I once had a tail attached to the bottom of my spinal column. Don’t judge me; you had one, too. I lost mine a little more than a month into my embryonic development. And, I presume, you did as well. Not all of us lose ours, though. While vanishingly rare, some babies are born with an honest-to-goodness cartilage-, nerve-, and muscle-filled tail. These people have what’s known as an atavism. It’s a physical trait from deep evolutionary time that occasionally pops back up and, in this case, means that the affected person will forever be referred to by the unsympathetic as “Tail Boy.” Because of the probability of significant Levi’s chaffing and never-ending ridicule, most tails are surgically removed almost immediately upon discovery.
The BMW M235i also has a tail, albeit a metaphorical one.
The car itself is a throwback, its genetic code expressing something that has gone nearly dormant in the last generation of small BMWs. The company is aware of this. It has even advertised this two-door model as the spiritual successor to the 2002, the model that predated the original 3-series.
With all due respect, BMW is wrong about that. The 2002 is too far back in the rapidly evolving car world to share much of its character or size with any new car. Modern BMW compacts are larger and more thickly padded animals, both in physical dimensions and in the broad scale of their market appeal. The M235i instead reverts to the same general plan as the E46 M3 of the early 2000s. That’s back to a time, in other words, when our adoration for BMWs was at its most unabashed.
As its convoluted name implies, the M235i is neither a fully aggro M car nor just a day-to-day standard sports coupe. Its character is in between the two. And that’s . . . well, that’s perfect. The M235i is easy to drive slowly and rewarding to drive quickly. It is, in fact, just about everything we want a modern 3-series to be: quick, confident, and sexy, with decent fuel economy, a close-coupled cockpit, and an eagerness to romp that’s been suppressed in the current 3. And like BMWs of old, the tall greenhouse allows for excellent outward visibility. The car is a manifestation of nostalgic impulses.Have a look at the two specimens. The M235i is within an inch and a half of the 2003 M3 in almost every exterior dimension. The M235i carries an inline six-cylinder engine pushing out 320 horsepower, compared with the M3’s 333. Of course, the new car uses a turbocharger to maximize horsepower, where the old engine used stratospheric revs to achieve its numbers.
The M235i wears staggered tires on its 18-inch wheels, just like the old M3’s standard setup. When both are equipped with six-speed manual transmissions, the M235i trails the M3 to 60 mph by a tenth of a second (4.9 seconds to 4.8) but is two-tenths quicker through the quarter-mile (13.4 seconds to 13.6). Because automatic transmissions have improved so much over the last decade or so, the M235i with its eight-speed automatic sprints to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds and covers the quarter in 12.9. The M235i also stops shorter and corners harder than the old M car; tire technology has also advanced.
The M235i proves that BMW still has the code to driving excellence. This makes us both relieved and slightly annoyed that it’s not used on a broader range of the company’s products. The M235i might be a throwback, but it’s also a decidedly positive step up the evolutionary ladder. Long live the tail.