For awhile, Audi was the king of the small premium sedan in America. The Audi A3, and its sportier Audi S3 sibling has been either one of the best-selling, or the very best-selling car in its class. However, the little A3 has some new competition in the segment in the US market, the all-new BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe. So we recently had the chance to test the new 2 Series to see if it could stack up with the A3 and if Audi should be worried. More specifically, we tested the BMW M235i Gran Coupe to see if the Audi S3 should worry.
The car I drove was a pre-production, camouflaged car but it was close enough that it could properly represent the final production car. Though, due to its pre-pro nature, I won’t comment on build quality or material quality. I can, however, comment on what it was like to drive. Before we do that, though, let’s take a look at what the BMW M235i Gran Coupe is on paper.
Let’s Check the Specs
Being based on BMW’s new FAAR front-wheel drive modular architecture, the BMW M235i Gran Coupe is a mechanical sibling to the M135i. In the US, we don’t get the latter, so that leaves the 2 Series Gran Coupe family as the only FAAR car we get at the moment. Being an M Performance model, the M235i is the flagship of the 2er GC lineup and it’s the fastest one BMW will ever make, as no true M model will be made from it.
Powering the BMW M235i Gran Coupe is a 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, that makes 301 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque, mounted sideways in the engine bay. I mention that last bit because it’s still odd to see a transverse engine setup in a BMW. Mated to that little four-pot is an eight-speed automatic gearbox, sourced from Aisin and power is sent primarily to the front wheels. However, the M235i also has a Haldex all-wheel drive system which, in a nutshell, uses an electronic clutch to engage the rear driveshaft and axles. It’s a nearly identical setup to the one used in the Audi S3, as well as the TT RS.
Like all Haldex setups, the rear axle can only received a maximum of 50-percent of available engine power under most circumstances. If the front axle completely loses grip, such as if just the two front wheels are on slippery, the rear axle can get more than 50-percent of the power. But in all realistic circumstances, the BMW M235i has a maximum 50/50 torque split.
Though, making up for some of that is the fact that the front axle gets a Torsen limited-slip differential. That’s been added to reduce understeer and provide maximum grip at the front end, a necessary and welcome addition to a front-bias sports car.
While Audi fans are used to this sort of front-wheel drive/all-wheel drive setup, BMW fans are not. As you might already know, most BMWs are rear-wheel drive first, with all-wheel drive being optional. So it’s a bit shocking to see a front-wheel drive-based car with a Roundel on its hood.
On the Road
This is where I started my time with the BMW M235i Gran Coupe. From BMW’s Spartanburg plant, I took the M235i out on some relatively twisty rural roads, which featured some decent little turns, all sorts of different pavement qualities and some straightaways to test the power. Basically, I drove it on the sorts of roads that most American buyers will be driving it on.
Power in a straight line is impressive, with a hefty mid-range punch once it comes on boost. Being a small, turbocharged engine, there’s a bit of lag down low but it’s short-lived and once the boost comes on, it’s more than quick enough. It’s also a refined powertrain, one that’s smooth and in keeping with the rest of BMW’s impressive powertrains.
When it came time to get twisty, the roads weren’t really good enough to test out the car’s handling. However, the steering is nicely weighted and more than sharp enough for road use. It’s light on feel but what car isn’t nowadays? Its weight does load up nicely when applying lock, so that helps in regard to feel. It’s not the best steering in BMW’s lineup but it’s certainly not bad. I’d have to drive it and the S3 back to back to judge which has better steering but they’re about the same. The S3’s feels a bit quicker but it’s also a bit lighter and number.
What impressed me most on the road was its ride. Some of the roads surrounding Spartanburg are pockmarked at best, yet the little M235i handled them very well. Rough pavement can be real trouble for sporty cars with short wheelbases and firm suspension but the BMW M235i is supple enough and composed enough where they’re never an issue. It’s a firm car, make no mistake, but it’s a sports car after all. Yet, it’s just supple enough for everyday driving, even in areas with dodgy roads.
After pulling the M235i back into the Spartanburg facility, I came away with a positive impression. Sure, it’s not a bonafide thrill ride but it’s more than fun enough for daily use and it has no problem carving up a road. It’s not a 3 Series but it’s also not trying to be.
On the Track
Following my road drive, I decided to jump into the BMW M235i Gran Coupe for some laps on the track. It was toward the end of the day and I had already driven some very fast, very impressive cars. So I honestly wasn’t expecting much. Plus, I was doing some lead follow while at the back of the line, with a BMW X6 M50i and an M5 Competition ahead of me. So I wasn’t setup for much success.
While the M235i is relatively quick, it simply could not keep up with either of the cars ahead of me. Even the big, lumbering X6 M50i rocketed away from me with ease. With my foot to the floor, the M235i couldn’t even begin to reel it in. Having said that, that was actually a blessing in disguise.
All of that space between me and the X6 in front of me meant that I could attack corners the way I wanted without having to worry about braking at certain times to stay in line. Not that I’m a pro-driver and would have needed to overtake anyway, but the extra space was nice to play with.
And play I did. The BMW M235i Gran Coupe might not sound like fun on a track when looking at the spec sheet but it’s a surprisingly rowdy thing. Being front-biased, it’s never going to be as fun as something like an M2 or M3, or even an M240i Coupe. However, if you accept that and just drive it like a front-wheel drive car, it’s actually a lot of fun.
It understeers a bit but that actually helps it feel a bit safe and, after its initial understeer, that Torsen front diff and Haldex all-wheel drive system help to reign it all in. Then you can get back on the power and hustle down to the next corner. It’s not the most exciting car to drive on track and it’s not going to send shivers down your spine. But it certainly put a smile on my face and made me giggle a few times. It has a scrappy underdog feel to it, as if it’s more fun than it’s supposed to be, and there’s something very endearing about that.
So Should the Audi S3 be Worried?
After spending a bit of time with the BMW M235i Gran Coupe in a variety of different circumstances, the answer to that question is, well…maybe.
There are a lot of things to like about the new BMW M235i Gran Coupe. For starters, it’s fun to drive. Forget the emblem on the steering wheel, if you had no idea what sort of car you were in and took it out on the track, you’d have fun. Throw all preconceived notions of front-wheel drive BMWs away and the M235i is an enjoyable car to drive hard, even if it isn’t an absolute thrill ride.
It’s powerful enough to be engaging on the road and is surprisingly quick. Despite being quick and sporty, it’s also quite comfortable, so it can be daily driven with ease. It also has a great interior, with lovely seats, a fresh design, great build quality throughout and some of the best tech in the segment.
Are there issues? Sure, it’s not perfect. I still don’t think it’s a good looking car but design is subjective and maybe I’m not the best judge of style. It’s also a bit expensive, being on the wrong side of $40,000.
Having said that, there are more positives than negatives. The BMW M235i is a practical, fast and surprisingly fun car to drive. Is it as good or better than the Audi S3? Honestly, it’s been quite some time since I’ve driven the Audi S3 but I do remember some of what it’s like to drive and I remember enjoying it quite a bit. I also remember it more fondly than I remember the M235i but, again, that was a long time ago. The only way to tell which is better is to get them back-to-back. However, until then, the answer to whether or not the Audi S3 should be worried about the BMW M235i is emphatically “yes”.