Often people like me are too fond of saying that, from vantage points like this, things ain’t what they used to be. Cars may be uniformly quicker than once they were, but more enjoyable? Hardly ever. We point to their increased weight, the deletion of their manual gearboxes, the inclusion of all sorts of heretical devices from front drive shafts to turbochargers and electric power steering and conclude that bigger is rarely more beautiful, fatter is never funnier and that speed and entertainment are not only far from synonymous, they actually often exist in inverse proportion.
Increasingly I think we’re the ones out of step with the world. Albeit only slowly, cars are getting lighter these days, not because car makers have come over all Colin Chapman on us, but because it’s the most effective way to drive down emissions and therefore provide the necessary tax efficiencies without which no-one will buy their cars. Manual gearboxes are returning too because, bizarrely for someone who grew up in an era where all American cars were automatic, half of all sports cars sold on that side of the pond now have stick shifts. Which is why Jaguar retro-engineered the F-type to take manual gears, Porsche is doing the same to the 911 GT3 as we speak and the Cayman GT4 can only be found with three pedals in its footwell. In the meantime the best turbocharged cars have now been developed to such a stage that they not only sound great, but have zero lag too. And all you need do is drive a 2-litre, four cylinder VW Golf R to know it.
So my hopes could not be higher that the new BMW M2, detailed on this site earlier this week, really is the true successor to the original M car, the fabled E30 M3.
Ok, so it’s not actually the original because the mid-engined M1 was the first, but you know what I mean. BMW launched the first M3 a scarcely believable 30 years ago and in the 23 years since sales ceased we’ve been waiting for an M car of similar spirit and outlook to come along. Which meant a coupe that was compact, light, rear-wheel drive, manual, uncomplicated and fun. Until we drive it we can’t confirm that last quality (though the inclusion of the ‘burnout’ button augurs wells) but all the presence of all the others is evident.
Of course one of the reasons the reputation of the ‘E30’ M3 grew as it did was that, despite the fact it was and remains by far the slowest and least powerful M-car ever created, it was magical to drive. I first drove one at the Nurburgring and could scarcely believe the speed it would carry into quick corners, the lucidity of its steering and its steadfast refusal to punish even your most crass mistakes at this most unforgiving venue.
‘We conclude that bigger is rarely more beautiful, fatter is never funnier and that speed and entertainment are not only far from synonymous, they actually often exist in inverse proportion.’
It was a car that not only inspired confidence in its driver — a far more useful attribute than another hundred horsepower — it left an indelible impression that it was enjoying itself as much as you, a trifle implausible for an artfully crafted confection of metal, rubber, oil and plastic I know, but that’s how it made you feel. It was also proper: its engine was primarily designed for racing, its gearbox put first not fifth on a dogleg in time-honoured competition style and, while it was part of the Three Series range, it was built up around a unique shell designed to homologate the race version.
Recently I drove the ultimate Sport Evolution iteration of the E30 and, once I’d managed my expectations sufficiently to adapt to just how slow it felt compared to almost any modern proper performance car, the rest was an unrelenting joy which, combined with the fact that just 600 were built, explains why good examples now fetch north of £90,000.
But you can still buy a ‘normal’ E30 M3 for around a third of that money, which is still steep compared to where their prices were even five years ago, but is an investment I’d be confident would look after you over time. And in the meantime you still get to drive an E30 M3.
So I look forward to the M2 with a sense of anticipation I’ve not felt about a new M car for very many years. And if its reception is as rapturous as I expect, I look forward even more to all the other cars that will follow its lead. It is I suspect one more piece of highly convincing evidence that reports of the death of the golden age of motoring have indeed been somewhat exaggerated.
Photography courtesy BMW and Darren licensed under Creative Commons