I could fire off gears non-stop, and the gearing ratio made it all the more tempting. The rear-end ratio is 3.46:1, not especially high, but clearly something else is going on here. This car typically sat above 3,000 rpm at highway speeds, really high for a modern BMW and a modern car in general. It feels high-strung, a vehicle designed with deliberate compromises in service of being a driving machine. It’s a little worse to use in everyday life because of how it’s been tuned, and that makes it so much better when you’re really on it. Where has this new BMW been all my life?
Head to Head
The obvious question that wandered into my head after this whole experience was, as I mentioned: Is this car as good as an E46 M3? Well, luckily, I still have an old 2002 E46 M3. I can answer that. My car is a regular six-speed convertible, not a competition coupe that might be more appropriate for comparison. Nonetheless, it has the S54 naturally aspirated straight-six, a manual transmission, and rear-wheel drive—basically, everything else that made E46 M3s so special.
It’s a little tired, sure. It has just over 100,000 miles on it, but the valves are adjusted, the oil gets changed regularly, and everything still works fine. No check engine light, at least right now. A head-to-head just made sense.
What was surprising driving the two back-to-back was just how similar they were. When it comes to the basic layout, they are more or less the same. Straight-six at the front, manual transmission, a limited-slip diff that makes the right tires spin, a relatively small footprint, and the right curb weight make it fun. Really, it was closer than you might think.
The steering in the M2 is just as good, if not better, and the shifter is miles ahead. The E46s steering has the right weight, but the feel was just a tad better in the M2. The shifter in M3s also just isn’t great, so improvement there was pretty easy.
The ride in the M2 is also just as compromised, but it’s a tad more comfortable as E46 M3s ride pretty hard. The modern car was damped a bit softer than that. I can’t decide whether that’s a good or bad thing—I like the way E46 M3s ride—but one thing the M2 definitely did worse was tickle my ears. Whether it had a hundred more horsepower or not, you can’t beat a 3.2-liter, naturally aspirated straight-six screaming to 8,000 rpm and gasping in air through individual throttle bodies. That was never going to be a fair fight.
In all honestly, the verdict was pretty easy. I like the E46 M3 more. How different it feels from a normal car is just hard to beat. It comes across as special, almost alien compared to more commuter-oriented vehicles. The M2 CS felt almost as special, but not quite. Despite its purpose-built mentality, there was still a fair amount of “normal car” clinging on. The M2 just felt more grownup, and you should take that as literally as possible. If an E46 M3 was a teenager when it was built, the M2 CS is that same car, just 20 years later. Still in good shape, almost the same person, just with a little bit of edge taken off. It still might have one too many drinks every now and then, it’s with four other people, not 40. The M3 is the childhood while the M2 CS is stuck saying, “Remember when?” and there’s nothing it can do about that. Times just change.
But if the E46 M3 is a 10, then the M2 CS is a objective nine, and isn’t that more like a 10 in 2021 anyway? It’s a great car, and the only real sticking point is the price. The M2 CS I drove was almost $100,000
(!), and, as a reminder, the M2 Competition has this same engine, weighs around the same, and starts at $59,895. It’s worth noting that the test car’s sticker was boosted significantly by a single option: carbon-ceramic brakes costing $8,500. Even with that considered, though, a base M2 CS is $84,595, still a difference of $25,000. You could buy an M2 Comp and a nice used E46 M3 for that money. I haven’t driven an M2 Competition, but I can’t imagine it being noticeably worse. The price, for a car that BMW markets as a track toy, is undeniably steep.
That does not change the simple fact that the M2 CS is phenomenal. It’s so good that it’s so much of what every BMW should be like. Great steering, a great engine, a thrill down nearly any road. The best part of all of this is that you can’t shut any of that behavior off. This car’s soul is locked in, you pay for every penny of what it is, and nothing else. I wish, I truly wish, that BMW would make a CS package for its regular cars, just to get this steering, this transmission, and this sort of unfettered turbocharged power with any one of the automaker’s products that I wanted. It’s a pipe dream for sure, but even a new 330i would be a classic with this sort of tuning on it.
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