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Detroit News Auto Critic Henry Payne reviews the BMW M2

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As regular readers of this column know, I race Porsches and think Stuttgart’s engineering is second to none. But when it came time to buy my first ultimate-performance car, I walked past a Porsche Boxster/Cayman and bought a 2001 BMW M3. With a young family of four, I needed the rear seats. And with its ginormous grip and 3.2-liter, 333-horsepower straight-six, it was more fun than a free season pass to Cedar Point.

Produced from 2000-2006, the M3’s so-called E46 model is the best car I’ve owned. Fifteen years later and I’ve fallen hard for the blue-and-red M badge again. This time it’s an M2.

But in truth it’s the second coming of my M3.

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The E46 was Goldilocks-perfect. Not too hot, not too cold. Just right. I could flog it at Waterford Raceway on Sunday, then drop my boys off at school on Monday on my way downtown. With its state-of-the art chassis dynamics and engine, it promised sports car performance in a luxury package. Yet its $46,045 price tag wouldn’t tempt you to rob a bank. The high-revving engine was ferocious, yet I could put my boot in it over Michigan back roads without scaring myself to death.

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Subsequent generations of M3 — like “X-Men” sequels promising ever more firepower — adopted steroid-fed V-8s and twin-turbo V6s. The current 2016 M4 (as BMW now calls the coupe version of its M3 sedan) rocketship produces 425 horsepower, 406 pound-feet of torque and will set off an entire block of car alarms with a barking, 3.7-second zero-to-60 mph blast. It’s a tornado in a teapot. A Corvette with a Bavarian accent.

And it can cost an eye-watering $83K. Too much car, too much money. At a loaded $56,445 the M2 badge is back in my wheelhouse again. BMW advertises it as a return to its turbo-2002, 1970s roots — but more accurately, M2 re-creates the DNA of the six-bangers that made M legend.

Begin with the walk around of the Long Beach Blue Metallic, 365-horsepower, turbocharged Velociraptor in my driveway. Oh, drool. And I thought a glimpse in the rearview mirror at my E46’s menacing mouth made knees knock. The M2’s front air intakes look like they were taken off an F-22 jet fighter.

It’s not just their size, but the exquisite sheet metal surfacing — integrated with BMW’s traditional kidney grille — that creates one of the most distinctive Bimmer faces since, well, my M3. Unlike current 3-series fashion, the headlights are in their proper, separate place at the corners — not melting into the grille like too-wet risotto into your filet mignon.

In the tradition of my E46, the M2 is superhero version of a 2-series coupe. Muscular flanks. Wheel wells stuffed with sticky Michelin Pilot Sports (now Super Sports) so wide they look like the Hulk’s biceps ripping through Bruce Bannerman’s shirt. The 19-inch, forged aluminum wheels are right off the bigger M4 (as are the aluminum suspension bits), so the Hulk analogy fits.

The greenhouse is set back further than my 2001 steed, lengthening the swollen hood and giving the effect of a greyhound sitting back on it haunches ready to sprint. Those haunches finish in a quartet of exhaust pipes that hint at the power within.

It is the engines that differentiate these beasts.

On a test track in Almost Heaven West Virginia, my E46 is a raspy tenor, its un-boosted scream reaching crescendo at 8,000 RPM redline. The M2 is a throaty baritone revving to 6,500 with buckets of low-end, twin-scroll turbo-assisted torque. Like the latest, turbo Porsche 911, the response is instant. No lag. There’s a rule of racing thumb that, as long as your engine is three liters or less, you can floor the pedal at corner apex without fear of the rear-end stepping out. Disregard that for the M2.

There is so much low-end grunt that I had to modulate its throttle out of corners. SPORT + mode is easier to access (a simple button push as opposed to my M3’s more complicated, at-start procedure) — turning off ABS and increasing engine response.

Engines aside, the two cars feel related. Rowing the gears, both manuals are a bit gummy (inferior to my favorite, tight Porsche and Mazda Miata shifters). The interiors are similar even with the M2’s expected digital advances of navigation, push-button start, keyless entry, satellite radio and so on. (How many trips did I make from Detroit to West Virginia in my old M3 while fishing for radio stations? In the M2 I tuned to the Warriors/Cavs NBA game on Sirius XM and never missed a shot.)

Similar length and width. Same 3,400-pound girth. Same 10-inch rear rubber. Separated at birth. Only the M2 has been improved.

In SPORT mode, downshifts are rev-matched. Upshifts growl like a hungry Rottweiler. Corner grip is astounding — not knife-edge Porsche-sharp but close. The M2 pulls G-loads of .99. My old M3? .87. Acceleration is lip-curling.

The M2’s brakes — shared with Big Brother M3/M4 — are a revelation. My M3 chirps under maximum exertion, its ABS throbbing. The M2 grips instantly, like a bulldog to a postman’s leg.

A modern M3/M4 or Corvette C7 requires big tracks like Mid-Ohio to fully realize their potential. But I can wring the M2’s neck at smaller, local tracks like Waterford or Gingerman and leave satisfied. Same on the road.

On I-64 back to Michigan, a Nissan Z sidles up for a challenge. I downshift to fourth gear. Buckets of torque. Goodbye Z. State Route 35’s two-lane twisties are an M2 playpen along the Ohio River.

In the 15 years since my M3 the choice of performance cars has exploded.

“We’re in the second golden era of performance cars,” Fiat-Chrysler gearhead exec Tim Kuniskis likes to say. There are $40K hot hatch VW Golf Type Rs and Ford Focus RSs and nimble Camaro SSs. And at the top of the heap, the $56K M2 for the same price (inflation adjusted) as my 2001 M3.

I pay a visit to Cedar Point in the M2 to snap some pictures of the car with the park’s epic roller coasters. It brings back memories. Memories of a Dad in an M3 planning a trip with his young family to the famous Millennium Force for the first time.

If that were me today, we’d hop in an M2 and enjoy the coaster ride home.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2016 BMW M2

Specifications

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger sports coupe

Price: $52,995 base ($56,445 as tested)

Power plant: 3.0-liter, turbocharged, inline 6-cylinder

Power: 365 horsepower, 369 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual or automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.2 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,415 pounds (manual)

Fuel economy: EPA 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway/21 mpg combined (manual); EPA 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway/23 mpg combined (automatic)

Report card

Highs: Get-outta-my-way styling; buckets of torque

Lows: No Apple CarPlay or Android Auto (c’mon, guys, all the mainstream compacts got ’em)

Overall:★★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★

2001 BMW M3

Specifications

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger sports coupe

Price: $46,045 base

Power plant: 3.2-liter, inline 6-cylinder

Power: 333 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.8 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,415 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 15 mpg city/22 mpg highway/17 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Aggressive stance; glorious, 8,000 redline

Lows: SPORT + mode not easily selected (hey, I’m stretching here)

Overall:★★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★

Fair ★★Poor ★

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