UPDATED 3/11/14 with FULL REVIEW VIDEO (SEE BELOW)
M235i Media Launch.
I've just returned from Las Vegas where I spent a day sampling the new M235i coupe [Official Thread
] and the 4 series convertible at the international media launch. I was there representing BIMMERPOST! I got to drive the M235i on the street and at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in both the oval and the infield configurations. The 435i convertible was driven on the street only.
This post will focus primarily on the M235i's driving experience.
A quick intro about my perspective: I'm a long time BMW enthusiast and have owned both the E39 M5 and more recently, my silverstone E90 M3 Sedan in 6 speed
. You may remember me from the Porsche Roadshow Review
and the BRZ Review
, both of which appeared on this forum. I'm very excited to be contributing officially to BIMMERPOST and was eager to share our forum's BMW enthusiasm and unique perspectives with the BMW executives present in Las Vegas.
With the M235i at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Heading into the test drive, of primary concern to me in the M235i was steering feel. In addition to our usual metrics of steering precision and response, I also consider weighting, feedback, centering and communication as equally important when I evaluate a steering system. For me, these are the metrics which comprise the elusive 'steering feel'.
It seems like every other day we hear of enthusiasts bemoaning the death of hydraulic assist steering and harboring fears about the eventual domination of EPS in all of our favorite enthusiast vehicles. Porsche has embraced EPS in all of the current 911 and Cayman models and soon the new M3/M4 will feature EPS exclusively as well.
I have to admit that I shared many of these same concerns when the current generation of BMWs went to EPS.
During the press reception, I managed to pull Sebastian Sauerbrei and Florian Dietrich from BMW Driving Dynamics into conversation about EPS and to gauge their honest opinion of this technology's benefit to the enthusiast. I wanted to know whether the switch to EPS was purely for the sake of improving fuel efficiency (which it does, slightly) or whether it gave the enthusiast driver any tangible benefits.
Florian explained that unlike the hydraulic system, EPS gives the vehicle dynamics engineer far more parameters to modify and a more consistent platform to do it in. He explained that hydraulic systems were quite a challenge to tune because they were quite fickle. One example he gave was that they would vary in response to temperature. Your steering feel while the system is cold is quite different than the feel it gives when it's warm and this presents challenges to the engineer. EPS tends not to suffer from these types of variations. He further assured me that the common criticisms of EPS aren't necessarily inherent to the technology itself, but rather with how it is tuned. He was confident that the steering system in the M235i would give me the type of feel I am after because they've tuned it with the enthusiast driver in mind.
This is where steering feel matters.
There are still enthusiasts at BMW M.
In addition to chatting with Florian and Sebastian, I also spent some time chatting with BMW M Division president, Dr. Friedrich Nitschke.
I wanted to know why the 'M' badge is being increasingly applied to models that BMW enthusiasts may not necessarily feel deserve the hallowed designation. I gave the examples of the X5M, the X6M and the various M Sport models like the present M235i. I wondered if the M tuning and philosophies were being diluted in the process, or whether marketing or other forces had possibly started to erode the autonomy of the M Division by forcing the M badge on to more and more pedestrian vehicles.
He assured me that BMW M still had the final say in which vehicles could be considered for M treatment and that the tuning of the M sport models were still being done by his team to their own satisfaction. He said that their current approach is to complement the M core models like the M3 and M4 with M Performance models like the M235i to bring younger buyers into the brand, whom may eventually upgrade to a core M car.
While this sounds very much like an official BMW answer, I did chat extensively with Dr. Nitschke and other members of his M division during my stay in Vegas. Topics ranged from their favorite past M cars to their history at BMW to other cars they appreciate in the market. My overriding impression was that BMW M is still very much being led by a group of serious car guys and this was very reassuring!
Most of all, they were very, very
excited about the upcoming M3 and M4. This passion was both genuine and infectious and it seemed as though they are anticipating the upcoming M3/M4 launch as highly as we are!
Dr. Nitschke, president of BMW M Division. A genuine car guy.
But back to the M235i.
When I finally got to experience the M235i, we started on the street: a quick blast down the I15 from the Las Vegas Motor Speedway to the Vegas strip and back again through some back roads. My first impressions were positive. The M235i reminded me of the last 135i I drove but with a more settled ride and updated technology. However, there is more sophistication in every facet of the experience. Even with the most aggressive M Adaptive Suspension (standard on the M235i, optional on the 228i), the ride was extremely compliant and both tire and wind noise were excellently subdued. Of course, the M Active Suspension features electronically controlled dampers which can be adjusted to taste. For the majority of my test, I left the car in its most aggressive setting (Sport Plus) and it is perfectly comfortable even in this mode. Sport Plus also delivers the sharpest throttle response and relaxes the stability control to allow for more slip angle, though I find DSC quite quick to intervene even in Sport Plus mode.
The ride is classic BMW sport suspension: very supple and compliant, nearly impervious to minor surface irregularities while remaining firm on undulations and during cornering. Its body control was excellent and the M235i felt very buttoned down. While it wasn't quite as firm as my E90 M3 EDC, it's no slouch and if you are coming from a sport package equipped E46 or E90, the ride and handling balance would be both welcome and familiar. Outside of the M3/M4, I think this
is how all road going BMWs should ride. This car would make a great daily driver.
And as always, the supremely capable N55 twin scroll turbo inline 6 left very little to be desired in a relatively fast, sporting street car. It had plenty of torque from idle, revs very quickly and despite my philosophical distaste for the active sound system (read: engine sounds piped into the cabin via the speakers), the noises made by the M235i were refined, sweet and adequately loud whether the windows were up or down.
The M235i is very satisfying on the street. Exactly how a sporting BMW should behave.
For my height and body type (5'7", 145lbs), BMWs tend not to fit very well. I like to set the seat cushion as low as possible and the backrest quite upright with the pedals and steering wheel close to me, the classic performance driving position. However, in my E90 M3, I always found the bottom seat cushion too high and the side bolsters never tight enough for adequate support, even when adjusted to their shortest and narrowest settings, respectively. I had the same problem years ago with my E39 M5.
By contrast, the M235i's ergonomics were outstanding. It took me no time at all to find my ideal driving position and I even had adjustment range to spare. I could sit as low as I needed, as upright as I wanted and had the side bolsters been adjusted any tighter, I would've suffocated. In the end, I was comfortable, well supported and had perfect visibility. Finally, a BMW seating position that could be made to fit me perfectly! This alone contributed significantly to my driving enjoyment.
An absolutely rocking pair of seats and lovely ergonomics!
Get the manual.
Unfortunately, the 6 speed manual was not available for this test.
The available 8 speed automatic features paddles, rev matches on downshifts, launch control and faster gear changes while in Sport Plus mode. It's no DCT, but does make a reasonably good imitation of one.
While I haven't tested the manual, I would not order an M235i in any other form. I am a 3 pedal purist and BMW manual transmissions rarely disappoint. For such an engaging and involving driver's car, it would be a shame not to order a 3 pedal while BMW still offers one.
Full disclosure: BMW claims a 4.8 seconds sprint to 60mph using the 8 speed with launch control while the same run takes 5.0 seconds in the manual. If those two tenths of a second really matter to you, then you may have some thinking to do.
The 8 speed auto has launch control.
Good steering starts with a good steering wheel.
Before getting back into the discussion of the M235i's EPS steering system, I want to talk about its steering wheel because it is superb. Its diameter is perfect, the rim is thickly padded and the leather is very soft. The thumb pads at the 10 and 2 o'clock positions are perfectly sized and shaped. The small airbag combined with the thin looking spokes combine for a very lightweight look and feel. I love this steering wheel! This is the same wheel currently featured in the 3 and 4 series M Sport vehicles.
The M235i comes standard with the variable sport steering (optional for 228i). This does not refer to the steering weight, which is also variable (lighter at lower speeds, heavier at higher speeds). No, variable sport steering refers to the actual steering ratio itself being variable as your wheel rotates towards full lock. The end result is a system that is very
quick from lock to lock. From center position, it takes only one rotation to reach full lock in either direction! Note: This variable ratio is accomplished through a passive mechanical system, unlike the active steering of some BMWs. I prefer the passive systems like this one.
It looks good and feels great.
And now for a good thrash.
When I returned from the street driving loop, I was ushered on to the infield handing circuit at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I was given two laps following the pace car, three on my own and another to cool down. While it was a very brief handling test, it did tell me a good deal about the M235i.
While its brakes aren't granite firm, they are very capable, responsive and intuitive to modulate. The chassis is extremely composed even under hard trail braking which inspires confidence. The suspension which felt so perfectly balanced on the street is a little bit softer here under hard cornering, but the body roll is not excessive and adds progressiveness at the limit. While body roll may not be ideal for pure track driving, this trait makes for handling which is very approachable for the average enthusiast.
The M235i's chassis is extremely communicative about the state of its current balance. Whether that is mild understeer as you enter the corner, neutrality when you balance it with the throttle, or progressive oversteer as you feed the power to the rear on the exit, you always know where you stand with the M235i. If you can drive well in Gran Turismo, then you can drive well in the M235i. This car really knows how to flatter the driver!
The steering works cohesively with the rest of the chassis and does its best to relay information back about the lateral loads on the front tires. Once speed builds up, it's well weighted, increases in weight in accordance with lateral load and provides good, usable feedback at the limits. It also allows a small amount of road surface textures to make its way back to your hands, which keeps the steering from feeling totally numb especially on light lateral loads. It's been some time since I've driven the F30 3 series, but I think that the M235i's is more communicative and has a more satisfying feel. Only a back-to-back test will tell me for sure, but I am quite confident that they have made some tuning changes since the early F30s!
See all those cameras? Video is coming.
This steering has feel!
Perhaps the best testament to the M235i's steering system was made on the next driving exercise, which was 3 laps of the oval circuit. Accelerating up to around 100mph on the banked oval, I was able to keep the steering angle relatively constant while I fed in the throttle on the cambered surface. Speed increased quickly and so did lateral load. In this situation, it was easy to feel the forces on the contact patches translated into feedback at the wheel.
To offer some perspective: in terms of feel and feedback, the steering system in the M235i is no worse than in the E9x M3. If you are happy with the steering feel of your E9x M3, you likely won't find much to complain about in the M235i. We've been told to expect even better steering feel in the new M3/4, so I'm looking forward to those cars!
BMW told us that the M235i was inspired by the 2002. While I have little experience with the 2002, the M235i reminds me of another of my modern favorites, the Mazda Miata. Like a Miata, the M235i has compact dimensions, progressive and approachable handling at its limits, a supple ride, and a very communicative rear-drive chassis exploitable by the average enthusiast. But unlike a Miata, the M235i is quite heavy for its size. With 3500lbs of metal to usher around, it may not be ideal as a serious track toy. No, that is not the intent of the M235i. What we have here is a supremely comfortable, quick and satisfying enthusiast BMW which you can enjoy occasionally at the track.
Unless you are holding out for the M3/M4, I think the M235i is worth a serious look.
I will be producing a video in the coming weeks with lapping footage and more commentary. Stay tuned to BIMMERPOST for upcoming 2 series content. Feel free to ask me any additional questions in the thread below!
BMW M235i is Faster On Track Than 1M Coupe (Our 2 Series Interview From Detroit)
BMW M235i M Performance Parts and M235i Racing Car Gallery @ Press Launch