A Very Surprising Test Drive…

In life there very rarely come times that you know are truly special.  Almost inevitably these are the times when you were expecting nothing, yet ended up overwhelmed by an experience.  I am genuinely shocked, but absolutely thrilled, to report that today I had one of these moments.  Now obviously the subject mentions a test drive and this is filed under “car”, so it’s not a surprise this is an automotive experience we’re talking about, but I think the subject in question will be a surprise to many.

In my last entry I detailed my experiences thus far with the RS5.  Reading between the lines of that entry it might have become apparent that, as amazing a car as the RS5 is, it isn’t a car I can necessarily be passionate about.  At this level of investment, for a real car enthusiast, I think true passion is a mandatory component of a lasting relationship.  Like a marriage, when the passion fades, there is trouble.  If the passion was never there to begin with, then look out!

My criteria remain challenging though.  Seating for four(ish).  Near super car performance or beyond.  Smart looks and high quality fit and finish.  The exclusivity that comes with something truly special.  And, perhaps most importantly, all year, all-weather, usability (meaning AWD and all-season rubber).  Now mind these are my criteria.  I get that many others find dramatically different scenarios perfectly workable.  But not me.  Investing upwards of $90,000 hard earned dollars requires these boxes to be checked for me.  It goes without saying that these are tough criteria, so needless to say any time a new entry in this rarefied category comes about, it catches my attention.

A year or so ago I had tested the Mercedes Benz CLA45AMG.  I never chronicled it because I didn’t find that the drive really pushed any of my buttons.  Something was missing there, but I couldn’t quite figure out what.  Irregardless I crossed it off the list, but kept an eye on it since to me all of the cars at this level are worthy of analysis.  Recently I began noticing some very interesting head-to-head showdowns.  It seemed many were putting the AMG up against a very bizarre vehicle I had no idea existed.  Rolling out of Bavaria, it seems BMW had slapped xdrive onto an M235i.   I know.  Cue the groans and hisses.  As it is I know many of the BMW faithful already deride the brand for “selling out” the M badge, watering it down, attempting to copy Audis success with pseudo performance editions (S line) and so on.  In addition, the 1/2 series have also drawn fire.  The are “chick cars” to some.  “Budget BMWs” to others.  Still, there has always been clear potential in this baby BMW line for many.  First of all, the 3 series keeps growing.  Amazingly enough, the classic E46 3 series really shares proportions with a 1/2, not a modern 3.  The latest 3 series cars (the F series) are actually now on par size wise with the classic E39 5 series. This is the trend, but for those of us who love “small and light”, and always enjoyed the 3 series because it was tossable and felt like an extension of the driver, the trend has been a bit of a letdown.  So right from the start I had some instant interest in the original 1 series if for no other reason than that it was small.  And then BMW did an amazing thing and release the 1M.  This silenced many critics and suddenly BMW Jr was all grown up and legitimate.  It didn’t last, though, and the 1M vanished.  Now we have a big reconfiguration of the line.  Coupes become 2s and 4s, the sedans remain 1s and 3s, but the 1s are gone.  The 1M hasn’t returned as an M2, but we do have this “M” 235.  But is this just marketing?  Is the “M” an appearance kit designed to satisfy brand snobs?  Just what is BMW doing?  And how can anything with an “M” have xdrive and not be a truck?  And why are there “M” series trucks?!  Well I have no plans on tackling that last question, but as for those other ones, I decided it was time to find out first hand!

Marching on down to my local BMW dealer, who just so happened to have a nicely loaded M235 xdrive waiting for me, I prepared in my mind the sarcasm laden entry I’d be producing.  As I smugly parked the RS5 and spied the little white M across the lot, I chuckled to myself with evil glee.  This was going to be great.  The fanboys were going to be livid.  As the sales guy greeted me I put up my best “well I suppose I’ll do you the favor of bothering to look at one of these cars!” air that I find works best as an opening posture, and suggested that I might be willing to test that ridiculous little white car tucked away in aisle 9.  Keys and plate in hand, we headed over.

The initial walk around was my first surprise.  This thing looked better than the 1 series for some reason.  The proportions looked right and the flame sculpting wasn’t completely obnoxious.  I had to admit I liked it.  And it was refreshing to see a small BMW that didn’t remind me of a midsize BMW.  OK so far this wasn’t working out well.  I needed some snark material dammit!  Well in this respect, hopping inside was reassuring.  The interior was, as is the case with all current BMWs in my opinion, a bit hectic.  There is something going on between the legacy look of the center console, the modern look of the thin LCD, and the dramatic trans tunnel that doesn’t quite mesh.  In addition, the 2 series has even crappier materials than the E92 3 series, including some bizarre trim that can’t really be described.  Making it worse is that the other options are brushed aluminum (created by the devil… dents if you breathe on it and looks like crap once dented) or wood (something which has no business in any car bearing an “M”, even if that “M” is fake).  To be fair, the negative first impression was probably also compounded by the fact that I had also just peaked inside a very nicely appointed M4.  The M4 is night and day, with incredible looking seats and the best execution possible of the current BMW interior design language. In addition the M4 uses materials noticeably superior to the outgoing M3.  The saving grace, though, is that this little BMW is a lot cheaper than a 4 series and in the case of the M235 xdrive, the big money you are paying (sticker was $53,200) is clearly going directly to actual performance options)  So I have to say that while the cabin was dangerously close to an economy car, the sticker price makes it forgivable.

What the hell is that weird material? Apparently its “aluminum hexagon interior trim”. This is code for “painted plastic”. It looks sharp in pictures and really cheap close up. Not a win here!

OK, enough ogling.  Time to sit down and drive the thing!  Immediately I was reminded why BMW continues to win accolades (and no, it isn’t because they pay off magazines! stop that!)  The driving position, seat support, and steering wheel feel were all spot on perfect.  It’s ridiculous to say the driver seat fits like a glove, but it fits like a glove.  The controls are all intuitive too and things, despite looking a bit different, haven’t changed that much since “back in the day”.  OK, no snark to be found here.  Let’s fire this thing up.

As with any modern car, starting it means pressing the brake and pushing “start” hoping there is a key fob around somewhere so it will work.  There was and it did and the engine fired up and oh… my… god… there were no noises.  This is a forced induction I6 with an actual torque converter automatic.  After driving a GTR followed by an E92 M3 followed by an RS5, there was surprisingly little occasion.  No complex dual clutch transmission chattering its clutch plates.  No high strung V8 growling to life.  No sport exhaus… Actually.  Scratch that.  There is a nice sport exhaust that did unleash some very nice burble that pleasantly surprised me!  So we were missing some good noises, but also some bad noises, and we retained one of the best noises.  That’s not so bad really!  So far this was definitely “Mish”.  OK, let’s roll…

Throwing it in drive means pushing a button and pulling ack on the weird center stalk thing.  The dashboard has the classic BMW analog gauges, but with some partially digital lower area that displays lots of things I pointedly decided to ignore.  One of them had a picture of a battery and mentioned something about ECO.  Last I checked this thing isn’t a hybrid, so that was something to worry about later.  The stalk has a selector button, so I pushed it.  The expected modes show up in the central digital area on the dash.  Sport+ (I later learned this disabled DSC), Sport (save that one), Comfort (let’s go with this) and “ECO mode” (ah ha!).  I tend to leave these cars in comfort most of the time, so this seemed the best way to get an initial real world impression.  One thing I’ve found changing cars as frequently as I do (I rent cars every month for work as well) is that muscle memory is fascinating.  It’s always important to keep in mind when driving an unfamiliar car that throttle and brake pressures required can differ dramatically.  Applying RS5 level force to the M235 throttle didn’t seem to do much initially.  I mean we were moving, but not “oooooh yeah” moving.  Approaching the end of the dealer lot and heading onto the main road, I adjusted.  Oh MAN were things different!  Giving proper throttle the M235 is surprisingly quick even in comfort mode.  The E46 M3 comparisons, which I had considered the ramblings of a deranged mind, started to make some sense.  My snark laden plans were fading into memory.  This thing might just be interesting!

The friendly sales guy directed me onto the highway and we were en route to some twisties (a very accommodating fellow!) As with most performance cars today, every aspect of the car is dynamically adjustable and tied to the vehicles central control system.  In comfort, the suspension felt a bit soft to me. Almost distractingly so.  This is coming from the stiffly sprung traditional suspension of the RS5 though, so keep that in mind.  In any event I found I got used to it after a mile or so as the car settled down into highway speeds.  As expected of a brand new BMW, it was a very comfortable driving experience.  The cabin was quiet, but the exhaust sounded great.  No stereo fed synthetic sound either, just legitimate exhaust noise as heard from inside.

The sales guy and I had a nice discussion about the past 20 years of BMW design and evolution and, before I knew it, the twisties loomed!  With the time to get serious at hand, I switched the baby beast into Sport mode and waited for the traffic to inch me towards my turn off.  Five… Four… Three… Two…  BOOM!  Ho…LEEE… SMOKES!  At this point I was no longer thinking about snark and was instead evaluating what sauce would go best with crow.  The acceleration and feedback of the M235 in sport mode is exhilarating.  And what’s more is that it sounds great roaring through the curves also!  And for some reason the automatic transmission is blipping the throttle on every shift!  Why? Who knows! But I like it.  At this stage the E46 was firmly in my mind.  Gone was the vaguely soft feeling of the comfort mode EDC setting.  In sport the dampers were firm, with no body roll to be felt, but yet not harsh.  The weighting of the steering, already better than the EPS system on the 4 series by my feel, was now proper M car direct.  I have to say that the back roads experience of the M235 was on par with the NSX and 996 for me.  Blasphemy!  Blasphemy perhaps, but the M235 really does have that E46 magic.  The feeling of being connected to the road, and of the car being an extension of your inputs, is real here.  It is a small car, but it feels even smaller and that is phenomenal in a sports coupe.  And perhaps it is because everything has become so damn heavy, but it even feels a lot lighter than it actually is.  XDrive may be no Quattro, but it also didn’t get in the way.  Keep in mind this is real world driving.  If you’re finding the limits of adhesion and sliding the ass out on a RWD BMW, you should probably be arrested.  Conversely if you trigger understeer on an AWD car, you probably should as well.  So I can’t really comment on the AWD xdrive being less “dynamic” at the limits than the RWD non xdrive version.  I’m sure it is and I’m sure that outside of forum posts and magazine racing, 90% of drivers will never be aware of that.  In my spirited back roads drive the car just felt dead neutral and that is a great thing in my book.  A smile found its way onto my face sailing through those turns that didn’t leave until I was back in the RS5.  It took quite a high speed run in the Audi to erase that missing sense of fun factor that the little BMW provided through sheer agility.  Like the FR-S/BRZ this is a car that is much more than it’s spec sheet.

So is it a “proper M car”?  In my opinion the question is irrelevant.  Whatever this thing is, it’s great.  I’m quite frankly shocked BMW even made this car and having driven it, I can’t quite see where an M2 would fit.  This thing is an absolute bargain and I suspect it may be come something of a classic.  Not to the degree of the limited 1M of course, but it definitely joins the pantheon of “ultimate sleepers”!

Little beasty...
Little beasty…

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