Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff collection of impressions, jottings, and marginalia on whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: The BMW M2.
They're wrong. You can go home again. You can find your way back, following the threading tarmac up from the valley floor. It doesn't seem like you should be able to. Things are different now; the tree-line is thinner, and you're certainly not. Life is complex, sometimes heavy. Maybe you're carrying a couple of passengers who didn't even exist a few years ago. The world has changed, and you along with it.
Except here I am on a road I've been driving for more than two decades, and it feels like nothing has changed. It's still the same crack-laden tarmac, constantly under assault by roots and frost. The trees still droop low, and the roller-coaster ridges still make you go light in your seat. Every curve fills me with the same warm recognition of meeting an old friend. And once again, for what feels like the first time in years, I'm driving a real BMW.
It's safe to say I'm a real BMW fan. Cut me open, you'd see my corpuscles marked with little blue-and-white roundels. I learned to drive here in my dad's old stick-shift 535i, grew a love for solid brakes and the song of a straight-six engine. Before that, as a kid, I'd laugh in the backseat with my brother as the car squatted on the lone straight, nipping past a slow-moving pickup truck. Halycon days, thought long gone.
That same blind turn, two before the straight. Patience—watch for a bit of loose gravel, then dip into the boost and the car surges forward. Peals of laughter echo through the cabin again, my girls tickled pink by the sudden surge. Come off the throttle (another lesson from my father: a little moderation goes a long way) and we're back cruising, ready to wriggle through through the next few corners of my memory.
To be blunt, I thought the Bavarians had forgotten how to do this sort of thing. Oh sure, if you wanted to lambaste an AMG with 280mm shells, then BMW had a turbocharged dreadnaught for you. Or, if you wanted to let your aspirational flag fly, then how about fourteen M-badges for your coupe-styled crossover? The Ultimate Striving Machine. I'd become more jaded than the ancient Chinese wing at an art museum. The Focke-Wulfes had flown the coop—now all we had left were fender-vents.
But this machine, imperfect and heavy as it is, is so welcomingly familiar I can't help grinning. There's a lot of digitization going on here: the semi-faked engine noise, the drive-mode selection, the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. BMW will still sell you a six-speed manual, but it comes with a rev-matching system that can't be defeated unless you totally disable traction control. So sad. So wrong.
Nevertheless, blasting over roads I've been driving for more than 20 years, the hunchy little M2 burrows its way into my chest and curls up around my heart. Its engine is fast and punchy, but not wildly overpowered. Its chassis is lively and skittery without yawing cartoonishly sideways. Even the steering is a familiar handshake; the old recirculating ball racks were never all that good anyway, and this electric approximation can hold its head high.
It's not the same—it can never be the same—but there is a sameness to things. The M2 may not the best BMW I've ever driven; it feels massive and occasionally artificial. It is, however, the best recent BMW I've driven, and the first one in a long while that feels like an actual BMW. Wilkommen zurück, Bavaria, we've missed you.
2016 BMW M2
Price (as tested): $52,695 ($57,395)
Powertrain: 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six, seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, rear-wheel drive
0-60: 4.1 seconds
MPG: 20 city / 27 highway
Mom's verdict: “Oh, it's cute!”