We’ve been blessed with a combination of inline-six power and rear-wheel drive in compact BMW sports cars for what feels like forever, but time stands still for no-one.
The X2 M35i represents a number of firsts. It’s the first X2 M35i, for starters. No M Performance car has been built on a transverse front-wheel-drive platform before, and this is the first with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
You’ll be seeing a lot more of this formula going forward. It would want to be good.
It certainly is on paper. With a handy 225kW of power and 450Nm of torque, the latter on offer between 1750rpm and 4500rpm, the B48 2.0-litre turbocharged engine is more than a match for what the Audi S3 and Mercedes-AMG A35 can offer.
No manual is offered, with BMW instead opting for an eight-speed automatic.
Rather than driving the rear wheels, as is BMW M tradition, the engine puts its power to the road through a modified take on xDrive. There’s a mechanical locking differential on the front axle, if you needed a hint as to which axle is most important here. Sounds complex in theory, and is complex in practice. But more on that to come.
The engine is a proper firecracker, with an exhaust note to match its on-paper potential. You get a naughty little rev flare on start-up, and the exhaust is an ever-present companion.
It starts as a growl at about 1500rpm, before developing into a trumpeting blare as the needle sweeps beyond 2800rpm. It’s impossible to ignore, even on light throttle openings, and even in Comfort Mode.
The noise is a hard-edged, metallic bark that resonates through the steering wheel and paddles, and very similar in nature to what you get from the outgoing AMG A45.
Bearing that in mind, BMW has shed a layer of its individuality with the M35i and its blaring exhaust. The sound is a bit anodyne; a bit similar to the other strung-out German four-cylinder engines on the market. That's not a criticism you could level at the M140i.
The B48 engine also breaks with tradition in the way it delivers its power. 'Boosty' is the word that springs to mind. It can be a bit laggy below around 1800rpm, but when the wave of torque slams home things get noisy and blurry, quickly.
In spite of its heavily turbocharged nature, the M35i is happy to chase the redline. It charges hard all the way through the rev range, before the eight-speeder slams home another gear and you get to enjoy the ride all over again.
If there’s a weak link in the powertrain, it’s the gearbox. There isn’t anything wrong with the way it operates on light throttle openings, but full-throttle upshifts slam home hard – too hard.
We know BMW can engineer a transmission to offer seamless shifts, which would suggest the jerky upshifts in the M35i have been artificially engineered for dramatic effect. The thunderclaps from the exhaust add a welcome dash of theatre, but the upshift whiplash doesn’t.
The transmission hints at other rough edges in the car’s powertrain. With the throttle buried in a corner, upshifts can confuse the xDrive set-up, which initially sends what feels like 100 per cent of torque to the front axle.
As you can imagine, that is a recipe for a flashing traction light. In one case, the car jumped an entire lane wide as the engine’s full force was unceremoniously dumped on the front wheels.
It’s almost as if the car sends drive exclusively to the front axle before it can be shunted rearwards, which leaves the power delivery feeling disjointed. Brutal, racy behaviour is one thing, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of overall refinement.
Thankfully, the disjointed feeling disappears in the corners. To deal with the rear-drive elephant in the room, the M35i is never going to perform the same beautiful rear-drive squiggles its M140i predecessor so happily did.
The trade-off is grip, grip and more grip. Sling the X2 into a corner and there’s just a hint of body roll, before the nose bites and the car balances itself. The initial sense is of front-wheel drive, but get on the throttle mid-corner and you can sense power being sent rearward to balance the car.
Once you're through a corner's apex, the front differential locks up and drags you out.
Lively isn't quite the word, but the car definitely feels alert under power, and willing to change its line based on what's happening with the throttle.
We didn't take the M35i to a track, but the brakes held up well at spirited road speeds. They actually feel better suited to abuse than around-town driving, where they can feel a bit grabby.
The ride is also compromised on the rough, pockmarked streets of Melbourne. Small imperfections rumble and shake under the 20-inch wheels, and sharper hits smack into the cabin with real force. It never settles down.
Road noise is also a constant companion, especially on the highway. The tyres create a dull roar at speed, almost like radio static, and wind noise from the mirrors has a knack for sneaking through the window rubbers. It feels less refined than you'd hope for the money, especially given the X2 isn't a full-bore M GmbH project.
It's a shame, because the cabin has great potential. The seats are a particular highlight. They're supportive on long journeys, with oodles of under-thigh padding for long-legged drivers, and the bolstering is perfectly judged. Oh, and they look cool, which counts in a car like the X2.
How you feel about the orange trim is down to taste. It's unique, no doubt about it. Feedback from those who saw it in person was negative, but an Instagram poll returned 39 votes for yes and just 34 for no. Scientific, but wrong.
There isn't a heap to get excited about beyond the outlandish trim. The centre stack is functional but unexciting, the instruments are clear but lack the high-tech appeal of Mercedes and Audi's latest digital cockpits. iDrive is still outstanding, but it's been usurped by OS7.0 in BMW's new product.
Rear accommodation is fine without being standout. I'm taller than average and had just enough headroom, but the sporty seats eat into legroom. Taller passengers behind taller drivers end up straddling the seats, which isn't particularly comfortable.
The X1 exists as a more practical alternative, though. We'd suggest empty-nesters and young, childless professionals are the X2's likely audience, putting rear accommodation lower on the list of priorities.
At 470L, the boot is surprisingly big, but there's no spare wheel – not even a space saver. The loading lip is quite high and narrow, and the bumper looks prime for scratching with heavy bags.
Warranty is three years, and scheduled maintenance costs $1465 with BMW's most basic five-year service plan.
You've probably sensed a theme through this review. For every positive about the X2 M35i there's a negative, or a caveat. It isn't a bad car, but it has a few rough edges.
The powertrain is loud and exciting, but the all-wheel-drive system lacks sophistication. The interior is functional but feels old-fashioned. It's practical on numbers, but the style-focused exterior undermines the car's usefulness as a person (or bag) hauler.
Will buyers care? I'd wager they just want a stylish, fast, noisy crossover with a premium badge. And the X2 is a stylish, fast, noisy crossover with one of the most desirable badges in motoring.
Mission accomplished, to a point. But we've become accustomed to a degree of polish from BMW performance cars that's lacking here. There's plenty of room for improvement.