BMW's M cars hold a vaunted and deserved reputation as being incredible sports cars, and the company throws so much impressive tech into the current crop that they are more at home on the track than public roads. Although the 2015 BMW M235i carries the Motorsport designation, BMW doesn't put it in the M stable with cars such as the M5 or X5 M , instead casting it in the lesser category of an M Performance car.
And equipment-wise, the M235i looks like it should carry BMW's previous 'is' designation as a sport model when compared to the real M cars. However, when BMW enthusiasts get behind the wheel, they will find blast-from-the-past handling, a nimble little car ready to throw its tail out in the turns yet giving the driver a sense of complete control.
To be up front, my personal car is a BMW, the third of that brand I've owned, and to me, the M235i is everything a BMW should be, a car with incredibly enjoyable handling characteristics that also serves easily as a daily driver. And that is something that can't be said about many cars in BMW's current lineup.
The M235i is a variation on BMW's 2-series coupe, a model that began life as the 1-series before BMW decided that all two-door coupe models get even-numbered designations (insert exemption here for Gran Coupe models). In the UK and Australia, you will find a variety of engines in the 2-series, with some variations also carrying the letter M, including the M235i. UK buyers are looking at a base price of £34,540 for this top trim sports model, while Australians will have to come up with AU$79,900.
In the US, BMW limits its 2-series coupe offerings to the 228i and the M235i, eliminating the previous 235i model. Base price for the M235i comes in at $44,050 with destination, which also happened to be the price of the example I drove. While it lacked BMW's suite of useful and occasionally fun cabin electronics, I was more than pleased to find it equipped with the a six-speed manual rather than the available eight-speed automatic.
That "35i" in the model designation means a three-liter inline six-cylinder engine, in this case using a twin-scroll turbocharger bringing its output to 326 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque. BMW has spent decades refining this engine, adding complicated but efficient valve control and direct injection technologies. The result is brilliant, a smoothly churning mill that doles out its power easily and evenly.
Running the range from fuel economy to performance, I could choose between Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus modes with a rocker switch on the console. BMW adds an idle-stop feature as well, easily defeatable with a button on the dashboard and disabled in Sport or Sport Plus modes. I didn't mind saving the gasoline at long red lights, and the engine fired right back up when I pressed the clutch pedal.
As another fuel-saving measure, the instrument cluster display suggested which gear I should be in, calling for a sixth-gear upshift at 40 mph. Those suggestions seemed particularly silly when I wound the engine up in second gear to power around a hairpin.
And that is what the M235i is really all about. BMW equips it with variable steering and an adaptive chassis, standard. The six-speed shifter rows through the gears with smooth precision. The engine feels like it could run all day at 6,000 rpm.
In Sport mode, the M235i felt nimble as I made quick lane changes on the freeway and evinced plenty of grip in tight turns of a mountain road. But Sport Plus is where this car really wants to live. Along with the stiffer damper setting and more responsive throttle of Sport mode, Sport Plus adds BMW's Dynamic Traction Control, or DTC. This traction control program allows for a little bit of slip and combines with what BMW calls Corner Braking Control, braking the inside wheels in a turn slightly, to improve handling.
Here, BMW shows its engineering prowess, as the car's tail comes out in perfectly predictable fashion while cornering. It not only feels fantastic, like you are driving on the edge, but arguably makes for a quicker path through the turns.
Although I had a blast seeking out twisty back roads in the M235i, I could feel the car's limits. Even in Sport mode, the chassis tuning was a bit soft, while turn-in felt a little clumsy when really pushed hard. My sense was that, while the car would deliver plenty of fun as a casual sports car, it would fall behind on the track or an autocross course.
Those limitations serve the M235i well for everyday driving, however. In any of its drive modes, it felt comfortable and refined on urban streets or long freeway runs. A hill-hold feature made the already excellent manual transmission even more usable on city streets and didn't interfere when I was stuck in stop-and-go traffic.
For such a small car, fuel economy is only middling, coming in at 19 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. Those numbers proved realistic for me, as a course of driving including high-revving on backroads, freeway miles and crawling through city congestion yielded a 22.2 mpg average.
As for cabin tech, although this M235i came with only the basic, it was more than enough. The car features the limited version of BMW's iDrive, a control pod on the console with buttons for the main menu, audio and hands-free phone system. With my iPhone paired to the car through Bluetooth, I could use voice command to place calls by contact name and stream audio to the stereo system. More impressive, I could use iDrive to see the music library from my wirelessly connected phone on the car's dashboard LCD.
Other audio sources included HD radio and a USB port in the console for drives or a cabled phone connection. The base stereo in the car, with speakers cleverly hidden around the cabin, sounded good, delivering reasonable bass and high-end fidelity, but the midrange was muffled. $875 would have bought the Harman Kardon upgrade, featuring 13 speakers and a 360-watt amp.
App connectivity and navigation require the $2,150 Technology package, a worthwhile upgrade to the M235i as the it drives so well in most situations, it will likely become your primary vehicle. BMW's ConnectedDrive app offers a variety of useful and fun features, from location information to social media. The available navigation system is also quite good, and will give you guidance on those out-of-cell-range backroads where your phone's navigation app won't work.
There's no doubt that the mid-40s price makes the 2015 BMW M235i an expensive ride. Add in a few options and you're pushing $50k. For some drivers, choosing the Subaru WRX STI, priced in the mid-30s, over the M235i will be a no-brainer. However, not only does the M235i have more power than the Subie, it can also be optioned up with all-wheel-drive. Cars such as the Subaru BRZ / Scion FR-S also offer excellent handling at a much lower price, but are far down on power. And the M235i's cabin shows off a higher level of comfort and refinement, putting the BMW more on par with a car like the Porsche Cayman .
Some drivers may also find the M235i too cramped in the cabin, but I like a smaller car. Beyond the enjoyable handling, the car works very well as an everyday driver, with its size making it easier to park in urban areas. The stock cabin tech proved very useful, and I particularly like the phone integration. It would be nice to see BMW add Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, but that is unlikely to happen in this generation of the 2-series.
|Model||2015 BMW M235i|
|Powertrain||Turbocharged direct injection three-liter inline six-cylinder engine, six-speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||19 mpg city/28 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||22.2 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet streaming, onboard hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, HD radio|
|Audio system||Optional Harman Kardon 12-speaker 360-watt system|
|Driver assistance||Optional rear-view camera, lane-departure warning, pre-collision braking, front collision warning, head-up display, automatic parallel parking|
|Price as tested||$44,050|