Mountain Wheels: Athletic insanity awaits in BMW’s small and brutal M2 |

Mountain Wheels: Athletic insanity awaits in BMW’s small and brutal M2

Andy Stonehouse
Mountain Wheels

A while back, on warmer and dryer roads — not complaining about the snow, though — I spent a wild week with one of the most intense of the new-generation European imports, priced and scaled to allow relatively normal people to access it, but so intensely ferocious and performance-oriented that it was a bit hard to believe.

The new BMW M2, the smallest member of the brand's high-performance family, creates an approachable ($51,700, pretty well-equipped) but still insanely powerful entry point for those who want to experience the Ultimate Driving Machine, bumped up about six notches.

At 365 horsepower, generated by a twin-turbo inline six that sounds like a gurgly sportbike at idle and makes exhaust noises like a V-8 Mustang when wrung out, M2 is no slouch, whatsoever. Given the car's size, based on the new, 176-inch-long 2-Series platform, I'm guessing 500 horsepower might be a really bad idea, especially as it's unapologetically rear-wheel-drive only.

If you've got money hidden offshore and you really do want to make an impression (and also be able to launch a payload into orbit), a new V-12-powered 7-series M was one of the attractions at this week's LA Auto Show and offers a full 601 horsepower, for just $153,800.

In the M2's case, considerably heightened output from the standard 3.0-liter turbo platform (an overboost function allows you to scroll up to 369 lb.-ft. of torque when you really need to move, versus the still impressive 343 lb.-ft. standard high-end number) is just part of the equation.

The motorcycle engine analogy is no joke. Every time I looked, M2's engine usually seemed to be running at about 4,000 RPM, screaming for vengeance, and it absolutely defies regular automotive placidity. Coupled with a six-speed manual transmission, oversized M-branded brakes and the thickest, fattest steering wheel on the block, your potential to drive in a truly impressive fashion is, weather permitting, quite unbelievable. Rev-matching comes as a built-in feature, whose throttle blips can sound a little silly in traffic but are very welcome during higher-performance outings.

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That transmission is remarkably easy to use and light on the clutch, which is good to know as you figure out how to nail those four-second 0-60 runs or, as also seems to happen a lot, find it necessary to drop from 90 mph into a 15 mph corner on a mountain road. M2 builds speed in a fearsome fashion and the engine braking is just as big a part as the massive calipers themselves. Set on beautiful 19-inch wheels, the standard Pilot Super Sports got an unusually long season here in Colorado, but will have to be swapped out to make the car marginally winter-friendly.

Sure, the chassis is pretty tough on the tailbone, but that rigidity is also cunningly flexible when the M2 is asked to travel over a variety of terrain. What you will notice, on first plunge of the gas pedal, is the ability to very easily get the rear end of the car swung out — alarmingly so, especially for everyone so firmly rooted by all- and four-wheel-drive setups — but it also turns into a near-magic, fluid and organic quality when cornering.

Imagine, actually, a four-passenger Miata with almost double the power, and you'll come close to replicating the blend at work here.

Inexplicably, I also seemed to be able to generate about 30 MPG while doing a lot of fast work in the car; the EPA combined figure is just 21 MPG, so don't mistake it for a hybrid.

And though the cockpit is set up for sporty intensity, best with the deep and very sporty seats ratcheted up as close as possible to the wheel, the setup is actually quite roomy and comfortable — more so than the Lexus IS, for instance.

Its coupe configuration makes access to the two-seat-only rear cabin a little tricky but there's a fair amount of headroom (36.5 inches) in the back and, like the front, you're treated to suede armrests.

Hell, even the trunk is fairly big (13.8 cubic feet), with a cargo net that's critically important for holding your goods in place while the car is being used as intended.

Beautiful and imposing as the car is, with oversized air-sucking holes in that menacing face for brake and engine breathing, the interior itself is relatively plain by $50,000 car standards. There's just a whiff of carbon fiber-ish trim, plus the standard widescreen navigation system, big but basic gauges and black on black.

I never turned the stereo on, once. I drove with the windows down, when I could, and I listened to the real music produced by that engine. And I did not destroy the car, either, which seemed very plausible. It was a remarkable experience.

2016 BMW M2 Coupe

MSRP: $51,700; as tested, $54,495

Powertrain: 365-HP twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-six, six-speed manual transmission

EPA figures (combined/city/highway): 21/18/26