The BMW M235i subcompact coupe is bigger, better looking, faster and more fun than the 135i it replaces, but a disappointing lack of standard features quickly drives the price up and the desirability down.
German luxury automaker BMW continues to advance its new naming strategy, wherein sedan names use odd numbers and all coupes get even numbers (even "four-door coupes," but let's not go there). The company's smallest conventional offering in the U.S. has been the 1 Series, which for 2014 gets significant mechanical changes and a new name befitting its two-door configuration: the 2 Series (compare it with the 2013 1 Series here). It's available in two flavors: a four-cylinder 228i and a six-cylinder M235i. Both are turbocharged and have rear-wheel drive, and both are meant to compete with the latest small luxury offerings from Mercedes-Benz and Audi — namely the all-new CLA-Class and the redesigned A3, respectively. I tested an M235i.
Exterior & Styling
The overall shape of the 2 Series hasn't changed much, but the details surrounding the front and rear ends, even the side body panels, are quite different. The new look is sleeker and racier than the stubby, short 1 Series. From the slim headlights and trapezoidal grille openings and stretching back to the new LED taillights, the 2 Series looks like a properly racy coupe, with more than a passing resemblance to the larger 4 Series coupe. The car itself is considerably bigger than the 1 Series, having grown in every dimension: it's 2.8 inches longer, 1.3 inches wider and has a 1.3-inch-longer wheelbase, creating more interior space. The M235i features substantially different bodywork from the lesser 228i, with a totally different front bumper, more aggressive scoops, M badges everywhere, blacked-out window trim instead of chrome, and larger standard wheels.
How It Drives
The base engine in the 228i is a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder pumping out 240 horsepower. While that's adequate, it's not quite as respectable as the M235i's snarling, turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder engine, which produces a much healthier 320 hp. (See the specifications side-by-side here.) That power goes to the rear wheels through a standard eight-speed, sport-tuned automatic transmission or an optional six-speed manual. All-wheel drive is not offered, unlike the Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz CLA, both of which are front-wheel-drive in their base state. This is some significant grunt for such a small car, and it shows up in how the M235i rockets away from a stop and how eager it can be to hang its tail out in spirited driving. (At least with stability control switched off — which of course, we would never do. Indeed not). BMW reports that the M235i can go from zero to 60 mph in just 4.8 seconds when equipped with the eight-speed and employing the electronic Launch Control function; it tops out at a you'll-never-see-it 155 mph.
Handling is sharp, with excellent balance thanks to the 50/50 front/rear weight distribution. Using the adaptive suspension that's standard on the M235i, you can stiffen the car's responses considerably by switching it into Sport or Sport+ mode (EcoPro and Comfort are the other two modes, for when you'd rather forgo sportiness for fuel economy). Switching into Sport or Sport+ modifies accelerator sensitivity, shock absorber stiffness, automatic transmission shift points, steering assist and more. It turns the already responsive M235i into a performance machine with quicker reflexes, improved feedback and a truly enjoyable sports-car-like experience. It's a riot to drive in ways that neither the Audi A3 nor Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class can match. Burning off speed for a corner is easy with the standard M Sport brakes (optional on the 228i) that are larger than the 228i's standard discs and feature blue-painted, four-piston calipers up front and two-piston ones in the rear.
One can specify the optional BMW M Performance accessory brake system, as well, which nets you even bigger cross-drilled rotors and calipers in red, yellow or orange, but it's hard to imagine needing anything more powerful and consistently strong than the M Sport Package brakes. They're more than adequate, and they handle spirited driving with no fade at all.
Even fuel economy is respectable for such high performance. The four-cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic combination in the 228i allows for the highest fuel economy rating, 23/36/28 mpg city/highway/combined. It drops to 22/34/26 mpg when you opt for a manual transmission. The numbers drop a bit more for the M235i, to 22/32/25 mpg with the inline-six and eight-speed auto, and fall further to 19/28/23 mpg with the manual transmission. My week of spirited driving in the M235i netted me an average of 24 mpg, not far off the combined EPA rating. One downside: Every version of the 2 Series requires premium fuel, due to the car's high-compression turbocharged engines.
The 2 Series is tight inside due to the rear-wheel-drive configuration that requires a fairly wide transmission tunnel, but there's more room in the new 2014 model than in the old 1 Series thanks to the dimensional increases. Front seats are snug but comfortable, optionally covered in good quality leather, and are adjustable to fit a variety of driver shapes. The Mercedes-Benz CLA also features optional leather, but that's the standard material covering the seats in any Audi A3. The M Sport steering wheel is thick and grippy, with transmission shift paddles behind it that are easy to reach. The BMW's interior materials are perhaps the best of the entry-level German luxury cars, besting the A3 and CLA in their finish and design, but a bit more color would be welcome. That problem can be solved through the variety of leather colors available, but my test car was all black inside, and it came across as overly somber. The optional red leather interior is much more entertaining to behold.
Backseat legroom is tight, as it is in nearly all cars this small (the A3 being a notable exception). Headroom is less of a problem thanks to the 2 Series' comparatively tall roofline; even with the standard sunroof in the M235i, it tallies up 3 inches more in front than a sunroof-equipped CLA. The tall roof also means big windows, which allow for good exterior visibility.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The equipment list is where the M235i begins to falter, and it's not due to any sort of wonky electronics or difficult-to-use menu screens. The car features an easy-to-read, basic 6.5-inch LCD high in the dash that's controlled by a rotary knob and buttons low on the center console. The optional navigation system upgrades this to a larger, 8.8-inch screen. The issue is that very little comes standard in terms of electronics on the M235i. Despite costing more than $46,000, the list of missing features is stunning: no standard navigation, parking sensors of any kind, backup camera, satellite radio, lane departure warning or lane keep assist — and no blind spot warning or automatic distance-keeping cruise control at all. Some of those features are extra-cost options, which drive up the price of the already costly M235i considerably. Pretty much the only thing that comes standard is Bluetooth connectivity and a USB audio port. This is considerably shorter than the equipment list on a base Audi A3, which, when optioned up to the M235i's price level, shames the BMW with its content.
Cargo & Storage
A subcompact with an actual trunk, this isn't a car you could use to move out of your apartment. But a weekend away for two or three would not be out of the question. The 2 Series features 13.7 cubic feet of trunk space, which expands with the standard 40/20/40-split folding backseat to accommodate longer items. This is comparable to the room in a CLA (13.1 cubic feet) and more than the A3 (12.3 cubic feet in front-wheel-drive models, just 10.0 cubic feet in Quattro-equipped all-wheel-drive models).
The 2 Series has not yet been crash-tested. It also doesn't feature much in the way of standard electronic safety equipment, beyond the basic smattering of airbags, stability control and a tire pressure monitor. As mentioned before, things like lane departure warning and forward collision alert are optional, but some items — like blind spot warning and automatic distance-keeping cruise control — that are optional on competitors aren't available at all on the BMW. See the M235i's list of safety features here.
Value in Its Class
The M235i is undeniably fun to drive, a nimble and powerful sport coupe in true BMW fashion — but also in true BMW fashion, it's anything but a bargain. The 228i starts at $33,025 including the destination charge — considerably more than the Mercedes-Benz CLA or Audi A3, with less in the way of standard equipment. That price makes a huge jump to $44,025 for the M235i, but that version includes new bodywork, bigger brakes, different seats, the larger engine, sport packages that are optional on the 228i, and more. My test car had three options — Melbourne Red metallic paint for $550, a black leather interior for $1,450, and the Cold Weather Package for $550 that included a heated steering wheel, heated seats and headlight washers. That brought the total up to $46,575, which is almost the entry price for a fire-breathing Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG. Checking every box on the list will get you an M235i for more than $53,500, which is huge money for a car in this category. Option up an M235i your way here.
There are two main competitors for the 2 Series: the Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz CLA Class. The current A3 is more a competitor for the 228i, as their turbocharged four-cylinder engines match up well. Their prices are also similar, but the cars are not; the Audis are front- or all-wheel drive four-door sedans, while the BMW is a rear-wheel-drive, two-door coupe (in the U.S., anyway). Audi's upcoming S3 sedan is a better match for the M235i, with its more powerful turbocharged motor — but it will still be less powerful than the BMW. The CLA250 is also a better competitor for the 228i, with the high-powered, all-wheel-drive CLA45 AMG being a better match for the M235i. The CLA45 is more powerful than the M235i, but it doesn't feel like it; the BMW is better balanced, more comfortable and has better visibility for nearly the same price. Compare the M235i with competitors here.
If you're OK with spending north of 50 large for a subcompact luxury car, the BMW is an excellent choice — because in order to get the features you expect in such a luxury car, that's going to be your price of entry. Given BMW's propensity for sweet lease deals, this is not likely to be a problem for buyers or dealers.