Silvio Calabi: Sweetness and light: The BMW M235i Convertible
Last week I went to a BMW club meeting to hear Rob Siegel speak. He’s the longtime columnist for the group’s Roundel magazine who wrote Confessions of a Hack Mechanic, a book I enjoyed and once reviewed. As Siegel flashed slides of his project BMWs through the decades — cars I owned, loved and lusted after, mostly in the ’70s — it really sank in just how complicated, costly and overwrought many of our German cars have gotten. The technology gap between a 1972 BMW Bavaria sedan and today’s 750i sports-limo is as wide as the order of magnitude difference in their prices.
When Rob was done, I shook his hand, snagged a cookie and drove home in one of those new BMWs: an M235i convertible. It doesn’t feel overwrought. Its top is made of fabric. It costs less than two ordinary cars. I didn’t have to study the owner’s manual to tune the radio. Along with its “M” badge and performance goodies, it had a manual transmission with six speeds, a hand lever and a clutch pedal. It is truly small (not like the 3-Series, which is small only next to the 5s and 7s) and quick and direct, and it has restored some of my faith in the “ultimate driving machine.” How refreshingly retro it seemed!
The M235i packs BMW’s effortless 3.0-liter TwinPower turbocharged Six, tuned for 320 horsepower and 330 torques. With this gearbox, rear-wheel drive and just about perfect balance fore and aft, the car launches to 60 MPH in five seconds flat. As the newbie in BMW’s M Performance gang of hooligans, it’ll do just 130 mph — but it’s a fun-in-the-sun droptop, not a track machine. Not that it would flop around helplessly on a racetrack; the M235i is wonderfully agile yet composed and comfortable at any speed, and the engine pulls so well that downshifting seems almost rude somehow. (BMW motors’ torque has finally caught up with their horsepower.)
All is not as retro as it seems, however. Yes, an M235i is eight inches shorter and two inches narrower than a 3-Series BMW, but somehow the two cars weigh almost the same: nearly two tons. This hints at what’s packed into this M235i convertible, in addition to its heavy power-folding-top machinery.
For instance: Next to the shift lever is a rocker switch that calls up four drive modes — Eco, Comfort, Sport, Sport+ — which conspicuously alter the car’s behavior. (We used Sport on secondary roads and Comfort on the interstate, disabled the engine stop-start feature, enjoyed the car very much, and still averaged 25 mpg overall — one mpg less than the M235i’s highway rating.) Here’s another clue to the M235i’s engineering complexity: The Dynamic Stability Control includes Anti-lock Braking (ABS), Dynamic Traction Control (DTC), Cornering Brake Control (CBC) and Dynamic Brake Control (DBC), while the M Sport brakes have Brake Assist, Fade Compensation, Brake Drying and something called an Active Differential Brake that acts like a limited-slip rear axle. FOC (fear of clutch) is much mitigated by SOA, Start-Off Assistant, which holds the car for a few seconds on a hill while an unskilled driver fumbles with the pedals.
So there’s a lot going on in this simple-seeming car. Even its engine song has been monkeyed with. Top up or down, it makes a surprisingly deep, almost V-8 burr. That’s an “enhanced” sound piped in through the stereo speakers. And let’s not forget that, at $49,000 and up, the M235i convertible is a premium car too, with 10-way power front seats, automatic climate control, adaptive cruise control, adaptive Xenon headlamps, an iDrive joystick linked to a computer screen and much more, plus extra-cost options.
After a while it becomes painfully clear that the most retro aspect of the car, its optional manual gearbox (enjoyable and crisp though it is) is much slower than the M235i’s normal transmission, a modern eight-speed, dual-clutch automatic with shift paddles. This forces the question: Are sports cars meant to be quick — or old-school? How retro do we really want to go? Are you willing to sacrifice today’s levels of performance, safety and comfort in the name of theoretical simplicity? I guess I’m not, at least in a car for everyday use.
- Joy of driving
- Choice of gearboxes: old school or new
- Truly compact
- Only seems retro
- Two tons?! (not that it’s noticeable)
- Why must we shut off the ignition twice?
Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at email@example.com.