2014 BMW M 235i First Drive: Stretching the Definition of M

What's in the name? 

For decades, Audi Quattro GmbH, Mercedes-Benz AMG, and BMW's M division have produced specialty sports cars and motorsport-inspired accessories for public consumption. Whereas Audi does an effective job of distinguishing its in-house S variants from Quattro's ultra-exclusive RS offerings, BMW's performance branding seems to produce more questions than answers for the majority of casual car buyers. The 2014 BMW M 235i could be the solution to this nomenclature conundrum. 

2014 Compact Cars at a glance

First and foremost, the 2014 M 235i is not a full-fledged M variant like the venerated M3 and M5. The primary reason behind this categorization boils down to the fact that the vast majority of components that comprise the M 235i are sourced from BMW's conventional parts bin. For those playing the home game, true BMW M cars typically come fitted with proprietary powertrains, suspension systems and, in some cases, flared sheetmetal. To help clarify its place in the universe even further, the M 235i essentially bridges the performance gap between the entry-level 228i and the potentially forthcoming M2. 

How does it perform? 

Like virtually all models tuned by BMW's M division, the 2014 M 235i feels just as at home on the racetrack as it does around town. This adaptable personality is where the M 235i holds a sizable edge over the incessantly harsh Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG. The M 235i outclasses the CLA45 AMG in the transmission department as well. For instance, only the M 235i offers a purist-pleasing 6-speed manual, and the CLA45's dual-clutch gearbox is simply no match for the BMW's optional 8-speed automatic when it comes to refinement and responsiveness. Yes, we said it: BMW's ZF-sourced autobox is more responsive than the CLA's state-of-the-art dual-clutch unit. 

Apart from a noticeable amount of wind noise at highway speeds, the overall interior experience is nearly on par with that of the larger and more expensive 3 Series. The well-bolstered front seats provide plenty of support for spirited driving, while the standard M-spec steering wheel transmits a decent amount of feedback given its electromechanical nature. High-speed stability is also surprisingly solid for a compact coupe with a relatively short wheelbase. On a sour note, the rear-drive M 235i checks in roughly 200 pounds heavier than the outgoing 135i, a perceivable weight gain that translates to a slight loss in agility.    

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Motivation comes in the form of BMW's now ubiquitous turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6. But because the M 235i wears the coveted M badge, BMW retuned the N55 powerplant for 320 horsepower and 330 lb-ft of torque. City/highway fuel economy figures for automatic transmission models earn a 22/32 rating, with manual-equipped models dropping that figure by three and four marks, respectively.  

Drivers who regularly participate in track days can opt for a dealer-installed mechanical limited-slip differential developed by M performance. In an effort to broaden their reach beyond factory-installed parts, M performance will offer a host of bolt-on accessories for the M 235i, including forged 19-inch wheels, a sport-tuned exhaust system, and numerous carbon fiber appliques. 

When can I get my hands on one? 

The 2014 BMW M 235i starts arriving in dealer showrooms March 1, with a starting price of $44,025. At this price, the M 235i occupies the middle ground between the $48,000 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG and the upcoming 2015 Audi S3, which is expected to open at around $42,000 when it goes on sale in early 2015. 

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