Shootout: BMW M2 vs. Alfa Romeo 4C Spider

Which is the better raw sports car to have for $60,000?

Jon Wong Former editor for CNET Cars
Jon Wong was a reviews editor for CNET Cars. He test drove and wrote about new cars and oversaw coverage of automotive accessories and garage gear. In his spare time, he enjoys track days, caring for his fleet of old Japanese cars and searching for the next one to add to his garage.
Jon Wong
6 min read
Nick Miotke/Roadshow
Watch this: Shootout: BMW M2 vs. Alfa Romeo 4C Spider

We've heaped plenty of praise on the BMW M2 after slinging it around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca earlier this year, and with good reason. Compared with today's bigger, heavier and more complex M3 and M4 models, the M2 is simple, slender and raw. Of course, raw for a modern BMW is different from a car that's bare-bones raw, but the M2's more driver-focused and less frilly personality present an interesting idea for a Roadshow Shootout.

While the M2 has all the right attributes to tug at car enthusiasts' heartstrings, does it deliver a pure enough driving experience to make it our choice over something that's truly built for hard-core driving? Like something along the lines of, say, Alfa Romeo's 4C? On the flip side, does a singular-focused car like the 4C impress us enough on back roads and on a race track to make us willing to live with its less-than-stellar daily driving capabilities?

With both cars hovering in the $60K range (depending on which options you throw at it), it seemed like a good idea to take both cars on a road trip across Michigan, down winding roads along the state's western coastline and around the 2.14-mile GingerMan Raceway road course in South Haven, Michigan.

Needless to say, it is all fun and games until it comes to picking a winner.

Shootout: 2016 BMW M2 vs. 2016 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider

See all photos


Enlarge Image

BMW's M2 is a riot at the track, but still compliant on road.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Like the 1M Coupe before it, the M2 takes the mantle of the most agile and entertaining pure driver in the BMW M family. Upgrades begin with the fixed suspension chalk full of aluminum bits to save weight. The package rides forged 19-inch wheels with Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires.

Power comes from a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder with 365 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, but an optional seven-speed dual-clutch sequential manual gearbox is available for an additional $2,900. A variable limited-slip differential distributes power across the rear axle.

It all makes for an impressive package around GingerMan Raceway where the M2 displays gobs of grip and composure. The suspension keeps body roll and dive under braking at a minimum, while there's just the right amount of thrust available from the blown six-cylinder to shoot out of corners, and sprint down the track's straights at a good clip. If you want to go for style points, you can pitch the M2 sideways in turns with ease in a nice, controllable manner.

2016 BMW M2: A rawer ultimate driving machine

See all photos

On track, the dual-clutch gearbox in our test car is stellar with instant response to shift commands. However, if you plan on utilizing its launch control feature often, getting it to activate can be downright maddening at times.

There are a couple of areas where the M2 can improve, though. Steering quickly responds to inputs, but feedback through the wheel is lacking. The brakes show signs of fade after only a couple of short sessions on GingerMan, which is disappointing in a BMW M vehicle.

Away from the track on regular roads, the ride is firm, but livable on a daily basis and for road trips. The cabin is comfortable with a good seating position, respectable front passenger space, back seat that will carry two adults in a pinch and there's a usable trunk. M2-exclusive styling touches like the blue accent stitching, open-pore carbon fiber trim and Alcantara door panel inserts also look nice.

Being a modern BMW, there's still bit of tech sprinkled in with a premium Harman Kardon audio system, navigation, rearview camera and rear parking sensors. It's not a crazy list of features, which is good, because the M2's price tag doesn't inflate to astronomical heights with a $57,395 as-tested price, or clutter up the car with things to distract from the driving experience.

Alfa Romeo 4C Spider

Enlarge Image

A marvel on a race track, but hard to live with everywhere else.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

With a carbon fiber monocoque foundation, the Alfa Romeo 4C boasts a construction blueprint similar to high-dollar hyper cars such the McLaren P1, Porsche 918 Spyder and Ferrari LaFerrari. Like the others, the Alfa's engine also sits in the middle of the car because that's where it belongs in any hardcore performance machine.

What the 4C doesn't share with the exotics is a college fund demolishing price tag. The 4C coupe starts at $57,495, which lines its up nicely price-wise with the BMW M2. Unfortunately, Alfa couldn't provide a coupe for our comparison, and instead sent a slightly pricier Spider as a stand-in. Not to worry, though, we didn't let any open-air motoring sway our judgment when picking the winner.

For the roughly $60,000, the 4C comes with a 1.75-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine making 237 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Power goes to the rear wheels through a six-speed dual-clutch transmission. With the turbos forcing 21.75 pounds of boost into the engine, there's noticeable lag down low, but midrange thrust is very strong.

The Alfa's gearbox loses out to the BMW's, however, with lazy response to shift commands even with the car in Race mode. The shifts themselves are also slow compared with the snappy ones in the M2.

2016 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider: A pure and simple track weapon

See all photos

Where the 4C sets itself apart from M2 is dynamically on the track and back roads. Manual steering is terrible in parking lots, but remarkable when hammering on the car with instant turn-in, and oodles of feel through the wheel. Tipping the scales at a touch under 2,500 pounds, the 4C changes direction instantly with nearly zero body roll, and is easy on brakes that show no signs of going away throughout a tough day of work at GingerMan.

What may be the best aspect about the 4C is that it's still a car that you need to drive. Yes, the car has great balance and sufficient power, but you can't jump behind the wheel and drive it like you stole it. Overdrive the car and it will push in corners. Do that a lot and too much heat will build in the Pirelli P Zero tires, which then get greasy. Instead, the car reacts best when the driver is smooth, which makes putting together a clean lap in the 4C immensely rewarding.

What isn't rewarding is driving the 4C long distances. It's loud, ride comfort is brutal, cabin quarters are tight and contorting yourself to get in and out of the car gets old. Don't plan on carrying much stuff with you, either, because trunks space measures a minuscule 3.7 cubic feet.

The winner

Enlarge Image

Can both cars win?

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Picking the winner of this $60,000 sports car Shootout is difficult. The enthusiast in us adores the 4C and loves the fact that Alfa Romeo builds such an unapologetic performance machine. On track, it demands you to be a better driver, and slaps you on the wrist when you aren't focused on being smooth. It also looks phenomenal with its Italian body curves, but outside of a race track and styling, the 4C is a little too raw.

With the M2, there's a lot to like being the purest and most fun-to-drive BMW available today. It's a refined performance machine that will do well at weekend track days (after swapping in high-temp brake fluid, and more aggressive brake pads), but still features the right amount of civility to drive everyday.

If this Shootout was to decide on the better $60,000 sports car to get as your second or third car, then the Alfa Romeo would certainly be the winner with a drive experience few cars can match. The problem is that we are taking into account on-road behavior here, too, and the 4C's great on track performance still isn't enough to make us want to live with its brutal road manners regularly. Thus, the winner of this Roadshow Shootout is the BMW M2.