When test driving a new version of an existing car, it can be difficult to properly gauge its improvements without driving both the new and old car back-to-back. Thankfully, I found myself in the usual, but highly fortunate position, to do just that with the new BMW M2 CS.

BMW recently held its typically semi-annual “Test Fest”, in which journalists are invited to a race track to drive all of BMW’s newest vehicles on both the track and the surround public roads. Typically, these events are held in either of BMW’s Performance Centers; one of which is Performance Center West, out in Palm Springs, California, and the other is Performance Center East, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. However, due to Covid and the risks of air travel, BMW wanted to host it a bit closer to its New Jersey-based home headquarters, so Test Fest was held at the Monticello Motor Club, in Monticello, New York.

Being that I live in New Jersey and didn’t need a plane to get there, BMW was gracious enough to loan me a fun car with which to make the nearly three-hour northern trek. The car I was lent was a BMW M2 Competition with a seven-speed DCT gearbox.

I made the journey on Sunday, so I’d left at night, to avoid any traffic leaving the Jersey Shore. I had assumed I’d have to take several bathroom and coffee breaks to keep myself awake, as I’d worked the entire day putting up baseboard trim in my house and was exhausted. However, the M2 Competition reintroduced itself to me and reminded me of its bewitching charms. I was wide awake for the entire three hours, loved every minute of it, and made it to the hotel in time to catch the second half of Sunday Night Football before going to bed.

The following morning, I topped the M2 Comp off with gas, as I was too lazy to fill up the night prior, and headed off to Monticello Motor Club. There, I parked my Long Beach Blue M2 Competition next to some other incredible cars (including a green Lexus LC500 Coupe!) and walked into my first socially distant press event. BMW did an excellent job of keeping everything clean, distant and safe, for the record.

Once inside the open garage area, fitted with individual tables for breakfast and lunch for each journalist, I had a look at the cars we’d have available to us that day. One of which was the BMW M2 CS, which I’d known was going to be there. However, what I didn’t know was that it would be available for both road and track testing. Typically, that’s not the case with cars like the CS at these events, as they’re normally relegated to just the track. Needless to say, I was excited.

My excitement grew when I learned that the road-going M2 CS was fitted with a manual gearbox. The track-use M2 CS’ were DCT-equipped, like my My M2 Competition loaner. So I had the chance to both accurately compare the CS with the standard Comp, while also testing the CS with a manual. The day couldn’t have been better.

On the Road Again

I’d driven an M2 Competition on the road for a couple hundred miles, just hours before the event, so I was eager to jump into the BMW M2 CS and take it right back onto the roads I came in on.

A manual transmission makes a world of a difference. Not only does a manual engage the driver more but the M2 CS’ manual is the best I’ve used in a BMW in a long time. The throws are short and tight, making them incredibly satisfying. The clutch is a bit too springy but that’s not a problem. Honestly, while driving it, I was just happy that it had a manual, as that extra pedal and row-your-own gear lever complete the M2 package.

After the shock and delight of the M2 CS’ six-speed stick, the thing that stood out most wasn’t its power or performance but its ride. The BMW M2 CS is the only car in the M2 family history to come with adaptive dampers and they’re outstanding. I’m not sure what BMW did to them but the adaptive dampers in the M2 CS make it ride better than the M2 Competition, despite being lower and sportier. Even over some of the blitzkrieged roads surrounding Monticello, the M2 CS rode brilliantly. It’s a firm car, no doubt, but it’s never harsh or uncomfortable.

BMW claims that the M2 CS is comprehensively upgraded over the M2 Competition and that’s technically true, as much went into making the M2 CS feel sharper, more dynamic and more engaging than its less counterpart. However, on the road, it’s really hard to notice the difference.

While good, the steering of the BMW M2 CS feels barely different than that of the M2 Competition. Though, that’s not a knock on the former but instead high praise for the latter. Don’t fix what ain’t broke, right?

The added power is nice, too, thanks to the 3.0 liter twin-turbo “S55” engine’s bump to 444 horsepower. Again, though, it’s not going to be noticeable on the road. It’s very fast and very effective but it feels about as fast as the M2 Competition.

On the Track

Sure, the BMW M2 CS didn’t feel drastically different than the M2 Comp on the road. However, it felt significantly better on track. Last I drove an M2 Competition on track was at the M Festival in Toronto, Canada and it was a handful. So I was expecting the even more powerful, even more raucous M2 CS to be downright terrifying, considering the heavy rain and oil-slick track. Yet, it wasn’t. In fact, it was the most exciting, confidence inspiring car I drove on track all day, including the new M5 and ALPINA XB7 (yes, I drove the mammoth XB7 on track — review to come).

The M2 CS’ we had on track were DCT, so I was tempted to leave it in automatic and let the car figure out what was best, thus leaving all of my focus for the slippery conditions. But after realizing just how much grip and composure the M2 CS had, even in the sketchy conditions, I flipped it into manual and really began to have some fun. Admittedly, I had to keep the car a gear higher than I normally would have, to keep it from spinning its rear wheels. However, with that in mind, the little blue Bimmer was an absolute riot.

On track is also where the M2 CS shows its worth. It’s noticeably sharper and more capable than its lesser sibling when I was finally able to push it to its (my) limits. It’s just so balanced, accurate and confidence inspiring that I kept pushing harder and harder, lap after lap, even though the conditions scared the crap out of me in every other car. In fact, I felt more at ease in the M2 CS than in the all-wheel drive M5.

Is the M2 CS Worth the Upgrade?

There are no two ways about it: the BMW M2 CS is an expensive car. At just under $84,000 to start, the CS model is about $25,000 more than the M2 Competition. So is it worth that price premium? I think it depends on your use-case. If you’re going to take the car to the track on a regular basis, then I’d say yes, the M2 CS is worth the extra money. Right out of the box, you’re getting a car you can drive to the track, have an absolute blast with, and then drive home in. Few cars in its price range will be as good to drive on track as the M2 CS.

However, if you’re not going to the track, I’m not so sure the BMW M2 CS is worth the money over the standard M2 Comp. Reason being is that the M2 Competition is already so good. With just a few thousand dollars in mods, you can also make the M2 Competition just as exciting on the road as the M2 CS is. A new set of good coilovers, better brakes, some aero tweaks and maybe even an engine tune and the M2 Competition is a dynamite little sports car.

Having said that, if you forget the cost, and forget how difficult it is to get one, it’s impossible to deny that the M2 CS is BMW’s best driving car. It’s razor-sharp, shockingly capable and packs a ton of character into such a small, great looking package. In a time when BMW is changing so much about itself, from the way it makes cars to the way it designs them, it’s refreshing to drive such a simple BMW again; one that reminds us of what the brand is known for.