The BMW 228i is the company's smallest two-door, and theoretically its least highway-friendly car. So what's it like running one from Detroit to the wrong side of NYC in ten hours?
Originally, the plan was to stretch the drive from the Detroit Auto Show back home to New York over two days, solo. I planned on taking a pretty leisurely route, clocking in a bunch of straightforward hours on the first day, then running a bunch of middle-of-nowhere backroads on the second day. The car was the 228i that BMW put on loan for Jalopnik with a manual transmission, sports suspension, and not much else. My coworkers drove it from Spartanburg to Texas to California to Las Vegas to Detroit (read their stories here and here) and then I had it for the leg back to NYC, where the car currently sits.
But then my boss Matt said that, thanks to a schedule change, he figured he could drive back with me. And we could do the whole intercity drive in one go. We might as well ease our nose onto I-80 and burn straight across the Northeast.
I love driving. I love long road trips. I do not love I-80.
I do not consider what happens on I-80 to be driving. I grew up not far from I-80's Western terminus and believe that it's something like anti-driving. It is an anti-road. It is bleakness incarnate, designed to suck the difficulty out of motorized transit. Instead, it sucks out your will to live. The world looks worse on I-80. If you're thinking about driving crosscountry and you're going to do it on I-80, don't. It's not worth it.
So I was less than excited to do the most highway-ey highway drive in the littlest two-door sedan that BMW currently sells in America, with its littlest engine. Moreover, my coworkers had spent the days prior to my drive complaining endlessly about the car's seats (sweaty backs), iPhone integration (incomplete), and comfort (nonexistent).
As it turns out, I had absolutely nothing to worry about. The little 228i is an absolutely wonderful road trip car, even in these worst of circumstances.
The trick, I think, was how I started the day. Before picking up Matt, I ventured over to an empty lot covered with snow. The idea was just to get some pretty pictures of the car backed by steam and the Detroit skyline. That worked out fine. But when you have a ton of snow and a rear-drive car, things happen. A right foot descended on the gas pedal. The steering wheel turned into the skid. The car asked to terrorize its winter tires and I indulged it. As I had done the night before.
Empty lots covered in snow are very easy to find in Detroit in January.
While the car doesn't exactly love to be thrashed from a standstill on 0 to 60 runs or whatever else pleases Internet commenters and Top Gear cameramen, it does love to get stretched out within the gears. That's the joy of a nice torquey turbo engine. The thing just loved to get pitched sideways, and it loves to hang there, held against itself, spinning the rear wheels with very satisfying prods on the gas pedal.
And what made it good at looping figure eights in long empty stretches of Detroit made it perfect at absorbing long empty stretches of Michigan, Ohio, and PA.
The engine doesn't have a lot of displacement, but the turbo keeps it reasonably quiet even buzzing at 2,500 or 3,000 rpm, and it gives you meaningful torque to pull off passes without downshifting.
We ripped the road. I think we just did 70-odd from the moment we left the Detroit Metro to the moment we reached the Hudson River. Matt took on the straightest sections through Ohio and I got to somewhat enjoy the winding rises of Pennsylvania. We surged by eighteen wheelers as easily as we spun circles in the empty lot next to that quiet McDonald's right off the highway.
We parked in Brooklyn just under ten hours after we left Detroit, not tired. Satisfied.
At every moment, the car felt planted and comfortable in both a physical and metaphysical sense.
The seats were fine and I never got the least bit sore, even after a four-hour sit behind the wheel. I didn't mind the seats weren't heated. The car's heater worked great (you can split it side to side so you can twiddle around without bugging your boss who is still wearing a jacket inside the car why would you wear a jacket inside a car when you have a heater that's what the heater is for) and that solved the problem. And I figured out how to get my phone to play music in like a minute.
But that's only what makes the car capable. What's great about it is that it's still a little manual transmission car with an urgent engine and a differential at the back. Whenever you want to rip donuts, the car is there for you. Burnouts are there for you. Much as the car is happy to overtake in sixth gear at sixty, it feels tickled when you drop down to fourth just to hear the engine run out a bit.
The car seems to genuinely find pleasure not only eating miles, but trying to enjoy them as well.
And that's what's annoying about this car. Its qualities aren't something you can discern from a stats sheet, or from any other quantitative kind of view. The car comes across on the Internet as overpriced and underpowered. There are plenty of other cars waiting at the same MSRP with more power, more driven wheels, more vigorous 0-60 numbers and any other kind of measurable performance.
Maybe the lesson of the car is that even today's smallest, least powerful cars are more than able at beating America's biggest Interstates. Maybe it's that the Internet guides you to understand cars in ways that are easily digested on the Internet and there's a lot of feel, and attitude, and joy that slips through the cracks.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove