LOS ANGELES, California—Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of the BMW 3 Series. Have been for decades. Even the “low-performance” versions are incredibly well-sorted and satisfying to hustle along. My wife recently traded her 320i for a new 330e plug-in hybrid (and has been completing many daily drives on electric power alone). Sometimes she even lets me drive it. Lovely car.
That said, for a driving enthusiast, the BMW 2 Series makes a damn serious challenger to its bigger sibling. Not on room and versatility, perhaps, but as I discovered after a week piloting a two-door 230i coupe with BMW’s xDrive all-wheel-drive system, the 2 Series is the sort of right-sized, super-playful machine any seeker of driving entertainment will love.
My test car was a 2018 model, but the 230i carries into 2019 with only minor upgrades (among them, a revised gauge cluster and a shuffling of standard features and options packages). The car comes well-outfitted at the $37,945 base price—including an eight-speed Sport automatic with paddle shifters, power front seats, a rearview camera, automatic climate control, and a lot more. My car also featured such options as the Convenience Package ($2,200, including keyless entry, moonroof, ambient lighting, and SiriusXM radio), the Premium Package ($2,250, adding a heated steering wheel, heated front seats, navigation, and remote services), plus such stand-alone extras as 18-inch alloy wheels ($600), Fineline wood trim ($350), park-distance control ($800), adaptive LED headlights ($800), Apple CarPlay ($300), and wireless phone charging ($500). Opting for xDrive all-wheel drive adds about $2,000 to the cost of the rear-drive 230i. Total tab for my car was just over $46K.
Immediately upon climbing aboard, you feel the 230i wrap around you. The cockpit feels trim and intimate, with all controls easily reached and a minimum of body mass visible from the driver’s seat. The car wears like a tailored suit. That said, it’s “tailored” for the lucky two up front. The two rear seats simply aren’t roomy enough for adults to use for any length of time; these are “in a pinch” chairs only. Back to the plus side, the trunk is roomier than you’d expect for a car of the 230i’s size. If it’s just you and your sig other doing the traveling, the 230i is ideally executed.
The cabin is handsome and well-sorted. On board is the latest, 6.0 version of BMW’s iDrive system, and at this point pretty much all previous kinks are long-gone. Enhanced by helpful sub-menu buttons arranged around the big rotary controller, the system is easy and intuitive to use. The climate-control system is operated via conventional analog dials and buttons, while the radio includes analog controls for station presets and volume. The steering wheel is a superb, three-spoke leather-wrapped unit with a few useful buttons (such as phone and cruise-control switches) plus chrome-accented shift paddles at your fingertips. It feels great in your hands. The SensaTec-dressed sport seats hold you firmly in place without being overly rigid.
The 230i’s engine might be “only” a 2.0-liter four, but don’t be fooled. Fortified by a twin-scroll turbo and direct injection, it’s good for 248 horsepower and revs with abandon all the way to 7,000 rpm. BMW claims a 0 to 60 mph time of 5.2 seconds but, frankly, the car feels quicker on its feet than that. Partly that’s the byproduct of the outstanding eight-speed, which shifts as smoothly as it does quickly, always keeping the turbo four on the boil (I found myself using the manual paddles almost all the time—it’s just too much fun). The xDrive system puts down all 258 pound-feet of torque without the slightest ripple, too. In warmer climes, honestly, you won’t need it; you’re just adding mass to the smartly sorted chassis. Owners in snow states, though, will undoubtedly find xDrive a welcome option.
The 230i offers a range of performance modes configurable via the central Driving Dynamics Control switch: Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport, and Sport+. Mostly I used Sport, which livens-up the responsiveness of the vehicle while still keeping the electronic reins on (which I appreciate while scooting through Los Angeles). Handling grip is downright sensational, enough to wring your neck in tight twisties, while poise is excellent, too; the 230i remains remarkably neutral and well-planted when you push it. The nimbler size of the 2 Series—compared with the 3—pays dividends when you’re playing in the mountains. The car just feels neater and more flickable. The electromechanical steering system works well enough, though more feedback through the wheel would be welcome. Overall, the 230i is a gas to push hard—yet it’s equally refined and accommodating (again, for two) when you’re dialing back. No wonder BMW’s highest-performance version—the M2—is such a seductive piece.
It’s important to point out another of the 230i’s virtues: EPA fuel economy of 24/33 city/highway mpg. Those are darn fine numbers compared with the BMW’s rivals, and especially considering the car’s spirited, “let’s go!” personality.
If you’ve got a family and you’re shopping for a driver’s car, the 3 Series is a must-try on your list. If it’s just you and a sweetie, though, do take a spin in a 230i. Here’s betting you find the “entry-level” Bimmer not too big, not too small, but just right.
2018 BMW 230i xDrive Coupe Specifications
|BASE PRICE||$37,945/$46,295 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4; 248 hp @ 5,200 rpm, 258 lb-ft @ 1,450 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, AWD coupe|
|EPA MILEAGE||24/33 mpg (city/highway)|
|L x W x H||174.7 x 69.8 x 55.8 in|
|WEIGHT||3,549 lb (mfr)|
|0–60 MPH||5.2 sec (mfr)|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph (limited)|