Before I tap the red start button, before I press the leather-tipped shift lever into first gear, before I stupidly dump coffee dregs in my lap as I prep for the tense half-hour ahead, I say a little prayer.
I’m about to grab the Tail of the Dragon—hallowed ground for sports car drivers, motorcyclists, or really anyone who wants to drive 11 miles through 318 turns without any mailboxes, without any driveways, without any interruptions other than the carpenter-bee buzz of sport bikes tilting and whirling around 15-mph carousel kinks while they lay nearly flat.
I pray to the gods of grip. All I want to do is keep it safe, keep it shiny, and stay out of sight of anything with a municipal crest on its doors. I’m probably already breaking the law before the first turn. I’m doing drag, after all: I’m basically cosplaying Little Red Riding Hood in a place where, even if the Trump signs have faded, the sentiment hasn’t.
Then I put it all out of my mind. The Tail of the Dragon isn’t a time for distractions. It calls for wide eyes, radio-free ears, sharp reflexes, and the right blade with which to cut—which is why I grip the thick-rimmed steering wheel of BMW’s latest M2 with a little extra force. It’s up to the occasion; I want to be, too.
It’s a stiff-kneed long-distance tourer, but the BMW M2 comes into brilliant focus on roads like the Tail of the Dragon.
BMW M2: a stiff-kneed long-distance tourer
After all, we anointed the last M2 our Motor Authority Best Car To Buy 2017. This one, as before, evolves the latest 2-Series Coupe into M status through horsepower, tuning, and bodywork. Once again, the M2’s gotten bigger. Overall length has risen by 4.7 inches, track has widened by 1.5 inches in front and 1.6 inches at the rear, and the wheelbase has stretched by 2.1 inches. That makes it more livable. It doesn’t make it a bit less lovable.
The Appalachian mountains puddle up at the horizon like a comforter on an unmade bed as I try to smooth out the road to get to the Tail with the rear-drive, turbo-6 M2 in its must-have manual-shift configuration—what used to be the norm, now a bittersweet throwback.
This one’s a winner, mostly. It has rubbery detents in its shift action and in the clutch pedal action, too. It keeps perfectly smooth shifts a half-step out of reach, but it’s still better than what’s possible on some rival sports cars—where they still exist.
It’s here on the interstate where the M2’s at its least. It’s a stiff-kneed long-distance tourer, and it drones too much on textured concrete pavement. The road noise generated by its massive Michelin Pilot Sport 4S summer tires (275/35-ZR19 in front, 285/30-ZR20 in back) overwhelms the voice recognition of the infotainment system; it even mutes the silken twin-turbo inline-6. That 3.0-liter inline-6 posts up at 453 hp, some 48 hp more than its predecessor, and twists out 406 lb-ft of torque as it winds toward a 7,200-rpm redline.
The tire noise can’t damp the M2’s gusto. Snick down a gear and step into it, and it erases the distance to the next exit ramp. BMW claims a 0-60 mph time of 4.1 seconds (3.9 seconds with the available automatic) and a top speed of 155 mph (177 mph with the M Driver’s Package).
In its transformation to M2, the 2-Series gets a host of upgrades, from an active rear differential to a stiffer chassis, aluminum suspension pieces, adaptive dampers, and more finely tuned electric steering. It’s almost too taut to daily. On one stretch of highway, the M2 pogoed rhythmically and couldn’t be calmed: no damper setting was loose or firm enough to resolve it. Once it got to asphalt again, it settled down, but the slight wandering on center didn’t; the M2 wants to bump-steer with pavement blemishes thanks to those staggered wheels.
Bigger, heavier, and more expensive: what’s not to love about the latest BMW M2? It takes the right road to reveal its magic.
BMW M2: grabbing the Tail of the Dragon
The M2 wasn’t meant to thrive in that environment, anyway. It begs for roads like the Tail; the only clue you need is the pair of red toggles on the steering wheel coded M1 and M2. Programmed by the driver, these presets can flick the car from one configured with more relaxed steering and throttle tip-in, to one that’s on the correct side of frantically engaged. I leave it in a user-configurable M1 drive mode as I make a left turn and trundle through a dozen miles of small-town North Carolina, before the road interferences drop out of sight, along with cellphone signal. Even Slack goes slack. It’s the perfect time for M2—the other user-set switch and the car, naturally.
In an instant, I’m in the middle of a Foreman/Ali match with the esses, duking it out with very slim runoffs and tangoing with a line of Miatas, motorcycles, and assorted Broncos, all parading by cameramen from Killboy.com who rest safely in the corners to take shots of cars flying through the ever-tighter corners. It’s a scene: every corkscrewy bend in the road has been bejeweled with candy-colored Camaros and Corvettes and fifty shades of German-car gray.
My eyeballs start to slosh around like pickles in a barrel and my gut starts to swish in rhythm with them as the M2 gets into its groove, tracing the steps taken by a yellow clapped-out Mazda Protégé. Sport bikes slip by ever so closely in the oncoming lane, followed occasionally by a Bronco or, worse, by a big crossover filled with gawkers who quickly get paralyzed by fear, like a straight bro stumbling into his first gay bar, unwittingly or otherwise.
Its weight gets spread around nearly equally, a 50/50 split, but the M2 is a thick one at 3,814 pounds with the manual. A stomp on the gas obliterates most of the leaden feel it can have at low throttle, as pure power lifts the M2 out of its commuter-speed doldrums.
It’s a second-gear rapper’s delight, and I leave it in rev-matching mode for the odd upshift-downshift into third and back because the pedal array proves challenging for my size 12EEE feet. Not only does the tip of my left shoe get caught in the toe box when I declutch, the height between brake and gas doesn’t sit at a friendly distance for heel-and-toe shifting.
Braking barely begs a question: it just stops, and stops hard, thanks to huge 6-piston calipers and 15.0-inch rotors in front and single-piston calipers with 14.6-inch rotors at the back. The calipers are blue, peeking out from inside those staggered wheels (9.5 inches across in front, by the way, and 10.5 inches at the back).
I reel off a hundred turns or more before I notice fatigue and before the veins start to stand out on my forearms. When I first got in the car, I didn’t think the steering wheel needed to be as fat as it is, nor did I believe the steering needed to be as heavy as it is. The Tail proved me at least a little wrong. Once I started to filter through the 15-mph curves, chasing my own tail around them, the heft kept the wheel from getting chucked off-line from the stray pothole or rock. The M2 has lost some of the lightness and precision of its steering, sure. But in exchange, it just sticks. It sticks it out longer than most drivers can. It’s a murder hornet that eats up almost everything in sight.
The M2 passes the touchscreen test, with a massive display and wireless Apple CarPlay. But who cares, when there’s 453 hp on tap?
BMW M2: passing the touchscreen test
I take a breather when I reach the end of US 129, on to an hour of stupid traffic on the interstate, and darkness. While the M2 disappears the two hours of road between me and a hotel bed, I tap into its creature comforts.
I’m not sold on the style: it’s puffy and its air intakes look unsuccessful at letting some of the air out of the car, a bouncy house of a two-door coupe with just enough shove-ahead from its wedgy stance to make me forget it. Order it in black for best results. The rear diffuser and its quad exhaust tips get the most approving nods, but there’s a lot of Lexus RC here.
Inside, the M2 transforms my notion of a sports-car interior through digital displays. It has a conjoined pair of wide screens set together under glass, and wakes up with an M-logo splash screen in the gauge cluster and a spinning M2 on the touchscreen. The cluster can be configured with navigation at its center, if you like. It’s a flourish of progress thrown in your face—but how great would it be if you flipped into Sport mode and it traded its hockey-stick digital gauges for some proper round dials?
Elsewhere, BMW prints the door panels with red and blue pixels and embosses diamond patterns into it, both of which tie in with the leather sport seats. The standard front chairs (carbon-fiber seats are available) get a lot right, with great under-leg support, a cinched waist, and a reclined headrest—and still, with all the adjustment available, I can’t quite get the M2 driving position exactly as I’d like it. With the seat as low as possible, the steering wheel doesn’t drop as much, so I grip the wheel at four o’clock and eight o’clock, instead of three and nine.
I hardly worry about the glass sunroof tucked above my head, or the automatic emergency braking that’s never called into duty, but I give thanks again for the safety net of the M2’s 10-stage stability control system, though I never get to engage the Track mode that turns off all assistance. Nor do I get to sample Drift mode; I like the M2’s tires too much, and folks with badges in these parts tend to frown on strangers doing donuts in parking lots.
It costs too much to treat that casually, in any case. Built in Mexico alongside its frumptastic 2-Series kin, the M2 costs $63,195, including $995 in destination. Now that a 1,341-hp electric BMW M2 is reportedly in the works, and will no doubt be even more expensive, you’ll want to savor this sweet throwback while it’s still dewy and fresh.
Take it to the Tail, if you can. Sure, other sports cars will take you from point A to point B. The M2 will take you to church.
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