My E46 is getting up there in terms of mileage, which means that I’ve been spending way too much time on the Internet doing research for my dream car (as one does). In an ideal world, I’d never part with my ZHP; it has the raw driving feel that you’d expect from a car with hydraulic steering, a simple, non-adaptive sport suspension, and a buttery-smooth naturally aspirated inline six. I’ll certainly drive my E46 for as long as it’ll run, but it never hurts to have another Bimmer in the stable.

I am itching to see what the current era of BMWs has to offer.

Old-school BMW feel seems to be the reason why many enthusiasts are skeptical of new BMW models. Things aren’t as simple as they used to be, with electronic systems dictating everything from suspension feel and steering weight, to in-cabin engine sound. So if you’re in the market for a newer BMW with the soul of a true driver’s car, where do you start your search?

The 3 Series used to be the quintessential BMW; it was well balanced and fun to drive straight out of the box, and it offered  amazing value when it came down to its ability to execute daily-driver duties as well as perform reliably on the occasional track day. Today, however, it feels like the 3 Series has changed, with both BMWBlog and Road & Track arguing that the signature driving experience just isn’t the same, especially on base models without M Performance features. Although I was impressed with the G20 M340i I recently drove on track at the Performance Center, that was a fully loaded M Performance model. The 3 Series lineup today may be less catered to enthusiasts and more to the luxury competition.

But don’t shed a tear just yet.

In 2014, the 2 Series lineup debuted, replacing the compact 1 Series fleet with the robust 228i coupe and the M Performance M235i. Those two models alone were enough to pique the interest enthusiasts; they were proportioned like the 3 Series of yesteryear, with a shorter wheelbase and a lower stance.

Anticipation for the new fleet only continued to grow following BMW’s  announcement of a full-fledged M version being added to the stable. Our first formal introduction to the modern-day classic came in October 2015, when the first M2 made its official debut, aptly at the Need For Speed: Heat video-game launch. The new 2 Series grouping, with its driver-focused configurations, promised to revive enthusiast interest in BMW sport coupes—and it certainly has.

The 230i convertible poses alongside the M240i coupe.

The F22 228i was a nimble $35,000 entry-level sport coupe, with a 240-horsepower inline four and optional six-speed-manual configuration. It offered a blend of technology from both past and present, with turbocharged four-cylinder N20 engine encapsulating the new era of BMW and its proper six-speed transmission and impressive power-to-weight ratio reminiscent of the brand’s enthusiast-focused roots. It was a capable daily driver, promising to brighten up your everyday commute with its athletic spirit.

On the circuit, Road & Track journalists noted that the 228i’s small displacement made it easier to drive at speed; you could easily row through a few gears and glide through the apexes without even having to so much as tap the brake. It was clearly well-balanced and engineered to proportion, as evidenced by its incredible drivability and power-to-weight ratio.

In 2017, it was replaced by the 230i, a refreshed iteration of the 228i that now possessed eight more horsepower and marginally better fuel economy, while still remaining true to the lively personality of its predecessor thanks to the improved B48 power plant.

The M235i M Performance Edition (with the entire M Performance parts catalog thrown at it).

If you want a six-cylinder, the slightly more expensive $45,000 M235i coupe is a go-to. The original heart of the first M Performance 2 Series was a slightly modified version of the iconic N55 engine, doing away with the normal cast-iron crankshaft in favor of a lighter, more durable forged steel option. The 320-horsepower N55 was eventually retired in 2016, and the 335-horsepower B58 inline six jumped in to take its place in the M240i; the same engine is currently being used in various other models throughout the BMW range. While the N55’s tuning capabilities are well known and respected, recent dyno tests and engine data from B58-equipped models has proven the replacement to be more than a worthy successor of the N55 in that department.

The ability to pair either model with an adaptive sport suspension and a three-pedal setup really piqued my interest—options that were very similar to the M Tech II and ZHP packages I was accustomed to having and enjoying on my own E46. In 2015, the M235i even made Car and Driver’s Top Ten list for the Best Driver’s Car—a nomination that is indicative of its true-to-brand driving experience.

If you’re looking for seat time, the M235i and M240i also have the potential to be entry-level track cars; there’s a reason why BMW used the M235i, the M240i, and now the M2 CS as the basis for some of their most popular customer race cars. This performance value is what led me to believe that either an M235i or M240i would be a good candidate for my next BMW—that is, until I drove a full-blown M.

The M2 hails from quite the legacy, taking inspiration from the 1 Series M Coupe and the 2002 Turbo.

A college-student budget doesn’t exactly leave room for me to even think about owning an M car, but when you’re as determined as I am to have one in my garage one day, you start doing research, and a lot of it. Like many enthusiasts, when the M2 first debuted, I was starstruck. It had a wide and low stance like that of the 1 Series M Coupe, an M car that has long been regarded as one of the greatest of all time. The M2 also had an aggressive front bumper design, with a huge lower grille that was reminiscent of the legendary E46 M3 CSL.

It just looked right.

BMW had undoubtedly found the perfect mix between old and new when it came to design the M2, but did they implement the same standard when engineering its drivetrain? The short answer is yes.

The base M2, like the M235i and M240i, was also outfitted with an N55, but this one was heavily adapted and model-specific. Changes included a forged crankshaft, forged rods, new cooling and lubrication systems, a different intake, and a new exhaust manifold. The 365-horsepower turbocharged inline six also produced a glorious note when allowed to rev out to redline, and a full lightweight aluminum M4 suspension delivered exhilarating drivability along the way. An Active M differential means that this little M gets sideways when you want it to, and grips the tarmac when you don’t. M carbon compound brakes increase heat dissipation on the track, decreasing brake fade and increasing durability. It’s a true M through and through, and it possesses some of the Ultimate Driving Machine essence that we’ve all been waiting to make a comeback.

With 2016 models depreciating into the high-$30,000 range for the most affordable examples, perhaps due to the release of the M2 Competition and the M2 CS, the base M2 is becoming a more viable option for enthusiasts looking for a monster of a daily driver—and a great track weapon.

The BMW M235i Racing exercising its dynamic driving abilities on the Nürburgring during the 2018 M235i Racing Cup.

The 2 Series lineup should be a test-drive go-to if you’re considering adding a new (or another) BMW that is true to the essence of the brand to your garage. The value is certainly there, and the behind the wheel driving experiences that each model provides are arguably some of the best BMW has to offer at the moment. Whether you’re looking for a practical but sporty daily driver, an M Performance model, or an actual M, the  2 Series range has it. They’re decently reliable as well, because in 2016, Consumer Report’s most reliable “sporty car” was the 2 Series, earning it a place in the top-seven ranking, which was otherwise dominated by cars from Japanese brands. We may not have the same information yet for the newer models, but if past reliability is at all indicative of the future, we can expect the same durability from newer models.

If that isn’t convincing enough, take one for a drive. The best research is done behind the wheel and on the track, and if you have an opportunity to do either, don’t pass it up. I certainly won’t.—Malia Murphy

[Photos courtesy BMW AG.]



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