Over the weekend I attended a BMW of North America Ultimate Driving Experience. This is a one day autocross type of event where you can safely get behind the wheel of some of the newest BMWs and push them to their (relative) limits. The car I was most interested in driving was the new BMW M235i Gran Coupe. Not because it’s BMW’s purest driving machine, but because of all the buzz this car has been getting from journalists whose opinions I respect. And by “buzz,” I mean hate. Never one to take others’ opinions with too much weight, I had to see for myself.
The course BMW set up for us was only about 30 seconds per lap, and more closely resembled a miniature road course than any autocross course most people would be used to. It featured a front straight where you were able to use all of the power, a very tight section in the back, and some wider sweeping corners in between. All sections were different enough to showcase the pros and cons of the M235i Gran Coupe’s performance.
This BMW is really just a MINI in drag, so the engine in the M235i Gran Coupe is very closely related to the 2 liter, 4-cylinder turbo you get in the John Cooper Works hot-hatches. It makes 301 horsepower and a grunty 332 lb-ft of torque. The problem is, you have no idea the kind of power figures this car makes until about five seconds after you pin the throttle. Getting in the M235i Gran Coupe and flooring it from a stop is an experience more laggy than your Great Aunt’s dial-up internet. When making a 90-degree turn from a stop you can floor the throttle, fully make your turn, and have the steering wheel completely unwound by the time the car responds with any sense of urgency. You can almost feel the engine computers screaming at the big turbo to “wake up!” – and then it has to huff and puff until the middle of the rev range where it feels awake.
Once you’re in that middle range of the tachometer, though, it’s a pleasant place to be! The throttle responds with minimal lag, and the eight-speed automatic transmission fires off shifts that make your head bounce off the headrests. Some may not like the fact that shifts aren’t seamless. But as more things in cars become numb and soul-less, feeling your head snap back from a lightning quick shift is whiplash I’ll gladly endure.
This is probably where you’re expecting me to say unpleasant things about the M235i Gran Coupe, but I won’t. On an autocross course, this car will run rings around BMW’s own M340i. Why? Because it’s the size the 3-series used to be! The M235i Gran Coupe is just 2 inches longer than the adored E46-generation 3-series, and physics lean in its favor as a result.
Turn-in is very light and sharp, which pairs well with some left foot braking on the autocross course. Steering is still very numb though, with little actual feedback coming through the wheel to your hands. With the weight on the nose of the car, the rear of the M235i Gran Coupe feels playful. Powering out of the corner requires patience regardless of the car’s front-biased all-wheel drive. It helps, but it’s not the same as the rear-biased xDrive system that can be found in other BMWs. A mixture of stiff suspension and front-wheel drive architecture means everything here ends in understeer. Getting the car to dance up to that limit however, is more rewarding than its Golf R competitor which also suffers from the same case of terminal understeer.
The BMW M235i Gran Coupe might not be the best near the limit, but around town it’s a different story. The laggy acceleration is less noticeable at partial throttle. With the windows down you hear a faint whistle from the turbo – more noticeable here than other BMWs, which makes you feel like you’re in a hot hatch if you close your eyes. (Please do not close your eyes while driving)
Further adding to that hot-hatch feel is a gorgeous yet aggressively-styled interior. My particular car was fitted with the Magma red leather. The seats are nicely bolstered and are extremely comfortable for my average frame. The red leather extends out to the door panels where it’s met with illuminated aluminum trim and speaker grilles. All of these are welcome and expected touches when this baby BMW’s starting price is $45,500.
Cabin noise isn’t as muffled as some of the other cars in its class like the Volkswagen Golf R for instance. Frameless windows may look cool when you open the door, but they still let more sound creep in on the highway. In comparison to the Golf R, the ride on the M235i Gran Coupe is stiff, but not harsh. If the Golf is the sophisticated choice in the segment, the BMW is for those who care more about being engaged drivers and don’t mind feeling the pavement’s imperfections.
So why do I say this is a good car, but a bad BMW? Because BMW offered a car in Europe that is rear-wheel drive, an actual hatchback, and has a longitudinally-mounted inline-six under the hood, called the M140i. But they didn’t bring it to the States! It was more closely related to the BMW M240i coupe and convertible we still have available to us here, which is a superb car to drive.
Over the years BMW has positioned themselves as the automaker that cares about the driving experience. But those who really care about the driving experience won’t buy this car… and they probably shouldn’t. They would be better off spending half the money on an E46 M3 and the other half on a brand new economy car. Trying to merge the functionality of those two cars together results the full-of-compromise M235i Gran Coupe, which is indeed a “Driving Machine” but not necessarily the “Ultimate” in that old-BMW sense.