Our Melbourne Red Metallic test car carries a 320-horsepower twin-turbo in-line six-cylinder engine whose sweet power delivery is complemented by the red rocket’s blare. The sound and fury reconcile at redline, as the M235i vaults to 60mph in just 4.8 seconds, the same time as the 1 Series M coupe.
The M235i’s arrival was a red-letter day to fans of the 1 M, the hot version of the previous 1 Series coupe. BMW is rumoured to be readying an M2 for 2015, but for now, the M235i boasts a near-identical power-to-weight ratio as the 1 M, and virtually reproduces that car’s performance. The Bimmer faithful will note that the M235i is 15hp short of the 1 M and carries a dog-kibble bag’s worth of extra mass, but its ZF eight-speed automatic transmission’s quick gear changes (the 1 M was only available with a six-speed manual transmission) is the great equaliser here.
Of course, hardcore driving enthusiasts will want the do-it-yourself standard six-speed manual transmission, but the eight-speed auto provides all the paddle-shifted tactile control they could want, with added low-speed smoothness and refinement. Recall that both the Corvette Stingray and Jaguar F-type have opted for automatics rather than dual-clutch setups.
Still, an auto 'box feels somewhat out of step with the M235i’s idealised role as the stripped-down, minimalistic keeper of BMW’s gearhead flame. It isn’t the biggest betrayer of that image, however. The car is also saddled with BMW’s iDrive infotainment interface – a notoriously fickle and unintuitive piece of technology – even though the tested model lacked a navigation system, which seemed to make the entire iDrive system feel all the more needlessly complex.
As ever, there is also the matter of BMW’s insistence on a keyless ignition button that requires two presses to turn the car off. And do make certain to depress the button for the second time with your foot off the brake – that is, unless you want the engine to restart. Other stubborn product strategies are well represented, too, such as a turn-signal stalk and automatic shifter that return to centre when used, rather than staying in their logical indicated position.
These unfortunate latter-day brand sins distract from a fundamentally spectacular machine. The 235i is a wedge-shaped ruby slipper of a car, its flanks dripping over the underlying running gear. What BMW is losing in terms of ergonomic proficiency it is making up in styling. It is not easy to meet pedestrian protection standards without employing the blunt, ice-breaker prows seen on other recent Bimmers, a noteworthy accomplishment.
Some of the newfound fluidity is owed to a 4.3in increase in length, a change that makes the car’s virtually identical weight to the 1 Series M all the more impressive. Another contributor is the M235i’s lowered stance; ride height drops by nearly an inch compared to the base 228i.
The suspension has active shock absorbers whose settings are controlled by the Driving Experience Control switch on the console. This test car spent a lot of time in Sport, which imparted pleasant steering heft and a stiffened but supple ride, though the throttle was rendered overly sensitive.
The Comfort setting is, by definition, the most livable, delivering linear throttle response and a softened ride, while Eco Pro helps the car sip gas through tricks like shifting the electronic transmission into neutral when coasting. Such measures are intended to boost fuel economy, but they can leave the car feeling like it lags the driver’s input by half a beat.
A pleasantly invisible feature is the M235i’s variable electric power steering. Early iterations of variable steering were intrusive and unpredictable, but the M235i just goes where the driver intended, and it goes quickly and accurately. Variable steering’s redemption is further complemented by thoughtfully tuned electric power steering, which provides ample steering feel.
It is possible that a forthcoming M2 will be even better, but as most sinners will learn, today’s M235i delivers more than enough deviant thrills.