Athletically, the number 2 connotes a loser, a sad runner-up. But commercially, the number has had an unusual upside – with auto rental company Avis, which leveraged its underdog status with the famous tagline "We try harder," and with BMW, who first assigned the number to its classic 2002 sport sedan and is now reassigning it with an all-new 2 Series coupe.
Striving to distance itself from the too-small 1 Series it's replacing and nip at the bumpers of the German automaker's larger, and deservedly esteemed, 3 Series, the 2014 2 Series splits the difference with an entry-level driver's car – as long as the driver is no taller than 6 feet.
Starting at $32,100 and available in a higher-horsepower M Performance Automobile version, the 2 Series has experienced growth spurts in length, width and interior space, though the trunk makes the greatest gains with a 5 percent, or 5-gallon, increase in room. The interior areas that matter most for comfort, though, will still feel cramped for even moderately large human beings. The front headroom has grown by 0.7 inches, the rear legroom by 0.8.
Luckily, I'm a trim 5-foot-8. That turned out to be the ideal size for an afternoon's flogging in the more powerful of the two coupes – the $11,000 more expensive M235i – which Crevier BMW in Santa Ana, Calif., was kind enough to let me borrow for an extended test drive on the Ortega Highway last week.
An "M Performance Automobile," rather than a true M car, the M in the case of the 235i is not as high-performance as an M3 or M4; it was not tested and tuned at Nurburgring or upfit with a race-derived engine, transmission and suspension mods. It is, however, quite the kick for the money.
The M235i is one of two trims for the 2 Series. It is powered with a 3-liter, in-line six-cylinder engine that's boosted with a twin-scroll turbocharger and makes a zippy 320 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque. The base-model 228i is equipped with a turbocharged, 240-horsepower, 2-liter four-cylinder, which I borrowed from the BMW press fleet as my daily driver for much of a recent week.
What was immediately noteworthy about both cars is their low-slung sportiness. It's rare to drive a subcompact that is dwarfed by a Mini Countryman, but that was my experience behind the wheel of this two-door four-seater, which sits lower than the 1 Series but not so low that all I saw was hub cap from my windows.
The rare subcompact sports car that is rear-wheel drive, the M235i in particular is impishly nimble, enabled by a Germanically precise 50/50 weight distribution courtesy of a longitudinally mounted engine. The pricier M Performance version also includes chassis enhancements, such as adaptive suspension with electronically controlled shock absorbers, sport brakes that upgrade the pistons on the calipers, variable sport steering that reacts to the manner in which the car is driven and a more grumbly exhaust that was, unfortunately, not grumbly enough to mask road and wind noise that was more in keeping with a sport than a luxury car.
The M235i is also equipped with adjustable seat bolsters that, at the press of a button, swaddle drivers from the sides, almost like a vehicular girdle, to better hold them in place as they sashay through the S curves of a canyon road, which is exactly where it wants to be driven. The handling felt taut and snappy as Spandex.
BMW is a luxury brand, but its cockpit is set up to appeal to those who are more interested in driving than luxuriating. Trimmed in simple black leather and soft plastics, there isn't a whole lot to distract from the task at hand. Simple without being overly spartan, the center console is pared to its essentials with buttons that control the climate and radio settings, a knob for the audio and smartphone systems, and a screen that retracts into the dash.
What drivers will find themselves playing with the most are the paddle shifters for its eight-speed sport automatic transmission and the four drive modes, which are accessible with a toggle to the left of the gear shift. They range from Eco Pro to Sport Plus, with settings for Comfort and Sport in between.
Sport was most satisfying with its neck-whipping throttle response. Sport Plus ramps up the excitement – and the risk factor – by voiding the traction control. In either Sport setting, the slightest pressing or easing of the accelerator was immediately reactive.
Eco Pro was the Ed Begley button. What makes it Pro and not just Eco is that the dashboard actually told me how much fuel I was saving whenever I suppressed my instinct to drive Sport. Measured in tenths of miles per gallon, I gained about a half-mile per gallon of fuel economy for every minute I drove at 70 mph. Stopped, I saved even more.
Like other BMWs, the 2 Series is equipped with a stop/start function that turns off the engine when the car is fully stopped and restarts it when the brake pedal is released. It works far better than the same feature on BMW's entry-level X1 crossover, which, in my experience, shuddered so violently each time it brought the engine back to life that it seemed to have a chill.
Aesthetically, the 2 series is a nod to BMW's now-classic 2002, first introduced 46 years ago. Distinctively boxy without veering into dreaded K car terrain, the 2002 was succeeded by BMW's perennially bestselling 3 Series sport sedan, which is where the 2 Series takes its styling cues, with chiseled side panels and, on the M235i, an aero kit that more effectively dismisses the wind.
The M235i proudly displays its M status both inside and out with strategically placed, if micro-sized, Ms on the steering wheel and door sills, as well as the brake calipers and body panels. To in-the-know onlookers, it's a status symbol. For its drivers, the assemblage of Ms is appropriate for a driving experience that is mmmm, mmmm good.
2014 BMW 2 SERIES COUPE:
–Powertrain: Twin-scroll-turbocharged, direct-injected, 3-liter, in-line six-cylinder, 8-speed sport automatic transmission
–Horsepower: 320 at 5,800-6,000 rpm
–Torque: 330 pound-feet at 1,300-4,500 rpm
–0 to 60: 4.8 seconds
–Top speed: 155 mph
–Overall length: 174.5 inches
–Wheelbase: 105.9 inches
–EPA-estimated fuel economy: 22 mpg city, 32 mpg highway, 25 mpg combined
–Base price: $32,100
–Price as tested, including destination charge: $44,025
ABOUT THE WRITER
Susan Carpenter writes for the Orange County Register. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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