The M235i may be the best all-rounder coupe on BMW’s books – we drive it from New York to Montreal
I’m powering along Interstate-87 in upstate New York, skirting the navy lakes and emerald mountains of the Adirondacks when I pass a police car hidden behind the trees and see its red lights start whirring. Urgh, that sinking feeling. Asked if the car belongs to me I explain that I’m a journalist reviewing it, and that I’m en route to Montreal. “Well we know it goes over 90, so that’s good,” offers the sheriff. “Montreal is 125 miles from here. You can make it in an hour but I’d rather you take two. Nice car by the way, looks like a lot of fun.”
He’s not wrong. I’m in the new BMW M235i; a compact coupe with blunt features and a big engine. Kind of a four-wheeled .357 Magnum. Its 3.0 litre turbocharged straight-six engine purrs like the opening guitar solo of Alice Cooper’s Poison, feeding 332bhp through the rear wheels and hitting 60mph in 4.8 seconds.
This Beamer gives its driver a feeling of invincibility, prompting me to reach for the Sport button and start doing the maths on my chances of crossing the border a free man. Its eight-speed auto box shifts flawlessly up to 155mph. Despite good odds, though, I decided not to try and outrun the law enforcement.
Having picked up the car in Manhattan to make the 400 mile journey to Montreal, I decided to stay a night in the Adirondacks, a state park that stretches almost to the Canadian border. Its gilded age was a century ago, when America’s oldest dynasties kept holiday homes there. These Great Camps didn’t come any greater than The Point, once the retreat of the Rockerfellers and now arguably the most exclusive hotel in the country. Perched on the rugged peninsula of Lake Saranac, it embodies the 19th century notion of roughing it in luxury and its exact location is a guarded secret, known only to those who can get a reservation. Armed with a car built for the purist, and one which promises to take the BMW brand back to basics, it seems like a worthy destination.
The M235i’s looks hint at its pocket rocket potential. Its origins lie in the entry-level 1-Series, the BMW range having recently undergone some re-badging. The 1-Series coupe becomes the 2-Series, just as the 3-Series coupe and cabrio have become the 4. Cars with four or more doors retain the odd numbers. Even numbers are now given to the sportier stuff.
It’s distinguished from the standard 2-Series by big mean-looking front air dams, which help suck the suspension down towards the asphalt; the absence of front fog lights; grey door mirrors; smoked exhaust pipes and a little lip-spoiler on the boot. It sits 10mm lower and gets sportier suspension, bigger brakes and special tyres. It looks more like a shrunken 4-Series, with a similar bonnet and meaty haunches.
In fact, the closest spiritual ancestor is probably the 1973 2002 Turbo, which packed half the horsepower but promised handling as sharp as a samurai sword, no-nonsense style and theme park thrills. That was Europe’s first turbocharged mainstream passenger car, and something that became a pièce-de-résistance at the Bavarian Motor Works.
Here in Upstate, Beamers from the city are not an uncommon site, but most of the locals stick to Jeeps, Volvos and all-American station wagons. For those who appreciate a “woody” – Detroit metal with a strip of wood-effect detailing down the side – this is a Mecca. I count myself as a fan.
Having found The Point’s discrete entrance, the BMW is put away for the night and I settle into the “Weatherwatch” cabin, one of 11 guest suites on the property. Built from native timber and stone, it has an enormous fireplace, a four-poster bed so tall you need a step ladder to crawl in, various taxidermy and an antique telescope to make the most of the epic view of the shining lake. It’s both splendid and rustic. The bathroom had once been a dark room – William Rockerfeller was a keen amateur photographer – with three large black slate sinks and a dim red light overhead still in place.
As Great Camp tradition dictates, the guests all dine together. It’s rather different to a regular hotel, more like joining friends for a house party in the woods. Before dinner in the great hall – more lived-in than lavish – you’re invited to don a suit or smoking jacket and join the others on a gothic-looking Elco electric boat for cocktails.
The Rockerfellers were petrolheads, just like anyone with money to burn in America’s adolescence. I wonder what treasures would have been housed in their garage. Now it has been converted into a private pub with a billiards table, jukebox, darts and shelves stuffed with curling books and board games.
The BMW sat impatiently in the driveway, promising games of its own as the sun rose over the lake. Having enjoyed the sybaritic wilderness and a hearty breakfast it was time to press on to Canada. Remember the notion of BMWs as ultimate driving machines? That meant modern, refined, yet driver-focused cars that could outhandle rival Mercedes, Audis and Jaguars. Now we live in a time where every luxury manufacturer is out to fill niches, with crossover SUVs and super-efficient city cars. Even the legendary M3 has gone off the reservation; once the finest four-seat coupe in the business, but now ever-bigger, overly complicated and expensive.
The M235i is a BMW for the enthusiast. It’s beautifully engineered but Prada-simple. The approach: less is more. This isn’t a full-fat M-car; it is an M Sport car, which means it’s not trying to be a boiling hot performance vehicle. If the 228i Coupe is Premium Economy, this is Business Class, while the M4 is First Class with the price tag to match.
Inside, the ergonomics are typically BMW-brilliant: the leather sports seats are comfortable and supportive, the sat-nav screen with its 3D skyscrapers – particularly striking when negotiating Manhattan traffic – is large and informative, the rear seats are a little grumblesome for anyone over 5ft 10in but better than a two-plus-two. In my Estoril Blue car I had a black fascia inlaid with a feline-looking dark wood and fetching brown leather seats.
The M235i is far more practical than a Porsche Cayman, just as well built, and almost as good dynamically. It’s ahead of the offerings from Merc and Audi. It’s a Jack Russell; small but muscular and confident; it’ll stare down bigger dogs and yelp and jump for attention.
It’s an ideal real-world performance car: it can carry a family of five, it’ll squeeze into small parking spaces, and has enough room in the boot for a couple of suitcases or a fortnight’s shopping. It cruises smoothly and economically, and when you want to have fun you’ll savour its superb handling and capable, sweet-sounding engine. All that for £36,000.
Best of all it’s got a young soul. It doesn’t feel too grown up or compromised. The M235i is a college kid with the world ahead of it, and just the right balance of book swatting and appetite for parties. It’ll be well behaved and thrifty when touring down the motorway, and it’ll stay up all night, flirt and drain the barrel when blasting down a country lane. It’s exactly the kind of all-rounder coupe BMW were always good at – it should graduate with honours. It’ll probably get grounded for that speeding ticket, though.