For years I’ve thought that BMW had erroneously ceded the affluent youth market. When I was in the market for my first new BMW in 2001 (having only bought used 3 Series previously) the only car that moved me that I could actually afford was a poverty spec 325ci (the coupe not the convertible). Even with manual and sport package options ticked it was truthfully not overly interesting. So when MINI came to the US in 2002 I quickly sold it and moved down the ladder to something infinitely more involving and rewarding.
Fast forward a few years and BMW had an answer. The 1 Series (and more specifically the 135i) was a revelation with 300 hp and a price that started below $40k. We loved it back in 2007, 2009 and even last year. But a funny thing about the 135i. If you talked to those inside BMW during that era, they would tell you quietly that it was a missed opportunity. Sure it was a great car for the money. But with some further engineering work, added equipment and a healthy dose of pedigree, it could have been much more.
Enter the 1M. Apparently those inside M had even grader visions. In the summer of 2009 a small team of engineers and the M Division begun a skunkworks project on a car code-named Pyrat. The name came from the preferred brand of Rum of the team (and reportedly enjoyed in the late night hours). But it also spoke of the concept of the car. Raw and raucous, the 1M was meant to be a back to basics M car.
After seeing the rough prototype Albert Biermann (head of BMW M engineering) told the team that they would have to work through their August vacation in order to get it ready for board approval in September of that year. And if they missed that deadline they’d likely not get another chance. The story gets better. Apparently Kay Segler (then the head of M) slipped the 1M proposal in the back of his presentation to the board that September. The idea was that if all goes well with the upfront, the board would be in a good mood and by the time they got to the 1m proposal, they’d rubber stamp it (despite isn’t presented the idea of a 1 Series M product twice before). Luckily that’s exactly what happened and the board, eager to leave the all-day meeting, got excited about the idea and told Dr Segler to build it immediately.
The story of the 1M is key to the M235i because the subsequent success of the car reminded BMW of just how important the small performance car market is. And it reminded the world that they could do it exceptionally well.
The M235i (and the forthcoming M2) owes a lot to the work that the 1M team did in crafting a car that seemingly BMW had forgotten how to build.
The resulting M235i isn’t an M car like the 1M. And truthfully I wasn’t going to write a comparison as I thought it was unfair to the M235i. Then I drove it.
Entering the M235i’s cabin you’re immediately aware of BMW’s renewed emphasis on the driver in its interior design. All controls and screens are subtly canted towards the driver giving the indication that this is a serious car with a focused personality. Despite the presence of an 8 Speed automatic, our test car was sparsely optioned giving it a lower sticker price than any you’ll find on dealer lots. All the better I thought since this should be all about getting back to basics.
The 1M (and the E82 itself) represents something of a highpoint (or low-point if you prefer) of BMW’s interior flame surfacing design language. Intersecting lines give the impression more of sculpture than cockpit. Despite this, all of the driver’s controls are exactly where they’re expected. And the execution of the touch-points (M steering wheel, M shift lever and properly spaced pedals) makes it all feel like a tailored suit upon entering the cabin.
Add to this touches of Alcantara, orange stitching and grey and black M dials and the 1M feels special. The M235i may have the better interior as a whole but the 1M has a presence inside that it can’t quite match.
Outside the subtlety between the two evaporates. The M235i is as handsome as any BMW made. Its proportions are (to my eye) more classically shaped than the 4 Series and connect better to classic BMW coupes of years past. On the other hand the 1 Series that the 1M is based on has been derided for years for its “sow” line and awkward front. However with the 2011 LCI BMW neatly rectified the headlights and M’s designers have taken care of the rest. With the distinctive M front and the widest fenders outside of a Z3 Coupe, the 1M is one of the most purposeful BMW designs ever. It serves to put the M235i in perspective as a handsome car that has been subtly massaged to be sporty. The 1M on the other hand looks like a wild rethink that just happens to share a chassis with an ordinary car.
Naturally it’s all subjective so opinions on the above may vary. But to these eyes both cars have nailed their briefs. So let’s get to driving them.
The M235i starts up quieter than the 1M but with a voice that serves to note its character. As I slip the auto into D and then over to sport everything feels quite ordinary and un M-like. Then I grab the wheel and launch myself into the world.
The M235i (ActiveSound and all) is one of the best sounding BMW inline sixes in a generation. Outside of the E46 M3 I can’t think of a single one with a more addicting soundtrack. Even the 1M comes up a little short comparatively.
More importantly though is what is coming through the steering wheel. Real feel.
There’s been a massive and collective moan over the past few years as BMW moved from mechanical to electrically boosting steering. Rightly so as most of the cars so burdened have been afflicted with vague steering feel and feedback that rings of unneeded isolation from the experience of driving (especially if your tagline is “the ultimate driving machine”). And up against the 1M which (even more than the E90/E92 M3) has an exceptionally precise feel and perfect weighting the M235i can’t hope to match. But it’s good enough that if you’re not driving the two back to back, you’re going to quickly forget what you’re missing. That’s not meant to be faint praise mind you. The M235i rewards drivers with a level of feel and precision that non-M cars haven’t enjoyed since the E46 ZHP.
Out of the M235i and into the 1M the first thing you notice (beyond the weight and precision in the controls) is the explosion of power that never seems to abate. Where the M235i feels surprisingly fast, the 1M feels like a little muscle car. On paper the two don’t seem that far apart. But the more you look the more you see (and feel) distinct differences.
The two are more or less equal in 0-60 times yet the 1M feels faster in every other conceivable way. Is it truly faster? The M235i is more rigid which helps give it the edge on tracks like the Nurburgring. But as you can see in the Hockenheim lap times (a track often cited as a better judge of performance in street cars) the 1M crosses the line over a full second faster.
The N55 under the hood of the M235i on paper has only 15 hp and 40 ft lbs less than the 1M. But in truth they both feel faster than numbers indicate. The N55’s torque curve isn’t so much curve as it is a straight line. This allows the M235i to be feel explosive in the first few gears and always ready to pounce with the appropriate downshift. This coupled with an adequate e-diff and conservatively sized tires (225 / 40 / 18 up front, 245 / 35 / 18 in back) the M235i allows for plenty of slip and (yes) drift potential. Let’s give that some emphasis for the Chris Harris fans… PLENTY OF DRIFT POTENTIAL. Put plainly M engineers have judged this car’s suspension, power delivery and tire choice perfectly, creating a car that is immediately fun, tactile and fast.
At the limit it will initially understeer like most BMWs. However unlike the old 135i which would happily push through corners forever, it’s easier to initiate oversteer with a jab of the throttle and a flick of the steering wheel. Combined with the relatively linear power delivery of the tuned N55, the M235i reacts how we always wanted the 135i to. Like a small, powerful rear wheel drive coupe put together by hooligans with engineering degrees.
Back in the 1M you immediately understand how M has separated M Performance Automobiles like the M235i and outright M cars. Where the M235i has some key components upgraded or retuned, the 1M feels like an entirely different vehicle to the 135i. The 1M can be persuaded to drift at almost any speed and with only small inputs.
Turn-in is faster than the M235i and (critically) you feel more feedback and precision through the wheel. Added to this the driver also has more control in power delivery thanks to the aggressive throttle mapping – especially in M mode. The M235i feels less high-strung in comparison from its power delivery, steering and even DSC software. The latter on the 1M (known as MDM) allows for enough slip angle to drift out of corners and is still the most drift happy MDM programming to come from M.
In short the 1M is a car that feels as if it’s begging to go sideways where the M235i is begging to simply go fast.
The BMW M235i represents more than just the next generation of the 135i. It’s one of those rare BMW’s that has nailed the mid-point between the typical “series” BMW and an outright M car. Thanks to M engineers sweating the details, the M235i rewards the driver with more than just outright power but a delicacy in control and feedback that few cars have in 2014.
With a as-tested price of only $46,575 (the only options being metallic paint, leather seating and the cold weather package) our M235i test car represented massive value when you consider the 135is it’s replacing. That’s reinforced when looking at 1M values. In 2011 the 1M base MSRP was only $46,135. But three years on and the 1M appreciating 10-15k, the M235i feels well worth the money.
There’s no question that the 1M is clearly the more rewarding car when judged by typical M car standards (which often can’t be quantified by 0-60 times and power figures). But the M235i is so close in a couple areas that you have to wonder if it isn’t a better car for a broader group of enthusiasts. Coming standard with an 8 speed automatic (a manual is a no-cost option), the M235i is more accessible and easier to live with given its less punishing ride and more modern convenience options. Add to this 0-60 times that match the 1M and overall performance that comes close and you have what many of us have been waiting for from BMW for years. A small rear wheel drive coupe with attitude to spare and a base price that doesn’t provoke a wince.
No matter the praise you’ve heard the M235i is better. You might not know it yet. But you want one. The best part? Unlike the 1M you can actually buy one.
BMW M235i /// Price as tested $46,575 /// Weight: 3,505 lbs /// Hockenheim Lap Time: 1:15.3 (manual)
BMW 1M /// Price as tested: $52,250 (current value $64K) /// Weight: 3,296 lbs /// Hockenheim Lap Time: 1:14.1 (manual)
Hockenheim Lap Time via Auto Motor und Sport