LA is lousy with BMWs. After seeing innumerable X3s and X6s parking across multiple parking places, it's easy to forget some very crucial things. Things like the fundamental goodness of humans and BMW's remarkable ability to make incredible sports coupés. Luckily, the new BMW M235i will remind you of half of those things.
(Full Disclosure: BMW flew me out to Vegas to drive these cars, put me up in a hotel built for people much less revolting than me, and let me watch as a fresh-faced young PR guy from Munich recounted how a waitress dressed as a nurse at a burger place paddled his ass because he couldn't finish his colossal burger.)
BMW is one of those organizations that manages to do one very specific thing extraordinarily well, and that thing is making compelling, rewarding small sports coupés. This isn't exactly a secret, with E30s and E36s all over the place, and the 2002 holding a place of respect in nearly every gearhead's mind, and BMW seems to be doing it again with the new 2 series.
The 2 series is replacing the 1 series (at least in the US), and the slightly smaller 1 was the first BMW I had been really interested in in quite a while. I was initially skeptical about the 2 series, thinking it was doomed to be a heavier, more overdone, less pure car than the 1 series was, but I feel like BMW did manage to stick to the essence of the fun, straightforward, small coupé.
From the outside, the 2 is a bit more conventional than the 1 was, toning down the 1 series' tall greenhouse to something more in tune with modern taste. Personally, I really liked the 1's slightly archaic profile, but luckily the 2 still retains a good bit of that unique character from the side. In fact, I think the side view of the car is by far its best: modern, sleek, and distinctive.
I'm less crazy about the front, which has much the same basic face as the rest of the current BMW lineup, and that face still looks a little like a Pontiac to me, sometimes. The kidney grilles feel very nostrilish, and the light units are pleasingly complex, but after looking at the lovely 2002 BMW pulled from their collection to sit alongside the new cars, I found myself missing big simple lights, full grilles, and shark nose-forward rakes.
There's three big intakes on the lower front fascia, and we were told no foglights would be in those because the car really likes air. Further investigation revealed that the two side intakes were for the 8-speed auto's transmission coolers, so I'm sure manual drivers could safely mount their big yellow foglights there. The ones with the happy face covers.
I know pedestrian impact probably makes shin-shattering shark noses a thing of the past, but cars like this one may be a good argument against the all-encompassing corporate grilles. It doesn't look bad, but I think it could have something more unique.
The proportions are all dead-on, though, and the size of the car, while a bit longer and wider than the outgoing 1 (wheelbase 1.3" longer, track front and rear 1.6" and 1.7" longer, respectively) is still a good, compact size.
BMW says the long horizontal character line on the side of the car is meant to evoke the old 2002's chrome beltline, and while I'm not sure it does, it manages to keep the sides from becoming too slab-like. On a version kitted up with all kinds of M toys, it was picked out in black, and that actually looked better than you'd think.
Ideally, the interior is where you'll be spending most of the time in the car, and that's a good thing for a variety of reasons. First, unless you're TJ Hooker, it's the best place to be while driving, and second, it's very well-designed, full of good materials. It's small but certainly comfortable up front, and while the rear seats are pretty cramped, leg-room-wise, they're usable for shorter trips or people you want to hurt a little.
The steering wheel feels great in your hands, the driving position is upright and comfortable, visibility is good, and almost everything you touch feels touchable. I like the floating-plane center LCD treatment as well, and there's good rear seat folding/splitting options, including a very handy 40/20/40 option. Also, the baby seat latches may even be better than the ones in the Beetle GSR.
It's not all perfect, though. The test cars we had had all-black interiors, and all that black on black on black turns into an unsurprising black hole of black, with black trim. It's just too monochrome in there. Some contrasting color stitching would help, or maybe eating a bunch of Froot Loops and puking on the dash.
I found the main rotary controller for the nav/audio/everything system to be at an awkward angle to reach (a much taller co-driver found it so as well), and the indicators are of that new no-tactile-stop-type that I always find annoying.
The strangest interior detail were the funny little cupholder-shame inserts. They're little shallow trays that fit in the cupholders for no discernable reason other than to try and hide the embarassing, American cupholders. Yes, yes, Germany, we get that you take driving seriously and we're idiots for wanting to enjoy a nice tub of Squirt while behind the wheel. We get it. You're better than us. Now get these stupid things out of my car so I can stick my Yoo Hoo bottle in there.
(UPDATE: It probably is an ashtray. Still, they include a weird cupholder-hider on teh 4 series, and I thought it was one of those. The one on the right still seems to be something like that.)
The Driving. Oh, The Driving.
I'm not doing this as a full, numbered review because I just didn't get enough time with the car for that. But the time I did get with it was pretty freaking delightful. I drove the car at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and a bit in the city of secret stripper-humping itself. Traffic made the city driving a little tedious, but the track time made up for that.
BMW only provided the top-of-the-heap M235i. So it was an M edition, with all the expectations that come with that. It has one of the few surviving inline-6s in the industry, a 3 Liter unit that makes 326 HP, 332 lb-ft (between 1300-4500 RPM), and has nothing in common with AMC's old 3 liter straight 6, in case you were wondering.
With the auto 8-speed transmission (the only one they had for us to test), the 235i can get to 60 in 4.8 seconds, and tops out around 155 mph or whenever the cops pit-maneuver you, depending on where you're driving.
We took the 2s on the steeply banked oval first, getting the cars up to about 120-125 MPH while almost sideways on the bank. The car had an incredible amount of grip and remained agile and rock-steady at high speed. Acceleration is strong, determined, and smooth. The engine has a great sound under full tilt, but for some reason it's much easier to appreciate it from outside the car. Inside, the sound deadening works maybe a bit too well, but hearing the cars go by from outside is a treat.
BMW says the car is balanced at a nearly perfect 50/50, though that's the four — the straight six is a bit heavier, and probably pushes things to 52/48 or something like that. Even with that extra 2 percent in the nose, the car feels great on the track. The car's about 3400 lbs, not too heavy for a modern car, largely thanks to a lot of aluminum used in the body. The center of gravity is 10mm lower than on the old 1 series, too. On the inner-oval road course, the steering felt precise and weighted up at just the right times. For electric power steering, it's great. Really, it's pretty great for any assist method.
There's less road feel for surface imperfections than an old direct-linkage system, but there's still good feel for what those tires are actually doing, and the car is really nimble and satisfying to fling around. When I got sloppy and overcooked an entry into a corner, the back would break loose just a bit, but recovery was always easy and controllable.
The brakes, big discs with four piston calipers at front and two out back, have great pedal feel and turn speed into heat very well. I did want another pedal down there by the brake, but that's just irrational feelings at work. The manual 6-speed is actually slower than the auto, and I didn't see anything to make me doubt that. Shifts were fast, gear ratios well-selected, and I barely played with the paddles. The robots are just better at it than I am.
The Toys and Tech.
The 2 series isn't dripping with screens and acronyms and HAM radios and all that, but it certainly has its full complement of electronic goodies to keep you happy. The dash cluster carefully integrates an LCD screen, and there's the nice wide screen in the center.
The radio/nav preset buttons have this really nice feature where if you just barely touch them, their function is displayed on screen — sort of like a physical-world rollover on a computer GUI. The iDrive knob can also read finger-drawn letters as an option, which is very cool.
The car has stop/start and a bit of a surprise hybrid-derived tech in the form of regenerative braking. Essentially, the alternator is decoupled from the engine under load, and charges the battery when braking or coasting, reducing parasitic drag on the engine. BMW's not the only one to do this but still, clever.
The BMW 2 series is what BMW does best: a fairly practical little coupé that's absolutely rewarding to drive hard, and makes driving a lot of fun. It gets around 25 MPG, has a usable trunk, can cram four in a pinch, looks good, and has the right badges and all that crap to impress whatever jackasses you feel like impressing.
I can't wait to get one of these for a whole week. Actually, even better, I'd love to try the 245 hp four-cylinder turbo one with the six-speed manual. It's clearly not as fast as the 235i, but I feel like that combination will be the sweet spot for the car.
The M235i starts at $43,100 and the 228i is about $10 grand cheaper. With that in mind, this 2 series seems like an even better deal, considering.
I hope to find out soon.