has got to be one of the sweetest four-cylinder engines ever made. Experts will tell you that the original M3’s 2.3-litre was a development of the M10 unit used in the 2002 and later 320 models, but with an outsized bore and a valvetrain and cylinder head borrowed from the more powerful M1 supercar. The four-banger was lighter and would rev more hungrily, which made it better suited to racing. From a 200bhp starting point, the power output rose to 238bhp in the enlarged 2.5-litre Sport Evolution model.
You need to rag the M3 to get the best out of it. The Getrag ’box, like the Turbo’s, is a five-speed with a dog-leg first, and even with 80,000-plus miles on the clock, this particular car is silky smooth and feels entirely unbaggy. Suspension bushes, dampers and brake pads all wear out on these cars, but we’re soon hammering up and down a Spanish mountain road at a very respectable pace. The limited slip diff obviates the well-known limitations of the semi-trailing arm rear suspension, and everything is tight and tidy.
The M3 has a world-class chassis, and just enough power to fully exploit it without requiring you to drive like your trousers are on fire
Why has the world suddenly fallen in love with the M3? Here’s my theory: it has a world-class chassis, and just enough power to fully exploit it without requiring you to drive like your trousers are on fire. It’ll grip or slide pretty much on command. This simple recipe has gone AWOL in the past 10 years (a Focus RS has almost as much power as the Ferrari F355, and modern rubber is much more tenacious). It moves around and communicates with you at sane, earthbound speeds. It’s also a racing car in disguise, so it's perfectly balanced and wieldy. It's a slab of crackly vinyl compared to the M2’s seamless streaming service. And any audiophile will bore you rigid about which sounds better.
Finally, with the roads now shiny like glass, I step into the 1 M Coupe, the M2’s immediate predecessor, and arguably the biggest threat of all. BMW’s British wing pushed for this car, pushed for it to have a manual gearbox, and could have sold way more than the 450 units that turned up. No wonder this car is now worth more than it cost new five years ago, and a bona fide modern Munich legend. Here’s what I wrote about it back in issue 218 of Top Gear, in June 2011. Hope you don’t mind me quoting myself.
‘Now here’s a car to focus the mind in the old-fashioned way. Rear-wheel drive, twin-turbos, 335bhp, fat arches and a face only a mother could love. Though hardly lacking in technology, the word is that this is a proper old-school M car, perhaps even the true successor to the legendary ’80s E30 M3.
‘Stocky car, light weight (well, relatively light, by modern standards anyway – 1497kg), powerful engine, terrific rear-drive chassis, second-gear hairpin with perfect forward visibility… why can’t all cars be like this? Aim, point, fire. Balancing this thing on the steering and throttle is pretty much the crack cocaine of the car world.’
If anything, the 1 series M Coupe feels even more addictive in 2016, if amusingly traction-limited on slippery roads. But the really good news is that the M2 builds on the template, rather than flubbing it or smothering all the interactivity with layers of digital information. Even the DCT semi-auto edges the chunky six-speed manual for me now, so convincingly does it hook up and channel all those torques.
We’ll drive it in the UK soon, and I hope that its uncompromising suspension set-up doesn't simply bounce it from one apex to another on our brilliant but broken B-roads. Right now, though, the M2 is almost exactly what you’d hope 40 years of blood, sweat, tears and technology would result in. BMW has just rebooted the ultimate driving machine.