By now, anyone who reads my articles on a regular basis is familiar with the fact that, prior to moving to Boston, I owned a 1999 BMW 540i with a six-speed manual transmission and the sports suspension. Even after having driven dozens of newer, faster, and more expensive cars, it’s a car I still love. It was comfortable, reliable, and fairly practical, but yet it was also absolutely invigorating to drive.
It was exactly what a BMW should be.
Since the early-to-mid-2000s, though, the story with BMW has been that it’s lost its edge. Supposedly, chasing increased sales has turned the company’s cars into something other than Ultimate Driving Machines. But after my time in the BMW M235i convertible, I can tell you that if anything has been lost in the last 10 or 15 years, BMW has found it again.
First of all, it looks like a proper BMW. I was a fan of the 1 Series and its diminutive size, but its baby-BMW proportions never really gave it the look of a real BMW. The 2 Series is definitely still small, but it has the looks and the presence that will keep people from wondering whether it’s a “real” BMW or not. It looked especially good in Estoril Blue Metallic, which would be my color of choice if I were to buy one.
Like with the exterior design, I thought the interior was exactly what it should be for a BMW sports car. You want a BMW to have a nice interior, and you certainly don’t want it to feel flimsy or cheap, but you also don’t want to be swaddled in luxury. It’s not really as nice as you might expect for the price, but we’ll get to that later. I was generally happy with the interior while I was driving it.
The thing is, though, sitting down in the M235i, it was think too much about the interior because of the fact that I was driving a 320-horsepower, rear-wheel-drive convertible with a six-speed manual transmission. That’s a recipe for a lot of fun no matter what car you’re driving, but I had a BMW, which had the potential to be even more fun.
As it turned out, the M235i convertible was a blast.
Starting the car up, I was happy to hear the sound of a sport-tuned exhaust. One of my biggest complaints about my 540i is that it was too quiet and gentlemanly. The M235i’s exhaust wasn’t interested in putting up a gentlemanly facade and instead made sure I knew its inline six was ready to play.
The interior wasn’t the same, the steering wheel felt different, and there was no roof, but the shape of the shifter was refreshingly familiar. Every time I grabbed it to shift, it was like getting a little taste of being back in my old car.
Like my old car, the M235i had a lot of low-end torque to play with, making it easy to have fun even when I was driving around town. Sure, I could really gun and be rewarded with even more sound and speed, but I didn’t necessarily have to. The 320 horsepower on tap was enough to make it an enjoyable car to drive without necessarily feeling trapped by the city like you might in, say, an M4.
I was also surprised at how comfortable it felt, even in Sport mode. Part of that was thanks to the well-tuned chassis and suspension, but I’m pretty sure the car’s size had a lot to do with it as well. Being less than 70 inches wide, it was almost 10 inches narrower than the Volvo XC90 I drove a few weeks earlier and just barely wider than a Mini Cooper Hardtop. That meant it was also narrow enough to avoid a lot of road imperfections, which goes a long way towards having a more comfortable ride.
One feature I was unsure I’d like was the auto start-stop feature that automatically stayed on in Comfort or Eco mode. After a few days of using it off and on (no pun intended), I ended up liking it better than I expected but only because I was driving a manual. The built-in delay that comes with having to depress the clutch before starting a manual car from a stop made it much less intrusive when the engine fired back up. Had I been in an automatic, I’m not so sure I would have felt the same way.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Just because the M235i was easy to live with around town doesn’t mean it wasn’t more fun on more open roads. On the contrary, it was one of the few cars that was a legitimate distraction to have in my driveway while I was trying to work. I love my job, but focusing was next to impossible with that car outside, begging me to take it out and drive it like it was meant to be driven.
Once the weekend hit, I finally had the chance to escape my urban prison. At the request of my co-driver and lovely fiancée, we pointed ourselves in the direction of the beach, dropped the top, and headed on our merry way.
On the subject of that convertible top: It only takes 20 seconds to raise or lower, which isn’t terribly long as far as convertibles go, but it is long enough that you’ll probably quickly lose interest in lowering it for quick errands like a five minute drive to the grocery store. Luckily, with the top up, the little 2 Series had an abundance of headroom and was pretty quiet.
Any time you decide to go for a real drive, it’ll be worth it to put the top down. Not only did the sun and the wind make driving it more fun, I could also hear more of the exhaust, which is always a good thing in a performance car. We didn’t have to worry much about the wind, either, since the rear-seat mounted deflector did a great job of reducing the wind and wind noise in the cabin.
Compared to the last convertible I drove, the Volkswagen Beetle TDI, it was much easier to have a conversation at highway speeds.
Unfortunately, due to my inability to function properly as a morning person, we left too late to avoid traffic and ended up stuck in a manual driver’s worst nightmare – several miles of stop-and-go traffic. If it were something I’d have to deal with every day, I could see dumping the manual in favor of the automatic, but it ended up not being that bad at all. If my scrawny little legs could handle a traffic jam without getting worn out, I’m sure most other drivers could do the same thing.
When the traffic cleared, and the road opened up, I finally had the opportunity to actually have some more fun. Boy — was it way more fun to be driving on roads that didn’t force me to let off the gas once I reached 35 miles per hour. Shifting your own gears will always rob a few tenths of a second off your zero-to-60 time, but tenths of a second only count on the track. In everyday driving, what matters is driving enjoyment, and for that I’ll still take a manual transmission every time.
Eventually, my time with the M235i had to come to an end. That day was a sad day, not just because it brought back memories of my beloved old car but also because BMW succeeded in creating a little two-door convertible that’s an absolute blast to drive. In a different life, I could easily live with it as my only form of transportation and be perfectly happy with it. It’s even rated at 32 miles per gallon highway, making it much more fuel efficient than you might expect.
The only significant downside to the M235i – other than the fact it’s not the full M2 – is its price. The car I tested was right around $57,000, and when I configured one online myself, I only got it down to a hair under $55,000. If you have $57,000 to spend, it puts you in a price bracket where you have quite a few options to choose from. While it’s not enough for a Porsche Boxster S, it’s almost exactly what you would spend on a lightly-optioned Porsche Boxster.
The Boxster doesn’t have as much horsepower as the M235i and doesn’t even attempt to offer the option of transporting a third passenger, but it does have a significantly nicer interior, drives like a dream, and comes with a little bit more prestige.
At a certain point, though, you have to decide whether you’d rather have the best version of a car that costs less to begin with or barely make it into the cheapest version of a car that’s generally more expensive. That’s not a decision I can make for you, but I can tell you that if you decide to go with the BMW M235i convertible, I highly doubt you’ll be disappointed.
It’s a car that’s a ton of fun to drive, and if it’s any indication of what BMW has in store for the future, then BMW is headed in a great direction.