The Last Cool BMW
BMW has lost its way, but there is one secret gem left on dealer lots
It's hard to make a cool car. You can’t just throw superlatives at it. Indeed, superlatives generally detract from coolness. To me, a cool car evokes a quiet confidence in its own purpose and merits; no room for pride or bravado. The best cars are usually good tools and the coolest cars are tools proficient at cool jobs. Enter the BMW 2 series. BMWs smallest 4 seater has always had a cool job: to be practical and to make exciting driving accessible to normal people. So many of the marque’s best-loved cars came from the formula-- the 2002, the E30 3 series, even the quirky E82 1 series.
There are currently 2-door and-4 door versions of the 2 series on sale at dealerships right now. You may remember when BMW used to sell 2 and 4-door versions of the 3 series, and they were pretty much the same car. Lately, though, they call the coupe a 4 series and charge you a little more for it. It's still basically the same car, though.
In stark contrast, the two vehicles that wear the 2 at the front of their badging couldn’t be more different. The coupe, the outgoing F22 chassis, is based on the relic F30 3 series. The new car on the block, the “gran coupe” as bmw is calling their frameless-windowed 4 doors, (F44) is based on a Mini. That means that the coupe is a longitudinal engined, rear wheel drive car and the gran coupe is front-wheel-drive, with the engine in sideways.
There have been many very cool front wheel drive cars- Rabbits, Fiats, Toronados and, of course, Minis. But something seems wrong with the architecture living under the roundel on the hood. Wrong and uncool. If this transition marks BMWs intentions with their smaller, more affordable models, then the F22 represents the last bastion of coolness amidst a landscape of bland crossovers and ostentatious status symbols.
The F22 can be had in several trims, and with a few different engines from the 248hp B46 4 cylinder to the monster 405hp M2 Competition (BMW has also done away with a simple system for engineering designations, so the M2 is an F87, not an F22, but it certainly deserves a spot in the conversation about the coolest 2 series). 2 wheel and all wheel drive are optional on both cars, although the AWD systems are very different with the Mini’s favoring the front wheels.
The performance model most accessible to mortals is the M240i xdrive- the big turbo 6 makes well over 350 horsepower (BMW conservatively claims 355) and the clever all-wheel drive that varies torque between axles squirts it out of corners and rocket-launches it off the line. With the popular paddle-shifted ZF 8 speed, it’ll get to 60 in 4.2 seconds. The hottest 4 door, the 301hp M235i xdrive, takes half a tick longer at 4.7. In either car, the automatic is the only available transmission.
But I’ll take the cool one, the 230i. I had an opportunity to spend some time with an alpine white, RWD 230, and I think it’s the coolest car BMW’s made in a while. Way cooler than that M240i xdrive and even cooler than the M2 Competition. I’ll try to explain: It starts with the name--extraneous //M pomp dilutes the authenticity of the badge. Anymore it seems to stand less for Motorsport and more for Marketing. And the suffix is a mouthful -- what was wrong with the letter X to signify all wheel drive? Even true M cars that deserve the badge now have it displayed on nearly every panel. With bulges and vents and scoops, they’re no longer understated performance scalpels, but flashy high-horsepower sledgehammers. Capable, yes. Cool, no.
It’s impossible to avoid //M branding entirely in almost any BMW these days, but on this "//M Sport" package-equipped 230i, the logos are tastefully limited to small emblems on the wheels and well-placed on the calipers of the Track Package’s serving plate-sized Brembo brakes. Other notable boxes checked on the option sheet that make this car very cool indeed: 6-speed manual transmission and sunroof delete. As equipped, it’s a full 10 grand cheaper than the M240i xdrive, and if you choose it over the M2, you’ll keep 200 Franklins in your bank account. That’s pretty cool too.
To prove the little car’s coolness, I planned a shakedown. Mountain romp and a track day. Bring passengers. Look for the flaws. The first leg was a vertical mile drive, from the mile-high city of Denver to the aptly nicknamed Two-Mile-High City of Leadville, elev. 10,152’(I don’t have the heart to tell them they’re 400 feet short).
The drive begins leaving Denver headed west into the hazy afternoon on the main vein, Interstate 70, and gently climbs into the foothills of the rocky mountains. Traffic is thick and I notice a few approving nods from other drivers. That "//M Sport" package adorns the 230 with aggressively-styled bumpers and my white example is striking with black kidney grills and black 18” wheels. The styling has a meanish look on a friendly package, like a poodle in a spiked collar. Cool.
With nothing to do but look good on the interstate, I put it in the fuel-sipping “eco-pro mode” and a friendly blue ticker shows up in the cluster to let me know how many miles I’m adding to the range. I’m glad “sport mode” doesn’t tell me what I’m doing to the range. The Harmon Kardon stereo is rich and detailed for this price segment and the snug sport seats are comfortable, supportive and seem to adjust at all the right spots. This stripper of a car doesn’t have navigation, and the smaller screen and clunkier infotainment controller look cheap compared to more amply equipped 2s. But this option list was about what can be done without, and what enhances the drive. Navigation can be done without and doesn’t enhance the drive, so I say the chincy screen is cool too.
My travelling companion is 5 years old, he is my second born son, Wax. He has a strange name and a strange father, but wax (the material) is involved in so many wonderful things, from illumination to snow and watersport, to music recording and production. Wax the stuff is cool, and so is Wax the kid. We are headed to Leadville for an adventure, for the greatest challenge of this young, cool guy’s life: to climb Colorado’s highest mountain.
The great state of Colorado boasts more peaks above 14,000’ than any other in the Union. Depending on how you count, there are at least 54 of them. A standard skydiving altitude is 10,000'. Towering above them all is Mt. Elbert, a hulking pyramid whose summit rises 14,433’ into the thinner bit of our atmosphere. It’s an undeniably big mountain, but it’s gentle northeast ridge offers a reasonably safe and straightforward route to the summit. I know Elbert can’t be cool because of my superlatives rule, but I think Wax is cool for wanting to try it.
The trailhead for the northeast ridge of Elbert is accessed by a meandering dirt road that climbs up a small creek and past a few sleepy campsites. I gleefully put the 230 in “sport +” and watch the amber traction control light brighten the dash. The car points and rotates in satisfying slides, the steering surprisingly communicative as the wheel trembles under light fingers. The smaller engine, lighter and further back in the chassis, is to blame, lightening the workload for the front tires. The little 4-pot is no slouch, though. With it’s turbocharger cramming the thin air through a trick water-cooled intake manifold that reduces pressurized volume and therefore lag, it has no trouble pushing the tail out on the exits of uphill hairpins. I quickly notice that the traction control isn’t really “off,” it steps in here and there to straighten me out. But it allows some drifty angles without letting me get into too much trouble. The five year old is having fun. So is the 39 year old.
We park, and with a pack full of candy bribes, begin hiking. We watch the sunrise from the mountainside. We pretend there are ewoks in the forest. This kid walks up steep rocks and slippery logs. He ascends above treeline, the altitude above which the air is too thin to support something so thirsty for life as a tree. He keeps going and reaches the windy northeast ridge where the climb steepens and each breath brings less precious oxygen to his hungry muscles. Cheered on by others on the trail, none of them younger than 12, he happily climbed to 13,200’ to take in the magnificent views of other mountainous giants, the appropriately named 14,421’ Mt. Massive just to the north and 14,005’ Mt. of the Holy Cross, named for the white cross that appears on its sheer east face when a deep couloir down the center fills with snow. Far below us is Leadville, Turquoise and Twin Lakes, and nearly five miles of trail.
We descended and returned to the dusty 2 series and pointed its long handsome nose towards Denver. Some rambunctious rally driving lulled the tired toddler immediately to sleep. With plenty of time to make my way back to the city, I was free to dawdle a bit and chose my path east on Highway 6, through Silverthorne and Keystone and up to Loveland Pass: a two-lane whip-crack that rises precipitously up and over its nearly 12,000’ crest. Corners here turn 180 degrees and change 20 feet in elevation, with dramatic drop-offs and distractingly beautiful views.
Back in ‘sport +”, the engine note toughens, the steering quickens and the traction control is quieted. With no sunroof up top and no extra two cylinders up front, the 230 is brilliantly balanced and nimble on its sticky Continentals. The modest 248 horsepower pulls with intention, if not outright fury like the 6 and 8 cylinder bimmers. But it’s more FUN to drive a scary road like this and be able to just bury the throttle on a tight and dusty exit and not worry about the thing trying to murder you. As I snap through the switchbacks and skitter over the summit, I notice a soft sliding sound from the back seat and check the rearview to see the still-sleeping five year old’s head shifting left and right in silent disagreement with every turn.
Its about this time I notice that I haven’t flubbed a downshift yet. My footwork is acceptable, but I’m no ballerina--I hold my breath, push in the clutch and move the shifter from 3 to 2. I listen as the engine revs to perfectly match the lower gear, without any input from the throttle. Automatic rev-matching is uncool--why are so many enthusiasts screaming for the salvation of the 3 pedal manual gearbox? Because we want to drive the car. Operate the machine. It defeats the purpose if the car does the tricky stuff for you. The feature can only be defeated with traction control fully off, but at least you’re allowed to turn it all off. So, time to turn it all off and see what this cool little car can really do--on a racetrack.
Of Colorado’s 54 fourteen-thousand foot peaks, None is more famous than Pikes Peak. The lyrics to “America the Beautiful” were conceived at its summit. The country’s second-oldest motorsport event is still held there every summer: The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb has been racing to the clouds since 1916. At its southern foot lies Pikes Peak International Raceway. Built in 1997 to host NASCAR and IndyCar, it was billed as “the fastest one-mile paved oval anywhere.” It also has a host of creative corners wound around an infield track that can be configured into a variety of circuits. NASCAR and IndyCar are gone, but the track has found new life hosting private races for amatuer drivers, which I most certainly am.
For the 230i’s track test, I am racing timed runs on a course that utilizes PPIR’s infield and banking. I loved the car on the track-- although sometimes prone to understeer, a little weight transfer would send it gently pivoting into neutral slides. Fun as those slides were, they did not help my times and I ended up bottom midpack. I found someone driving a slower BMW with a much better time (it wasn’t hard) to drive the 230i for an honest track analysis.
Tyler York is a lifetime BMW enthusiast and agrees the F22 is an appealing machine. “It’s the only car I would want to buy new. It’s really adept at multiple things, including the track.” He tells me. I pass him the fob, he chucks it around the course and embarrasses my time. “I felt really comfortable right off the bat,” he grins.
He too admired the handling, but when I prodded him for complaints, he admitted: “the steering is a little light.” And while I applaud the restraint and steering feel of the 4 cylinder, he says “I’d like to drive the 6 cylinder car. Power is addicting, y’know?” We both agree that his naturally aspirated 2004 330i makes a better sound than the boosted four. “I really enjoy that induction noise, especially at high RPM, and I miss that.” I mused that since BMW is “enhancing” the engine sound with the stereo system, maybe they could program a little high RPM induction noise for Tyler. “Or a Lamborghini V12!” he suggests.
When I ask York about BMW’s waning coolness, he laments the popularity of the SUV and he isn’t wrong. Last year X3s and X5s outsold all of BMWs notchbacks combined. But he also sees hope in BMW’s future. “That new M3, despite its gaping nostrils,” he says, criticizing the recently unveiled car’s styling, “will still offer rear drive and a manual.” And although those options won’t be available in the higher-powered Competition trim, truly all is not lost. In March, BMW announced a successor to the F22-a new 2 series coupe based on the G20 3 series is on its way. The 3 no longer offers a manual transmission, so the third pedal is still very much in jeopardy, but BMW has begun to answer the enthusiast call. Coolness has always been elusive, but with some luck, the F22 2 series won’t end up the ultimate driving machine.
Photo Credit: Brendan Sobers