When you think BMW, you think slinky body and that silky free revving 6-cylinder engine. You probably imagine it blasting up a twisty road too. While the 4-cylinder 2023 230i might sound a little less impressive, it’s worth remembering the car maker’s history.
What many forget is that the German brand’s lineage included a very special Group A homologation vehicle. It had two doors like the new 230i, an iconic shape and pedigree that saw it raced across the globe. It was also powered by a 4-cylinder engine.
For those not following, the vehicle we’re describing was the E30 M3. A giant of its time, lauded by many as an icon of sheer driving pleasure. Having had the good fortune of driving one, this writer can attest that it’s worthy of the hype.
Move forward 30-odd years and BMW still have a 4-cylinder engine (albeit with a turbocharger) in a handsome rear wheel drive coupe. Enter the BMW 230i, the very car we’re testing here.
Sitting between the base 220i and its big brother, the turbocharged 6-cylinder all-wheel drive 240i, the 230i is a traditional rear-wheel drive coupe layout with some performance intentions. It’s a well-executed evolution of its predecessor too.
Side-on, the long swooping bonnet coupled with a short rear overhang gives the 230i a deliciously smooth and flowing profile. Aside from the awkward rear light treatment, it’s not a bad thing to look back at, from the front anyway.
The option boxes ticked on our test vehicle include the Enhancement Pack, which adds lovely staggered M Sport “light” 19-inch alloy wheels, a sunroof and metallic paintwork. The latter unlocks the gorgeous Portimao Blue that this example is draped in.
The colour really accentuates the subtle coke-bottle flare of the front and rear guards when the sun catches them. We also scored the Comfort Package, which adds heated seats and steering wheel, along with lumbar support across both front seats.
As with all Australian BMW models, the M Sport package came standard as well, providing an aero pack, M Sport suspension and brakes, ambient lighting, a dark headliner, backrest width adjustment and special interior finishes.
The interior is a particularly nice place to be, with plenty of textured and soft materials surrounding the driver, including Alcantara and Sensatec seating, accented with blue stitching.
The driver’s pew has a myriad of electric adjustability, including BMW’s trademark extendable seat bottoms, which means if you can’t get comfortable in this cockpit you should stick to the bus.
Atop the centre stack is a large wide-format 8.8-inch touchscreen, supplemented with a 12.3-inch digital instrument panel, with a heap of personalisation available across both.
True to BMW form, the interfaces across the various screens and tactile buttons throughout the cockpit are all logical and well thought out – making familiarising ones self with the vehicle simple despite the number of different menus and settings available.
Wireless phone charging, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are included, but yours truly would have optioned the Harman Kardon surround sound system. As one would expect, the full gamut of safety related technology is on hand too.
From radar cruise with braking function, to lane departure warning and control, it’s all here. You’ll also find excellent camera systems, including a top-down display and a compliment of airbags come standard.
The new 2 Series is larger than the outgoing model, but unfortunately loses size internally. Despite this and even with my 6-foot frame, I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of room in the 230i coupe.
While it maintains a sleek profile outside, once you are inside it is quite spacious and airy for the front two passengers. We’re sure the massive sunroof has a part to play in this though.
In the rear, it’s strictly a 2-seat affair, with beautifully sculpted buckets presenting themselves either side of a plastic storage compartment. Our late single-digit aged children were able to sit comfortably for a reasonable drive around the city.
It’s worth noting minor adjustments were required to the front passenger side seat to accommodate the larger of the two. Access to the rear row is good though, but at times frustratingly slow as the process is electric rather than a manual slide of the seat.
The last of the 3-zone automatic air conditioning controls and two USB ports round out back-row accommodation. But one does not buy a vehicle like this to count the conveniences within.
One look over the “power bulge” of the bonnet and just a single corner into the drive had yours truly reconsidering concerns around a couple of missing cylinders. It’s a real driver’s car that has to be viewed as a complete package.
The seating position within the chassis is perfect. Far enough back where you feel your posterior is close to the rear axle but not far enough away where you feel disconnected from the front wheels.
In fact when driving, the 230i feels a lot smaller than what it is. It promotes a feeling of connectedness, quickly and nimbly responding to every driver input. On those, the driver can set preferences across steering, engine tune and transmission.
The factory pre-sets across Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport Plus each make adjustments across the four functions. For the ultra-nerd – these pre-set’s are supplemented with an “Individual” setting, which allows the driver to select their own preferences.
The 2.0-litre 4-cylinder engine is no powerhouse but does deliver 190kW and 400Nm. It’s responsive, with minimal lag and a good dollop of torque early in the rev range. It deploys this power with a satisfying hiss of turbo spool that is audible with the crack of a window.
Now it’s important to note that there are hot-hatches that will well eclipse those output figures for less money, and dispatch the sprint to the magic tonne a lot faster than BMW’s claimed 5.8 seconds.
But when paired to the excellent ZF-sourced Steptronic 8-speed gearbox and fantastic chassis dynamics, the 230i provides a level of driving engagement and joy that those hatches simply cannot match.
The gearbox deserves some mention here. Torque convertor gearboxes have been around for decades. A tried and tested design that may have you thinking it doesn’t carry the same dynamism of say a dual-clutch unit. Well I’m here to tell you to think again.
It shifts fast, like really fast, up and down the gears, with a subtle rev matching blip that will put a smile on your face as you approach a twisty bit of road. It does all this while removing the worry about an expensive rebuild that could come from a more complex unit.
An early morning blast up one of our favourite bits of twisty road close to home gave me a chance to explore the 230i’s capabilities. Despite Sydney’s bad roads, and thanks to the M Sport suspension, the BMW never felt unsettled over potholes or rough patches.
The sublime balance of the chassis became even more evident here, with great bite on turn-in, no obvious understeer, and great mid corner speed and stability. It was only here, when linking corners, that turbo lag became apparent.
This writer would rather adjust his driving style to suit the lag and save the weight over the front axle, than have the punchier 6-cylinder engine. Yes, I did just say that, and I’d love to have some time on a racetrack to really find the limits of this car. That’s how good it is.
The 2023 230i is truly the sum of its parts. As happy driving up to the valet at a swanky hotel as it is up a mountain road at dawn. While it’s no E30 M3, we reckon that iconic car would be proud to call this one, its grandson.
Our test vehicle was provided by BMW Australia. To find out more about the 2023 BMW 230i, contact your local BMW dealer.