It’s no secret that we have long preferred to shift for ourselves, rather than assign that function to an automatic transmission. (Save the Manuals!) But we have to be realistic about the current climate for the stick shift. And this car illustrates why.
The 2-series represents BMW’s latest new-math foray into product nomenclatures, one that’s a little simpler than many that have come out of Munich in the past. The even-number prefix tells you it’s either a coupe or a convertible, i.e., two doors, most of the time. These new Bavarian deuces replace the 1-series and are a little bigger (2.5 inches longer), which translates into back seats almost—almost—comfortably habitable by adults. That’s true of the base 228i with its 2.0-liter turbo four.
More significant here is the M prefix and the 35i, designating the big punch in the M Performance edition that comes from the bigger turbo engine: 3.0 liters, six cylinders in line, whomping up 320 horsepower and 330 lb-ft of torque available on a curve that resembles the topography of Nebraska: broad, flat, and seemingly endless.
BMW gets all kinds of credit for continuing to make manual transmissions available in so many of its cars, when many manufacturers have dropped them completely. The M235i’s standard gearbox is an eight-speed automatic with manual shifting, but a six-speed manual is a no-cost alternative. And it’s a sweetheart—precise, crisp engagements, no hunting—the kind of gearbox that adds to the partnership between driver and machine (although the center console can fight with the driver’s elbow).
It’s one slick stick. But it also illustrates the reasons behind the rise of the automatic transmission in sporty cars. In our First Drive report, we noted that the six-speed “can be swapped in at no cost, save for the time it dings the 0-to-60-mph sprint.”
Heretical, but prophetic. Set in Sport+ (the most aggressive of four presets) with launch control engaged, the M235i automatic delivered bang-bang shifts and acceleration times that smoke this manual version: 0 to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds, 0 to 100 in 10.8, the quarter-mile in 12.9 at 109 mph. Test-track results for our M235i manual: 4.9, 11.7, and 13.4 at 106.
Many variables affect test-track performance—not least that the automatic comes with launch control—but nevertheless, the data doesn’t lie. If your aim is to get from A to B a little quicker, just as with the manual BMW M4, the automatic holds the winning hand. This made the automatic M235i the obvious choice for this year's Lightning Lap.
Transmission choice notwithstanding, the M235i delivers an exceptionally high level of driver gratification. Almost race-car-quick steering (2.1 turns lock-to-lock) is surgically precise and seems clairvoyant in rapid transitions. Similarly, the suspension tuning, with four presets ranging up to Sport+, raises the car’s responses to the level of prescient, great for autocrossing. Grip (0.92 g) is tenacious, albeit with a hint of reassuring understeer (that you can dial out by shutting down the stability control). And braking is sports-car strong, with never, ever, a hint of fade.
At the press debut of the 2-series, BMW took great pains to draw parallels between its new coupe and the immortal 2002, the car that put the Bayerische Motoren Werke on the map in the U.S. market almost five decades ago.
That’s a stretch, even if it makes a good TV commercial. Aside from the number two and the roundel, the 2002 and the 2-series have about as much in common as either one of them has with a 1950 bullet-nose Studebaker.
BMW has obviously made its performance bones many times since the 2002, and a better heritage parallel is the E36 M3 (1995–1999 in the U.S.), another fancy dancer, though not nearly as potent as the M235i.
But the new 2-series—particularly the M235i—don’t need no stinkin’ heritage boost. It stands on its own merits as a bad-boy street fighter and quintessential BMW. There are faster BMW coupes, but how much more Bimmer do you really need? It’s 21 grand to step up from this unadorned M235i to an M4. We expect that the M2 coming in 2016 will take the power rating up to roughly 375 but will also pull the price into the mid-$50K range.
A final word: Carmakers all put a lot of emphasis on connectivity these days, touting the so-called connected car, providing access to Twitter or Facebook or other compelling diversions. The M235i delivers the kind of connectivity that we still prioritize over everything else—the connection between car and driver, which is why we’d still order an M235i with a clutch pedal.