2014 BMW M235i

We know a number of BMW owners who reside in the Munich brand's core demographic – upper-five- and six-figure professionals who like to keep their automotive brand credentials as highly respected among their peers as their alma maters or the letters after their names. Before heading to Las Vegas to drive the new M235i, we asked four of those owners, "What did you think of the E30 3 Series?" Although phrased differently, every one of them had the same answer: "What's that?"

You can counter that we just happened to query a tiny and ignorant sample size, and it's possible that you're right. Nevertheless, in every case,we were speaking to BMW's core demographic, the increasing legion of buyers who have fostered another year of record growth and are responsible for BMW retaining its global luxury title for nine straight years. Question that, and we'll refer you to BMW's marketing department, its several hundred PowerPoint slides and several thousand pages of research that prove the point.

That second-generation E30 3 Series built a name, a brand and an entire segment by defining BMW-ness as superlative driving dynamics meets luxury – shortened to the phrase, "The Ultimate Driving Machine." Thirty years later, just being a part of BMW-ness and luxury is enough for the majority of buyers. The superlative handling, that's optional, and 150 hairy guys meet every Tuesday to keep the old religion going, light torches, sing dirges to the siren long gone and bang on their keyboards about the apostasies of modern buyers.

The 2 Series is like an offering to them, akin to the philosophy of the 1 Series M in that it's all about restoring to the lineup a model that has light, fun, rear-wheel-drive handling as its core principle. This is the car that a hostage negotiator drives into that Tuesday-night meeting to tell those hairy dudes, "Here you go, we gave you what you wanted. So put the torches out, we have electricity now. And step away from the forums, please."

Of course it isn't everything they wanted. But it's pretty close, and it's rather good.

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The size of the 2 Series hasn't changed dramatically from that of the 1 Series it replaces.

Actually, BMW went all the way back to the 1968 2002ti to source the inspiration for the M235i during the pre-drive presentation. It's better to take that as reminiscing about the return of the "2" moniker, not a return to the era-ago lightness of pre-power everything, pre-airbag, pre-five-star crash test.

The size of the 2 Series hasn't changed dramatically from that of the 1 Series it replaces, but in combination with the large number of detailing changes, there's a lot of daylight between the visual perception of the 1 and the 2. Compared to the 1 Series Coupe, the 2 is 3.8 inches longer, 1.3 inches wider, with a wheelbase that is 1.2 inches longer boasting tracks widened by 1.6 inches in front and back.

The 2 Series is much more impressive looking, however, having been handed over to a group of designers with chisels who took a day off from working their usual marble. The headlight edges have been sharpened at both ends, relinquishing the blunt inner and drooping outer edges of the 1 Series lamps. The four-eyed face is centered around a wider kidney grille, pushed forward and highlighted by the sculpted hood. The grille also sits above a redesigned bumper with sharper edging and chiseled intakes.

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There's plenty of room in the forward cabin for all but NBA centers.

That bumper is 'roided up on the M235i, the fog lights in the outboard intakes on the standard car disappearing to make way for more air and Air Curtains that reduce turbulence over the front wheels. Multi-dimensional shoulder detailing down the sides add texture to the body then extend over the trailing lip of the decklid to enhance the impression of width in the back. At the bottom, more crisp lines at the edges of the rear bumpers mimic the intake edges at the front.

The extra girth and longer wheelbase grace the 2 Series with a little more headroom inside for front passengers and a little more legroom for back passengers. There's plenty of room in the forward cabin for all but NBA centers. The back seats are everything you can reasonably expect them to be: perfect for small humans, decent for the slight of frame, doable when need be for a standard American. When things get to the point, an easy-entry feature gets the front seats to slide all the way forward with the touch of a button.

Trunk capacity also gets a bump, going from 13 cubic feet to 13.8 cubic feet. Those might not sound like big numbers, but it's a nice trunk for a little car. The standard rear seatbacks fold 60:40, but you can order them in a 40:20:40 folding configuration. Put them down and the two people in front can carry enough gear for three or four people.

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BMW says you'll dash from a standstill to 60 miles per hour in five seconds.

What will get those passengers going is a 3.0-liter, inline six-cylinder engine with TwinPower turbocharging good for 320 horsepower that shows up from 5,800 to 6,000 rpm, and 330 pound-feet of torque that enters from just 1,300 rpm. Get the short-throw, dry-sump six-speed manual transmission – at no extra charge – and BMW says you'll dash from a standstill to 60 miles per hour in five seconds. Stick with the standard eight-speed sport transmission with paddle shifters and use Launch Control and you'll do the same run in 4.8 seconds.

Putting power to the ground are MacPherson struts in front, refined in every way compared to the 1 Series, paired with a new five-link suspension in back. The Adaptive M suspension with electronically controlled shock absorbers is standard.

Our first driving route was a loop of the oval at the Las Vegas International Speedway. This being an international press launch, it was really a chance for the foreigners to drive on a uniquely American circuit. Even though we were instructed by our lead driver that we could get around the circuit at 100 mph without braking, we found we could actually get through the turns at a little above 110 mph without resorting to the brakes. Since we weren't asked to put on helmets, we figure BMW knew we could go a lot faster, but even at that speed, when you got to the straight and hit the gas you could be going well faster than 110 by the time the next turn came around. The engine doesn't give up at high speed or anywhere in the rev range. True, an oval isn't the best place to test any stock road car, but you can learn quite a bit about behavior under duress in oddball conditions, especially if – heaven forbid – you do have to lift off while careening through that 20-degree banking. The M235i did well.

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The gearbox was the only disappointing part of our time on the track.

Next came three laps around an infield track that was tighter than we would have liked – more like a large autocross circuit, but with a number of turns and combinations that tested the enthusiast quotient. In Sport+ mode, the weighting of the electric power steering feels pretty even throughout, and it is rewardingly accurate. Turn off the traction control and you can get the back end to break away, and the rear tires don't stop communicating with you when they break traction – it's almost just as easy to place the back end as it is to place the front. You can feel the body's mass rock when running dogleg gauntlets at speed, but it happens quickly; the coupe simply yaws hard from right to left and then it's done, without interruption to your driving. The M Sport brakes – four-piston in front, two in back – are excellent, equally linear and powerful. The shebang isn't exactly light at 3,535 pounds with the automatic, but with a 50/50 weight distribution, good power delivery and excellent chassis tuning, it is flickable, predictable and corner-after-corner fun.

You have to shift for yourself to get to that fun, the gearbox, when left in automatic, being the only disappointing part of our time on the track. Even in Sport+ it never dropped down low enough to give us the punch we wanted out of corners, causing us to verify after several turns that we actually were in Sport+ mode. When the situation didn't change, we took hold of the paddles and all was as it should be, the coupe snorting out of corners properly and blazing on to its 7,000-rpm redline. It is strange that the paddle-shift-equipped sport transmission, which in other markets is an option above the six-speed automatic and the regular eight-speed transmission, isn't more sporty when left to handle gearchanges.

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You're technically not walking out of the dealership for less than $44,025.

Our street-drive time was limited to a few miles on the highway in the passenger seat, and a few miles behind the wheel on the Las Vegas Strip during Friday rush-hour traffic. While we can't write exhaustive commentary on the 2'ers roadway manners, as far as we could tell you're not giving up any BMW-ness when you roll off the track. The steering wheel is meaty, the ride is smooth and, if you checked the appropriate boxes, then all of the right cockpit buttons and displays are where you expect them to be and work just as you'd expect them to. Two of the driving modes did get our attention in good ways. There is a noticeable difference in the whole feel of the car between Comfort and Sport, even from the passenger seat – the coupe goes at-the-ready, and the sensation is transmitted right up through the Dakota leather. At the other end, the Eco setting and its Efficient Dynamics assistants get points for helping you earn your green thumb without swiping undue amounts of power. When pulling away from a light or accelerating into traffic, you still feel like you're driving a properly powered car.

So how would our platonic enthusiast feel about the M235i? Well, it's not as light as he would like, but make no mistake, you can have a lot of fun in it. The real question about it is the starting price – and let's clarify that: the real question for we 150 hairy guys in a room is the starting price. It's not a question for BMW, because these are going to sell, and it's not a question for the ultra-hardcore enthusiast because he would never buy a new car. With an MSRP of $43,100 and $925 for destination, you're technically not walking out of the dealership for less than $44,025. Choose one of those six metallic paints that add $550 (and one non-metallic, Alpine White, that can be had for free) and Dakota Leather for $1,450, and you're at $46,025. Want a limited-slip differential? That will be an option (the cars we drove weren't equipped with it). We were told pricing hadn't been set yet, but let's say it's $3,000. That gets us up to $49,025 for an enthusiast special with a six-speed transmission, no navigation, no keyless entry, no premium stereo, no heated seats. If you want the M Sport braking system with its larger, perforated discs or the lowered and stiffened M Sport suspension, you'll need to keep adding numbers.

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We thought it a shame we didn't get a chance to try the $33,025 228i.

We thought it a shame we didn't get a chance to try the $33,025 228i and its 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 240 hp and 255 lb-ft, simply to see how close it could get to the spirit and the experience of the M235i. You'd miss the gumption and the bolstered bits, but the 228i is 245 pounds lighter comparing manual to manual, and the great thing about fun-and-light is that it's not price dependent. Plus, there's a lot of room for upgrades with the $11,000 retail difference.

That $49K is a chunk of cash, but BMW knows this: taking luxury and brand into consideration, where else are you going to find a rear-wheel-drive, fun-to-drive, light-ish four-seater with ample trunk space that's comparably heavy on the luxury and also nice to be in when you're just headed to work or Waffle House? The all-wheel-drive Audi TTS that can't be had with a manual or back seats starts at $48,700. The lighter, less powerful yet totally enjoyable Audi S3 might be priced a few thou below the M235i, but it's also all-wheel drive and the chances of a manual transmission are super slim. You'll need $48,375 just to get a Mercedes CLA45 AMG off the lot, and it's nothing like this. After that you've got... Bueller?

Take luxury and brand out of the consideration and you've got more options – but do that and you could eliminate entire segments and brands from any consideration, ever. Or take "Must be showroom new" out of the running, then the M235i – again, along with entire segments and brands – makes hardly any sense. Compare all the boxes it does check, though, and if you're looking for something a lot like the M235i, then there's a good chance you're looking exactly for the M235i.