July 30, 2014

News & Features

Auto review: A look at smaller, lighter, more-affordable BMWs

New York Times News Service

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The 2014 BMW M235i is a good intersection between price and performance. (BMW)

Here's a tire-kicking experiment: Pay a visit to your BMW dealer. Weave through the sleek wares on display — but tiptoe around that strange blobby thing called a 5 Series GT. Now, stop when you see a window sticker that's less than $40,000.

I won't hold my breath.

BMW isn't alone. As compact and midsize luxury models have steadily inflated in size and price, the carmakers have noticed the gaping hole at the truly small, $30,000-to-$40,000 end of their showrooms.

On the crossover side, BMW has filled that hole with the petite X1, to sell alongside Xs numbered 3, 4, 5, 6 and soon, 7.

With that tick-tack-toe board complete, the new 2 Series coupe arrives. And with all respect to BMW, my imaginary billboard would honestly cite the 2 Series mission statement: "Because you can't afford a 3 Series."

Seriously, some fans do crave a smaller, lighter BMW, closer in spirit — if not in reality — to the primitive 2002 model that first appeared in 1968. In 2014, that car is the 2 Series, a replacement for the 1 Series, a scrunched ball of fun that, for all its charm, seemed a bit of an outlier in the BMW lineup.

Compared with the 1 models, the handsome 2 Series inherits more of the family genes, with less stubby proportions and more interior luxury and technology. And man, is it a blast to drive, especially the M235i version with its fierce 320-horsepower turbocharged in-line 6. That's actually 20 more horses than the more expensive 435i, the next rung up on BMW's coupe ladder.

The wallet-pressing issue is that the 2015 M235i, which comes laden with performance-boosting gear, costs $44,050 to start — just $2,900 less than the prettier, roomier 435i.

In other words, it's a BMW, not a bargain. That role falls to the 228i, amply and efficiently moved by 240 horses from the 2-liter turbo found in many larger BMWs. The 2015 228i starts at $33,050 -- a significant $8,375 less than the 428i coupe with the same engine -- and $11,000 less than the M235i. For either version, throw in $1,800 for xDrive AWD.

Aside from the budget-minded but merely 180-horsepower 320i sedan at $33,520, that 228i is effectively the only BMW car model (not counting the X1 mini-SUV) with a prayer of staying below 40 grand once options are tallied.

At 175.9 inches, the new coupe is nearly 3 inches longer than the 1 Series. A slightly lower roofline and some subtle body sculpturing help emphasize the car's length. Front headroom and rear legroom are up 0.8 inch.

Trunk space, already surprisingly generous in the 1 Series, grows a bit to 13.8 cubic feet.

Channels in the apron along the front of the car direct air at the wheel arches -- BMW calls the feature Air Curtains -- to improve aerodynamics and reduce fuel consumption. Efficiency gets another boost from a standard engine stop-start system.

And in automatic models, BMW says, a coasting mode disengages the powertrain at speeds from 30 to 100 mph when a driver lifts off the gas. Fuel economy with the automatic transmission is 23 mpg in town and 35 mpg on the highway for the 228i, with the M235i nearly as frugal at 22/33 mpg (though the six-speed manual drops to 19/28).

In BMW's ever-confusing naming strategy, the M235i, despite its prominent M badges, isn't a full-blown M car in the vein of the M3 or M5. Yet as the first in a planned line of M Performance models, it does come stuffed with M-division gear, including a specially tuned engine, larger brakes and an adaptive, driver-adjustable suspension. Not surprisingly, reports of an actual M2 starting production next year are already circulating.

Yawning air inlets up front suggest the M235i's high-speed mission. Bonus interior bits include front sport seats, an M leather multifunction steering wheel, a red-dial instrument cluster and unfortunately, BMW's dowdy Aluminum Hexagon interior trim.

This being BMW, it's possible to take the good stuff for granted: The chassis, brakes, seats and stirring handling; sophisticated powertrains that are virtually unmatched in their one-two punch of power and fuel efficiency. But with that goodness a given, your attention wanders to BMW's sore spots: stingy standard features, greedily priced options and increasingly complacent interior design.

Loaded up, even this 2 Series could blast past $50,000. Out-the-door at $46,575, my M235i still lacked a slew of optional luxury features, including a navigation system, high-end audio and a backup camera. The infotainment controller with a 6.5-inch screen is at least standard, with a crisper 8.8-inch unit available only with navigation.

The 2 Series cabin, while well-crafted, appears stamped from BMW's aging, unimaginative corporate mold. The latest Mercedes interiors, from the C-Class to the S-Class Coupe, are more adventurous, deluxe and appealing. Mass is also a mild disappointment: Ranging from 3,300 to 3,695 pounds, the 2 Series weighs just 75 to 170 pounds fewer than a comparable 4 Series.

Yet for all that, the toy-size 2 Series delivers a boatload of driving charm. For the M235i, BMW cites a conservative yet still-blistering 4.8-second sprint from zero to 60 mph, abetted by the near-perfect eight-speed automatic transmission. Even the 228i automatic manages the trick in 5.4 seconds. And bless BMW for keeping the manual-transmission faith, offering its six-speed stick on either version (though not with xDrive).

Girded with M gear, a rear-drive layout and 52:48 weight distribution, the M235i presses major performance advantages over competitors that are based on front-drive chassis. Even so, the best intersection of price-and-performance may be the 228i with a $2,200 Track Handling Package. It includes an M Adaptive Suspension, sticky 18-inch Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires on alloy wheels, Variable Sport Steering and M Sport brakes.

Go easy on the options, and you might even keep that 228i below the magic $40,000 mark. Just use your smartphone to navigate and buy leather pants for that luxury feeling against your skin.

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