There are a lot of reasons to moan about the current state of BMW's cars, including a couple of the porkier M vehicles. But the new 2014 M235i isn't one of them. It's the opposite.
This, friends, is what the F30 should have been, at least as far as the balance between poise, ride, dynamics, and feel goes. It's just an incredibly well-sorted little sports coupe. As BMW's introduction of the M Performance line to the U.S., it's a great start.
That's not to say a few areas couldn't be sharpened up (ahem, steering) or tightened up (there's still a fair bit of body roll), but the knife's edge cuts both ways when tuning a car, and BMW has chosen a remarkably equitable splitting point.
And that's before you notice just how much better the new M235i looks. Gone are the rather awkward curves around the rear of the roof line, the drawn-in sides, the sucked-in cheeks. The M235i wears its look honestly, and it comes off just about perfect in person.
Powertrain & Chassis
Under the hood you'll find the familiar N55 in-line six-cylinder turbocharged engine. In M235i guise it's good for a solid 320 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque. That's plenty for a street car, and it feels like it's every bit as stout as its rating from behind the wheel--even when matched to the eight-speed automatic transmission, as all of the test vehicles were for the car's global launch in and around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
During our time with the car we got a handful of laps around the tight and short infield road course, as well as a quartet of circuits of the steeply banked oval and a few dozen miles on the road. That's hardly enough time to judge the longer-term merits of the car, but it did give us a very good feel for its innate qualities.
It's really quite good.
Flip into Sport+ mode and you're rewarded with snappy shifts that aren't quite dual-clutch quick or affirmative, but are very close; a lively throttle pedal; slightly stiffer steering feel; and a firmer ride from the M Adaptive suspension. That M Adaptive suspension is standard equipment in the U.S., as is the 13.4-inch front/11.4-inch rear M Sport Braking System, variable sport steering, and Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires.
The M Performance equipment works in harmony to produce incredible fun. It's certainly not the fastest way around a track--there's no real limited slip differential in base form; you'll have to have your dealer install one as an option--but that won't stop it from causing you to pull a pleased face or two. BMW says the M235i will scoot to 60 mph in just 4.8 seconds with the automatic gearbox and its launch control function, and we don't doubt it--it may be a tick or two quicker in real-world use. Top speed is limited to 155 mph.
Unlike a lot of modern BMWs, the M235i doesn't come with standard run-flat tires. That smooths out the ride considerably on the street, where even in Sport+ mode, the M235i is about as unobjectionable as a sporty coupe can be. For those accustomed to high-performance cars, it's downright plush. On track, however, the tires introduce a few small issues--or at least we think that's the case from our limited testing.
Softer sidewalls produce good ride characteristics, and good grip, too, as you'd expect from a Michelin Pilot Super Sport tire. But that sidewall softness also introduces a bit of a vague sense to the car's direction changes, most noticeably through the electric power steering. Whether all of the steering's issues come down to the tires or the EPS tuning itself, the M235i exhibits only middling levels of feel as to what the contact patch is doing against the asphalt.
There's still enough information to know when the front is about to break away, and in its stock staggered-tire format, that's precisely the end that's most likely to come loose first unless you intentionally ham it into oversteer. Once braked down and setup for a fast turn, the M235i settles with a very neutral feel, seemingly rotating about an axis roughly between the driver's seat and the steering wheel--much better than the follow-the-nose dynamics in some sport coupes.
Then there's the issue of curb weight: in U.S. spec, the M235i tips the scales at 3,535 pounds (or 3,505 with the manual gearbox). That's pretty hefty no matter the angle you take on it, and while the car's dynamics make it feel lighter, the laws of physics will still come into play; tires, brakes, and power all have to shift that weight around.
Bottom line here: it's not the best sport coupe BMW could have built for the track (that might be the unreasonably affordable 60,000 euro M235i Racing), but it's big fun on the closed circuit, and just as good on the open road, if not better.