One look at the questionable design of the new 4 Series, one frustrating encounter with frivolous technology, or one mediocre moment at the wheel of its new front-wheel-drive models is enough to conclude that BMW is headed in a worrying direction. The 2020 BMW M2 CS can't erase those worries, but like a shot of morphine, the high is so good that you stop caring about such concerns.
The M2 CS is the best of BMW, distilled down to a convenient, compact package. It has the kind of traits present in all the company’s greatest hits – a taut suspension, an eager and powerful engine, a joyous gearbox, deft steering, and the kind of character that emphasizes the partnership between a driver and their vehicle.
It's 45 degrees and gray at Monticello Motor Club in New York state, with the kind of drizzle that can ruin outdoor activities but doesn’t preclude them altogether. Three 2021 BMW M2 CS coupes are parked in front of me, wearing Misano Blue paint, brilliant gold wheels – brighter and purer than a Subaru's wheels – and, worryingly, Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires. These cars have Ferragamo driving mocs when they need Bean Boots. To make matters worse, this is my first time at Monticello and I'm at the front of our four-car lead-follow convoy.
At least I'm familiar with the car. The M2 CS is the result of careful evolution, from M235i to M2 to M2 Competition. BMW's matryoshka-doll approach makes for incremental changes and an improved focus that the company is planning to replicate across the M lineup (although not all models will get CS variants, even though an X6M CS would be hilarious).
The M2 CS is the result of careful evolution, from M235i to M2 to M2 Competition.
Here, the strategy yields a small coupe with 444 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque from its twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six engine. While the CS borrows the S55 mill from the M3/M4 and shares it with the M2 Competition, it outguns both – the bye-gone M4 packs 425 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque, while the lesser M2 nets 405 hp and 406 lb-ft. In other words, this is as powerful as a small BMW can get until the next M3 and M4 arrive.
On a drier surface than the slick Monticello asphalt, this two-pedal M2 CS tasked with track work dispatches 60 miles per hour in 3.8 seconds. As I gingerly snake through the first several turns and approach the back straight, the speedo climbs up to a heady 100 miles per hour – the M2 CS can hit 174 flat-out, but I'm being careful on the cold, wet surface.
Unlike the naturally aspirated BMWs of yore, today's turbocharged M models deploy their torque in giant heaps. I keep the traction control light flashing throughout my laps as I come to terms with the sharp throttle response and the immediate power delivery. Grip levels improve as the tires and track warm, and I can start exploring the M2’s performance out of corners – helping manage matters is a quick-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
One of the M2 CS' few options, the $2,900 gearbox is in full automatic for this run. I keep the shift speed, available in three different stages, at its most relaxed but the dual-clutch still snaps off quick changes. The gearbox does tend to short shift intelligently, which makes it easier to manage the torque delivery and accelerate out of the tighter corners of the 22-turn circuit.
Later in the day, I turn up the shift speed and even play with manual mode – the gearbox feels every bit as quick and eager as in the M2 Competition I tested last year. It's the choice for the stopwatch-obsessed driver, although the difficult circuit means I’m making a very safe assumption there.
CS Stands For Cool Stuff, Right?
While I struggled to suss out differences on the damp track, it didn't take a 4.1-mile circuit to appreciate other changes for the CS. Those striking matte gold wheels and shocking paint are CS-specific items, as is the standard carbon-fiber roof, splitter, rear spoiler, rear diffuser, hood, and mirror caps.
The changes are minor, but the CS looks more purposeful than the M2 Competition. Both the revised hood (with its inverted intake) and the larger rear spoiler give the car greater visual attitude. The wheels, aside from their color, benefit from a more in-your-face design – the twin five-spoke look highlights the sizable brakes or, if you ordered them, the gold carbon-ceramic stoppers.
The changes are minor, but the CS looks more purposeful than the M2 Competition.
In the cabin, there's carbon fiber trim on the console and door pulls and rich Alcantara for the dash and steering wheel. But the biggest functional changes are to the front seats, which come from the M4 CS and are some of the best sport chairs around. A sizable lower cushion provides ample thigh support without requiring a separate extender, while the heavily bolstered backrests support the driver through corners without compromising on-road comfort.
All of this new stuff sits atop a revised suspension. On the winding forest roads that surround Monticello – and armed with an Alpine White M2 CS, complete with the standard six-speed manual transmission – new adaptive dampers provide a marked improvement in on-road comfort while maintaining the track-ready stiffness of the M2 Competition's fixed-rate units.
This is still an uncomfortable car, though. On anything but well-maintained roads, it bounces around and tends to follow imperfections. It's loud, too, doing little to insulate its pilot from the outside world. Whether it's stones bouncing off the undercarriage, the drone of the six-cylinder during constant throttle, or the thud of the suspension coping with a big bump, the M2 CS makes its driver aware of what's going on.
But as with our concerns for the broader BMW brand, the M2 CS has a way of making its driver forget about its own issues. Whether on the racetrack or a winding road, it's an eminently pleasurable driver's car.
That stiff suspension is a joy through corners, where it exhibits precise control over body motions. The steering reminded me of BMWs of old – lots of weight, a linear character from on-center to full lock, and a slight numbness. The chassis, though, makes up for the steering's lack of chatter, with the little sensations from the tires finding their way to the driver's backside. Even in compromised weather, I could explore the car's limits on track by applying a little more throttle on corner exit, waiting a little longer to brake, or adding steering angle more aggressively because I knew the car would warn me if I went too far.
Whether on the racetrack or a winding road, the M2 CS is an eminently pleasurable driver's car.
The S55 engine remains a joy, revving eagerly and unloading torque in great heaping helpings. This engine feels purposeful under hard throttle, while the updated M-branded exhaust allows it to breathe easier and sound better. As with many previous M cars, the M2 CS feels quick enough to engage and entertain its driver, but the speed is always more fun than frightening.
At the same time, where old Ms were surgical tools that required strategic planning to get around slow traffic, this coupe is a satisfying blunt instrument. Need to make a pass? Boot of throttle. Want to be first away from a light? Boot of throttle. Trying to forget a bad day of work? Boot of throttle. Don't think, just go.
Purists will want to save their coin and go for the six-speed manual. On the roads around Monticello, the stick was a forcible reminder of how good BMW manual gearboxes were – the throws are longer than you'd expect and the gates feel a bit rubbery, but there's a robustness to each change that encourages the driver to shift a little faster. You can fling gears about under hard driving, but only after coming to terms with the bitey throttle and fickle initial throttle response.
All About That Brand
The M2 CS is a car that takes an already good thing and dials up its best characteristics. But it's also one that will be hard to get a hold of. BMW will only sell the CS variant for a single model year, and the starting price is a staggering $83,600, not including a $995 destination charge – that's nearly $25,000 more than the M2 Competition. Optioned up like the DCT variant featured here, and the price tag is $96,545. That said, the M2 CS might be worth it. This is the most BMW BMW I've driven in ages – a brilliant, well-engineered driving instrument.
Understanding that is key to appreciating the M2 CS, because at nearly $100,000 as-tested, it plays in a difficult arena. There's the $86,800 Porsche 718 Cayman GTS 4.0 and, above that, the $100,200 Cayman GT4. You can snag a Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Z51 and save some coin too. And beyond the better-balanced mid-engine cars, an optioned-up M2 CS ends up nose-to-nose with the Track Pack-equipped, 760-hp Ford Shelby GT500. Throw in the rumored M2 CSL, and it's hard to see the deck as being anything but stacked against the CS. Good thing this BMW knows a thing or two about overshadowing significant issues.
Gallery: 2020 BMW M2 CS: First Drive
2020 BMW M2 CS