M235i Racing

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Written by JG Pasterjak

From the May 2014 issue

Posted in Features

As is befitting of such a significant car, the BMW M235i press launch in Las Vegas was a well-attended affair. Hundreds of journalists from all over the world sampled the street version of BMW’s newest sports coupe on the beautiful desert roads around Las Vegas as well as the fun, technical infield course at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

But there was another event going on right under the noses of the mainstream motoring press: BMW was giving a very few outlets a sneak peek at the factory race-prepped version of the M235i.

Whenever someone hears “factory race car,” it’s understandable that their eyes roll around like slot machines and come up dollar signs, “Looney Tunes” style. Manufacturers like Porsche and Audi make it possible to unwrap a new ride and compete at any number of venues, including the Rolex 24, Le Mans, and Pirelli World Challenge. These cars will also set you back between a quarter- and a half-million dollars.

BMW is also happy to take that much money from you and give you a monstrous-looking Z4 GT3 to compete at those venues. But they’ve also realized that there’s a lot more of us who’ll be competing at the club level than at the pro level, and that we should have access to a factory ride as well.

Enter the M235i Racing.

From the factory to the track–just add you.

The Racing version of the M235i is built on the same assembly line as its street-going counterpart. The specific high-performance parts–like the KW suspension with H&R springs–are just inserted into the queue to match up with the proper shell. Many parts are left out–like most of the interior–but aside from that, this factory racer is built by the same capable hands that create the street car. The shells are removed from the line at one point in their assembly to be shipped to a third-party supplier for roll cage installation. When they return, though, the factory picks up right where it left off.

The result is a car that feels like any other race car, only better. The one we drove had been as thoroughly worked over as any press tester in any fleet, yet it still felt taut, rattle-free and driver-friendly.

Structurally, the car is identical to the street version. There aren’t any special stampings in the unibody, meaning readily available OEM parts are used for crash repairs. The six-point cage stiffens the structure nicely, but it doesn’t pass through either the front or rear bulkhead; some race teams may choose to change this to stiffen the structure even more. A few of the bolt-on stiffening components from the convertible version are used, too, like the underhood cross brace. On the exterior, the fender flares are bolted to the stock fenders, further carrying on the “as stock as possible” theme.

From behind the wheel, the M235i Racing is a delight. Factory BMW pilot Joey Hand briefed our small group in Las Vegas, mentioning that the installed seat was a bit tight on him. For reference, Joey Hand is built like a fire hose, while our author is built more like a fire hydrant. But once we got our ample journalist butt packed into the adjustable race seat, we didn’t care about the lack of circulation to our extremities.

The cage is excellently designed, and allows easy ingress and egress–even with a nonremovable steering wheel. It also provides great sightlines, front and rear. The side mirrors are obscured a bit, but we like to sit close, and it’s an easily solvable problem with some additional mirrors. Best of all, even with the addition of a race seat, it still retains the exceptional BMW ergonomics of the street M235i. You’re still in very familiar territory.

Mechanically, the Racing version has a freer-flowing exhaust (with cats) than the street car. This slightly bumps up power to 333 horsepower, but aside from that, the TwinPower Turbo 2979cc straight-six is the same one we love in the original.

On track, the car goes about its business with urgency, but it never gets nervous. The 18x10-inch wheels with sticky Dunlop slicks produce amazing grip when they get some heat in them, and they easily make all 333 horses accessible in all but the slowest situations. Even in slower corners when you overdo it on the throttle, rear breakaway is progressive and manageable. There are various settings available from the stability and traction control, but the car has so much grip and such a well-balanced chassis that turning everything off is likely the fastest way around the track–unless conditions are extremely poor.

The M235i uses the eight-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted paddles for shifting. BMW engineers have provided a slightly more aggressive tune for the computer controlling the shifting, giving the driver nearly complete manual control over gear selection. We’re prepared to pronounce it the best torque converter-style automatic we’ve ever driven on track.

Honestly, if you didn’t know it wasn’t a twin clutch-style paddlebox, you ight believe it was. Upshifts are instant and positive. Downshifts lag only slightly, but when you roll back into the power, you have a very connected feeling–far better than most typical automatics.

Most noticeable of the car’s traits on track, though, is how easily accessible the speed is, and how little it makes you work for it. It’s a car in which you could easily do a 2- or 3-hour enduro stint and be begging for more–which is very much what BMW intended. The car is aimed squarely at the European enduro crowd, like the VLN series at the Nürburgring and other popular, privateer-driven circuits.

And they nailed that mark, too. When BMW rolled out the car out Europe, they were hoping for a few teams to show some passing interest. Instead, they got nearly three-dozen orders from excited racers who couldn’t get out their checkbooks fast enough.

Which brings us home to America. There’s no obvious place the M235i Racing fits when it comes to U.S. race series. It’s a little too fast to be a World Challenge or Continental SportsCar Challenge touring car, but not quite fast enough to run in WC GTS or CSCC GS. With a few mods, maybe it could slot into those series more easily. It would, however, be an amazing car for a one-make series, or as a country club track day car, or for one of NASA’s many Performance Touring classes, or certainly for BMW CCA action. Honestly, it’s good enough that some enterprising racers will probably find a home for them.

And it’s a relative bargain, too. BMW gets 60,000 euros for a race-ready example in Europe, which equates to $75,000, give or take. Eventual U.S. prices may vary slightly, but you still couldn’t build an equivalent machine for less.

BMW has no firm plans to make these cars available to U.S. racers, but that’s why we were in Vegas. They’re listening. If there’s demand, they will supply. If you’ve ever wanted your own factory-built race car, BMW just needs to hear from enough of you and they’ll make it happen.

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