It has been awhile since I drove a BMW M car. Five years in fact. We’ve sampled a long list of machines in those years, but the memory of that fun day out at Sepang in 2012 is as fresh as the octopus sold at Busan’s Jagalchi market. Which is to say it’s no more, but still moving.

What’s also no more is the naturally-aspirated engine in the M line-up. If I could pick a fragment of the above-mentioned trackday to keep with me forever, it will be the sound and feel of the E92 M3’s engine. That 4.0 litre V8’s song was so raw, yet so fine, if that makes sense.

Turbo engines were the new thing then, but it’s the norm now – forced induction is used to boost everything from the M2 to the X6 M. The cars are faster and more efficient now, of course, but turbos have also forced out what IMHO was one of driving’s top experiences – revving the heart out of a sport-tuned NA engine.

That was my state of mind heading to South Korea for the recent BMW M Experience 2017. As a non-fanboy with modest expectations, disappointment was not on the menu, but this cynic with an open mind did secretly wish to be surprised.

The refresher course was held at the BMW Driving Centre in Yeongjongdo, South Korea. Adjacent to the country’s main Incheon International Airport, the still-fresh driving facility was opened in 2014 and sits on an almost 60-acre piece of reclaimed land, around the size of 33 football fields.

The main building houses display areas for BMW (including i and M sub-brands), MINI and BMW Motorrad, and the multi-brand showroom is manned by rotating sales staff from Seoul’s BMW dealerships. We hear that it’s an increasingly popular sales channel where customers get to immerse themselves in the full brand experience (major poison, in other words) and sample the machines before signing on the line.

You can’t really experience Sheer Driving Pleasure from a Kolon Motors showroom in Gangnam, but it’s possible here. The centrepiece of the 77 billion won Incheon driving centre is a 2.6 km closed circuit track, of which an extension is already on the cards. The plan is to lengthen the main straight to around one kilometre long, potentially enabling speeds of around 250 km/h. It’s not Sepang, but combined with customisable short courses on large open areas, it’s a good gym for cars and drivers alike.

Greeting us was an almost complete M range of cars, from the little M2 to the giant X6 M. We started off with the “core” of the range, the M3 sedan and M4 coupe. Introduced in 2014, the F82 M4 it marked the end of the coupe-bodied M3 – with Munich spinning off the 3 Series Coupe as the 4 Series, the M version would follow. Less superficial was the switch to forced induction.

In place of the glorious 4.0 litre V8 in the E92 M3 is a 3.0 litre turbo straight-six with 431 hp and 550 Nm. That’s a significant jump from the big NA’s 420 hp/400 Nm, and max torque is available from 1,800 to 5,390 rpm. Both the F80 M3 and the M4 can be had with a six-speed manual or a seven-speed M DCT automatic, which our cars were equipped with.

There’s no arguing with the M4’s speed – it’s really quick off the line (0-100 km/h in 4.1 seconds) and the turbo shove from low engine speeds makes it a much easier car to keep at pace. The twin-turbo six-pot revs to 7,600 rpm, which is 800 rpm shy of the NA V8 but high for a blown motor, although there’s less incentive than before to take it there every. single. gear.

The M4 is a capable car on track, underpinned by impressive weight-saving measures and chassis tech. Precise and stable, but with a sting in the tail if you’re being stupid or deliberate, there’s much to admire here.

It will fully shadow the old car in lap times, but the E92 M3’s hair-raising howl and immediate response will be missed, along with its smaller footprint (and corresponding sense of agility) and steering feedback. It’s a performance car for today, the M4, with all the good and (subjective) bad that comes along with each new era. Maybe it’s time to discard that pair of rose-tinted aviators for some hi-def Oakleys…

Maybe next time, because that old M3 spirit lives on in the new BMW M2. There’s so much to like about the newest and smallest M car, but we’ll start with the all-important first impression.

The 2 Series Coupe looks a lot better than the old 1 Series Coupe, but there’s only so much coupe one can carve out of a compact hatchback. Too high a roofline and too narrow to really seduce. Which makes the M2 Exhibit A in the research paper titled “What blistered fenders can do to improve a car’s stance”. OK, maybe Exhibit B, after the 1M Coupe.

Fitting in the M3/M4’s suspension meant that an hourglass body was needed to cover the modesty of a 71 mm wider rear track and 64 mm wider front track. Whichever way you view it – sexy curves in the right places or a muscle-dense beast – the M2 “looks right”. Like what you see here? Wait till you see one under natural light. The M2 reminds me of the E46 M3, and who didn’t love that one.

Like the M3/M4, the F87 M2 is also powered by a 3.0 litre turbocharged inline-six engine, but this single turbo mill isn’t the S55. This is the same engine you’ll find in regular 3.0L BMW cars, but with components and features from the M3 motor. The result is 370 hp at 6,500 rpm and 465 Nm of torque from 1,400 to 4,750 rpm, with overboost pushing the latter to 500 Nm.

Drive is sent to the rear wheels via a seven-speed M DCT automatic and the 0-100 km/h sprint is completed in 4.3 seconds, just two tenths slower than the M4. The good ol’ six-speed manual – which is on its last legs at BMW due to poor take-up and ever more powerful cars – is also available, but we sampled the dual-clutch auto.

The M2’s engine may sound inferior to the M3/M4’s more bespoke motor, but that couldn’t be more far from the truth. In fact, the N55B30T0 feels livelier and more free revving than the S55, making all the right noises in the process, which in turn invigorates the driver. I don’t know how, or why, but the “lesser” motor is the sweeter one here; it also feels more like a downline of the peachy NA units from previous M3s.

They’re all prime cuts here, but the M2 is cooked medium. The engine is more raw and exciting, and that goes very well with a chassis feels agile and lively. Now, the smallest of M cars isn’t much lighter than the M4, but it feels significantly more wieldy from the driver’s seat – must be that pocket-sized footprint.

There’s just more communication, whether from the steering or the chassis. The latter is stable as default, playful when you want it to be, as we found out in a mini gymkhana course. Nicely balanced, it’s there for your footwork to exploit. Getting the tail out on a circle, and waiting for the right angle to come around before arrowing out to the next obstacle was a particularly fun exercise. Expert hands would find the M2 to be a perfect dance partner, I’d imagine.

The M2 lacks some of the feel good items that M cars traditionally get (unique seats and wing mirrors, for instance), the interior is simply not special enough for a RM500k car, and there’s too little differentiation from a regular M Sport 2 Series. But trust me, you’ll feel good once you get going.

It made me go “Woohoo!” in the car, and looking back, that properly sums up our short drive in this feisty little machine. The M4, brilliant as it was, didn’t bring out the teen in me, much less the X6 M, which by the way, has no right to such pace and grip for a beast of its size. That makes the smallest M car the most special M car in my books. I did walk away surprised after all.




GALLERY: BMW Driving Centre in Incheon, Korea