Driving a performance car like the BMW M235i Convertible for a review is less science, and more poetry.
That’s not to infer an inflated sense of one’s writing ability, but to say that all the objective technical observations you make should take a back seat to how the car makes you feel.
Did you walk way impressed by some technological innovation named by a hyperactive marketing team? If so, good. But that feeling is ephemeral.
The truly good sports cars have much greater power than this. They go beyond the sum of their parts, away from the realm of the metaphysical and into the supernatural. They stick with you, and when you drive as many cars as we do, serve as signposts and time stamps.
One such car in my recent memory is the BMW 228i coupe, a balanced and beautiful embodiment of everything great on four wheels.
In fact, it was the BMW and another German, the Porsche Boxster GTS, that moved me most among the cars I drove in 2014. With this in mind, it seems entirely appropriate to hark to this thought when looking at a vehicle that sits about half way between them.
That vehicle is the BMW M235i Convertible, the car that for some (limited) intents and purposes is a successor, notably in terms of size and power, to the superseded E46 BMW M3 convertible, one of the Bavarian brand’s sweeter products of any era.
Hold your horses, Bavarian boffins. We know the M235i isn't technically a full-fat M Car, and nor is it marketed or positioned as one. Instead, it's from BMW's 'M Performance' family. But it's the hottest 2 Series we have, at least for now. Park one of these next to an E46 and the size differential is negligible.
The M235i, priced at $85,800 plus on-road costs, serves as the headliner in a three-variant-strong 2 Series Convertible range, which also comprises the entry 220i ($54,900) and 228i ($68,900).
The M235i Convertible’s starting price makes in $5870 more than the equivalent coupe, though it’s $17,000 cheaper than a base Porsche Boxster roadster. You can also get a significantly less powerful (169kW/370Nm) but much, much funkier four-cylinder Audi TT quattro convertible for similar coin as the Bimmer. Even more interestingly, the Audi S3 Cabriolet is $70,500.
In return for that you get the joys of topless motoring, though the convertible with its requisite body strengthening also cops a 150kg weight penalty over the coupe and as as such, takes two-tenths longer to sprint from 0-100km/h — 5.0 seconds compared to 4.8sec.
Power comes from a 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder with a twin-scroll turbo setup, producing 240kW between 5800 and 6000rpm, and 450Nm between 1300 and 4500rpm.
In an age of hi-po four-pots, the aural sensation of an inline-six is pleasantly anachronistic, and in this instance certainly more interesting than the 2.0-litre 228i’s note even if it’s a little more muted than it could be. We were left wanting even more edge.
There’s no getting around the fact that this is a ballsy engine, though, with a propensity to scream out past 6000rpm, but also ample low-down grunt as evidenced by the wide peak torque band.
You can potter about in day-to-day duties, cruise along freeways in top gear ticking over well below 2000rpm or give it the berries and see just how instantaneous and linear the response is, despite the small capacity and the blower.
BMW claims fuel consumption of 7.9 litres per 100 kilometres, which is manageable if you’re in the car’s Eco mode and have stop/start on. But if you aren’t hovering in the 10s, you aren’t trying hard enough.
It’s matched standard to an eight-speed automatic transmission sourced from German gearbox king ZF. Versions of this self-shifter feature in countless premium cars, and for good reason.
It’s not the almost de rigeur fancy race-style double-clutch unit found in many performance cars (we refer to units such as the DSG, S tronic, Powershift and PDK), but it’s a supremely versatile bit of kit anyway.
In regular or Eco modes, the throttle sensitivity is numbed (ergo, mushy and mushier respectively) and the gearbox’s shifts are programmed to be docile like a city car — something few dual-clutch units are quite capable of.
In the most aggressive mode, though, the loud pedal’s responses are sharpened and the gearbox holds lower gears longer, shifts more crisply and makes greater snap decisions under hard driving.
That said, it could use a little more mongrel edge — it lacks the Porsche PDK’s hyperactive downshifts under hard braking (which, on a side note, comes courtesy of the M235’s brilliant blue-caliper, vented brakes), or the DSG’s ability to trigger outlet pops and crackles on changes. In hard driving, it’s almost too subdued.
Of course, you can also override all this with the paddleshifters situated behind the small, chunky steering wheel (BMW really does steering wheels better than any company this side of Porsche). Or you could be a real driver and order the no-cost six-speed manual gearbox option.
The lovely little steering wheel is the highlight of what is a relatively subdued cabin. There are unique niceties such as M kickplates, some silvery accents and M logo on the steering whee and instruments, but generally its much more business than pleasure.
The sombre, subdued tones, the nice but never exceptional leather on the seats and plastics on the fascia/buttons, and the relatively lo-fi dials and gauges do little to elevate the cabin to the price point demanded. It’s typically brilliant ergonomically, at least.
It’s technically a four-seater, though the rears are obviously pokey, even if you get amenities such as vents and cupholders. The presence of two ISOFIX tethers mean it could be used as a makeshift second car if you’ve got little ones. Safety is covered by dual-front, front-side and head airbags in the front and rear, and automatically deploying rollover bars.
Standard equipment includes BMW’s Professional sat-nav system displayed on an 8.8-inch screen controlled by its iDrive rotary dial. There’s also all the requisite connectivity, and an upgraded seven-speaker 205W sound system with equaliser.
You also get cruise control with braking, front and rear parking sensors, a reverse-view camera, bi-xenon headlights, rain-sensing wipers and heated seats.
You have to fork over extra for things such as adaptive headlights with cornering function (part of the bigger $1560 Visibility Package), electric seat adjustment with memory and keyless entry/soft top operation (part of the $2470 Comfort package), $570 for a wind deflector, $550 for a tyre pressure monitor, $500 for digital radio, $250 for live traffic updates, $600 for automatic parking assist and $1000 for a package that bundles things such as lane departure warning and low-speed autonomous braking among other things.
Dynamically, the rear-wheel drive M235i Convertible is obviously sharper than most. The chassis balance is characteristically excellent — playful in Sport mode without being skittish — and the electric-assisted steering is full of feel-and-feedback, with a weighting that sits in the Goldilocks zone and loads up at speed (it has variable speeds). Turn-in is sharp.
As we’ve discussed in the past, any M235i buyer would do well to fork over $4400 for the optional limited slip diff (LSD) on the drive axle, which transfers torque to the ground more effectively, especially on lower contact surfaces. It shouldn’t be an option, frankly, but standard.
In terms of ride, the M235i sits 10mm lower than other 2 Series models, and the standard Adaptive M Suspension allows you to firm up the dampers via button in more aggressive driving so you can squeeze the best from it. You can soften the ride if you’re meandering about in a 60km/h zone, in which instance the car becomes downright compliant considering its low-profile (245/35 rear, 225/40 front Michelin Pilot Super Sport) tyres — not run-flat, in M Sport style — on 18-inch rims.
Equally impressive is the sound-deadening built into the fabric roof, which blocks out a remarkable amount of the din around you — be it other road users or wind at high speeds. The fact it takes about 24 seconds to retract, though, is a little below class-leaders. It only robs you of 55 litres of boot space when stowed though, and even then it's a commendable 280L.
That said, there’s still a hint of the body flex (manifesting in creaks) that affects almost all open-topped cars, and you feel the extra weight both over the front axle compared to the 228i coupe we last drove, and in the body compared to the M235i coupe.
Does the M235i feel as nimble as its little brother? No, it doesn’t. Not quite as sweet, either. Here’s where we question conceptually the M235i Convertible. If you want the hardest of hardcore 2 Series’, it’s the lighter, stiffer and cheaper coupe that wins.
The convertible is a greater style statement, but you can make just as much of a splash in a 228i… so why wouldn’t you? This is not like the Boxster/Cayman scenario, where the roadster is cheaper and has absolutely no trade-offs in dynamism.
So here’s the thing. The M235i Convertible is a hoot, and if super-fast and open-topped motoring is your thing, it’s a cracker. There’s no denying the M235i Convertible’s impressive mix of urban compliance and vast cornering competence, even if a little more ‘mongrel’ wouldn’t go astray.
But just be aware you can get an outdoor experience at least as pure and potentially as visceral in a lower-grade version such as the 228i for less, or an even sharper corner-carving experience in the M235i coupe too. Maybe we're too 'glass half empty', and the car's minor flaws and lack of perfection actually make it more loveable? Your call.
Click on the Photos tab for more BMW M235i Convertible images by Tom Fraser.