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      06-24-2014, 10:32 AM   #5
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Drives: 2014 m235i
Join Date: Apr 2014
Location: Chicago

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Road TestM235i 6-cyl MT
Many BMW purists are lamenting the, well, softening of the automaker's "Ultimate Driving Machine" edict in favor of more comfort, luxury, and technology in recent models. In most cases, we feel the automaker has achieved a good balance between performance and livability, but, yes, certain models are missing that razor-sharp handling edge we'd grown to expect.

The new M235i, on the other hand, is a fresh, exhilarating coupe that has been faithfully forged in the classic BMW mold. The car feels taut, quick, and eager. In short, it's a joy to drive.

The M235i is powered by a potent 320-hp, 3.0-liter turbocharged six-cylinder engine that's mated to either an eight-speed automatic transmission or, as in our car, a slick six-speed manual.

Accompanied by a satisfyingly sonorous exhaust, the M235i responds instantly to every prod to the throttle, delivering smooth, abundant torque and high-end punch. Working with the smooth and progressive clutch, the manual shifter is a delight to use. And the car's 25 mpg overall is commendable.

The "M" designation, which identifies performance versions crafted by BMW's in-house tuners, brings a sport-tuned suspension and steering, upgraded brakes, and Michelin Pilot Super Sport performance tires. Our car has screaming-red leather upholstery, which fits the spirit of this coupe's fun-to-drive personality.

The M235i responds to your steering with instant turn-in response and barely any body lean. The suspension feels tied down yet absorbent, although uneven pavement provokes short, quick body motions that make the ride a bit jittery. On the track, the M was capable and poised, with tenacious cornering grip and balanced behavior at its limits. It posted a higher maximum speed in our avoidance maneuver than even the Chevrolet Corvette.

The beautifully finished cabin is tastefully accented by "M" badges here and there, and the sculpted seats provide comfortable support. There's ample room up front, but the rear seat is very tight.

Like all modern BMWs, the M235i has the latest iDrive infotainment system -- quirks and all -- which is managed by a multifunction controller on the center console and has a clear color screen in the dash. The system works well, but it takes getting used to.

The thrill might be back with the M235i, but it's not a cheap thrill. The base price for the M is $43,100, and adding a couple of option packages pushed our car to $50,400. That's a fairly high price per pound. Still, for the performance it provides, driving enthusiasts will probably savor every ounce.

Why buy one:

Packs a lot of performance within understated looks
Doesn't beat you up with a harsh ride and noisy cabin
Smooth, punchy, yet fuel-efficient powertrain
Handling agility
Fantastic sports seats
Why not buy one:
Virtually unavoidable options drive up the price very quickly
Looks may not convey its potent abilities
Ride is a little nervous for a $50,000 car
Very tight rear seat
Typical BMW iDrive complications and frustrations
Despite the M badges, it's not a true BMW M car
Viable alternatives:
Volkswagen Golf GTI or Golf R
Mercedes-Benz CLA45
Best version/options to get: We would prefer to keep things simple, but right from the start BMW has you on the hook for some expensive options. Most versions come with the $2,300 Premium package, which includes leather seats and keyless access, as well as features such as a garage-door opener and auto-dimming mirrors that plenty of non-luxury vehicles provide as standard equipment. Our car also included the $2,150 Technology package, adding navigation, apps, enhanced Bluetooth, and other goodies.

A backup camera, something that's standard on a $17,000 Honda Fit, costs an extra $950. Any color that isn't basic white or black adds another $550. We'd add only the $550 Cold Weather package for its heated seats and steering wheel. That's a relative bargain -- only $50 more than the $500 heated-seat option.

Hardcore racers might opt to delete the standard moonroof, saving a bit of weight and adding slightly more body structure and head room. BMW doesn't charge you for that choice, but you're not getting a refund for the absent moonroof either.

Changes from the previous version: The 2 Series is basically a renamed replacement for the 1 Series. We loved the 135i we tested, with its explosive performance and pinpoint handling. The M235i has 20 more horsepower than the 135's six-cylinder and is considerably more refined, while maintaining almost all of the fun of that earlier car. Hopefully, the M235i is also more reliable: early 135i's had a lot of expensive problems.

The Driving Experience
Handling: At any speed, this car feels light on its feet and ready to dance all night. The electric power steering is quick and well weighted. If it feels just a tad artificial compared to the laser-like 135i steering, BMW is clearly getting better at making this bit of virtual reality more lifelike. We don't think most drivers will complain. The suspension is tied down yet still absorbent enough, conveying a sense of control and precision.

Sport mode adjusts throttle response and steering effort accordingly. Sport Plus goes a step further and disconnects the stability control. That mode is really intended more for a race course than a public road.

At our track the 2 was a sheer delight. It stuck to the corners like epoxy and proved balanced and predictable at its limits. Impressively, it threaded our double-lane-change avoidance maneuver at 58.5 mph, which put it between the 2014 Corvette and Porsche 911. And throughout those trials it instilled a ton of driver confidence.

Even when driven in Sport Plus with the stability control off, the car was a blast to pilot around our track with inch-perfect adjustability using the throttle and giving skilled drivers the ability to play with some drifts.

Powertrain: The base engine is a 240-hp turbo four-cylinder but the M235 has a 320-horsepower, 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder.

As soon as you get under way, the six opens the taps on a wellspring of smooth thrust and high-end punch. It pulls strongly, responding instantly to every prod on the gas pedal and emitting a deeply satisfying exhaust note. There could be something addictive about this quietly muscular engine, which tempts you to tip ever deeper into the throttle. If you value your driver's license you'd better keep an eye on the speedometer.

That wasn't a worry at our track, where we clocked the 0-to-60 mph sprint at 5.2 seconds -- just nine tenths of a second slower than our 460-hp Corvette. That's a big margin in a drag race but just about nowhere else.

Fuel economy averaged 25 mpg overall on premium -- not bad for such a high-performance package.

The low-effort six-speed manual shifter is easy to manipulate and combined with its smooth progressive clutch, very simple to manage. Gear ratios are an ideal match to the engine's output.

Even driving the car in heavy traffic isn't a slog. Only when grabbing second gear in mid-corner did we notice a reluctant, rubbery feel. A slick eight-speed automatic is the standard transmission; the manual is a no-cost option. That means you won't save any money opting for the stick. Still, we wouldn't trade away the involvement of a manual transmission in this tremendously engaging car even though an automatic is essentially free.

A fuel-saving start/stop system shuts down the engine when idling at a stop, provided the transmission is in neutral and the clutch out. Flooring the clutch pedal fires up the engine quickly and smoothly.

The base 228i's 240-hp 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder is both powerful and fuel efficient but lacks the silky punch of the six-cylinder. Based on our experience with the 2.0-liter in the larger 328i, we'd expect about 28 mpg overall from a rear-drive 228i with the standard eight-speed automatic. Unlike most other current BMWs, the 2 Series is not available with all-wheel-drive.

Ride comfort: The suspension is absorbent and resilient, soaking up bumps and ruts very effectively. That said, if the pavement isn't completely ironed out, road wrinkles provoke short, quick body motions, leaving the ride a bit jittery. Though civilized by sports-car standards it may seem a little rough for a $50,000 coupe.

Noise: Interior ambience is exceptionally refined for a sports car. Wind noise is subdued, and the engine produces a precision-instrument hum coupled a restrained exhaust bellow. Despite the serious high performance tires, road noise is very tolerable and fitting for this car's sporty intent.

Braking: Overall performance was about as good as it gets, on both wet and dry pavement. Stops were very short and pedal modulation was spot on, too. You can't really ask for much better.

Headlights: Standard xenon HIDs provide a very bright and uniform pattern of light but, unfortunately, they do not provide sufficient forward seeing distance to allow a driver time to see, react and brake for objects or pedestrians ahead. This is also what we've seen with other BMW sedans. The adaptive function operates smoothly as it allows the lamps to swivel to provide added light in corners; it is well synced to steering inputs.

Inside The Cabin
Interior fit and finish: The cabin is mostly well executed but a gimlet eye will discover a few signs of penny-pinching and so-so execution. Attractive panels of hexagon-patterned aluminum trim accent the dashboard and our car's supple red leather seats certainly catch the eye. Door panels and dashboard are padded on top, but some of the hard-plastic lower dashboard panels look cheap.

Grabbing the interior door pulls reveals a sharp edge that you'll notice every time you pull the door shut. Also, the thin carpet and cheap vinyl visors don't match up with the $50,000-plus price tag.

Driving position: This car fits an enthusiast driver like a bespoke suit. Pedals, steering wheel, and shift lever are perfectly positioned relative to the driver and one another. There's a well-placed left foot rest and a tilt-and-telescope steering wheel. It's not a big car but there's decent head, leg, foot, and knee room. Still, tall drivers might find the cockpit a bit too tight.

Visibility: Good overall, with roof pillars that are upright and relatively thin. The rear head restraints can block the view out back, but lowering them improves things considerably. A rear camera is an expensive $950 option. We think it should be standard in all cars.

Seat comfort: For most drivers, the standard sports seats are exceptional. Large bolsters hold you in place but aren't overly confining, at least for most drivers. Firm cushions provide proper long-trip support but there's still some welcoming softness. Of course, there are limits. Larger drivers or those wide-in-the-shoulders might still find the seatbacks to be too narrow.

The manual thigh cushion extension is a welcome feature as are the power-adjustable side bolsters.

Rear seats are tight but two adults can fit back there in a pinch. Leg room is just OK. The seat is only made for two; it's too narrow for three to fit with any semblance of comfort.

Access: The M235i is a low-slung car so you need to drop down into the bolstered seat. Otherwise, getting into the front seats isn't too hard, and is aided by large square door openings.

Rear access is about as good as it gets for a small two-door coupe. The front seatbacks flip forward and a button atop the seat lets you power it forward, opening an adequate if not very generous passage to the rear.

Gauges: Simple and clear, with traditional white lettering on a black background. They'd be easier to read if the steering wheel rim didn't partly block the view.

Below the gauges is a full-color display that shows fuel and trip information, and a roller knob on the wheel lets you scroll through song selections or phone contacts.

Controls: Some controls are complicated, although BMW has been improving them over the years. Probably the predominant topic is BMW's iDrive controller, a knob on the center console that moves through selections shown on a big, bright center-dashboard screen. There are advantages to this system compared to, say, MyFord Touch and Cadillac's Cue. Unlike those systems' flush-mounted capacitive buttons, the BMW's knob and buttons always respond as you expect. The big central display screen has large and easy-to-read fonts, too.

BMW has also been restoring more and more conventional controls as the years go by, a welcome evolution. Big buttons control the climate system and its dedicated display. Audio functions such as presets and source selection can be activated with buttons too, either on the dashboard or through the roller knob control on the steering wheel.

But once you go beyond the basics, it's easy to get lost. You wade through iDrive's many, many functions by selecting one or another cryptic icon with the knob, but it's not always obvious where you'll find what you want, or what twist, press, or jog of the knob will get you there.

BMW has also made some commonplace controls needlessly complicated. The automatic transmission's electronic lever always defaults back to its center position, rather than staying in the position you selected. You flick the lever forward from Park to engage Reverse, the opposite of most other shifters, while Park is activated by pushing a button. This takes getting used to. Should you come to a stop and flick the lever forward, thinking you've engaged Park, you'll find yourself in Reverse instead.

Same goes for the wiper stalk, which also returns to center rather than staying in the wiper-speed setting you selected. (The automatic rain-sensing wiper function helps mitigate this.)

Even some basic controls prove annoying. The door lock button, for example, is on the center dashboard and the trunk release button is deep in the driver's footwell.

Electronic connectivity

Initial impressions: BMW's iDrive system integrates radio, navigation and phone functions with a centralized control knob. It's gotten more user-friendly over the years, but you still have to take some patience pills when learning this system from scratch. We strongly recommend learning the ropes when the car is parked. Trying to figure it out on the fly could mean spending too much time with your eyes off the road.

Phone: It's easy to pair a phone and the system can save information on up to four of them, which is probably fine for most people. You might find that your phonebook/contacts don't always download on the first try. You might then have to unpair your phone and try again.

Our car had the $2,150 Technology package, which includes real-time traffic updates, special BMW apps (stock market news, weather updates, Google Local searches, etc.), nav system with touchpad controls, and enhanced Bluetooth/smart-phone integration. The car also had a "Snap-in adapter" for phones in the center covered bin, which recharges the battery and hooks it up with the car's antenna to improve reception and clarity. We didn't evaluate that function.

Music: Accessing your phone's playlists via Bluetooth works seamlessly. The optional enhanced Bluetooth streaming, included with the Technology package, allows you to browse your music library for artist/title/playlist/etc without needing to tether the device.

Sound quality from the optional 350-watt Harman/Kardon premium system ($875) was just OK. Delicate tones and musical nuances seem to be happier and clearer on lower volumes; cranking up The Beatles' "Day Tripper" or your favorite Bach concerto brings some distortion as the higher volumes tend to sink the system.

Almost everyone who drove this car complained about difficulties tuning the radio. However, the one-touch hard keys for setting presets was a boon in this otherwise challenging system. We paid extra for satellite radio but then went through a big hassle setting it up. Other carmakers just have it ready to rock when you buy the car.

Another BMW curiosity is that the radio stays on after you shut off the engine and open the door. It plays for several minutes until you either lock the car or push the ignition button a second time. This might be an added convenience in some situations, but it's hard to see how.

Voice command: With a phone paired, hitting the steering-wheel-mounted voice command button and saying "call home" worked like a charm. Using the system for navigation was also pretty easy, provided you speak very slowly and carefully.

To find a coffee shop you might have to enunciate: "navigation"; "destination"; "points of interest"; "coffee shop." Not as simple as hitting a button on your phone and saying "Find me a Starbucks," but it worked. If you want to turn off a designated map route, you have to specifically say "cancel guidance" -- you can't just say "cancel."

Finding radio stations using voice commands was hit or miss. Sometimes it understood the command, sometimes it didn't.

Navigation: With the maps stored internally, rather than on a DVD, the nav system is fairly quick. It can also provide clear 3D renderings of buildings in metropolitan areas, should you prefer navigating by landmark. You can disable this feature if you find it distracting. The screen can also be divided in two, allowing you to see a combination of audio, navigation, and trip information. The system comes with a touchpad in the middle of the iDrive controller, allowing you to draw out letters in destination addresses. Manually inputting addresses with the controller is slower than other, simpler touch-screen systems.

Electronic amenities: Inside the covered bin between the front seats is one USB and one auxiliary port.

Power sources: One 12-volt plug resides next to the cup holders and another is placed on the back of the console for backseat techies.

Climate features: The automatic dual-zone climate system lacks a handy "sync" function which allows you to match the passenger and driver's side temperature with one touch. The system does have a dual mode for the front seats, which allows the driver and passenger to individually control airflow sources.

Rear-seat passengers have temperature and airflow adjustment switches, not normally found in two-door cars. The climate system also has a parked-car ventilation function: you can program it to keep the car cool (or warm) while you're off running errands. You can even program a particular start time. The toasty heated front seats in our car were a $500 option. Adding a heated steering wheel is just $50 more. Go for the splurge.

Cabin storage: Aside from a very small covered bin forward of the cup holders, the M235i has very little open storage space. At least the door map pockets are large and have dividers to hold cups, sunglasses and whatnot. The driver gets a handy pull-down pocket left of the steering wheel. The adjustable padded center armrest bin has plenty of room to store a smart phone. There are also sleeves behind the seatbacks.

Cup holders: The front center console has two cup-holders. Rear-seat passengers get none. The doors have molded bottle holders.

Lights and visors: The single-layer visors don't slide on their mounting rods to fine-tune side-glare coverage.

Cargo area: The small trunk can hold just two large upright wheeled suitcases. The 60/40-split rear seatbacks fold down to make more cargo space.

The trunk opening is small but swings wide open. Inside, you'll find a bin on the right side to hold some small items as well as a 12-volt power socket. There's also a small elastic strap on the sidewall to help secure stuff. Tie-down loops surround the floor and there are special hold downs for the cargo net. The trunk lid is a bit stiff to close.

Spare tire: This BMW comes with run-flat tires; hence, you don't get a spare. Instead, there's a tire sealant and air compressor kit, which is stored under the cargo floor.

Safety Notes
Safety belts: All seats have lap-and-shoulder belts; the front-row belts have pretensioners to reduce slack in the event of a crash.

Air bags: Standard equipment includes front, side and curtain air bags (which extend to protect front and rear outboard occupants). Knee air bags are standard for the driver and front passenger. If the passenger sensing system determines that the seat is unoccupied, or that a child in a child restraint is present, the system will disable all air bags for that seating position.

Head restraints: The rear head restraints are tall enough, even when fully lowered, to provide adequate protection for most passengers.

Crash-avoidance systems: The optional $950 Driver Assistance package comes with park distance control and a rear-view camera.

Driving with kids: The narrow seat cushions and belt anchors located forward of the seat bight can make it tough to cinch up some rear-facing child seats. The front seats may also need to be moved forward to make space for a rear-facing child seat. LATCH anchors are easy to access. The rear parcel shelf has two top-tether anchors.

We do not have data to predict reliability, this model is new.

Tested model: 2014 M235i coupe, 3.0-liter 6-cyl. turbo, 6-speed manual
Major options: Premium and technology packages, heated seats, harman/kardon stereo, metallic paint.
This road test applies to the current model year of this vehicle.