BMW M Track Test

Justin Pritchard
by Justin Pritchard

What to Expect at a Track Day from your new BMW M

Located about a half-hour from Penticton, the Main Circuit at Area 27 Motorsports Park is a seamless ribbon of pavement curvaceously draped over rolling hillsides surrounded by open skies and fields and a 360-degree view of the mountainous BC horizon largely uncluttered by signage and guardrails and infrastructure.

Paved in a continuous pass, there aren’t even any seams in the asphalt—not on the half-mile straight, not on the 357 feet of elevation change per lap, and not on any of the 16 corners. One of those corners is a tricky double-apex deal (one apex is blind!) with a quick undulation separating the two and offering to rapidly lighten the rear of your car mid-corner to giggle-eliciting effect.

bmw m track test

I’ve been lucky enough to tell stories from over a dozen circuits around the world, and my most lasting memory of Area 27 will forever be taking in the fastest and smoothest drive through some of the most beautiful Canadian scenery I’ve ever seen. Much of this racetrack hardly looks like one while you’re driving it. Imagine a scenic Sunday drive through the wilderness, at over 200 km/h as undulating South Okanagan goes hurtling past and beneath.

This is euphoric sensory overload for the eyes, and a hell of a place to take in a track day. Incidentally, that’s a hobby of many BMW M car owners.

M Cars Love the Track

bmw m track test

Over the years, along with Caymans and STIs, BMW’s M-powered models are amongst a few commonly favourited by racing instructors and track-day enthusiasts in my circle and others. Not all M car owners are track day enthusiasts, but many track day enthusiasts (and instructors) are M car owners.

If you’ve got your eye on a new M, take it to a track school for heaven’s sake. (AMG, SRT, Stingray and Shelby gals and fellas, that goes for you, too).

What's the Best M Track Choice?

bmw m track test

You’ll love your car even more, gain a whole new appreciation for the machine and tech you just dropped the big bucks on, and leave with a major performance upgrade for your new car (as well as any other you ever drive), which is called the ‘driver mod’.

Just like with cooking, better ingredients make for a better dish. With the driver mod, you learn to give your car better inputs (ingredients) and enjoy a much more delicious performance experience as a result.

Many of Area 27’s 16 corners are like launch pads, standing ready to blast your car down the tarmac ahead. In an M-Powered car on a rolling boil, it’s hard to put into words the sensation as driver skills (and speeds) increase, so you will be repeating yourself as you learn.

The Heavyweight - 2023 BMW X5 M Competition

bmw m track test

The X5 M comes standard for 2023 in Competition configuration with a newly-electrified twin-turbo V8. Dubbed S68, refreshed turbo hardware and 48-volt mild hybrid electric motor team up for 617 horsepower and full throttle response that immediately lifts the nose and squats the tail as its 5,500 lb mass attempts to body-check the forward horizon.

As an SUV, the X5 M is a taller and heavier M machine than most and little more patience is required in a few more situations than smaller and nimbler models. Still, its taller seating position makes for better sight-lines (and added confidence) on tracks with elevation changes, with earlier visibility up, over and down incoming hills and undulations. After track day, you can comfortably take the family on a camping trip or drive your grandmother to church, too.

Most of the thrill in the X5 M is the result of its raging exhaust sound, dramatic throttle response, and ability to generate huge cornering and braking G-forces that seem to continuously defy its size and weight. Of course, the effect of driving something this big with the ability to exert such huge forces on your body is a good bit of fun in its own right, like piloting your own rollercoaster.

The Athlete - 2023 BMW M2

bmw m track test

If something smaller, lighter, and friskier is your style, don’t miss the BMW M2.

This 452-horsepower coupe is low, compact, equipped with a small rear seat, and sees a 453-horsepower straight-six stuffed behind its grille. Spec yours with two pedals and the automatic 8-speed, or 3-pedals with the six-speed stick. The M2 is rear-drive only, and I found its reedy-sounding revs and long-legged power delivery nearly as salivating as that of the S65 V8 in the E90 generation M3.

The 8-speed automatic rips through the gears like Christmas wrapping paper on Christmas morning, and drivers can even toggle the speed and smoothness of its shifts with a few clicks.

BAM! Second. BAM! Third.

Automatic upshifts happen at lightning speed and with no pause in the sound effects as eyeballs squish and torsos flatten and redline approaches and the highly-boosted engine pumps this pleasingly mechanical snarl into your ears. The soundtrack is Godlike, and there's no interruption in acceleration or power flow to the wheels. Building to 215 km/h on Area 27s long straight, the M2’s interior is positively drenched in that snarly straight-six growl for extended periods, where it drowns out all of the wind noise.

The Engine is Great, But the Steering and Chassis are Better

bmw m track test

If you’re not a lead-footed driver, this engine will convert you. The best of the M2 though may be its steering and chassis.

The car responds so eagerly and quickly to your inputs that you're constantly tempted to be sharper, faster, and more engaged. You often steer the M2 around the circuit using just your wrists, not your arms and shoulders. Small inputs to steering, brakes and throttle cause big reactions from the car, right now.

Pushed, it feels stable and reliable beneath you—ever easier to drive smoothly as skill levels and comfort improve. With its saturating sound and sharp, fast steering hooking drivers into the experience, as well as consistently fade-free brakes (another confidence booster) the M2 feels like an alert little bundle of thrust and traction that’s always encouraging, rarely daunting.

Learning to Trust the Car

bmw m track test

Still, the short wheelbase, high-torque and rear-drive setup do send some strong signals to watch the rear end and be extra cautious with the throttle at times. For me, the challenge in building skill in the M2 was overcoming my hard-wired gentleness when applying the throttle during corner exit (it’s a Viper owner thing).

Compared to my entertainingly primitive Dodge, the M2's active rear differential and electronic assists quickly helped me overcome that fear with the help of a professional instructor’s expert coaching.

After some back and forth, the M2 instilled newfound confidence in my right foot at corner exit, and it quickly became easy to balance the car with the pedals as the trick rear differential clamps and releases strategically to keep things getting too twitchy or unsettled. With some practice, you’ll learn to be more aggressive with the throttle in more situations and discover a car that enjoys being pushed around a fair bit.

bmw m track test

By the way, leave the traction controls on. You can dial the assist back in stages as your skill levels increase, but anyone on this side of a card-carrying racecar driver should find little need to turn the assists off.

Competent drivers with a little experience will rarely feel corrective engagements, and can take them as a sign to smooth out their inputs. The M2’s traction assists aren’t there to slow you down, and they can be an excellent way to feel your mistakes and identify areas for improvement.

I’m not supposed to get too excited when I write about cars, but whatever: hand on heart, after a little time spent getting in sync with the M2, it put on one of the most entertaining performances I’ve ever taken in on a circuit. It's a joyous and noisy little demon that knows how to sing and dance.

Pick Your Transmission

bmw m track test

If you’re deciding between automatic or manual for your M2, you’ll notice internet commenters bashing automatics as a poor choice. Here in reality, an automatic that’s as on-the-ball as the M2’s can be a valuable learning tool for the driver looking to build their skills. Not only does it shift faster and perform more consistently than you can, but its operation can also be highly tailored to your preferences, skill levels, and learning style.

You can take full control via the paddles if you like, or, leave all the thinking to the gearbox as you focus on your lines. I'd be buying mine with the manual box, but the paddle shifter automatic is an excellent piece of hardware that’s built to grow and adapt with you, entertaining every step of the way.

The Freight Train - 2023 BMW i4 M50

bmw m track test

There’s also the i4 M50—an electric hot-rod sedan with AWD and enough instant-on torque to plow torsos to seatbacks from the first few inches of a hard launch. Though roughly tied in acceleration with the M2, the i4 M50’s off-the-line launch sees it up and gone before the M2’s turbochargers are even breathing.


There’s a slight electric motor whine as the M50 explodes off the line. Picture being rear-ended by an 89 km/h cement truck, and you’ve got an idea of the g-force shoving you into your seat. During a few launches, I literally wondered if they had to reinforce the seatback hinges.

bmw m track test

The i4 M50’s acceleration is its primary means of causing drivers to giggle. It charges, lurches, jumps from one place to the next just about as quickly as you can put your foot down.

I’ve built both i4 M50s and M2’s in BMW’s configurator for future consideration. After a drive of each, it’s the M2 for me, no contest.

The i4 M50’s gut-punch torque and explosive acceleration is a blast, and the noiselessness is entertaining in its own way. Still, compared to the M2, the electric M50 feels heavier, denser, and requires more of a workout to hustle around fast, tight bends. You should test drive both models, as one will likely be your favourite and both are equally as quick in a straight line. For the enthusiast driver prioritizing a feel of precision agility and a lusty soundtrack, the M2 takes it by a landslide.

The Superstar - 2023 BMW M3 CS

bmw m track test

Let me tell you about the M4 CS: a magnificent psycho rocket-sedan with 543 horsepower and a list of targeted, motorsports-derived upgrades sourced heavily from the technological gene pool of BMW’s race cars.

You know how hummingbirds can effortlessly flick around in any direction they like with their tail slightly following behind their beak? That’s how the M3 CS moves. Indeed, driving the BMW M3 CS is like driving a very loud hummingbird whose just chugged a case of pre-workout and is looking to party.

Targeted weight reduction, special chassis calibrations and extreme-performance braking components give keen drivers plenty of additional capability to grow into, with a track-day ride that’s little harsher than the M2’s which is to say surprisingly civilized. Track-optimized traction control and ceramic brakes help make it one of the world’s foremost four-door super sedan experiences, with a look and sound and spec that suggest an unruly beast to be conquered, a challenge to overcome, or a wild animal to be tamed.

Not the case. Let me explain.

Approachable Performance

bmw m track test

Look, I did a lot of swearing in this car but none of it was because I was scared or daunted or uncomfortable or in fear of high-fiving a guardrail with its quarter panel. Mainly, the swearing was the result of the immediacy of everything the M3 CS does. There’s no slop, slack or softness anywhere. No body roll. No second guessing that you’ve got enough grip or braking or acceleration in reserve.

It is an absolute weapon in the hands of a pro driver, but surprisingly approachable for a driver like me, too-- an experienced rookie with a good grip on car control basics and a little experience and instruction under his belt. From that perspective, I found the M3 CS felt like a trustworthy pal, not a raging beast trying to scare me into needing a new pair of pants.

The response from the engine, transmission, and power delivery is even louder, more obnoxious and more immediate that that of the M2, and the M3 CS’s reflexes are nearly startling at times. Just a few millimeters of brake pedal input launches you out of your seat and against the seatbelt. A well-timed touch of the brake pedal helps rotate the rear of the car behind you. A few millimeters into the throttle, and the explosive straight-six bark sledgehammers you into your seat. A few-millimeter lift of the throttle tightens up fast corners, pointing the nose in further.

Incredible Control

bmw m track test

Highly precise at the fingertips, you’ll be connecting corner entry, apex and exit points in a single movement before long, pushing the car out of bends with the throttle. Your hands and feet and eyes will eventually get into the groove of the M3 CS, which you’ll soon be piloting around the circuit via a sequence of wrist flicks and toe taps that stir the M3 CS into a musical, high-speed joyride. It’s the same thrills as the M2, but with more noise, smaller required inputs, and even bigger and more dramatic reactions to them.

That tricky double-apex? Line the car up properly, don’t brake too much (trust the grip!) and gently tap the brakes as the car approaches the top of the undulation. Unloaded here, the rear is light (lighter still with the brake-tap). Next, squeeze back onto the throttle to gently slide your way for the next bend. The faster you do all of this, the better it works.

You’ll need to build some confidence to get there, but with a few lessons from a good instructor it doesn’t take long. By nature, the M3 CS lets its driver feel every success and mistake during the learning process—an asset to the driver that builds a more confident bond with your machine.

So, What to Choose?

bmw m track test

On that note, let me leave potential shoppers with two thoughts.

If the M3 CS is in your budget and you’re planning to make weekend motorsports a regular part of your motoring life, go for it, if you can get your hands on one. It is an excellent learning car with years of capability to customize and grow into. More encouraging than daunting, it’ll make you feel like a rock-star for every step of the process.

If your budget is smaller, the M2 is hardly less of a thrill ride—and a hell of a deal too.

Plus, I figure a driver like me will find an M2 to turn in about 90 percent of the smiles for something like 40 percent less dollars. That’s enough leftover cash for years of monthly track days and tires and instruction, a no-brainer decision where bang for your buck is concerned, I figure.

Make my M2 black with the tan leather interior and the six-speed, please.

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