It's a popular sentiment that BMW has sort of been losing its grip for the past decade—or more, depending on who you ask. The general consensus for enthusiasts is that things peaked around the E46 M3 in 2006 and maybe leveled off until the E90 M3 in 2013, but the company has gradually been sliding into a shadow of what it used to be. That's really an oversimplification, though. The fact of the matter is most "drivers' cars" have gotten a little worse in all the little subjective categories car people obsess over, like steering- and brake-feel. It's at no fault of their own; saving fuel has a lot to do with it. BMW also lives in this reality of course, but even with that considered, the 2020 BMW M2 CS keeps it at the top of the heap.
The M2 CS is a small car, one that sends all of its straight-six power to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission. Specification-wise, it's very similar to an E46 M3, except it makes more than 100 more horsepower and a lot more torque thanks to twin turbochargers. The CS designation means it's track-focused and stripped out, but as you'll soon read, it costs more than a conventional M2. A lot more. Is a car that—and let's just get this out of the way right now—approaching E46 M3 levels of good worth $93,095?
2020 BMW M2 CS: By the Numbers
- 2020 M2 Competition base price (M2 CS as tested): $59,895 ($93,095)
- Powertrain: 3.0-liter twin-turbo inline-six | 6-speed manual | rear-wheel drive
- Power: 444 @ 6,250 rpm
- Torque: 406 lb-ft @ 2,350 to 5,500 rpm
- 0-60 mph: 4.0 seconds
- Top speed: 174 mph
- Seating capacity: 4
- Trunk volume: 13.8 cubic feet
- Curb weight: 3,545 pounds
- EPA fuel economy: 17 mpg city | 24 highway | 20 combined
- Quick take: BMW never lost it.
What Makes It a CS?
To know what makes the CS special, we must first know the M2. To start, a regular M2 makes just 362 hp as compared to this car's 444. Sitting above the mid-tier M2 Competition, the M2 CS gets the engine out of the previous F80 M3, which means more intensity and grit as compared to the engine found in the regular M2, which is basically a tuned-up version of the engine from a 335i. CS means "Competition Sport" in BMW's wide-ranging nomenclature, which both makes sense and is a little funny. Historically, "CS" was often followed by another letter—"L"—which stood for "lightweight." The M2 CS is relatively light for a modern car, but it's heavier than the regular M2 by around 50 pounds. Admittedly, it's so close that it makes no difference, but if there was ever any debate within BMW about calling this thing a CSL, well, that likely put a stop to it.
So the CS may be a tad heavier than the regular M2, but it still gets a bit stripped out for the sake of being more track-focused and nimble on its feet. The lack of a center armrest is a little strange, but really that's the most noticeable part. You still get heated seats, a fully capable navigation system and infotainment with Bluetooth connectivity, and air conditioning. Really, it's pretty hard to notice what the Bavarian automaker removed to save weight, which is a good thing. Having driven a few regular M235s, the M2 CS is more or less a regular 2 Series with a bit more suede and carbon fiber.
Not only does the M2 CS feel like the real deal—you couldn't touch this thing with a 10-foot pole and not know it wasn't something special—it looks the part, too. Thanks to flared arches, a carbon roof, and massive gold wheels, you know it means business. It's easily one of the best-looking BMWs you can buy right now (though not for much longer, with the new 2 Series' imminent arrival). The front and rear fascias of this car work together in a way that few other cars—not just BMWs—can lay claim to. It will truly be a shame when this generation is sent out to pasture. I wouldn't mind seeing this car in showrooms forever.
The important part of this car isn't how cold the AC blows, though. Given its stance in BMW's lineup as the smallest and most athletic of the M-cars, this is the closest thing to that old Ultimate Driving Machine ethos that used to be found across the company's entire portfolio; just like the visual drama, its purpose is immediately apparent when you first get in and set off. The suspension, throttle response, and steering are all adjustable via hard buttons on the center console. The suspension is stiff and a tad bothersome on rougher roads, but this is also an M2 CS. It's going to be like that, and adjusting the dampers to their softest setting really didn't do much.
In addition to altering the throttle, the engine adjustability also increases or decreases the amount of synthetic noise that gets sent in through the speakers. Yes, even the M2 CS still gets piped-in induction noise—called "Active Sound Design" here—but the turbocharged powerplant is quiet enough to warrant it. Is it still annoying? Depends on your personal opinion. Should it be thought of as a real dealbreaker for the rest of the car? Absolutely not.
In my experience, the worst part about BMW's turbocharging efforts isn't the slightly diesely exhaust notes or the muffled induction noise. It's how they deliver power. It has always seemed like BMW wanted its turbocharged engines such as the N54 and N55—which only really debuted two generations of 3 Series ago—to feel naturally aspirated. And that makes sense because engines like the naturally aspirated S54 are so good that it would be great to continue that legacy. But I've always felt that if your engine has a turbocharger, that's how it should feel in a performance car. Seriously, peek inside my simple brain and you'll find I've got hours of material on this issue. It's something that was and still is annoying because the true character of the engine is being tuned out. The M2 CS, on the other hand, is decidedly, thankfully, extremely turbocharged. In a good way.
Slamming the gas with the revs positioned just right, I got a hair of turbo lag before the power swirled through the engine and out through the crank. The torque was immense as I got dragged down the road, and so was the response up at the 7,500-rpm redline. The rear end still put down the power when grip was limited thanks to its electronic limited-slip diff, and I just couldn't wait to smack the clutch and yank that next gear. The piped-in sound was... fine.
When I did this, and it happened on a twisty road, everything started to come together. Everything.
BMW's sticky electric steering? Gone. The front grip was communicated loud and clear with a natural elastic feel, and the road surface conditions were plainly evident in the little tingles and vibrations that the suede-appointed wheel offered. I got the sensation that turning the steering setting progressively closer to "Sport+" from "Comfort" might have actually reduced the amount of assistance I got, just giving me more and more of what I always wanted. Likewise, the gear change was smooth, notch-free, and simple. I don't think I could've stalled this car If I tried, and the clutch—while the pickup was a little hazy through the pedal—had a smooth engagement, and automatic rev-matching on downshifts made this almost irrelevant anyway. Better clutch-feel that's necessary to do good rev matches wasn't important anymore.
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.
The M2 CS is, then, a car worth driving forever and appreciating forever. More likely than not, these cars aren't going to go down in value. Certainly, this is one of the last great combustion-powered BMWs we're going to see with electrification coming fast, though the next 2 Series still carries the ICE torch. Nearly $85,000 is a lot to ask for a car like this one, but in the future, we're going to wonder why we were never willing to pay that much. Is it better than an E46 M3? No, but if you don't want a $2,000 repair bill every time you get an oil change—at least until your warranty expires—you aren't missing much picking one of these up. Cars like this won't be sold new for much longer.
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