Among petrolheads, especially those who are fanatics of race-bred street cars, the aura of sacredness that the E30 M3 enjoys is unparalleled. For them, the first-generation M3 captures the essence of M cars, as well as track-worthy road cars in general, like no other automobile can. And I got to see for myself why that’s the case when I got to spend a couple of days driving a pristine example from BMW’s museum collection in Spain six years ago. Let loose on the Ascari race track, and the slippery roads in and around the quaint town of Ronda, I enjoyed some of my best moments behind the wheel of a car. It’s easy to see why, as the formula of a rear-wheel drive coupé, powered by a high-revving, naturally aspirated four-pot, and stripped of everything but the essentials, is as foolproof as they come.

This gem from 1986 summed up Munich’s ‘ultimate driving machine’ tagline so brilliantly that every M car that followed had a tough task of living up to the standards set by the E30. While there were many outstanding cars from the M fold in the ensuing decades, things got watered down a bit at Garching, what with ‘efficient dynamics’ taking over as the driving force. The latest examples of this are the current M3 and M4. As spectacularly poised and planted as they are, these two disappointed with their artificially heavy and vaguely connected electric power steering set-ups. That’s why the M2 became the most important talking point among BMW enthusiasts when it was launched last year. BMW positions it as a spiritual successor to the 1966 BMW 2002 Turbo, but the fact that the M2 is closer in dimensions to the original M3 than any other modern-day M car including the M4, and that it was launched in the 30th-anniversary year of the legendary coupé, makes it as appropriate an heir to the E30 M3 as it is to the 2002. It’s also a direct descendant of the 1M Coupé, which saw demand exceed supply due to BMW’s decision to limit its production. In fact, it’s the renaming of the two-door 1 Series to 2 Series that led to the smallest M car now being called the M2. Now, before you ask, let me tell you that the M235i, which we loved during its time in our long-term garage, isn’t a proper M car. It’s just a high-performance variant of the 2 Series, while this, the M2, is the real deal.

The fact that the M2 is closer in dimensions to the original M3 than any other modern-day M car including the M4 makes it as appropriate an heir to the E30 M3 as it is to the 2002.

Although it is powered by the same single turbo 3.0-litre unit from the brilliant M235i, keeping things simpler than in the M4, which has a twin-turbocharged engine under its bonnet, the M2 is a different beast altogether. The power output from the N series straight-six has been bumped up by 14 per cent to 365bhp, with majority of its innards including the pistons, cooling system and crankshaft bearings all borrowed from the M4, as are the M rear differential, the brakes and the exhaust system. All these result in a staggeringly heady concoction of exhilarating pace and reassuring control. There’s an incessant surge of power right from the first prod of the loud pedal all the way to redline, with most of the 465Nm (500Nm with overboost) of twist on tap from as low in the rev band as 1,400rpm. The perceptible lag is so minimal that it’s hard to believe it’s a turbocharged engine. The seven-speed dual clutch transmission also does a wonderful job of ensuring linear delivery of all this oomph to the rear wheels. It will hit 100kph from nought in just 4.3 seconds and an electronically limited top speed of 250kph.

As remarkable as its performance is the communicative chassis and its corner carving abilities. It’s on the firmer side, and road noise seeps in freely, especially when going fast over the coarse asphalt winding up the Hajar mountain range in Fujairah. But it isn’t spine-rattlingly stiff, and the flip side is that its body control through corners and over road cambers is extraordinary. Coming out of corners fast, the tenacity with which the rear rubbers clutch the tarmac is impressive. With limited traction control in the Sport+ mode, the rear swipes out just that little bit but the slip is predictable, and is easily corrected with throttle and steering inputs. Speaking of the steering, it’s precise, nicely weighted and exceptionally direct for an electrically powered unit. It’s a significant improvement over the M4’s steering set-up. The brakes, four-piston fixed callipers and 380mm discs up front, and two-piston fixed callipers and 370mm discs at the rear, do a great job in bringing all those ponies to a grinding halt.

True to the brand’s Efficient Dynamics push, the M2 balances its performance credentials with fuel-saving gimmicks such as auto stop-start and brake energy regeneration coming as standard equipment. There are even further energy management tricks used such as a coolant pump that operates only as required, a map-controlled oil pump, an air conditioning compressor, which disconnects itself when not used, and electric power steering that doesn’t use electric energy when driving on a straight road.

But none of these soft elements of its core are given away by the M2’s looks, which are as aggressive and belligerent as that of any other M car. Many of the stylistic elements nod to highlights from illustrious forbears such as the 2002 turbo and the legendary 3.0 CSL. The low front apron with large air intakes, muscular flanks with M gills, 19in aluminium wheels in M double-spoke design, a swage line that rises from behind the front axle and goes all the way to the low, wide rear with its wing extensions and twin-tailpipe exhaust, all contribute to the M2’s burly looks. Inside, Alcantara-lined door cards and centre console together with porous carbon fibre, blue contrast stitching, sports seats, an M sports steering wheel, and a smattering of M logos, add up to create a distinctively M ambience.

The BMW M2 is inarguably one of the best cars to have rolled out of Garching in recent decades. It’s a feisty little beast that not only lives up to BMW’s old ‘ultimate driving machine’ tagline, but also carries the mantle of its fabled predecessors with aplomb. With a price tag of Dh275,000, it’s also the cheapest M car on sale today, and will make a better choice over the M4 any day, not just in terms of value, but overall driving experience as well. In fact, this is the car that the M4 should have been; a true spiritual successor to the E30 M3.