By Jonathan Crouch
BMW coupes used to be all about compactness, lightness and rapid responses. This one still is. The Munich brand has really come good with the M235i, a cracker of a little performance coupe that packs a 326bhp punch, is priced keenly, looks the part and, unlike pricier BMW performance models, is still available with a manual transmission. With this car, the game just changed for the better.
Back in 1985, BMW launched a car called the M3. There was nothing else quite like it, a racer for the road with four seats and everything Munich knew about motorsport technology plumbed into the lightweight engine beneath the bonnet. Driving it was a living, raw, involving experience - in a way that today's sharp-suited M3 can't quite duplicate, for all its extra power and sophistication. But here perhaps, is a BMW that can, the M Performance versions of the brand's 'F22'-series first generation 2 Series Coupe and Convertible models, badged 'M235i' from 2014 to 2017 and 'M240i' from 2017 to the end of production in 2021.
Though the suspension, the engine and the handling all benefit from the expertise of the company's famous M division, the Munich maker insisted that this wasn't an official 'M car'. Instead, it was an example of the new breed of interim 'M Performance' variants the brand introduced earlier this century to bridge the price and performance gap between standard fast BMWs and the all-out M series models. The most obvious example of such a car was this one's direct predecessor, the much-loved 1 Series M Coupe, 6,000 of which were produced between 2011 and 2012 and which attracted such a following that a successor in the brand's first generation 2 Series coupe line-up that came fresh to the market early in 2014 was essential. The M235i variant was it.
By 2014, coupes like this were getting even-numbered model designations within BMW's line-up, but in every other way, this car was a direct replacement for that hottest version of the old 1 Series Coupe. Tick off hotshoe handling, a 3.0-litre straight six turbo engine and rest to sixty two supercar-style in under five seconds. Yet this car will comfortably seat four adults, has a big boot and an easy-going daily temperament. It could, in other words, be all the sports car you'll ever need. The 'F22'-era 2 Series Coupe was facelifted in 2017, which was when the 326hp M235i made way for the 335hp M240i. The 'F22' range was replaced by a second generation 2 Series Coupe model in late 2021 only offered in fixed-top form, but the Convertible F23 range, with its M240i derivative, carried on for a little longer.
What You Get
You'll need to know the 2 Series Coupe range quite intimately to instantly appreciate the difference between the M235i or M240i and a standard model merely fitted with M Sport trim. The giveways that this is this is the potent six cylinder version include M aerodynamic body styling, Ferric Grey airblades, twin chromed tailpipes, an M rear spoiler and lovely 18-inch M Double-spoke alloy wheels.
Move inside and you step over door sill finishers with the 'M235i' or 'M240i' logo and take your place on a low-slung sports seat with classic M-style upholstery seams. It positions you perfectly in front of a grippy M leather steering wheel with multifunction buttons and there's also an M driver footrest. Sporty 'Aluminium Hexagon' trim and an Anthracite headliner both aim to generate the appropriate atmosphere and the M-branded instrument cluster has a specific dial design and fine chrono scales. There are nice little extra touches too, like the way that the interior lighting can be set to exclusive orange-red or white colours.
Otherwise, the cabin will hold few surprises for existing BMW owners. Though there are a few plastic panels that feel quite hard to the touch, overall, the high quality materials and solid construction impress and it's this general classiness that makes it all feel special rather than any stand-out detailing. What we think the brand is very good at is deciding what functions should remain as dashboard buttons - like the ventilation and stereo controls - and which ones should be squirreled away into infotainment system menus, in this case an iDrive set-up which is one of the very best of its kind.
Rear seat passengers meanwhile, will be grateful for that boxy shape. It's certainly more spacious in the back than a more swoopily-styled rival would be, even if legroom remains in somewhat short supply, despite the fact that it increased by 21mm over the old 1 Series M Coupe. Still, adults who aren't too lanky should be able to squeeze themselves in reasonably comfortably with a bit of co-operation from those ahead, provided that the folk in front aren't basketball players and the journey isn't too long. Though only a couple of people can be accommodated, a stowage compartment is provided in between and there's a cockpit-like feel to these two chairs that rather suits the character of the car. Most of the time of course, you'll be using these seats to sling briefcases, jackets or designer shopping bags onto - or indeed folding them down to increase boot space.
There's more of this than you might expect too. More in fact than you'd get in a supposedly more practical five-door BMW M135i Sports Hatch from this period. In fact, the 390-litre total cargo area capacity is 20-litres up on what the old 1 Series M Coupe could offer, which means that even before you start pushing forward the 60:40 split-folding rear bench, you've got more space to play with than you would in an everyday Focus or Golf family hatchback. No other compact coupe competitor can match this and some are way behind: we're talking around 30% more luggage space than you'd get in a Volkswagen Scirocco from this period for example. Plus there are cargo nets to tie your shopping down so you'd don't have to worry about attacking a few of your favourite backroads on the long route back from the supermarket. The 60:40 split-folding rear bench just mentioned is standard but new buyers were offered the optional extra flexibility of a 40:20:40 three-way folding arrangement with a Through-loading facility for long items like skis. In other words, though in choosing this BMW, you'll have bought yourself a coupe, it's not a car without a certain level of practicality.
What to Look For
Our owner survey did reveal many satisfied users of this car but inevitably, there were a few issues reported. Obviously, a fully-stamped service history is vital. Frequent issues include a need to replace the air conditioning condenser and the ABS control module. One owner in our survey reported an Exhaust Valve Flap Actuator squeak. Another left his car parked for a week, then found it wasn't making full power under hard acceleration, at which point he got a drivetrain malfunction saying 'maximum power output not available'. We've heard that early on, the six cylinder petrol engine had timing chain issues which led to blown motors. This was sorted on cars made after 2015, which had a redesigned timing chain. There was a fuel pump issue on early cars too, evidenced by a warning lamp and an error message display in the instrument cluster before the engine cuts out. The fuel pump should have been replaced to sort this.
2 Series models built October 2014 and December 2017 might have EGR Cooler issues too. Cars made between September 2014 and March 2015 might have a faulty Driver's side seatbelt mechanism that makes it difficult to use in cold weather. A possible issue with the power steering affects some cars manufactured between 2014 and December 2015, and you may notice heavier steering than usual if it fails. Faulty airbag modules in some models made between August 2016 and November 2016 may not activate correctly in a collision; new modules will need to be fitted to solve the issue. An issue with the crankshaft sensor was reported on some cars made between May 2018 and June 2018 - which could lead to the engine going into an emergency reduced power mode, limiting performance. Otherwise, it's just the usual things. Look for signs of child interior damage and check the alloys for scratches and scuffs.
[based on a 2015 model 235i auto] Parts prices for an M23i or M240i Coupe from this period can be reasonable if you shop around. We trawled around the internet and found these: An air filter costs around £56. An oil filter is in the £29 bracket. A fuel filter is in the £43 bracket. Front brake discs cost in the £105-£150 bracket, though pricier brands can cost in the £420 bracket. Rear brake discs cost in the £315 bracket, though pricier brands can cost in the £400 bracket. Front brake pads sit in the £84-£97 for a set. A set of rear pads is around £167. A starter motor is around £570. A wiper blade costs in the £12-£15 bracket.
On the Road
You expect quite a lot of a BMW bearing a badge like this, even though it designates 'M Performance', rather than full M-car status. The Bavarian marque has, after all, produced some legendary cars of this kind back down through the years. So, what's it like? Well, you settle in behind the wheel and everything seems just right, the driving position perfect: already, you're feeling like driving rather than merely travelling. Punch the starter button, listen to the rasp of BMW's superb six cylinder 3.0-litre petrol unit set off and you'll find yourself looking forward to finding a road that will put the Bavarian maker's bold claims for this car to the test.
Get to the first open bend and you also find yourself pushing a little harder than you might normally - just to see. Sure enough, power into a corner, dab the brakes, turn the wheel and it's true. There's a feeling of perfect control. Ideal 50:50 axle load distribution, optimised aerodynamics, a long wheelbase and a low, ideally balanced centre of gravity combine with rear wheel drive to give this car its unique agility
It's one of those that just feels right within the first fifty metres, this down to the sum of a whole series of small but important things that simply hit the right notes. The things we've just mentioned also combine with many others: seating position, control weights, engine tractability, suspension refinement, basic ergonomics - stuff like that. As for the way that leaves you feeling, well, it's much like the sort of thing you've probably heard about interviewers you've faced having often made their decision before you've even got into your seat. First impressions are crucial - and this 2 Series nails them.
But then you'd expect a top performance 2 Series model to be able to do that. We're anticipating that many buyers of this M Performance 2 Series Coupe F22 model (the 326hp M235i sold between 2014 and 2017 and the 335hp M240i took over until the end of sales in 2021) will be people who owned or enjoyed the old 1 Series M Coupe - or maybe even an old M3. If that's you, then one of the first differences you're going to notice with this car is the addition of standard Drive Performance Control, the rocker switch for which you'll find down by the gearstick. You might be familiar with this kind of thing by now, a set-up that allows you to tweak the steering, throttle and stability control system thresholds depending on the operating mode you select. Gear change times too if, like many M235i or M240i buyers, you decide against a version with the slick 6-speed stick shifter and choose a car with 8-speed Sport automatic paddle-shift transmission. This features a natty launch control system for would-be Alonsos.
If you ignore the attributes of Drive Performance Control - or select its most relaxed 'Comfort' or efficient 'ECO PRO' settings - then the travelling experience in this car, though quite comfortable, won't be especially memorable. Push the rocker switch forward into 'Sport' though and the reaction you get immediately feels keener and more alert. More like the kind of 2 Series enthusiasts would expect this car to be. The further 'Sport +' setting will of course sharpen things up even more and relax the DSC control to provide a little more tail-out cornering leeway - if you should be that way inclined. To really create that kind of machine though, you've to get a car whose original owner spent a bit of extra money on the M Sport Adaptive Suspension set-up, a system that works as part of Drive Performance Control and is able to alter the ride to suit the road you're on and the mood you're in.
Driving enthusiasts will often tell you that sports cars aren't what they once were. With four wheel drive and electronic interference rife in modern performance machines, almost anyone can buy such a thing and drive it very fast indeed. So where are the cars you have to master? The ones you have to tame? Where yours are the risks - and yours the rewards? Most manufacturers no longer make them - but BMW does. With compact dimensions, a reasonably light weight, explosive power, rear wheel drive and realistic pricing, this 'F22'-era M235i/M240i model satisfied just about every wish on an old-school enthusiast's tick list. And it did so in a way that truly re-captured the spirit of original M Power models.
There's simply nothing else like this car from its period. Everything else you might consider as a competitor is either bigger or smaller, with front or four-wheel drive. Would a pricey, fully-fledged M2 version of this 2 Series Coupe 'F22 model be any better than this? We rather doubt it. Sure, it'd be more powerful, but away from the racetrack, that wouldn't really add any extra real world speed to those rare occasions when it's possible to let rip on a public road.
As one writer pointed out, if the M3 is a hunting rifle in its approach to delivering powerful performance, then this car's attitude is more akin to that of a sawn-off shotgun. It might not be pretty but it's pretty darn effective - and something you mess with at your peril. A race car for the road. Just as every true M Power machine really should be.