2019 BMW X2 M35i first drive review: High-riding hot hatch

In its standard form, the BMW X2 is kind of a hard sell. Less spacious and more expensive than the X1 on which it's based, but without any real gains elsewhere, it's a subcompact crossover that's hard to recommend.

This new M35i model, on the other hand, has much greater appeal. It uses BMW's most powerful four-cylinder engine, and brings with it a number of legit performance upgrades. It still isn't any more functional than an X1, but it's a go-fast treatment that's exclusive to the X2 -- and an entertaining one, at that.

Boost, baby, boost

The X2 M35i uses a heavily reworked version of the B48 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 engine found in many of BMW's other models. The reinforced crankshaft has larger main bearings, and new pistons allow for a slightly reduced compression ratio for more power delivery. A larger turbocharger offers increased boost, and the engine's cooling system has been upgraded to cope with the greater demands. The result is 302 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque, increases of 74 in both fields over an X2 xDrive28i.

BMW says the X2 M35i will scoot to 60 miles per hour in 4.9 seconds, thanks in part to a new launch control feature built into its 8-speed automatic transmission. That makes the M35i a full 1.4 seconds quicker to 60 mph than its xDrive28i counterpart, and puts it squarely in Volkswagen Golf R and Ford Focus RS territory.

Power comes on immediately, with peak torque arriving at just 1,750 rpm. Steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters allow you to work through the transmission's eight speeds yourself, but the X2 is perfectly adept when left to its own devices. Throttle response sharpens as you switch from Comfort to Sport mode, and gear-changes are fired off with noticeable urgency.

A limited-slip front differential and all-wheel drive help the X2 M35i keep its composure in corners.

Chris Tedesco/BMW

But the M35i is much more than a quicker X2. It gets a lower and firmer suspension setup, M Sport brakes, a quicker steering ratio and a limited-slip front differential.

And in fact, the M35i is a riot. This X2 has sharp reflexes and it's eager to change direction, the hefty steering offering solid feedback. The suspension tune is a little too stiff for the pockmarked farm roads southwest of Palm Springs, California, but on smooth pavement -- like the track at The Thermal Club -- it feels just fine. The M35i has an easily chuckable nature, like any good hot hatch should, with its xDrive all-wheel-drive system shuffling power to the wheels that need it most. It'll exhibit a bit more roll than something like a Golf R, but that's largely a product of the increased ground clearance. BMW still maintains this thing is a crossover, after all.

Can't outrun ugly

To visually differentiate it from lesser X2s, the M35i gets a number of gray-colored exterior elements, including the mirror caps, grille surround and model-specific 19-inch wheels (20-inch rollers are a $600 option). There's a larger roof spoiler around back, and an M Sport exhaust rounds out the performance upgrades, which gives the 2.0-liter engine a bit of rumbly aural delight.

Aside from new sport seats, the M35i has the same cabin as other X2s, with BMW's iDrive infotainment atop the dash.

Chris Tedesco/BMW

Of course, none of this changes the fact that the X2 is, well, yeesh. The front fascia has a sort of bulgy rodent vibe, and I still can't get behind the placement of the BMW Roundel smack dab in the middle of the C-pillar. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I know, and I'll say the M35i is at least the most attractive of all the X2 variants. But I just can't help but find this baby Bimmer u-g-l-y ugly, especially in my test car's shade of Galvanic Gold Metallic.

Inside, the M35i comes standard with comfortable, supportive sport seats. Otherwise, its cabin is the same as any other X2, with a surprisingly spacious front compartment and decidedly cramped rear seats. With 50.1 cubic feet of cargo space on offer, the X2 M35i is more capacious than a Mercedes-AMG GLA45, but at the same time, falls short of many other compact crossovers. Even the aforementioned Golf R has a bigger boot, with 52.7 cubic feet behind its front seats.

BMW's iDrive 6.0 technology handles infotainment duties, housed in an 8.8-inch screen atop the dash. You can operate iDrive by touching the screen, or through the rotary dial and shortcut buttons on the center console. Embedded navigation is available as part of a $1,800 Premium Package, which also unlocks adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go tech, for an additional $1,000.

The X2 has a face only a mother could love.

Chris Tedesco/BMW

An entertaining new option

The 2019 X2 M35i starts at $46,450, a full $8,050 more than the xDrive28i. Fully loaded with all the aforementioned options, plus a panoramic moonroof ($1,350), full-leather seating ($1,450), wireless charging and a Wi-Fi hotspot ($500), a Harman Kardon premium audio system ($875) and BMW's parking assistant ($200), you're looking at more than $55,000 when everything's said and done.

That makes the X2 M35i a much pricier proposition than traditional hot hatches like the $41,120 Focus RS or $40,395 Golf R, but the BMW offers a bit more luxury inside, not to mention a more prestigious badge on the nose (and pillar). On the other hand, the M35i vastly undercuts the Mercedes-AMG GLA45's $53,350 starting price, which can easily swell to over $70,000 with options. That said, the AMG is also a little firecracker -- much more balls-out spastic than the X2, and much more entertaining to drive.

Still, the X2 M35i is an interesting proposition: A little more luxurious than a Ford or VW, without emptying your wallet quite like the Mercedes. It's an appealing treatment that turns the otherwise meh X2 into a high-riding hot hatch that's a hoot and a half to drive.

The M35i treatment is a $8,050 premium over an X2 xDrive28i.

Chris Tedesco/BMW

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

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