Quick: What's the best brand new BMW a true driving enthusiast can buy right now? I know what your immediate answers are, but if you think deeply about them for a second, you might realize you're wrong.
The 2015 M3 and M4? They're fantastic cars with incredible performance that you'll never even scratch the surface of on the street. The i8? That's the future, baby. I'm talking about the present. The Z4? Come on. That's barely a real sports car anymore.
The M235i? You're on the right track now. But lose a couple cylinders and you have the correct answer. Right now, the 228i represents the best all-around BMW performance car for your dollar.
I say this because I just spent a lot of time in this car. Like, a lot of time. After Jason picked me up in Austin, we drove it through the American Southwest out to California, and then spent a week using it as our LA Auto Show shuttle.
We did donuts in gravel beside Interstate 10 not far from Fort Stockton, Texas. We used it to chase a friend of Jason's while he drove the craziest rat rod in America. We showed it off to a man in a penis-sock who sells some of the best vintage car magazines anywhere. It was the weapon we used to take Road Madness head on, and we came out on top.
In every way that mattered, the 228i was impressive. Lovable, even.
There's this idea out there that to get a good BMW, you have to have the hardest, nastiest, angriest, M-iest version possible, the one with all the turbos and all the cylinders and all the carbon fiber. The 228i proves that wrong.
To understand this car, you have to go back to the idea behind the original 2002 and other New Class sedans and coupes: they were made to drive like sports cars while offering levels of practicality that sports cars couldn't. A sedan for sporting. A sport sedan, if you will! BMW certainly wasn't the first to do that, but their idea was the one that prevailed. And the 228i fulfills that mission perhaps better than any other car in the current lineup.
It's something you can live with and have a ton of fun with in equal measure. BMW still nails that, despite all the grief we give them over its other weird product decisions.
I must have some kind of predilection for 2-Series road trips. The last time I was in one, my wife and I drove an M235i from Washington D.C. to North Carolina for a vintage BMW meetup. That car was fast, stylish, handled great, and even managed to be pretty practical in terms of room and luggage space.
The 228i is better. I really believe that. For one thing, at 3,300 pounds it's more than 200 pounds lighter than its six-cylinder sibling, and it really feels it. It's more nimble, more tossable, less nose-heavy.
The 228i has this BRZ-esque agility to it that makes it feel sharper than the M235i. Like most new BMWs it has variable drive modes that tweak throttle response and steering feel, but I found it best in the default Comfort mode; in that setting the steering has a dancer-like grace to it that doesn't need any artificial tightening. It feels plenty balanced on its own.
In fact, let's talk about balance for a moment. That's what's so great about the 228i. You may think you're losing out by opting for the 2.0-liter turbo four over the M235i's 3.0-liter inline six, but you're not.
At 240 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, this is one of the best four-cylinder engines on the market right now. It's good enough to push the car to a WRX-esque 5.1-second 0-60 run and out on the desert highway, where the people tend to drive as fast as they want, it's potent enough to pass anyone without so much as a downshift from sixth gear. Everyone but the most hardcore power mongers will be satisfied.
When I had that M235i, I felt like it was almost too fast, or at least that its engine was too powerful for the rest of the car. It was out of balance. That isn't the case with the 228i. Everything is in harmony.
Also, unlike that particular M235i, this 228i was equipped with a six-speed manual. Yes, the 8-speed ZF automatic is one of the best gearboxes in the world, but having driven both I can tell you the manual is better. While the clutch uptake is a bit high, the shifter is light, tight and precise, a pleasure to use in town or in hard driving. The manual just suits the character of the 228i so incredibly well – not that it's a surprise.
It also has a quality often overlooked by driving purists: fuel economy. That M235i was a gas-guzzler, one that barely gave me 290 miles between fill-ups. We did close to 400 in the 228i and averaged about 32 miles per gallon on our trip.
For two Jalopnik writers clinically incapable of hypermiling unless some kind of Internet glory is on the line, that's pretty damn good.
And it's comfortable, too. The ride quality is great, even on our long, long drive. The car never beat us up the way some sporting coupes would. It just happily did everything we asked it to do.
Like anything else, there are downsides to the 228i. The manually-operated seats have so many switches it's nearly impossible to get comfortable quickly when you're switching drivers. Standard navigation would be awfully nice, too. The engine and exhaust note are totally underwhelming, especially compared to the M235i, even if it's fake. And iDrive, especially one as basic as this unit was, is still just okay but not great.
If you'll remember, our 228i was spec'd by a reader to be a relatively spartan, in tune with his girlfriend's old 2002. But it still cost a little over $36,000. Not cheap, because there is no such thing as a cheap BMW anymore. Nonetheless, you could spend a lot more and still come up short on thrills.
But whatever deficiencies it has are far eclipsed by how it shines. It's a great car, and one that retains that sense of BMW's "Ultimate Driving Machine"-ness that feels like marketing bullshit nowadays. It's a coupe that offers the best combination of speed, agility, style, everyday usefulness, price and efficiency. It's the BMW I would buy.
And it really drove home another point for me: We're so spoiled by modern cars, aren't we?
Even in a small coupe with sporting intentions, we still rode in air-conditioned serenity and held a room-level conversation in the cabin, all while listening to literally any music in the world thanks to Spotify and Bluetooth (except Taylor Swift, but that ended up not being an issue). We were even able to veer off onto a back road for some spirited driving whenever we wanted.
Cars have become nearly perfect. The 228i is a reminder to enjoy driving them before the machines take that away from us.
Photos credit Jason Torchinsky, Patrick George