BMW M235i (2015) long-term test review

Published: 12 March 2015

► Eight months living with BMW's baby M3
► Conclusion: a brilliant small sports car... 
► But we'd consider waiting for full-blown M2

Month 8 running a BMW M235i: long-term test conclusion

If the dazzling i3 and i8 are anything to go by, BMW’s future is brighter than the big guy’s laser headlights. But cars like our brilliant M235i prove the present’s pretty sparkly too. Actually, make that the past, because a man with a truck has just arrived to reclaim the car and spoil our day. 

Rewind eight months and YB63 arrived fresh from a three-way scrap for coupe honours with Porsche’s Cayman and a Toyota GT86. Ref Ben Barry reckoned the Cayman edged it for handling, but the BMW’s massive performance and practicality advantages would make it the first choice for many.

It would for me. There are hardly any other compact rear-drive coupes on sale with genuine room for four and 911-grade performance. It’s no coincidence that most others that do exist are made by BMW too. One of those is the new M4, but having driven a stack of miles in both, I actually found myself preferring the M235i for its wieldy size and more honest (if still fake) sound.

If you take the list price for each, the M4 is £22,385 more expensive than the £34,250 M235i, but the price of our car ballooned to £42,020 with the addition of kit like adaptive dampers, keyless entry, seat heating, and the Visibility Pack, which contains one of the greatest pieces of tech currently fitted to any car, in my opinion: BMW’s adaptive lights.

Like adaptive systems from other manufacturers this kit uses a camera to detect cars ahead, and adjusts the light pattern to suit. But instead of merely dipping the lights, or shortening the reach of the beam, BMW’s system gives a full-beam view, while shielding traffic ahead from the direct glare of the light. Xenons are standard on the M235i, so the clever bit costs a mere £390, and is worth every single penny. The feeling is much like when we first tried xenons 15 years ago: see in the black and you’ll never go back.

Dual-clutch fans probably think that way about paddle-shift ’boxes, but our M235i’s light, tight, six-speed manual was a core part of the car’s old-school appeal. We never did get around to adding the available limited-slip diff, a dealer-fit option, and for most buyers there would be no need. Yes, it probably would have tamed the slightly grabby wet-road oversteer, but that’s only something you ever experienced when fully disengaging the stability control with a long press on the button, and probably not the sort of thing most owners would do regularly. In the dry, traction was so good you half expected the tarmac to bunch up behind you every time you deployed all 322 horses groundward.

I did a lot of deploying. Hard to resist it with an engine this sweet, this powerful and this good on juice. The trip computer rarely showed less than 30mpg, and our usually more accurate fuel book entries backed it up. By the time the car went back it was still months away from its first service, the tyres looked like they’d pass a cursory police inspection, and all it had cost us to run was a drop of oil midway through the loan.

Six months in, I’d even made peace with the slightly frumpy design, and secretly come to love the profile, which apes BMW’s ’70s and ’80s sports two-doors and helps make the interior space more useable. While adults in the back still have to duck very slightly to fit below the headlining, it’s nothing like as compromised as an Audi TT, and I managed to cram my mountain bike in the massive boot with the split/fold seats flattened.

In fact its closest rivals are probably super-hot hatches, although only one is rear-wheel drive. The mechanically identical M135i hatch is an uglier mutt, but one that’s 30kg lighter and a massive £3415 cheaper. I’m sure the economies of scale that come with the huge numbers of hatches being churned out helps justify some of that difference; the rest is just taking the mickey. But that’s not enough to prevent us wholeheartedly recommending the M235i, with one caveat: the full-blown M2 is imminent, and there’s every chance it could be absolutely brilliant. It’ll need to be.

By Chris Chilton

Month 7 running a BMW M235i: a meeting with big bro

Two turbo’d six-pot BMWs at the lights. Both wear M badges, though only one is the real deal. But is it the better deal? Is the new £56,635 M4 coupe really worth £22,385 more than our brilliant M235i?

Red light, green light, right foot punching for daylight. With a whiff of smoke we’re away, laying only three black lines on the tarmac because the M235i’s open diff makes for a one-wheel squeal. The DCT ’box-equipped M4 edges ahead from the start, but there’s not much in it to the top of second. By the time I hook third in the M235i though, the M4 is pulling cleanly away, its modest 42kg penalty overcome by an additional 101bhp. Ah, so that’s what a 0.9sec gap to 62mph looks like.

The M4 is prettier, but sounds ugly. It has a trick M diff, but the glut of mid range torque that lets you be the hooligan the 235 won’t allow makes the engine less interesting to thrash. I’m not going to pretend that I wouldn’t love to run an M4, but even if you factor in its standard widescreen nav and adaptive suspension there’s still most of £20k between them. And I could put a spotless E12 M535i in the garage alongside the M235i for that.

By Chris Chilton

Month 6 running a BMW M235i: the half-way report

While I spent some of the last couple of months holed up in editor Mac’s Range Rover and Walton’s Golf GTI, the M235i has been passed around the office like a teenage bimbo at a premiership footballer’s birthday party. Job one was taking art director Matt Tarrant and clobber on a trip to Cornwall. Newcomers are often stunned by how useful the M235i is. Many seem to expect it to be a glorified two-seater, like a TT or Peugeot RCZ, when in fact it has four proper seats and a massive boot all contained in a package barely 70mm longer than a Porsche Cayman.

Tarrant needed to add a litre of oil, but otherwise the M235i has been incredibly cheap to run. It’ll likely have gone back to BMW before the variable-servicing meter lights up, and the surfeit of grip over grunt means we haven’t fried the rear tyres. I must be slipping. Or not slipping enough. But I did splash out on some Autoglym leather-care goodies because, even though the upholstery will still be in good shape long after it leaves us, it’s a good feeling to know that you might be contributing to someone else’s pride in the car a decade down the line.

By Chris Chilton

Month 5 running a BMW M235i: Mark Walton compares it with his Mk7 VW Golf GTI

Ten or 20 years ago, there would have been no competition – a Golf versus an M car? I would have taken the hardcore, bare-chested, rear-wheel-drive Beemer every time, and laughed in the face of the front-drive shopping trolley, as my hellish burnout spat tyre marbles at its windscreen.

However, things aren’t so straightforward anymore: front-wheel drive is better than ever, and an M badge… well, it doesn’t quite mean what it used to.

First of all, I’m not sure I even like the look of Chris’s M235i. Like many models in the current BMW line-up, I feel it’s got all of the post-Bangle (that’s former BMW designer Chris Bangle – you remember him don’t you?) curves and surfaces, without the pared-back sharpness we always associate with the brand. It looks a bit ‘underwheeled’ around the haunches, like there’s too much metal above those rear arches. It’s better than the old 1-series Coupe, but still, alongside it, I reckon the Golf looks like a masterpiece of razor-edged purpose, especially with those optional 19-inch ‘Santiago’ wheels. Our GTI still gets admired wherever it goes.

The seats too, when you get in: you sink lower in the BMW, and the whole environment is more reclined, but the seats don’t have the firmness, nor the reassuring lateral support of the Golf’s tartan chairs. Everything about it – the seats, the shape of the steering wheel, the driving position – makes the BMW feel like it’s for cruising, while the GTI feels like you’ve got some serious driving to do.

Undeniably, on the move, the BMW has got the best engine – what an engine. It feels more expensive than the Golf’s turbo 2.0-litre, more like a thoroughbred than an upstart hot hatch. But even then, the way it puts that power down to the road – maybe it’s just my expectations, but with its open diff, our M235i is no sideways drifter (in fact, it’s actually quite hard to unstick in the dry). The steering isn’t the most communicative either.

So, in the end our Golf’s willing front end and sharp responses – thanks largely to our optional ‘Performance’ limited slip front diff – mean the Volkswagen actually feels the sportier and more focused of the two cars.

I can’t believe I’m going to say this in print, but I actually prefer my front-wheel-drive Golf GTI.

By Mark Walton 

Month 4 running a BMW M235i: the design story

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so the saying goes. And according to feedback from you (and most of the rest of the CAR team) on our M235i, it’s a quite a looker. Ugliness on the other hand, is in the eye of the one who be holding the keys. And that be me. You see, I think the M235i is a brilliant little car. I love almost everything about it – except the way it looks.

So what don’t I like about it? That the boring back end seems to have been cribbed from a Toyota Avensis, perhaps? Or that the front isn’t sleek and cool like a 3- or 4-series with their slim headlights bleeding into the grille’s kidneys, but dumpy and shapeless. And what’s going on with those bulging rear arches, woefully underfilled by the stock wheels? I presume the M2 we’ll see in 2015 will have the answer to that, and provide enough fire-stoking satisfaction that I’ll not need to worry about the aesthetic merits of Munich’s M-antelpiece.

But if you don’t want to wait for, or can’t afford the likely £45k bill for an M2, the M235i doesn’t seem to offer much scope for enhancement, at least not through BMW’s usual online configurator. The thing is, with a bit of help from BMW’s dealer-fit M Performance accessories range, the M235i can look so much better.

Top of the list has to be the 19in wheels, which fill the arches so much better than the standard 18s. They look like a modern take on the old M3 CSL rim and, if you’re the sort of anorak who likes browsing (that’ll be me, then), you might already know that they go by BMW’s official code of style 405.

Your next step is the M Performance Aerodynamic package, consisting of a front splitter, rear diffuser and sill extensions, or maybe you’d keep things a little more discreet and go for the carbon mirror caps and rear lip spoiler, and a black kidney grille. Metallic colours such as our car’s handsome Estoril Blue are probably best left alone when it comes to stripes, but if you’ve gone for white paint, already added the wheels and bodykit and can’t bear the thought of not being looked at, you could get away with the side flashes.

BMW M235i cabin, photographed by CAR magazine

Of course you can’t do all that and leave the inside alone. If you really want to show off, the Alcantara-wrapped wheel with built-in LED display showing everything from quarter-mile times to G-readings, is a must, though the same circle without the gadgety content would feel every bit as good and a whole lot less distracting.

But what if you want something more than mere cosmetic dressing? Slightly more serious is the big brake package, whose discs are an inch bigger than stock, the 10mm lower suspension kit, and the optional mechanical limited-slip differential. The standard car already has way too much traction in the dry, but if you’re one of the handful of owners who actually switches the ESP off, that LSD will likely fix the standard car’s disappointingly snatchy wet-road oversteer.

About the only thing not covered by the M Performance brochure is engine upgrades, though Superchips will bump your 318bhp motor up by 57bhp and 63lb ft for £400. Which, added to the near £10k bill you’ll be looking at for the rest of the gear, brings the total to around £44k – pretty much what BMW will want for the proper M2 when it arrives next year. You know, when you put it like that, our brilliant standard £34k M235i suddenly looks a whole lot more attractive.

By Chris Chilton 

Month 3 running a BMW M235i: the noise of the turbo-six

Every time I abandon the M235i at an airport I come back even more convinced of its brilliance. I love almost everything about this car, especially the 3.0-litre turbo six engine. In recent weeks I’ve found that neither Ferrari, with the California T, nor BMW’s own M Division, with the new M3, has managed to deliver a soundtrack to match all that turbo-facilitated torque. But the M235i sounds superb.

It wails like the various ’80s six-pot BMWs I managed to sell just before the prices jumped, and far from feeling all done by 5000rpm like so many turbo’d engines, this one actually comes alive over the last few thousand rpm. Unlike its twin-turbo predecessor, this engine has one twin-scroll blower and is a standout example of how to artificially aspirate a car and make it fun.

When not taking me to airports, the M235i has been taking me to motorbike training. The school’s Yamaha XJ6 (76bhp, 276bhp per tonne with a rider) feels fairly exciting to a novice like me, but keeping it in the family, I’m dreaming of the incredible Concept Roadster BMW unveiled at Villa d’Este (below). I wonder what that sounds like.

By Chris Chilton 

Month 2 running a BMW M235i: first mpg results are in...

I made my first four-up trip north this month, and was amazed to find that the entire Chilton clan and its luggage fitted without fuss. I’d bet the styling is the main reason most buyers choose the M235i over its 1-series sister, but the coupe scores with an extra 30 litres of booth space. And although the hatch’s tailgate makes out more practical when handling big loads, both cars get fold-down rear seats.

That 400-mile round trip revealed a bit of engine boom on the motorway, but it’s entirely bearable, and the top-gear acceleration is so strong, I kept having to check I wasn’t in fourth instead of sixth. I love how this single-turbo N55 engine revs out too. I don’t remember the original twin turbo 335i back in 2006 ever feeling this inclined to chase the redline.

Chris Chilton meets our BMW M235i long-term test carHaving gained 125bhp and two cylinders in my jump from Kia Proceed GT to BMW M235i - and making the most of them at every opportunity - I’d resigned myself to paying at the pumps for the privilege of the extra poke. But I’d been forgetting that BMW’s engineering boffins are as focused on you using as little fuel as possible between A and B as the time it takes you to make the trip. Result: a Kia-matching 29mpg overall, 35mpg on an 80mph run and nudging 40 at the legal limit. For a car with the performance of the last M3, that’s some going.

By Chris Chilton

Month 1 running a BMW M235i: the introduction

Days just haven’t been quite so sunny in the Our Cars pages since we lost the old 1-series M Coupe a couple of years back. Eschewing the tech overkill that blights the M5, there were no buttons to adjust steering or damping, just a simple six-speed manual gearbox, and a packet of Handy Andys in the door pocket to wipe the tears of laughter from your eyes (and the occasional joyful ones) when you managed not to crash during one of its spiky oversteer transitions.

Its successor will be along in a year or two, badged M2 to reflect BMW’s new naming strategy (even numbers for all coupes and cabrios). While we wait, here’s the next best thing: the new BMW M235i.

Essentially a coupe version of the existing M135i hatch, it’s another of BMW’s M Performance models. Not quite a full-blown M car, but not far off. It’s the only 2-series to come with more than four cylinders, motive force coming from a 3.0-litre turbo six developing 322bhp and 332lb ft of torque.

You can opt for the excellent eight-speed ZF auto if you like, but we’ve saved £1825 by keeping the six-speed manual. There aren’t many major league performance cars still available with a manual ’box, so we should enjoy it while we can.

And this is very definitely major league performance. Sixty-two is done in 5.0sec (4.8 with the auto), but it feels way quicker, and the power delivery is superb. This is no all-or-nothing motor, only useful when the blower’s spooling. There’s grunt everywhere, it likes to rev, wails like a proper old-school BMW six, and apart from the tiniest bit of lag, you’d barely know it was ’charged at all.

Certainly not by looking at it. The 2-series is a pretty ugly pup anyway (why does BMW find it so hard to design a decent looking car these days?) and the M bits are far too demure. Eighteen-inch wheels? They look like they’re off a golf cart and there’s no option to upgrade. The car did arrive fresh from a little splurge in the options section, however.

Leather seats are standard (a pity, as the honeycomb cloth and Alcantara seats in the continental versions are way cooler), to which was added the excellent ‘Professional’ widescreen nav (£1890), adaptive M Sport suspension (£515), and Visibility Pack (adaptive xenons and high-beam assistant for £390), plus £550 for Estoril Blue metallic paint.

The M235i already costs £3415 more than its M135i hatchback cousin, and those morsels pushed the price of our car from £34,250 to £42,020. Two more extras we would like include an extra dollop of steering feel (it’s good, but not outstanding) and a limited-slip diff.

The mechanical grip is so good you don’t need one in the dry, but wet roads would be more fun and predictable with both rear wheels doing the driving. There will be an LSD option from mid-year and BMW has promised to retrofit one to our car.

We look forward to that, but there’s plenty of fun to be had even in standard trim. Which is why you might have seen this exact car battling Porsche’s excellent Cayman on the cover of April’s magazine. In the final reckoning, the Porsche predictably delivered a more convincing sports car experience (and managed to avoid the freak double-puncture that befell the BMW), so won the fight. But until Porsche makes a £40k Cayman 2+2 this is as good as with-kids thrills gets. The Our Cars outlook for the next few months is seriously sunny - with occasional patches of black fog.

By Chris Chilton

By CAR's road test team

Our reviewers: fresh perspectives for inquisitive minds

  • CAR magazine's Chris Chilton and our BMW M235i
  • We love it! Just remember the promising BMW M2 is waiting in the wings
  • Two turbocharged six-cylinder BMWs. £22,000 between them.
  • For the difference in price between the BMW M235i and the M4 coupe, you could have a spotless E12 M535i...
  • Our BMW M235i surprises many people with its roomy accommodation and vast boot
  • Standards must be slipping: we haven't fried the rear tyres on our BMW M235i yet...
  • Chris Chilton (left) and Mark Walton swap cars and compare their Mk7 VW Golf GTI and BMW M235i
  • Chris Chilton polishes his M235i. He's a huge fan - but maybe not of the looks
  • Sleeker BMW 4-series snout (left) puts our lumpier 2-series nose to shame
  • What happens if you put the M235i through the dealer-fit M Performance brochure. That's more like it - a junior M2 wannabe!
  • Our M235i has had an encounter with some very fast motorbikes this month
  • BMW's very-serious-indeed Concept Roadster bike at Villa d'Este 2014. And no, Chris, you can't
  • Coupe bodystyle looks less lumpy than 1-series hatch, but also means bigger boot space
  • A long run saw our M235i's mpg pushing the 40s
  • Chris Chilton meets his BMW M235i long-term test car
  • Minor switchgear on the BMW M235i. This car is much more about Sport than Eco
  • No sooner had our BMW M235i arrived than it was pushed into action in a group test with the Porsche Cayman and Toyota's GT86
  • Single-turbo N55 engine in the M235i loves to rev