In the early ’80s, I rode to school with an older kid in his 1973 BMW 2002. “Natch,” it was Inka orange. We lived in a hilly neighborhood where there were no straight roads, and he knew them all. I was amazed at the pace in the twists and turns that the little European car with about 100 horsepower could achieve. Body roll? Plenty, but it also had grip (Pirelli P5000 tires?), and with each corner dispatched, there was a certainty of outcome. The thing that stood out to me then was that this nonmuscle car (perennial high school faves) could do things those couldn’t—namely stick to the road like the lines painted on it. At the time, I did not know cars could do that. Hence, the rewards of “driving a slow car fast rather than driving a fast car slow” remain to this day.
When BMW replaced the frumpy 1 Series in 2014 with the sleeker, more elegant 2, many thought BMW missed an opportunity to resurrect the “2002” model line—literally call it the “2002 Turbo” or something similar. Not just for gratuitous nostalgia, but because there’s a genuine lineage here. Like my friend’s ’73 2002, this front-engine, rear-drive two-door four-passenger 230i has a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine (now turbocharged), a manual transmission (now a six-speed rather than four) and orange paint (now Valencia orange). With more than double the horsepower of the 2002, certainly the 2017 230i is a rocket in comparison. Yet it goes around corners with the same tidy poise and predictability.
The last time we tested a 2 Series was the year it replaced the 1 Series. It’s interesting that when news editor Alex Nishimoto wrote about the then-new 2014 BMW 228i equipped with the optional M Sport package, he also pined for a 2002. “The bottom line is that the 2 Series is a huge win for BMW enthusiasts everywhere, and even if it isn’t the reborn 2002 that BMW’s marketing campaign says it is [and still does], it still marks a return to form for the roundel brand,” he said. We might disagree on the through line, but we agree that the 2 Series hits all the historical brand values when most of its other Series no longer do.
What’s new with 2?
The reason we’ve not tested a 2 Series (four-cylinder turbo or six-cylinder turbo) since is because not much has changed in the three years hence. Besides all-wheel drive for both 228i and M235i variants added, the (ZTR) Track Handling package was also added to the 228i in 2015. In addition to a shuffling of standard and optional equipment, a convertible was added in 2016. Our 2017 230i car has the ZTR option, too, and as it did then it now replaces: standard suspension with adaptive M Suspension (springs and adjustable dampers lower it by 10 millimeters), standard vented discs and single-piston calipers with M Sport Brakes (larger front discs with two-piston calipers), all-season run-flat tires on 17-inch wheels with Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires on 18-in wheels, and a variable-ratio steering rack replaces a traditional one. It’s a $2,300 stand-alone option that truly enhances the car’s performance and driving experience.
For 2017, two new engines made their debuts that necessitated a model name change, dropping 28i and 35i for 230i and M240i. In this case, the 230i’s new 2.0-liter turbo discreetly increases the output from 240 hp at 5,000 rpm to 248 hp at 5,200 rpm and torque from 255 to 258 lb-ft at the same 1,450-4,800-rpm plateau. In spite of the modest bump in power, according to the EPA, fuel economy is essentially the same. However, our in-house EQUA Real MPG results show a vast improvement. For the six-speed manual 230i, government estimates are 21/32/25 city/highway/combined mpg where our real-world results showed 29/38/32 mpg, or between 19-36 percent better than the EPA’s results. Also, the smoothness of the new engine’s power delivery and the reignition after an auto stop/start are vastly improved over the outgoing engine. The direct fuel injectors still make it sound a little diesellike at idle if the windows are down.
At the dragstrip, we matched BMW’s 0-60-mph downright quick estimate of 5.8 seconds but fell short of beating our previous 5.0-second best in a 228i. Why? Despite having plenty of grunt to break the 230i’s sticky Pilot Super Sports from their grip on the pavement, the 2014 228i coupe was no doubt aided by the optional eight-speed automatic that has closer ratios and also benefits from built-in launch control. It’s the same story in the quarter-mile test, where the 230i crossed the finish line at 14.4 seconds at 96.4 mph, or about a half-second and 2 mph behind the 228i. After blasting down the quarter mile a dozen or so times, associate road test editor Erick Ayapana felt that the manual shifter’s throws from gear to gear were unusually long for such a sporty car and likely added to the time deficit. He also noted that the 230i had maintained the 96- to 97-mph finish line speeds, which shows there’s ample engine/turbo cooling to maintain power even when pushed to the limit. His repeated stomps on the firm brake pedal from 60 mph resulted in consistently short 106-foot stops: “Great brakes, with no unwanted body motions or funny smells.” We found the brakes’ sublimit responses linear and easy to live with even in stop-and-go traffic.
In everyday driving, the 230i feels confident, plenty powerful, and as quick as the numbers suggest—the long-throw shifter, less of an objection. Even in Comfort mode, lag time between applying the throttle and the car responding is very slight and at such a low rpm that it goes largely unnoticed. The throttle also has a sharper response available in Sport and Sport+ modes. We also appreciated the ability to configure Sport mode: either Driveline and Chassis or just Driveline (with the chassis/dampers defaulting to Comfort). And although it is an effective fuel-saving mode, EcoPro really sucks the life out of the car by drastically reducing throttle response. In the same way BMWs once were exceptional with the ride/handling balancing act, so too is the 230i with its adjustable dampers. Even the firmest Sport+ mode is compliant and sure footed.
It’s worth mentioning that the 230i has automatic hill-hold brakes (about 2 seconds worth), and the manual transmission has an automatic rev-matching program that blips the throttle as the driver guides the shifter into a lower gear (even if skipping gears) to smooth the process. For less experienced drivers, these both also reduce lurching and clutch wear. If these simple features will help sustain interest in manual-transmission cars by making them easier for more people to live with, then we’re all for it. Be warned, those who find it rewarding to successfully dance on three pedals while downshifting—the only way to disable the match-rev feature is to disable stability control. Seems like it would be easy to make a check box in My Vehicle > Vehicle Settings menu to enable/disable this feature, no? Please, BMW, make is so.
Putting it all together
Our figure-eight test, sometimes called a racetrack in a bottle, combines acceleration, braking, and cornering; rise, and repeat. Here, the 230i outperformed the 228i by a sizeable margin, with a best lap of 25.1 seconds versus 25.8 seconds. What’s more is that the Track Handling Pack-equipped 230i gripped the skidpad with 0.95 g average lateral acceleration to the M Sport-equipped 228i’s 0.90 g best. The 228i was slightly faster in a sprint to 60 mph, but in combined performance, the automotive equivalent to competitive swimming’s “individual medley,” the 230i shows overall dynamic gains we can measure and a driver can feel.
Incidentally, it’s our practice that these figure-eight laps are completed with stability control disabled (when possible) so we can separate sound/lacking mechanical engineering from electronic “help.” Notes from the track indicated inherent goodness with all systems off. As with the outstanding BMW M2, the lesser 230i might be the closest thing to a traditional BMW that BMW currently builds. There’s a delicacy and adjustability and willingness to play in this car. It was powerful enough to attain 70 mph across the middle, and the M-spec brakes/tires did an excellent job of slowing the car for 40-ish-mph corner entry. The ability to trail-brake (blending slowing and turning) into the skidpad did not go unnoticed nor unappreciated. The fact that the pedals are properly placed for DIY heel-toe matched-rev downshifts is encouraging, too. I did, however, find myself rather busy with the steering. BMW’s notoriously inconsistent variable-ratio steering option that’s (unfortunately) baked into the Track Handling package is to blame. BMW, please make this a stand-alone option or change the rationale. The quicker ratio should be determined by increased steering angle and not decreased road speed. At any rate, exiting the skidpad, the car transitioned into a mild oversteer. That was entertaining because I could just stand on the throttle and easily ride it out with a “dab of oppo.” This is a fun, old-school BMW that actually reminded me of a 2002. We also tried a few laps in Sport+ mode with its “dynamic traction control” and stability control enabled (and thus the matched-rev feature). True, it was less taxing to manage the car with the safety net, but it was also slower and less revealing.
Were it ours to build and live with, starting with the $34,145 base price, we’d definitely opt for the $2,300 Track Handling package because it does nothing to reduce the ride comfort while truly enhancing performance. We might skip the aluminum interior trim ($350), Oyster Dakota leather ($1,450), and wireless charging ($500). However, nearly all of the other options on our test car’s considerable tally feel pretty vital to the enjoyment and livability of this particular 230i. Because heated front seats ($500 as a stand-alone option) are also marital aids, you might as well get the Cold Weather package ($700), which includes them plus a heated steering wheel and headlamp washers for an extra $200. They come standard on some economy cars, so it’s outrageous to pay extra for a rearview camera and parking sensors in the poorly named Driving Assistance package ($950) that should be called Parking Assistance, but we would. Coughing up $2,950 for a universal garage door opener, intelligent key with push button start, moonroof, power front seats with lumbar, ambient lighting, and satellite radio, all of which are contained in the Premium package, would be OK with us. Navigation for $1,950, Xenon headlamps for $900, and $875 for the Harman/Kardon audio upgrade seem fair, but $300 for Apple CarPlay doesn’t. All told, the car as it sits is $48,070. As we might configure it: $45,770. That’s still pretty big sticker for a fun and useful little car that reminds us of a BMW 2002. Interestingly, you could actually get a Concours-ready ’73 2002 for that money. Hmm. Decision time.