BMW made its name building "the ultimate driving machine." The company's history is full of simple, lightweight cars that were practical for day-to-day use but were a blast to drive. Cars like the 2002 (aka the New Class), the E30, and the E21 built an enthusiastic and lasting fan-base that drove to drive, not just to get from here to there.
What these sorts of cars had in common was that they all were low weight and straightforward. The cars that are the most fun to drive are the ones where there's as little interference from on-board systems as possible. They didn't have the complicated this and that that all almost every performance vehicle has these days. A rear-driven car with a manual transmission, mechanical steering, and a responsive engine will always do exactly what the driver tells it to. This means that the challenge of driving is just that, driving, and nothing more. Needing to try to out-smart a traction control system and active engine management dilutes the purity of the experience.
Like with all cars, this began to creep into BMW's line up. The E36, while still a shining example of what a sport sedan should be, was infinitely more complicated, much more digitized, and much larger than its predecessor. The E90 continued the tradition of still being a great car but added in complication, electronics, and size. Now we have the F30, and honestly, it's not that great. It's even more complicated, more digital, and bigger still, and those traits have reached a critical mass, deadening the experience to where it no longer feels like a BMW.
The problem is that the company is being handsomely rewarded for diluting its sporting character.
The 3-Series is the focus here, because it's the heart and soul of the Bavarian Motor Works, but all of these things "issues" have been happening to every BMW model at the same time. The problem for the enthusiasts who love BMW is that the company is being handsomely rewarded for diluting its sporting character. Sales and profits continue to climb, and each new generation of cars sells better than the last.
The problem is that the enthusiasts seem to be abandoning BMW's showrooms, in favor of competitors or used BMWs, because the soul isn't there any more. In 2012, however, that trend was cracked just a bit when the 1-Series M Coupe was introduced. It was a bright shining moment of exactly what every car nut wants BMWs to be. Yes, it had a stupid name, but it was small, it was relatively light, it was simple, and it was a blast to drive. Unfortunately, it was a limited edition, and as a result, you still can't find one for under MSRP.
But it gave us hope.
This past week, at the Detroit Auto Show, the new F30-based M3, M4, and 2-Series debuted, and they all look fantastic. The M3 and M4 are powered by a 425hp turbo-I6, are available with manual or dual-clutch transmissions, and the M235i puts a 320hp turbo-I6 in a body that looks, and is sized, more like the 3-Series of yesteryear.
It's up to these cars to recapture our hearts.
With the 3 being the traditional soul of the company, and the F30 receiving a resounding chorus of "meh," it's up to these cars to recapture our hearts. BMW promised at the show that the M3 and M4 wouldn't baby their drivers, a statement upon which we will hold our judgement until we've driven both these cars and their chief competition.
That competition might be stiffer than ever before.
Mercedes-Benz promised that the AMG version of the new C-Class would "slaughter" the M3's horsepower figure, Infiniti might produce the Q50 Eau Rouge with at least 500 horses, and the surprisingly sexy Lexus RC F Coupe is headed to production with 450 horses and an ace in its sleeve. When it comes to pure driving experiences, nothing beats a naturally aspirated engine, and the RC F is going to be the only car in this segment rocking one.
The potential is there for the M3 and M4 to be great, but for these cars to be memorable, they can't just equate to their competition. Only time will tell, and we'll be sure to keep you updated once we've driven the cars in question.
This leaves the M235i. Starting at $43,100, it's priced so that normal people can at least aspire to own one. With 320 horses, 320 lb-ft of torque, and a reasonable 3,505lb weight, it can hit 60 mph in less than five seconds. Handling should be good, based on the weight, the decent 52/48 weight distribution, the general size, and BMW's know how. This looks like a proper sports car.
Better still, unlike the 1-Series before it, this looks sleek and sexy, it can seat four, hopefully with more comfort than the 1, and it's luxurious. Better, better still, for BMW, it doesn't really have much competition. Higher-end muscle cars don't have the luxury, base Corvettes are more expensive and less practical, and the Audi TT understeers like the VW Golf that it secretly is. Really, it's just this and the CLA45 AMG. The AMG might be tons of fun, and a brilliant little car, but it's not a RWD, old school, pure sports car.
If the M235i can give us that purity, that sensation of making a connection with the road, it will be BMW's new soul. But if it can't, we might have already seen BMW's peak of sports greatness.