When it comes to creating niche vehicle segments within already niche segments, BMW is somewhat of an authority. Its X6 arguably kick-started the coupe SUV craze at the large end of the spectrum, which was followed by a version in each size category. Its range of Gran Coupe models, meanwhile, effectively does the reverse by turning coupe-profiled vehicles into four-door offerings.
So it is surprising just how long the German car maker was absent from the compact SUV market. While arch-rivals Audi and Mercedes were busy bumping gloves with their Q3 and GLA models, BMW sat on the sidelines, looking a bit forlorn.
But in 2018 the BMW X2 finally entered the fray, and soon made up for its late arrival. Available in a choice of diesel and petrol variants with front or all-wheel drive, the X2 proved stylish, practical and great fun to drive.
Now, though, a new option has arrived which takes the line-up to four versions. The M35i has a spacious cabin, a powerful turbo engine coupled to four-wheel drive and the iconic M icon on its boot, but it also rides on jacked-up suspension.
A compelling all-rounder, or a jack of all trades that’s yet to master one?
There’s no ignoring the fact that, with a starting price of $68,900 before on-road costs, the flagship of the X2 range is expensive, but the market for $70k compact crossovers is nowhere near as competitive as, say, the affordable (and premium) hot-hatch arena.
If you’re after something with potent four-pot turbo power wrapped up in a compact SUV shell, then your options are severely limited. That’s where BMW gets away with pricing this little model at the pointy end.
But you do get a good selection of gear as standard, as well as a dusting of kit moved from the lesser variant options list on to the stuff that’s included in the base price.
There aren’t many offerings in the market that can compete with the X2’s unusual but not unattractive proposition. Next year, Audi’s Q2 range will be capped off with a 221kW/400Nm SQ2, but until then its sportiest version offers just 140kW.
Mercedes can offer the AMG GLA 45 which pumps an impressive 280kW through all its wheels, but it starts at just under $90,000. Ouch.
Jaguar’s E-Pace P300 comes close with 221kW and 400Nm for an asking price of about $64,000, but its hefty 1.8-tonne weight seriously impacts its athleticism.
Without an obvious rival for now, you could argue the X2 M35i is excellent value to the right buyer. To everyone else, it’s an expensive indulgence that’s hard to justify on paper. But let’s look at how it performs in the real world.
The X2 M35i produces 225kW and 450Nm of torque from just 2.0 litres and four cylinders, which is a commendable output. An eight-speed automatic transmission is also standard, sending power to all four wheels.
That combination is enough to accelerate the X2 to 100km/h in 4.9 seconds, which is fast no matter how you look at it, and made possible by a new launch-control function. Great for bragging rights, sure, but we can’t see a lot of use for the feature in a high-riding crossover.
Desirable inclusions are the high-standard ‘Dakota’ leather interior, 20-inch alloy wheels, sport suspension, a shoutier exhaust, sports seats, top-shelf Harman Kardon stereo, keyless entry, 8.8-inch central touchscreen, electric tailgate with contactless operation, LED headlights and a head-up display.
Our test car was fitted with the Enhance package, which adds a panoramic sunroof, metallic paint and wireless device charging for $2900.
To offer some size context, the X2’s platform has evolved from BMW’s Mini brand, which not only lends the transverse engine configuration and excellent handling characteristics but its more compact proportions, too.
That said, the Mini in any of its blossoming varieties is not a particularly small car anymore. The X2 M35i has a cosy cabin with a functional second row of seats, but don’t let the high-sided SUV stance fool you. Headroom in the back is only just adequate and it feels narrow.
A decent amount of space is found behind the seats with a 470-litre boot that expands to 1355L with the second row folded flat. With the seats in place, however, a 1.0m by 0.7m framed print slots in nicely, lying flat on the boot floor like it had been custom made. Not only is the boot a good size, critically, it’s also a useful shape.
Interior dimensions translate to manageable exterior measurements too and living with the X2 is a breeze.
As well as the safety features you might expect to find on any modern premium vehicle, the M35i brings a host of extras to sweeten the deal. Its head-up display was almost unheard of in a vehicle class this size until very recently and BMW’s host of technology also brings LED headlights that steer around corners and dip automatically.
There’s also lane-departure and forward collision warning.
It’s also worth noting that the beefier M-Sport brakes, sticky rubber on large wheels and an all-wheel drive system that incorporates a limited-slip differential not only enhances driving characteristics but boosts the X2’s stability and safety in adverse driving conditions.
The X2 range has been granted a maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating.
From the second you slide into the leather-upholstered sports seats and grasp the thick M Sport steering wheel, the X2 M35i fills each journey with a sense of occasion. It might be a representative of the baby BMW SUV, but it sacrifices little in luxury touches when compared with some larger and more expensive BMW models.
The driving position is purposeful and the deep bucket seats are particularly comfortable for slimmer occupants with lots of electric adjustment as well as heating for chilly mornings.
However, once on the road, the compromises of this more sporty focused model become evident. The ride quality is stiff no matter which of the three drive modes is selected, while the wide, low-profile tyres roar on all but the smoothest road surfaces.
It’s not an unforgivably fussy ride, but you would have to be prepared to sacrifice a little comfort compared with the rest of the range for the dynamic benefits that the M35i brings to this compact SUV table.
Convenience features such as keyless entry, plenty of cabin storage despite its smaller interior measurements and hands-free boot opening boost the overall comfort experience to an extent, but customers at this end of the range ought to know that the M badge on its boot comes at more than just a monetary cost.
ON THE ROAD
Think not of the X2 M35i as an all-wheel drive and approach it more as a front-drive-plus because that’s exactly how it feels.
Yes, power can be sent to both axles depending on the conditions and driving style, but there is so much front end traction enhanced by a really competent LSD, that the M35i feels as though it spends a majority of its time using predominantly the front rubber.
There is some torque steer under hard acceleration and the front wheels will grab hold of surface indifferences tugging gently at the steering wheel. Only when the limits of the front axle are surpassed do the rear wheels come into play and prevent an overzealous driver from embarrassing themselves, and this will appeal to drivers who miss the character of their early-2000s hot-hatches.
There is plenty of power and acceleration accompanied by a unique soundtrack - far more conspicuous than we were expecting - but not enough to find yourself overindulging. That manner imparts a sense of confidence on the road regardless of the weather.
Pushing through some challenging corners that alternated through damp and dry, the X2 deals out power carefully and its stiff spring settings resist roll as well as you could expect from a higher-riding crossover.
Apply power mid-corner and the clever mechanical diff loads up the steering and tightens the line through the bend with surprising obedience.
Braking is equally confident, and while a firmer pedal would be welcome for fast blasts, the overall package is completely in accordance with the M Performance mantra. It’s not quite a full-fat M-car but there are hints of brilliance everywhere.
That said, it’s not up to the job of fighting pure performance cars that take their base from passenger vehicles. No matter how well you engineer an SUV’s chassis, it will always be fighting the physics of gravity and ride height.
Delightfully, though, the X2 M35i excels when the tarmac stops and the way ahead is paved with loose gravel.
With a more slippery surface under-tyre, the M35i is amazingly agile in a way you can’t appreciate on the optimum grip of asphalt. There’s still the same front-drive nature but the rear end is forced to get more involved and, in combination with a short wheelbase, the X2 changes direction rapidly and feels incredibly at home on the dirt.
Its suspension is too stiff for anything more than a perfectly graded road, but an accomplished traction control system, nimble footwork and communicative steering come together when the sealed road comes to an end.
When driven hard, the X2 M35i really deserves its boot badge colours and a surprisingly aggressive nature justifies M Performance credentials. There is a small sacrifice to be made in cruising comfort, but you won’t remember when you’re flying along remote roads ahead of a dust cloud.
The X2 is for driving enthusiasts who’s requirements have outgrown a hot hatch but their aspirations have not.
In a battle with the best of today’s hot hatches which include a Hyundai i30 N for less than $40,000 and a Ford Focus RS with 257kW, all-wheel drive and a $50,000 sticker, the X2 loses on price and outright performance.
In standard form, the X2 is a simple proposition, but with the addition of an M Performance engine and trimmings, the X2 confronts a miniature identity crisis. Is it a hot hatch, all-terrain wagon or practical runabout? It surely can’t do all three.
But the BMW does offer a streak of versatility that will appeal to an audience that has moved into another life stage. A boosted ride height and more cabin space advance the X2 M35i’s practicality ahead of most high-performance hatchbacks, while the all-paw traction and a little extra ground clearance will likely offer more all-terrain ability should you need it.
More importantly, however, the class of hot hatch that the maturing market has as a reference and will compare the BMW with - we’re talking fifth-gen Volkswagen GTI et al - is categorically blown out of the water by BMW’s newest addition to the growing SUV pool.
Serious performance matched to classy styling as showcased by the newest X2 variant is redefining what a small high-performance car can do - for a price.
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