Turn-in to a corner is fast approaching and the BMW M235i starts to pitch forward as the brakes are heavily applied. As the incisive steering points left, with plenty of downforce the inside front wheel grips well and starts to transmit little vibes through the tiller that say ‘hey, I’ve done just about what I can here’.
This is a rear-wheel-driven car so it’s also an indication for the driver to modulate the throttle – and then, on the uphill corner, the flagship (for now) 2 Series starts squealing, spinning its outside wheel and kicking into controllable, but slightly messy tail-out.
You see, as the front right wheel is all loaded up, it leaves the rear left wheel more light-headed than Karl Stefanovic on the morning after the Logies. With an open differential, the power and torque from the 3.0-litre turbocharged six-cylinder engine sends said wheel into a wild flutter.
“Needs an LSD, this thing,” deadpans my driving enthusiast passenger, who owns a heavily cammed VE Commodore SS Ute … with a limited-slip differential (LSD).
That was a few months ago, when the M235i proved a staggeringly capable and brilliantly communicative two-door coupe only lacking a device that, as the name suggests, limits the histrionics of an inside rear wheel lacking downward pressure.
Fast forward to now, and we have a BMW M235i that beyond its $79,930 plus on-road costs pricetag has an optional ($4300) limited-slip differential.
For that price, you could buy a Mercedes-Benz A45 or CLA45 AMG, and solve any corner traction issues because both send drive to all four wheels (in a variable fashion that can sometimes priortise the rear wheels). Or you could save thousands and buy an Audi S3 sedan, or wait a month or so for the brand new and hugely improved TT.
Unless, however, you’re willing to delve into six figures for a brand new Porsche Boxster or Cayman, purists will find everything they need, and then some, in the more involving, dainty M235i – caveat until now being the lack of an LSD.
So, you guessed it, another left hand corner is approaching quickly; same routine, same lovely steering and front end discipline.
This time, however, as throttle is applied the rear end seems to answer you call with ‘is this all you’ve got?’. On-edge reactivity is replaced with supreme control, as the LSD directs the 235kW and 450Nm to the loaded right rear wheel, silencing the left one and creating a slingshot affect that is both fast, and neat, clean and tidy.
Driving an M235i without an LSD, then driving one with the optional mechanical bit of hardware, is a bit like watching the 20/20 cricket then flicking over to a test match – one is all fireworks and uncalculated slogs of the bat, the other quite strategic and resolved.
You won’t need to get into the fourth hour of drinking mid-strength Carlton at the MCG to enjoy the M235i, however. Its rewards come thick and fast, a reminder that this sort of car is absolutely what BMW does best.
Before driving this M235i feat. LSD, this tester steered a brand new M4 coupe for a week, and before that an i8, and before that a 435i coupe, the latter of which narrowly lost a comparison test to the Lexus RC350 F Sport.
Where the M4 is a car created with a ‘more is more’ approach, adding more grip, more boost, more performance, and a stronger front-end that dilutes all steering tactility, has created a technically strong sports coupe that is ultimately soul-less.
The i8 is a superb shot at an eco-friendly supercar, hamstrung only by its $300,000 pricetag and skinny front tyres that are no wider than that on a Toyota Prius. The 435i coupe, meanwhile, has turned into something of a big grand tourer – nice, but hardly the ‘ultimate driving machine’.
So with one fell swoop, the smaller, lighter, simpler and cheaper M235i comes in by having, compared with an M4, an engine with less lag and a sweeter sound; a smoother eight-speed automatic transmission that still remains snappy compared with the highly-strung seven-speed dual-clutch of its bigger brother; smaller 19-inch wheels and tyres that don’t feel heavy-footed over bumps around town; and a body that hasn’t been carbonfibre-d to within an inch of its life, so feedback still fills the steering and seats.
The M235i has better balance than the i8, which conversely to the M4 is under-tyred, while it feels more compact and nimble than a 435i coupe.
You could spend all afternoon switching between front end grip and rear end slip in the M235i feat. LSD, all the while enjoying its communication at speeds closer to legal than what an M4, or supercar would demand.
When you’re not at maximum attack pace, the BMW M235i simply rides beautifully in either of the adaptive suspension’s Comfort or Sport modes.
Choose the former to feel a little float but absorb the worst of urban nasties, or the latter to add control while letting more of the road surface nibble through. There is no Race mode, and nor should there be.
The steering is lovely to thread through an urban carpark, a variable-ratio system so quick that you can leave any arm twirling to your aerobics class.
There is also syrupy torque everywhere. From light throttle to foot kissing the firewall, the M235i feels brilliantly cohesive, and quicker than its claimed 4.8-second 0-100km/h.
With an Eco Pro drivetrain mode beyond the suspension’s Comfort and Sport, the braking regeneration also works a treat to ‘add’ free kilometres of range to your fuel tank that are tabulated in the trip computer display.
While we saw beyond 14.0 litres per 100 kilometres during hard driving, the M235i claimed just 7.4L/100km during free-flowing urban driving in Eco Pro.
The only area that may grate is its cabin, which is pure 1 Series with little affectations that might be expected for the price. The dashboard plastics with a coarse grain may even be eclipsed if we were comparing a base 116i to an entry-level Audi A3.
There are few storage areas and the rear seats aren’t roomy enough for country touring; for that purpose you will need a 428i coupe, which asks the same money but offers a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder.
In the standard M235i you’ll find manually adjustable seats covered in a leather that isn’t the smoothest to touch; an electrically adjustable driver’s seat teamed with front seat heating and keyless auto-entry is available for $3120.
Other optional packages include a should-be-standard reverse-view camera teamed with semi-automatic park function for $1300; and adaptive bi-xenon headlights with automatic high-beam and auto-dipping rear-view mirror for $1560.
That said, the standard satellite navigation with high-resolution 8.8-inch colour display and superbly intuitive iDrive controls mean that the M235i is no hugely compromised sports car.
Along with the smooth ride and torque engine, it is entirely liveable in the day-to-day, yet willing to lift its skirt on the weekend like few rivals.
In fact, driving the M235i feat. LSD is reminiscent of steering a Porsche Cayman; everything is in balance, with no single aspect (boosty engine, for example) dominating the experience. Equally, nothing falls short of contributing to the most involving, cohesive driving experience you can get for less than $100,000.
For those not interested in comparisons with more expensive cars, they can know that this is the perfect stepping stone above $55,000 hot-hatchbacks such as the Renault Megane RS275 and Volkswagen Golf R.
It really is that good – just make sure you get on the LSD.
Photography by Glen Sullivan.