We take the hot new coupe to Death Valley and put the hammer down.
Albert Hammond sang it best: “It never rains in California, but girl, don’t they warn ya; it pours, man, it pours.”
A winter storm is pounding Southern California, and wouldn’t you know it? Its arrival perfectly coincides with our week with the new BMW M2. What luck. It pours, man, it pours.
To beat the storm, we’re headed east in the hope that the Sierra Nevada’s prodigious rain shadow will keep us dry. Three hours northeast of Los Angeles is Olancha, a tiny settlement with a population of 192. We pull into an abandoned diner to consider our options. It’s still raining out here, but the forecast is dry for Day Two of M2, so we make plans to settle in nearby Ridgecrest for the night.
Olancha sits at the origin of the eastern segment of California State Route 190, the road to Death Valley. A C/D favorite, 190 starts out as lonesome straightaways and CinemaScope vistas seemingly pulled from the film Vanishing Point. Blue mountains capped with snow surround us. Off to the south are dunes. A pack of coyotes eyes the M2, and a clear view of the road ahead stretches for miles. Despite this, 190 is not exactly an American autobahn. A few years ago, our deputy editor learned that four-figure lesson from an Inyo County sheriff.
A mix of long straights and tight corners that cut over the Panamint Range, California Route 190 pairs well with the M2’s turbocharged horsepower and nimble handling. In the summer, high temperatures and chalk-powder scenery bring in their share of tourists. But the winter temps can fall below zero, so visitors are sparse and the road is empty. Father Crowley Vista Point is worth a stop for the mountain views and the chance to see Navy F/A-18s in training as they blast through the valley.
L.A.’s drought-parched reservoirs are beginning to fill, but, as hoped for, we’re staying dry in the desert rain shadow. After spending some of the morning on surrounding roads, we venture back to 190 to find it as slick and glazed as a Krispy Kreme original. The M2 bucks underneath us, its wide Michelin Pilot Super Sports singing over the coarse, 40-grit asphalt. Knowing a ticket for 100 mph has $1000 consequences, we keep the speed blasts brief. Fortunately, the road is barely traveled in the winter months. We count eight cars in the first hour of driving. In the summer, the desert heat brings tourists and police patrols. Still, we delay probing the 164-mph top speed till we reach the test track, even though the M2 is stable at that speed.
There’s a lot of big-brother M4 under the M2, and the regular 2-series’ diminutive body swells to cover the wider parts. From certain angles, the M2 appears to have the mumps. The limited-slip differential, the forged 19-inch wheels, and most of the aluminum suspension components are shared with the M4, but the M2 has its own dampers, springs, and slightly narrower tires. Like the M4’s, its very stiff setup will jiggle your flabby bits. There’s not so much as a quiver from the structure, however. A plate added to the front end cinches the already-tight 2-series structure even tighter.
After a couple of hours, sunlight dries the road and we head into the roughly 15-mile section of 190 that carves through the Panamint Range and into Death Valley National Park. Through the mountain pass, the M2 acts exactly like an M4. There’s dogged grip from the Michelins—actually, 0.99 g worth of easily used stick, says the skidpad. The brakes are pulled straight from the M4, and that means four-piston calipers in front and two-piston units in the rear clamp iron rotors pinned to aluminum hats. Pedal bite is excellent, and the brakes actually became stronger after repeated stops from 70 mph in testing.
Much of the M2’s chassis is lifted directly from the M4, but the tires are slightly narrower and the dampers arent electronically adjustable.
We pass Father Crowley Vista Point, named for John J. Crowley, an Irish priest who served the area in the 1920s and ’30s. Crowley fought the city of Los Angeles for the area’s water rights when a parched L.A. diverted the Owens River in 1913. By 1926, L.A. had sucked Owens Lake dry. A once-fertile valley became a windblown dust bowl, and Crowley became known as the Padre of the desert.
We’re driving like hell through the good Padre’s parish. The M2’s six-speed manual slides into gear on short throws, and the ’box brilliantly matches engine revs on downshifts. A seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is optional, but we’re enamored with the manual. For a stubborn heel-toe believer, it takes a while to get used to not having to tap the throttle while braking for a corner. If you want to blip for yourself, the rev matching switches off when you deactivate stability control.
Not that downshifting is entirely necessary. The M2’s turbocharged 3.0-liter has occipital-flattening thrust from about 2000 rpm to the 7000-rpm redline. An overboost feature bumps the torque peak from 343 pound-feet to 369, and the torque curve draws a wide plateau from 1450 to 4750 rpm. Turbo response is immediate, and the engine is seemingly unaffected by the 4956-foot altitude at Towne Pass. An outgrowth of the N55 line of turbocharged inline-sixes, the M2’s 365-hp engine shares its pistons, crank bearings, and redline-smooching spirit with the M4’s S55 engine. In runs to 60 mph, the M2’s 4.2-second time is 0.7 second quicker than a manual M235i and only a tenth slower than the six-speed M4. By 100 mph, the gap widens to a second, and there’s a 4.7-second difference to 150 mph between the M2 and the M4.
It’s loud inside, with 89 decibels of what sounds like a V-8 throbbing through the stereo speakers at full throttle. Set the cruise at 80 mph and there’s a deep and ever-present hum in your ears. At 70, it produces an economy-car-like 72 decibels. What we’d really like to hear is the turbine snarl of the M2’s inline-six under pressure, instead of the automotive equivalent of Muzak.
As in the M4, the information coming through the light steering is distant and faint. The effort builds in sport mode, but there’s no progressive rise in effort when turning into a corner. Too often the car is gripping hard—or worse yet, slipping—while the steering tells you nothing. It’s best to ignore the paltry information coming through the steering wheel and trust in the chassis, as the handling is spectacular. It’s both playful and secure, and the firm suspension stitches the 3415-pound M2 to the road. And yet, more than once we found ourselves daydreaming about the perfectly weighted and honest steering of a Porsche Cayman.
On the eastern edge of the mountain pass is the Panamint Springs Resort’s gas station, where a gallon of premium costs $5.29. In 1000 miles of driving, the M2 averaged 20 mpg. That dips into the teens, though, when running fast over highway 190, the 2-series’ little 13.7-gallon tank emptying in short order. In about two hours of driving back and forth over the mountains, we’ve burned through half a tank. It will be enough for a run into Death Valley and back to the mining town of Trona without buying any $5 gas.
Top left: The M2’s turbo six is a virtually lag-free source of power. Lighter than the M4, the 365-hp M2 is nearly a match for its 425-hp big brother.
Long straights on the valley floor turn into long, high-speed sweepers over the mountain and into Death Valley. Our attention diverts to the M2’s interior. The cabin is standard 2-series fare, dressed up with M2-specific gauges and accented with a naked carbon-fiber-like weave. There is some scratchy, shiny plastic between the seats, but it’s mostly out of sight. Our preproduction example has us manually adjusting the seats and the fan speeds; production versions will have power seats and automatic climate control.
On these drawn-out esses, thoughts reel back to the late 1-series M, the M2’s predecessor. A skunkworks project, the 1-series M looked like a 2-series done by Japanese Porsche monsterfier RAUH-Welt Bergriff, but it had a smooth and strong six, balanced handling, tons of refinement and rigidity, and perfect steering clarity. It was like a BMW’s greatest-hits album. Lucky buyers quickly snapped up the limited run of 740 cars.
The M2 is a modern BMW, which means the steering is a bit removed and the stereo plays engine sounds. But it has the look, if not the irrepressible soul, of the 1-series M. It’s a shrunken M4, both in size and price. An M4 starts at $66,695 and the M2 costs $52,695. Get the M2 and save the $14,000 for a rainy day.
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