Being low man on the totem pole isn't always so bad.

Two of our finalists for the Motor Authority Best Car To Buy 2017 award, the 2016 BMW M2 and 2016 Ford Focus RS, started life at or near the bottom of their respective lineups.

The Ford Focus’ platform dates back to 2011. It’s a front-wheel-drive compact built mainly for economy buyers--though with its firm, responsive tuning, we've always liked the way the Focus handles.

The BMW 2-Series is the German company's entry-level product here. Its rear-wheel-drive layout gives it a stronger basis for a more sporty character, but it's still the young gun.

We drove these cars back to back last month during our Best Car To Buy testing, shooting north Georgia's asphalt rapids, on roads that wind through hills and mountains, past drugstores that also sell guns, right by Expedition Bigfoot: The Sasquatch Museum.

By the end of that uniquely American experience, we picked a winner.

BMW M2 vs. Focus RS

BMW M2 vs. Focus RS

We'll get there soon, but first, some details.

Call it a mismatch if you want. One of these cars wears a luxury badge, the other comes from a mainstream automaker. There's a bit of a price delta between the two.

Our BMW featured only two options on top of its $51,700 base price. The Long Beach Blue Metallic paint added $550, and the Executive Package cost another $1,250. That package includes a heated steering wheel, a rearview camera, rear park assist, automatic high beams, and BMW’s Active Driving Assistant, which ties together features such as forward collision warnings, automatic emergency braking, and lane departure warnings. Add in the $995 delivery charge and the total comes to $54,495.

CHECK OUT: 2016 BMW M2 first drive review

The Focus RS starts at $35,900. Our test car came with the RS2 package, which adds an 8-way power driver's seat, leather upholstery with synthetic suede inserts, heated front seats and steering wheel, and navigation. Add in the $875 destination charge, and the total comes to $39,560. It did not have the stickier the Michelin Sport Cup 2 tires on forged 19-inch wheels, which runs another $1,990.

Beefing up the base cars

A car's performance envelope starts with the structure on which it is based. A stiff, lightweight, well-balanced platform has a better chance of producing a car that is fun to drive, and the more premium that structure, the better.

Rather than start with new structures, BMW and Ford went to the parts bin to turn the pedestrian Focus and the fun-but-modest 2-Series into full-on track toys packed with character. Of course, BMW and Ford took very different paths to get there, and Ford had to develop a few more parts than BMW did.

ALSO SEE: 2016 Ford Focus RS first drive review: The hottest of the hatches

Most of the M2’s components come from the M3/M4. The front and rear axles, with their lightweight aluminum suspension members, forged aluminum control arms, and carriers for the five-link rear axle, are from the M3/M4. So is the Active M Differential, a multi-plate, electronically controlled, limited-slip that can fully lock in just 150 milliseconds, preventing the inside rear wheel from spinning too eagerly in a corner. A special underbody stiffening plate helps handle all the forces caused by the differential.

The tires are 19-inch Michelin Pilot Super Sports, 245/35 up front and 265/35 out back. Big M compound brakes with perforated-and-vented rotors measure 15 inches up front and 14.5 inches in the rear with 4-piston front and 2-piston rear calipers.


The engine also comes from the parts bin. It’s the direct-injected, twin-scroll-turbocharged inline-6 from the M3/M4 tuned for 365 horsepower and 343 pound-feet of torque instead of the 425/406 you get in the M2’s bigger brothers. An overboost function does increase torque to 369 lb-ft for short bursts, though. It also gets some upgrades for track duty, including an additional oil cooler for the DCT M transmission oil and an engine oil pump that has been redesigned for higher lateral gs.

DON'T MISS: 2016 BMW M2 video road test

Ford had to put more work into turning the Focus RS into a track monster. The highlight is the AWD system that features a torque vectoring rear differential. The AWD system can send 70 percent of the available power to the rear, and the electronically operated dual-clutch torque vectoring system can funnel all of it to the outside rear wheel.

Ford also strengthened the rear of the body, adding a "lion's foot" rear crossmember, structural foam in the chassis rails, and an additional brace at each rear wheel. Ford says these changes improve torsional stiffness by 23 percent over the base car and 9 percent over the ST.

2016 BMW M2

2016 BMW M2

2016 BMW M2 Coupe

2016 BMW M2 Coupe

2016 BMW M2 Coupe

2016 BMW M2 Coupe

Power comes from the turbocharged 2.3-liter 4-cylinder found in the Mustang. It’s amped up, though, spinning out 23 pounds of boost to develop 350 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque.

The brakes are larger yet lighter than those in the ST. The front brakes are 13.8-inch Brembos with 4-piston monoblock calipers. Ford offers two tire options. The standard tires are 19-inch Michelin Pilot Super Sports, and Pilot Sport Cup 2s are available.

CHECK OUT: 2016 Ford Focus RS video road test

Finally, Ford developed a Drive Mode system to adjust the behavior of the engine, dampers, exhaust, steering, electronic stability control, and AWD system. This system features Normal, Sport, Track, and Drift modes, as well as Launch Control.

First impressions

Our first impressions of these cars revolved around their looks, inside and out. The Focus RS wears its boy racer, hot hatch persona proudly. You get a big rear wing spoiler, a larger front air intake, an aggressive front fascia, a rear diffuser, and black 19-inch wheels and tires that fill the wheelwells. The look may be a bit juvenile, but it’s appropriate for this car’s mission.

The BMW is more straightforward. It has wider fenders to accommodate the big wheels and tires and the wider track, a front apron with larger cooling ducts, gills behind the front wheel arches, and a prominent rear spoiler. This is a small car wearing the big shoes needed to achieve its performance targets.

Our editors really didn’t have a favorite for outward looks, but things started tilting toward the BMW once our editors sat in the driver’s seat. The Focus dates back to 2011, and its interior has received few updates since it was released. My initial thought was that this cabin looks old, a sentiment echoed by other editors.

“I couldn't overlook the Ford's miserable interior. The door cards visibly flex when you pull the handles, something I noted when this Focus first came out. They haven't changed that,” said editor Andrew Ganz.

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS

Managing editor Aaron Cole wasn’t quite as harsh. “The interior is exactly what you’d expect from a $20,000 Focus. There’s just not much more than a couple badges and deep seats to separate it from a Platinum model,” he said.

Interior criticisms aside, the Focus RS is a hatchback and that gives it some utility. Fold down the rear seats, and the RS can hold up to 44.8 cubic feet of cargo space. We find it pretty cool that you can haul a load from Home Depot in your designated track toy.

The Focus RS’s cabin also has some performance features. Ford adds thickly bolstered Recaro sport seats, a flat-bottom steering wheel, blue accent stitching, metal pedals, and an additional gauge set on top of the dash. I spent several hours in the Recaro driver’s seat during my first drive of the Focus RS and didn’t have a problem, but editorial director Marty Padgett said, “My hips would die having to sit in this for more than a few hours.”


The M2’s interior received more positive reviews. “I like its all-business interior,” Ganz said. "It's not beautiful, but it works. Everything is in place and, for a modern car, is easy to sort through. There's also great visibility.”

Like the Focus RS, the M2 is basically a stock interior with a few performance upgrades. It adds sport seats, special materials, including a bare carbon fiber trim, and M logos for the gauge cluster, shift lever, door sills, and steering wheel. We think the seats are great, with excellent side support for aggressive cornering, and plenty of comfort for every day driving.

Street manners

It’s in that every day driving that the Focus RS really falls behind the M2. It took our editors just a few minutes behind the wheel to find that the ride is unsettled, overly firm, jiggly over small road imperfections, and downright bouncy over larger bumps and ruts.

“The RS manages to make the Subaru WRX STI feel like a Lexus LS in terms of refinement,” said Ganz. “It’s always alive, even when you don’t want it to be.”

Cole noted another issue: “The Focus has an atrocious turning radius. That was a signal to me that it’s not ready for real life, and has limited use in a parking lot—it’d rather do donuts in one.”

Padgett compared to the RS to the M2. “This is the car that wants to grow up to be the M2. It's overcooked, over-pressured, overly stiff and a little wobbly when it gets to going as fast as it can,” he noted.

The team agreed that the M2 is far more civilized. Its suspension balances handling with ride comfort, allowing the car to be smooth and settled on the road but come alive during aggressive maneuvers. Yes, it’s a bit firm, and a little loud, but this is the way BMW used to tune suspensions and we miss it in the brand’s other products.

Padgett summed it up: “It's a purist's machine and a daily driver.”

Giving ‘em a boost

Turbochargers work to help these cars create a lot of usable power.

“Both are a blast with turbocharged power and flat torque curves,” said interactive content manager Joel Feder.

Both also create a lot of thrust, and the 0 to 60 mph times bear that out. The M2 makes that sprint in just 4.4 seconds, while the Focus does it in 4.7 seconds.

To a man, we found the M2’s power to be smoother and a bit stronger.

“Its power is immediate without being savage. From 2,000 rpm to 7,000 rpm, it is delivered in a predictable way that makes the car fun without being scary fun like the M4,” said Cole.

2016 BMW M2 Coupe

2016 BMW M2 Coupe

2016 BMW M2 Coupe

2016 BMW M2 Coupe

2016 BMW M2 Coupe

2016 BMW M2 Coupe

The Ford’s power doesn’t punch you in the gut from a stop, but it revs nicely and continues to build momentum up until its 6,500 rpm redline. Let off the gas and the Focus RS exhaust pops and crackles, a trait that some of us like and others find juvenile. For the record, I think it sounds cool.

Both shifters are a pleasure to operate.

“I love the M2’s gearbox. It feels well-oiled and precise and its clutch was just right for me,” said Ganz.

However, we do have a complaint about the Focus that Cole voiced best: “Heel-toe in the Focus RS is very difficult without very soft shoes and wide feet. The pedal spacing and stagger is wrong and the toe box is enormous.”

Taming the twisties

These cars were engineered to show their true characters when the road turns twisty or a racetrack beckons. From our home base near Blue Ridge, Georgia, we put together a 90-mile route full of twists and turns on Highway 60 to Dahlonega and back. It was the perfect place to test a pair of sporty cars.

If this duo felt different in everyday traffic, the differences became more pronounced when pushed through tight turns.

The M2 is buttoned down, stable, and smooth. It grips hard, and flows from corner to corner with poise. “It feels unflappable and confident; maybe it's just because we were putting it up against the Focus, which is nervous, but the M2 felt like the mature, elder statesman,” said Ganz.

“This is the car with the best steering response, the best combination of grip and damping, and the most evocative engine sound, though some of it is fake,” added Padgett.

Cole noted that the nanny systems are well tuned. “The M2 makes invisible the electronics that make it the most fun. Traction control doesn’t cut in too late, and there’s enough rope from it for anyone to hang themselves,” he said. “It rewards heavy-footed numbskulls looking to rid themselves of back tires—no adaptive suspension electronics necessary.”

Feder said, “Everything about the M2 is smoother than the Focus RS, from shifts to suspension, and everything in between.”

That was a common theme from our editors. Most found the RS to be frenetic and not quite buttoned down. “The Ford Focus RS felt like a nervous puppy,” remarked Cole. “Lots of eager energy, but not much of a footing underneath it yet. Without the sport suspension turned on, it never felt at ease in hard corners—felt like it was too eager to give up grip in exchange for smoke.”

Padgett questioned the Focus’ handling in general: “Torque steers all over, oversteer whips in to crank around corners. It's not so much responsive as panicky. Last-minute corrections are what it does best?”

But that doesn’t mean we didn’t like the Focus RS. Padgett found it endearing in its own way. “It’s fast and hugely entertaining and perfectly suits a time in a gearhead’s life when it's all about exciting every sensory organ. Its heart is in the right place but its feet sometimes aren't,” he said.

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS

I’m the only editor of the group to take the Focus RS to a racetrack, and based on that experience I can say that I am absolutely confident in how it will react at the limits of grip. The bit of lean it has provides feedback, the sharp steering makes it easy to toss into a corner, and the torque vectoring rear differential really helps it rotate, even though most of the weight is up front.

In the middle of a turn, the Focus responds to your inputs. Hit the throttle and it starts to push, but let off the throttle or add a little brake and the nose follows the right line. The combination of all-wheel drive and the rear differential also make it easier to get on the throttle early when coming out of a corner, and that translates to faster track times.

None of our editors complained about the BMW’s brakes, but Cole lacked confidence in the Ford’s binders. “The Focus RS doesn’t have the brakes to play ball for long. They cooked quickly, and it means to me that there isn’t enough cooling for the Brembos,” he said.

We didn’t like everything about the M2. A rearview camera should be standard, Padgett said. The steering is too heavy and the drive modes don’t change very much, I would like a shift light, and at least two of us would prefer that BMW would provide a way to turn off the rev-matching feature without shutting off the stability control completely.

BMW M2 vs. Focus RS

BMW M2 vs. Focus RS

The verdict

It’s not hard to read the tea leaves. From ride quality, to power delivery, to handling stability, to engine sounds, to everyday drivability, the BMW M2 came out on top. We genuinely liked the Focus RS for its peppy, raucous attitude, but the M2 is clearly the mature choice. It shows that BMW can still build an engaging sport coupe.

“BMW knows how to tune off the shelf parts into an M car and make them work brilliantly together,” said Padgett.

Feder agreed: “The Focus RS makes you feel like you’re working for what you get, where as the M2 just wants to dance.”

Though our M2 test car cost $15,000 more than the Focus RS, the M2 also struck us as a bargain, and it got some of us thinking about spending our own dollars. “The $15,000 stretch to the M2 doesn't feel so wide when driving them back to back,” said Padgett.

Same for Ganz: “It's the M2 that I immediately went home and priced out online."

You can’t get a better endorsement than that. Congratulations, BMW.