We drive the controversial FWD-based BMW M235i “coupe”

BMW M235i xDrive Prototype front 3/4

Complaining about new BMW products is a cherished pastime of the Roundel’s most ardent supporters, one that in this country got its start when the “overweight and oversized” 320i replaced the cherished 2002 some 42 years ago—but with the announcement of a front-wheel-drive “Gran Coupe” in 228i and M235i forms last month, the carping among the faithful has risen to jet-engine volume. Shall we count the ways in which this vehicle knowingly disrespects the marque’s traditions, both recent and established? To begin with, it’s front-wheel-drive at its heart, with a transverse engine. All the variants sold here will be “xDrive” models which send power to all four corners, but there is a massive difference in the dynamic behavior and capabilities of a vehicle which hangs an engine sideways over the wheels.

The range-topping model is badged as an “M235i.” Just two years ago, that meant a snorting turbocharged inline-six. Now it’s a cranked-up four-banger, making the same 301 horsepower it makes in the new Mini hatchbacks. This engine will be powering a shell that BMW described as “gran coupe” but which looks suspiciously similar to “economy sedan” in the metal.

If this whole layout sounds suspiciously similar to that of the Mercedes-Benz CLA, that’s because it is. The CLA hasn’t exactly charmed the critics, even in maximum-attack AMG CLA 45 form, so what are the prospects for this baby Bimmer? To find out, we drove a pre-production M235i xDrive on a 22-mile street loop in the company of an extremely effusive BMW engineer.

First impressions: This car is strongly reminiscent of a toned-down Focus RS, minus the clutch pedal and the hyper-aware steering. As with the RS, there is the sense of maximum sporting gingerbread, from the M4-alike three-spoke sport steering wheel (“Please mention this wheel,” the young engineer told me, “I worked very hard to get it approved for U.S. production”) to the aggressive compression and rebound damping in the shock absorbers. The last car to wear this badge, the M235i coupe, was a loosey-goosey rear-wheel-drive coupe with perfect weight distribution and too much power for the suspension; it was an absolute delight and in many ways was more satisfying than the M2 which sat above it in the lineup. This, by contrast, is a deliberately sober little sedan. If Cadillac’s ATS had a transverse engine, one suspects it would drive a lot like this.

BMW M235i xDrive Prototype front
BMW M235i xDrive Prototype rear
BMW M235i xDrive Prototype profile
BMW

With that said, it’s virtually impossible to provoke torque steer, which is not the case in most big-power front-drivers with an afterthought propshaft to the rear. You can get this same basic engine and chassis in the new Mini Clubman John Cooper Works, if you like. When it wears a British flag on the roof, it’s a pitch-and-catch madman of a car that behaves much like an old SRT-4 Neon with the boost cranked up. As a BMW, however, the M235i is a quite sober automobile, one that effectively mimics the heavy control feel and inertia of, say, a modern 5 Series.

Road noise is minimal, even without considering the pre-production status of our tester. Visibility is good. The seats are better than good. You won’t touch anything that feels particularly cheap. There’s plenty of room in the back, about as much as you get with the super-sized current 3 Series. Despite the “coupe” tag, there’s plenty of headspace both front and rear.

The relatively prosaic nature of both specification and construction means that BMW can provide a lot more surface value in an M235i Gran Coupe than it could in an old-style M235i Coupe Coupe. There are relatively few options, bundled in affordable groups. Even the base car will have some surprise-and-delight features. I strongly suspect that the car I drove retailed for under $40,000—Focus RS territory, and your neighbors will be far more envious of this than they would of any bright-blue bolide-hatch from the Blue Oval.

BMW M235i xDrive Prototype rear 3/4
BMW

Like it or not, this will be a very popular car. It doesn’t betray its transverse roots in everyday driving, it’s quiet and expensive-feeling, and it’s much better-looking than a CLA. Most critically, there’s no attempt to punish the owner for not picking a “real” BMW. The last time Munich tried a four-door so obviously aimed at nontraditional Bimmer buyers, it was the 127-horse, diesel-like 528e back in the ’80s. That was a standard-issue BMW, imperfectly dumbed-down for American buyers. This M235i, by contrast, is a ground-up reimagination of what BMW means now. Expect it to be fast, flashy, and fully-equipped—and if the owners never get around to exploring the dynamic differences between it and an E36-generation M3, so what? 

After speaking to BMW’s product engineer at length, I was both impressed and depressed. Impressed at how carefully the M235i was designed for a particular audience and the excellence of its execution, but depressed at the fact that the entry-level BMW is now this anodyne and unsporting… product. Compared to a ’90s-era 318i, which fairly shone with enthusiast intent despite a 17-second quarter-mile time, this feels awfully cynical. It’s hard to imagine anyone caring enough about the M235i xDrive Gran Coupe to restore and race one in 20 years. But what do I know? That’s what they said about the E30, too, and they were wrong.