BMW M2, M3 or M5: Which of These Track Stars is Best for You?

Spartanburg, South CarolinaThe Car Guide was recently invited to take part in BMW’s annual Test Fest, where members of the media can take a large selection of vehicles for a spin both on the road and on the track.

With the BMW M2, M3 and M5 all on hand, we thought it would be fun to compare the three and maybe help potential customers decide which one would be the right pick for them, not only for hot laps but also as daily drivers.

The test track was set up by BMW at its driving school next to the Spartanburg assembly plant. It included a number of tight, low-speed turns and a short straightaway leading up to an uphill chicane—the ideal playground for a small sports car like the M2, we figured.

Photo: Julien Amado

The Little Bundle of Dynamite

As the pinnacle of the 2 Series lineup, the latest M2 boasts a twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder engine producing 453 horsepower and 406 lb-ft. of torque, all of which is sent to the rear wheels only. We managed to get our hands on both 6-speed manual and 8-speed automatic units.

The little but mighty M2 lit up the track and wasted no time showcasing impressive agility. Thanks to its razor-sharp steering, it attacked and sliced up corners with pinpoint accuracy. It can be a bit too zesty when accelerating out of a turn, though. And because it doesn’t generate quite as much torque (and power) as the M3 and M5, you need to keep those revs higher to ensure a proper launch.

Photo: Julien Amado

While the automatic transmission is perfectly fine, delivering lightning-quick shifts in the sportiest mode, we must say the manual gearbox is even better. With ideal pedal placement, a fantastically progressive clutch and a short-throw shifter operating with confidence, it’s a real pleasure to manipulate. Sure, you might lose a few tenths of a second here and there, but think about the extra fun you’re going to get.

The Complete Opposite

Our next weapon was the much longer and heavier M5 Competition, which packs a twin-turbocharged 4.4-litre V8. Blessed with all-wheel drive, this midsize sedan cranks out 617 horsepower and 553 lb-ft. of torque through an 8-speed automatic transmission. However, at 1,971 kg, it’s no featherweight. By comparison, the auto-equipped M2 and M3 Competition tip the scales at 1,754 kg and 1,810 kg, respectively.

Photo: BMW

On the track, the M5 expertly handled sweeping corners and its stopping power showed no signs of fading despite the abuse we put the brakes through. Naturally, it lost a fair amount of time when approaching corners, but the immense torque proved to be a boon past the apex. As for the transmission, it performed with all the swiftness you could possibly want.

Drivers who prefer lighter cars likely won’t have a change of heart behind the wheel of the M5, but that car should not be underestimated. The more laps you complete, the more you get used to its heftier weight and find better lines to maximize top speeds.

Photo: BMW

Our Favourite

The last BMW M model we tested that day was a 543-horsepower M3 CS, which delivers 40 horsepower more than the M3 Competition. Peak torque is identical at 479 lb-ft. What makes it even more special is the uniquely calibrated suspension and reduced weight (1,776 kg), the latter attributable to the abundance of carbon fibre components.

Obviously, we realize that this particular M3 is a different beast than the M2 and M5. It’s not so much about the extra ponies under the hood than the various upgrades all around, which make it a pure track star. The Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires keep the car glued to the tarmac at all times.

Photo: Julien Amado

At least that’s what it felt like when we started carving up the track. Where we would hesitate to further depress the throttle with the M2, the M3 CS left no doubt whatsoever. Stability was just mind-boggling—we had as much fun negotiating fast corners as we had shooting out of slower turns.

The car’s M xDrive all-wheel drive system is remarkably well calibrated, making the most of every single horsepower and giving the rear tires a break. It’s possible to get the M3 CS a little sideways to prepare for the next corner, but you can rest assured that it will never spin around—unless you willingly put too much pressure on the throttle.

Photo: BMW

The brakes show formidable power and bite, which means you can hit the pedal at the very last instant before entering a corner. We didn’t time the cars, by the way, but we’re pretty sure the gap between the M3 CS and M2 could be measured in seconds, not tenths of a second.

Make Your Pick

All three BMW M cars won us over, but for different reasons. The M2 may not be the sportiest, but it certainly proved to the most playful and a total treat when the track got tighter and twistier. The manual gearbox also adds to the experience—if you like to row your own gears, of course.

The M5 is arguably the most comfortable among the trio. The powerful, torque-rich V8 and impressive poise in fast corners make it a superb choice for tracks such as Mont-Tremblant or Mosport. The current model is on the way out, mind you, and a new M5 based on the recently introduced 2024 BMW 5 Series is expected to join the lineup in the near future.

Photo: Julien Amado

Whatever the track, the M3 CS is the definitely the most qualified for the job. Extremely agile and precise in the slower sections, it can speed past 200 km/h in less time than you took reading this sentence. On the other hand, pushing it to the limit requires experience and finesse behind the wheel.

Oh, and we forgot to mention this is a limited-edition model with only 72 units available in Canada, each one starting at $148,000. Good luck getting your hands on one. A standard M3 Competition fitted with a good set of tires will still give you plenty of bang for your buck while proving more compliant and more pleasant in daily driving.

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