Baby BMW Coupe packs a punch
Hunkered low over 18-inch alloys, the BMW M235i promises a lot. Its body is taut and compact, clothing a chassis that promises rear-drive interactivity. Couple that to a 240kW/450Nm turbo straight-six and nicely-stacked eight-speed automatic gearbox with a choice of paddle or sequential shifting and you are prepared to fall in love with the M235i before you’ve even turned its leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Although the 2 Series Coupe retains the signature short overhang look of its 1 Series predecessor, the newer car is obviously larger. Length has grown some 72mm, width 26mm, but the lower stance is thanks to a 5mm ride-height drop. More significant to the M235i’s manners is the 30mm wheelbase stretch and 41mm wider front and 44mm wider rear tracks.
Mechanically similar to the M135i, the M235i adds to the ‘M Performance’ (as distinct from M) BMW sport sub-brand. Similar to the Audi S range, it’s a dynamic middle ground for those keen to upgrade performance without going over the top in terms of cost and compromises for ultimate performance.
The M235i gains 5kW over the M135i, producing its 240kW peak from 5800-6000rpm. More impressive is that 450Nm torque figure, shared with M135i and served smoothly across a broad range, from 1300-4500rpm. It’s this torque peak, combined with the M235i’s 1470kg kerb weight and diminutive size that makes its performance case, though oddly the overboost function that enables 500Nm peak bursts in the M135i is not available.
Although available with a short-shift six-speed manual as a no-cost option, the reality is less than ten per cent of Aussies pick the clutch pedal. While pulling at traditional heart-strings, it’s easier to understand once you’ve sampled the excellent auto, which also offers a zero to 100km/h time of 4.8sec; 0.2sec quicker than the stick. It’s also more efficient, using 7.6L/100km to best the manual by 0.5L/100km.
Standard on the M235i is Adaptive M suspension and variable sport steering. The former is adjustable via the ‘Driving Experience Control’, altering damper tension between comfort and sport settings. The latter is used in conjunction with Servotronic speed-sensitive electronic power assist and effectively decreases the turns required lock to lock by varying the steering ratio. This is undoubtedly clever stuff, but previous experience of multi-ratio steering suggests it feels as unnatural as it sounds.
Although a Drexler-developed mechanical limited-slip differential will become optionally available on Australian M235is, standard fare is an electronic diff ‘lock’, which brakes the spinning wheel when DSC is switched off.
Joining us at Baskerville Raceway (a precipitous, bumpy, gradient-heavy circuit in Tasmania) is Mike Eady. One of only 10 to be qualified as a Senior BMW Instructor through the school in Munich, the New Zealander knows his way around a racetrack… and a BMW.
Our first experience is designed to “explore the agility” of the M235i via a tightly-gated slalom. The key is to get up to speed quickly, then maintain throttle to allow the variable ratio steering to sharpen the line. With a crisp run into second gear before the first cone, and a heavy brake after the last, it also enables us to get a feel for the M235i’s traction and braking capabilities.
Despite running soft Michelin Pilot Super Sports (225/40/18 front, 245/35/18 rear), in anything other than comfort mode the M235i leaps forward with a squirm as the turbo straight-six throws its torque rearwards. Once up to speed, the natural balance of rear-wheel drive, emboldened with a decent 52:48 weight distribution, allows the M235i to glide between the gates, the steering weighting up appreciably even in the step from sport to sport plus, though the connected feel between fingertip and tarmac diminishes as that artificial weighting grows. Under brakes, the aluminium four-piston front and two-pot rear calipers are powerful, though a little more progression in the pedal’s travel would allow you to better keep the Beemer on the edge of ABS intervention.
The slalom complete, it’s time to head out on guided laps behind Eady in another M235i. On the out-lap I note the driving position (high for a coupe, indeed high enough for helmet to clatter roof) and the support of the leather, electrically-adjustable driver’s seat, which holds my sides tautly but lacks leg support.
The first challenge is the track — there’s no time to relax, especially when you give the M235i its head. The baby Bimmer is, as they say, properly quick. As I crash-course the circuit, top-end-of-third corners quickly become top-end-of-fourth, the M235i able to pull higher gears even up steep hills, the available thrust and short-ratio mid-range gearing making light work of its 1470kg.
There’s no time for comfort mode here, and my first run is completed in the sport setting, which retains stability control but sharpens damping, throttle response and steering. Any sense of wheelspin is quickly reigned in, at first with a little cut of power before the interruption becomes quite abrupt as confidence grows.
Into sport plus, which brings maximum shift speed and a thump of extra steering weight while sacrificing DSC for ‘dynamic’ traction control, wheelspin management remains the top priority. Eady agrees that a mechanical diff would help here, and suggests going one gear higher. It works for most of the circuit, enabling more precise exits, but there are just so many ratios to get through on an already-busy track, despite the paddle shifts. I’d love the manual here.
As the tyres get hotter, the taut front-end response slightly frays, revealing a tendency to understeer along with some instability under braking. Indeed, as well as feeling too narrow in the rear, the compound may well be too soft for the car’s weight, at least in these conditions.
The dynamic traction control allows some slip, accompanied by lots of inside wheelspin, but the system remains unsubtle when cutting-in. By the end of the second run, smelling brakes and spongy tyres indicate more than anything else that the M235i isn’t meant to be a track car. Does that mean there’ll be an M2 in the future? One can hope.
Despite having no road time allocated, I manage to sneak a road loop in before an evening function. On legendary southern Tasmanian tarmac reserved for Targa, the M235i makes a lot more sense. Its ride is nothing short of superb given its grip level, the comfort mode wonderfully defined by the lightness of its steering, shift quality and damping pliancy. Sport tenses things just-so, adding discernable control but still rounding off larger bumps, with sharpened steering and throttle response to engage the driver. The leap to sport plus remains, returning heft to the steering and snapping the shifts. Suddenly the rear end becomes playful, more or less depending on the straight-six tune playing via your right foot. That there’s a gear for every occasion goes without saying, not that the towering motor needs the help.
As track-fuelled adrenalin fades, it is the sneaky road loop which reveals more. At $79,990 (excluding on-road costs), you’d be hard-pressed to find a more engaging on-road driving companion for the price. Now, about that LSD, manual spec example…
|Specs||2015 BMW M235i|
|Price||$79,990 (plus on-road costs)|
|Engine||2979cc turbocharged six-cylinder|
|Power||240kW at 5800-6000rpm|
|Torque||450Nm at 1300-4500rpm|
|Power to weight||6.13kg/kW|
|Tyres||225/40/18 front, 245/35/18 rear|
- Ripping engine
- Ride/grip relationship
- Perfectly sized footprint for back roads
- Lack of traction
- Artificial steering in sharper modes
- Brake pedal feel after hard use