Most years there's one new car that stands out. It's the one that gets enthusiasts and motoring journalists alike incessantly referring to it on social media - and to anyone else that'll listen. More often than not it's a high-performance model, whether it's an open-topped Ferrari hybrid supercar or the latest version of the Mazda MX-5. This year, we've already had two such superstars, the BMW M2 Coupe and Ford's Focus RS. Here we bring them together for the first time on Irish roads for a head-to-head comparison.
Excessive levels of hyperbole and retina-searing blue paint aside, the BMW and Ford aren't obvious competitors. One's a relatively practical five-door hatchback with four-wheel drive and the other a two-door sports coupe sending its power to the rear wheels. Then there's the not insignificant gulf between the pair in terms of pricing to consider. The difference is over €16,000, or, to put that into perspective, for the price of the M2, you could buy a Focus RS and a Fiesta 1.0 EcoBoost to run around in and still have some petrol money left over...
Nonetheless, we reckon the price is almost irrelevant in this review, as there will be plenty of well-heeled enthusiasts out there considering buying these cars without a glance at the cost.
Lining the two up in the early summer sun in the Dublin Mountains, it's an enviable position to be in. They both look stunning, full of menace, clearly built for the same purpose, despite their different approaches. The M2 is far brawnier than the regular BMW 2 Series, even the M235i, yet it manages to be so without any large aerodynamic appendages. Muscular haunches, a set of wide alloy wheels and, of course, quad exhausts, all enhance the M2's stance. Its compact dimensions we find very appealing too.
Compare the Focus RS to the Focus ST and you'll be surprised by how many body parts are shared, but the unique roof spoiler, new grille, big exhausts and broody alloy wheels give the RS a unique appearance and it's no less striking than the BMW. Nonetheless, the new RS is considerably less brash than its predecessor, which will help its owners keep a lower profile...
We expect our readers to be divided when it comes to the exterior design of these cars, but it's a different story inside, where the BMW plays its premium card to full effect. The M2's cabin, in spite of its bespoke instruments, perfectly round steering wheel, sports seats and 'open weave' carbon fibre trim, is remarkably restrained, yet of exceedingly high quality. You sit low down and all the touchpoints, switchgear and controls are well-sited and tactile.
In contrast, the Focus RS's (lush, but optional at €2,000) Recaro shell seats up front raise the driver up much higher than we'd like, and the rest of the cabin isn't very different to that of the Focus ST. It's undoubtedly well-made, but it doesn't compare to the BMW's - and we'd really rather a proper circular steering wheel rather than the squashed circle effort in the Focus. At least its rim is a good size. Of course, the Focus beats the M2 in terms of access to and space in the rear seats, though, somewhat surprisingly, the BMW's boot is larger. That's if you look at the official figures anyway, as the Focus can carry a lot more if you load it up above the window line and you fold down the rear seats. Meanwhile, the BMW claws back some of its price disadvantage by coming with much more equipment as standard, including satnav.
But for this type of car, the equipment that matters is found under the body work, and neither BMW nor Ford has scrimped. If you call yourself a petrolhead then you already know what to expect, but by way of reminder, the BMW's bulging bonnet hides a turbocharged 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder petrol engine, mounted longitudinally. It's not the same unit found in the BMW M3 and M4, but it does share some key components with its bigger brothers. Power is to the rear axle only, which uses a highly sophisticated electronically controlled differential, closely based on that in the M3/M4 (hence the wide track). Buyers can choose between six-speed manual and seven-speed dual-clutch (M DCT) automatic transmissions. We've got the latter here - and it's very very good - though I'd go for the manual if it were my money.
The Focus, meanwhile, is powered by a turbocharged 2.3-litre four-cylinder EcoBoost engine, upgraded from that in the Mustang. Power is sent to all four wheels and there's a six-speed manual as the only gearbox option.
Compare the vital stats and it's clear that the BMW's engine has the edge in terms of performance, with more power, more torque and, somewhat surprisingly, less weight to push around. Hence, the M2 wins the straight line drag race. But we're not so interested in the straight bits of road here; these cars are all about cornering fun. Note: fun, not speed or lap times. And fun is what these cars deliver, in spades. Crucially, they're a hoot even if you're not driving quickly, which is just as well in this day and age.
A big part of a performance car's appeal is how it sounds, and, theoretically at least, the BMW's six-cylinder motor should win, but it's really not that clear cut. The RS's exhaust has a cracking off-beat burble to it that turns full-on racer when you dial up the driving modes to Sport or Race, banging and popping on the overrun gratuitously - and loudly. It's a laugh, though it never quite settles down, even on a long motorway journey where you might want a break from it. The M2 is better in that regard. Some will say it's too quiet in its Comfort setting, but ramp it up to Sport or Sport+ and it makes all the right noises. I know that the sounds are artificially enhanced these days, but I don't care really, as you'd never know.
Engine response in both cases is phenomenal, especially when dawdling in a higher gear and then pushing the throttles down - there are no flat spots in the power delivery and there's no shortage of performance. On the public road in the dry, neither car is particularly quicker than the other. Obviously the Focus RS can deploy its power more of the time when it's wet. Saying that, there's so much feedback from the M2's chassis that it never feels out of its depth, allowing its driver to continue to enjoy it regardless of the conditions, even if it can't quite keep up with the RS when it's slippery.
One major difference between the two is the damping. BMW wanted the M2 to be relatively simple, so it doesn't have adjustable damping and it isn't even on the options list. The Focus, however, has it as standard, hypothetically giving it the ability to be civilised and comfortable when you need it and then fully controlled when you really want to see what the car can do. But it doesn't quite work out that way. The Focus is firm-riding in both damper settings, arguably too firm at times. It has exceptional body control because of that, but the M2's fixed damping system manages that while also offering considerably more comfort.
The Focus RS's driving modes are worth exploring, as they dramatically alter its character. You've probably heard that it comes with a 'Drift' mode too, where the four-wheel drive, steering, throttle control, damping and stability control are all tweaked to allow pretty much anyone drift the Focus RS like a rear-drive car. It works too, with hilarious ease, though it's a bit of a gimmick best kept to a race track. On the road, the four-wheel drive system is one of the most engaging we've tried, giving the Focus a unique feel, more rear-drive biased than front. The M2, of course, is rear-wheel drive and it's gloriously adjustable on the throttle, whether you have a track to play on or just an empty narrow back road.
Summary - Shane O' Donoghue
And in the end, this is the reason I'm choosing the BMW M2 as my winner; it's more engaging and rewarding to drive and also a better all-rounder. This isn't about speed or lap times, remember. I'll concede that the Focus is huge fun as well, cheaper to buy, a little more practical and probably better in the winter than the BMW, but the M2 isn't far behind in any of those things, plus it's lovelier inside and better on a long journey. If you tossed the keys of both to me for a blast in the mountains I'd hesitate for a moment, but I'd definitely pick up the M2's and it's also the one I'd want to have on my driveway. Naturally, I'd still be very envious of anyone driving a Focus RS. Buyers of high-performance cars have never had it so good.
Second opinion - Dave Humphreys
Choosing one of these cars is a bit like asking us to choose a favourite leg is. Both cars feel developed to perfection. This is more obvious in the Focus RS, whereas its predecessor was brash with in-your-face styling this new model looks far more mature, helped by now being a five-door-only body style.
The M2 is, visually at least, every BMW M fan's dream thanks to bulging arches, wheels that are filled with enormous drilled brake discs and the kind of stance that is usually only achieved by aftermarket suspension upgrades. From any angle this looks the mutt's nuts. And if you're unsure about the Long Beach Blue paintwork, fear not: the Mineral Grey one looks even more menacing.
Looks do play a role, but these cars are all about performance and boy do they deliver. Having spent a good deal of time in the Focus RS driving to and from the Spa 6 Hour race I found that it is a car that is happiest when sitting at motorway cruising speeds that simply aren't legal in Ireland. Below that it urges you on, so a high degree of restraint is needed. A number of people have commented on the stiff suspension, but I didn't find it an issue. It's certainly no worse than that of the Honda Civic Type R. The Ford's all-wheel drive system is excellent when pushing on through winding roads and it makes the car. It simply isn't like most other all-wheel drive transmissions that neutralise driving enjoyment in favour of traction. Ford's clever system definitely retains A rear-wheel bias.
However, as much as I loved the Focus RS, it was the M2 that really impressed. Yes, there is a huge difference between these two cars in price terms, but I'm presenting this opinion based on the money-no-object criteria and solely on how each feels to drive. Or more importantly how it makes you feel when you do drive it. You see, the BMW sucks you in way more, it focuses your attention that bit better and stimulates your mental and aural senses far more. Point to point, especially on a damp road, the RS would in truth probably beat it, but the M2 is far more flattering to drive. It steps out its back when exiting corners if you want it to and makes you feel that bit more involved as a driver. Subconsciously or otherwise you always feel that the Ford will tidy things up, whereas you become more aware that the M2 could catch you out.
Were you to present me with a free key to either car I would take the BMW every time, but it really is a closely run battle with these two. Even though on paper the Focus RS makes more logical sense, especially from a practical standpoint, not to mention the significant cost saving. The M2 though... I mean, just look at it.
BMW M2 Coupe Tech Specs
Model tested: BMW M2 Coupé M DCT
Pricing: €78,916 on-the-road
Engine: 3.0-litre turbocharged six-cylinder petrol
Transmission: seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, rear-wheel drive
Body style: two-door, 2+2 coupé
CO2 emissions: 185g/km (Band E, €750 per annum)
Combined economy: 35.8mpg (7.9 litres/100km)
Top speed: 250km/h
0-100km/h: 4.3 seconds
Power: 370hp at 6,500rpm
Torque: 465Nm at 1,400- to 5,560rpm (500Nm on overboost)
Boot space: 390 litres
Ford Focus RS Tech Specs
Model tested: Ford Focus RS
Engine: 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol
Transmission: six-speed manual, four-wheel drive
Body style: five-door hatchback
CO2 emissions: 175g/km (Band E, €750 per annum)
Combined economy: 36.7mpg (7.7 litres/100km)
Top speed: 266km/h
0-100km/h: 4.7 seconds
Power: 350hp at 6,000rpm
Torque: 440Nm (470Nm overboost) at 2,000- to 4,500rpm
Boot space: 260 litres (seats up); 1,045 litres (seats folded)
Special thanks to Max Earey for the BMW M2 Coupe images