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.

2014 BMW M235i first drive, Las Vegas Motor Speedway

2014 BMW M235i first drive, Las Vegas Motor Speedway

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.

2014 BMW M235i first drive, Las Vegas Motor Speedway

2014 BMW M235i first drive, Las Vegas Motor Speedway

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.

2014 BMW M235i first drive, Las Vegas Motor Speedway

2014 BMW M235i first drive, Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Interior & Features

Those who owned or test-drove the previous BMW 1-Series will remember the cave-like feeling and rather underwhelming finishes on most of the materials in the cabin. That's somewhat remedied in the new 2-Series, with inlaid trim panels in wood-like tones, as well as a standard moonroof for all U.S. models that brightens up the black-on-black theme.

The rear seat is usable, even for taller folks, though six-footers will want to ride across town rather than across the country. Up front, there's plenty of head, leg, shoulder, and hip room--even for a pair of occupants well over six feet (and one well over 200 pounds). The trunk is about what you'd expect: enough space for some, but not too much, gear. It's better than a convertible, at least. In other words: Score some more points for the M235i's practicality factor--a definite bonus for those having to sell a fun-car purchase to a significant other.

Stuck atop the dash is BMW's wide aspect ratio iDrive screen, which measures 6.5 inches in standard U.S. form, or 8.8 inches with the optional navigation system thrown in. All of the test units we've seen were fitted with the 8.8-inch system, which looks like a large tablet is about half-buried in the dash. We like the look; others will find it annoying that the screen doesn't recess into the dash when not in use. Either way, the latest version of iDrive is the best yet, and is surprisingly easy to use--for most ordinary functions, at least. If you want to be a power user, get used to digging through menu trees, just like nearly other complex infotainment system on the market.

For those who'd like to take their M235i to the next level, there are a number of driver assistance technologies available, including: High Beam Assistant, Adaptive Headlights, Parking Assistant, rear view camera, Driving Assistant, cruise control with braking function, real-time traffic information, and, of course, BMW's extended smartphone integration and BMW Apps suite.

At the pump, BMW thinks you'll see about 22 mpg city, 32 mpg highway, and 25 mpg combined when fitted with the eight-speed auto; the six-speed manual (a "no-cost option" for the U.S.) will run closer to 19 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, and 22 mpg combined.

The Competition

So, BMW has clearly built a very well-thought-out, well-executed little sports coupe here. But how will it take on the market?

At a starting price of $44,025--but pretty well-stocked with features and M Performance equipment to start--it's about $4,000 less expensive than the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG, which may be its closest natural competition, at least until the Audi S3 shows up on our shores. The Bimmer is rear-drive only, of course, and it's down a bit on power to the 355-horse front/all-wheel-drive CLA45, but dynamically, it's purer, even if no sharper (nor, likely, any quicker around a track) than the Benz. You can get the tail out on the M235i; the front-biased CLA45 AMG settles for neutral at best.

We've spent considerably more time in the Best Car To Buy-winning CLA45 AMG, however, and it has yet to wipe the permagrin from our faces. Can the 2014 BMW M235i achieve the same long-term love? We'll have to drive it more to be sure, but the early feedback is promising.

BMW has built a real contender for the compact sport/luxury segment with the M235i, and a real value, too. For our money, this is the BMW to buy--at least until we get our hands on the M4.


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