Hands-on: BMW M235i review

If, like us, you’re struggling to keep up with BMW’s numbering system, the skinny on the BMW M235i is that it’s the sleeker, less practical coupe sister to the hatchback M135i we tested (and loved) last year.

Like the 435i that’s gone before it, M235i is an entirely new number, because BMW’s renamed what used to be the 1-Series coupe as the 2-Series, justified - so it says - because it has greater styling differentiation.

Besides the apparent shift in style, for relieving you of the extra three-thousand or so pounds, the M235i costs over and above the M135i, you also get a horsepower bump to 326hp, less practicality and the option of an official M Performance limited slip differential at the driven rear wheels.

Where eagles soar

We’re in Spain on the mountain roads around Estepona to test drive the M235i. It’s 18C and the eagles have begun soaring on the thermals that rise above the mountains we’re trying to drive around. Below them, we’re having a ball. Up here is an advertiser’s dream world of switchback hairpins and only the occasional lumbering Dutch motorhome to impede progress. Morning commute on the M25 this is not.

But rather than the miles of smooth new tarmac that Spain’s known for, the road here is craggy, broken and undulating. But for the sunshine and the eagles, it’s doing a passable impression of a B-road in Surrey or Yorkshire. Which is useful, because it’s those locations where the majority of UK readers will be driving their M235i cars. Not on smooth Spanish blacktop. And the rough road is proving to us that, after years of trying and not quite gelling the combo of run-flat tyres, large diameter wheels and adaptive dampers, BMW has now nailed it. Which means we’d expect the M235i to prove every bit as fun - and, importantly, comfortable - in the UK as it did in southern Europe.

On the really bad crests the M235i’s rear pogoes gently up and down on the tarmac. But unlike its predecessor it never runs out of suspension travel or forces you to slow down just because the ride has got so hard and out of control. Indeed one of the biggest surprises of the M235i is that it rides beautifully. Yet it is also just a flick of a sport button away from having the body control and responses you’d expect from a BMW M car and a further flick into sport+ of laying long black lines of rubber on the tarmac as you slide it gently sideways around a bend.

While that’s high praise indeed, it all pales into insignificance against the real star of the show here: the engine. The M235i is slightly faster than its M135i brother, as the auto hits 60 in 4.8 seconds, but the thing that puts a grin on your face isn’t the speed, it’s the noise.

READ: BMW M135i review

Turbo power

When BMW moved to turbo-charging - the entire 2-Series range is turbo-charged, be it petrol or diesel engines. We mourned the passing of BMW’s glorious, naturally aspirated straight six petrol, and yet here we are marvelling over a BMW straight-six petrol engine that’s got a turbo-charger fitted, making it both quicker and more efficient than before.

Why’s it so good? Mainly because BM has overcome the tardy throttle response and lack of top-end fizz that are often bugbears of a turbo-charged engine. Instead, this unit howls, growls, and revs with a real linearity right to the red line. It’s the noise that stays with you, long after you’ve got out of the car - and makes the hair stand up on the backs of the neck.

Like two peas from a pod

What might surprise is the difference in the way the M235i and M135i drive. The M135i was fantastic, but not as focused or "hardcore" as some hot hatches we could mention. The way the M235i responds to being grabbed by the scruff of the neck and driven really hard feels like a real step up. It’s sharper, it feels less soft at the edges of adhesion, it eggs you on. Where the M135i gets slightly woolly on the limit, the M235i digs in.

In the wet - and, as you can imagine, we’ll have to speculate here as, unsurprisingly, there was no rain in Spain - the M235i’s has the potential to be a true handful, which is why you might want that optional differential. With it, we suspect the M235i could not only be a giggle, but also more of a weapon on a wet road, not just a dry one.

Of course, it will pootle along the motorway and around town and return 35mpg. And you sit in a typical BMW cabin, which is to say that the plastics these days lag behind a VW Golf and the driving position in the manual is slightly offset in a right-hand drive car. But all of this is easily forgiven because the cabin ergonomics, the clarity of the dials and BMW’s 10-inch central display are beyond reproach. You jump in and everything’s where you expect it to be and everything seems to be designed around you getting the most out of the car from behind the wheel.

Anyone still moaning about iDrive in 2014 is the kind of person who's still hating a modern smartphone. It remains the best in-car user interface from our point of view - at least until "in-car iOS", officially known as Apple CarPlay, arrives in the immediate future.

A face only a mother could love

Yet one of the things that seems to have wound up the commenters about the M135i - and despite loving the drive - is that its looks are, well, "challenging". By BMW’s own admission, the number one criteria for buyers in this coupe segment is looks, so this could be an even bigger issue with the M235i. The company highlights the opposition as cars like the Audi TT, Volkswagen Scirocco and Toyota GT86. Which, whatever you think of them, you’d not exactly call ugly.

READ: VW Scirocco review

The basic proportions, created by the rear-wheel-drive package, get the 2-Series off to a good start. But despite 18-inch wheels it looks under-wheeled and the design element that all coupes live or die by - the relationship between the C-pillar and the rear wheel - isn’t quite right here. The front and rear lights lack the conviction and clear BMW brand identity we’ve come to expect on cars made in Munich, too.

Like its hatchback brother, the looks will not appeal to everyone. Nonetheless, the M235i has a certain presence. And if you’re brave enough to take a dalliance into the BMW M Performance accessories catalogue, you can choose wheels and valances that make it look downright mean.

Yet we make no apologies for once again strongly recommending you overlook aesthetics if you’re in the market for anything remotely close to this car. The M235i’s most impressive feat is to blend the accessibility and scruff-of-the-neck driving rewards that hot hatchbacks bring, with the rear-wheel-drive balance and "specialness" of powertrain you get in a Porsche Cayman, while managing to be faster than both.

READ: Porsche Cayman S review

Factor in the fabulous in-car UI, generous standard kit that includes leather seats, xenon lamps and DAB radio and with the spectrum of talents on offer we’re struggling to think of anything that for the M235i’s price of £34,250, comes close. Moreover, it leaves you questioning just how much more you really want - or need - from a performance road car. And how, if the rumours of a range-topping M2 are true, BMW is going to improve on this recipe without re-writing the performance car rule book, or treading on the toes of its own M3/M4?

 



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