FIRST DRIVE: BMW X2 M35i — Can a Crossover be a Hot Hatch?

BMW X2, Test Drives | February 20th, 2019 by 7
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When BMW first launched the X2, a lot of eyebrows were raised among enthusiasts. It wasn’t quite a hatchback but it wasn’t quite a crossover. It was sort of something in between; smaller than a traditional crossover but still a bit too large to be a hatchback. Then we drove it, at last year’s Test Fest, and it surprised us with its nimble handling and precise steering. Despite the heresy of it being a front-wheel drive-based ‘tweener, it was actually really enjoyable to drive. Now, BMW has taken that odd, yet surprisingly enjoyable, package and injected it with some more performance. Welcome the BMW X2 M35i.

Ironically, we had the chance to sample the new BMW X2 M35i at this year’s Test Fest, almost exactly a year after the previous one. It was the first time any enthusiasts had the chance to drive the new X2 M35i and we were surprised to see it there. Especially considering that it was on track.

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As I walked out onto The Thermal Club’s south track, I noticed the oddball X2 sitting next to bonafide performance machines, such as the BMW M5 Competition, M2 Competition and M850i. It was an interesting sight to see but an exciting one. Apparently, a handful of people at BMW fought to get the X2 M35i on track, as they really believed in its abilities to impress.

What is the BMW X2 M35i?

The first M Performance version of the X2, the M35i version is faster and more exciting than the standard car. Rather than the normal car’s 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder, the X2 M35i gets an up-rated turbo four-pot that makes a hefty 302 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque. That’s quite a lot in such a small car and it helps the funky looking X2 to get from 0-60 mph in a scant 4.9 seconds.

Mated to that punchy engine is an eight-speed automatic gearbox, which sends power to all four wheels. Though, due to its Haldex-style setup, it can never send more than 50-percent of the power to the rear wheels, which is a bit unfortunate.

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Don’t just think it’s a standard X2 with a bigger engine, though. For the first time ever in a BMW, it packs a Torsen-based limited-slip differential, integrated into the gearbox, helping to better distribute the power to the front axle. It also gets a 10mm lowered ride height, stiffer springs and dampers and even a quicker steering rack. Its rear suspension, including its axle carrier and rear control arms, have been revised, to allow for better rear-end grip.

It’s a pretty comprehensively revised package, making it a true performance variant and not just a regular X2 with some flashy bits. While it does have some extra flashy bits, on both the outside and inside, I won’t comment too much on them as I didn’t have much time to poke around the interior. It was more of a buckle-up-and-go kind of day on the track.

Can a Front-Wheel Drive-Based Crossover Handle Track Duty?

Unfortunately, I first stepped into the BMW X2 M35i only a handful of minutes after having done a few laps in the M850i. So maybe it wasn’t the best first impression. After being in the 8er, the X2 M35i felt like a rental car on the inside. Though, that’s more praise for the M850i than an indictment of the X2. Still, it probably wasn’t a great follow up, as it’d be like trying to go on stage after Jerry Seinfeld; even if you’re good, the crowd is going to notice a drop-off in quality.

Pulling out onto the back straight, the BMW X2 M35i is surprisingly quick. Obviously, it felt considerably slower than the downright explosive M850i but that’s not to say the X2 M35i isn’t fast. In fact, after a couple of laps, I really started to appreciate its engine. The upgraded turbo-four is a little cracker, with a raucous exhaust note and ample power for the X2. Its eight-speed gearbox also handles swapping cogs surprisingly well. Though, it must be said that spirited driving will almost need to be done with paddle shifters, as the gearbox isn’t as clever as its ZF-sourced sibling when it’s left to its own devices.

Steering is accurate, too, though it’s rack is not nearly as quick as the other cars we drove that day. Turn-in requires a decent amount of lock and its lighter on steering feedback than I’d like. It’s not bad, it’s just not stellar. Again, I drove it after the M850i, so maybe it’s not the fairest of reviews. Having said that, after a few laps, I did acclimate to the little X2 and find a rhythm.

However, there are some objective reasons as to why the BMW X2 M35i isn’t the best of track machines. Its brakes are just not up to the task of heavy track use, regardless of the “M” badge on their calipers. Pedal feel is squishy at the top and it doesn’t bite hard until halfway through the travel. So when you’re flogging it, it’s hard to trust the brakes.

There’s also a fair bit of understeer, more so than I had anticipated. Credit that to the fact that to its all-wheel drive setup which can’t send more than 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels. Having said that, if you can manage the understeer, that new front diff does allow the M35i to put its power down earlier and completely eliminate torque steer. In fact, on-power corner exit is far better than I had expected. But you have to fight that understeer first.

Better as a Street Car, Then?

While BMW was optimistic and put the X2 M35i on track, I’m not sure it’s a good track car. In fairness, I don’t think BMW believes it’s a track car but wanted to show off that it was more impressive than people might think. And it is. However, no actual BMW X2 M35i owners will take their cars to the track and that’s probably for the best.

It should be a little fire-cracker of a daily driver, though. While BMW had cars to test on the road, I didn’t get a chance to do so. Even still, I can tell that it will be a great little road car and a really good daily driver.

Last year, I drove the standard BMW X2 on the road and was really impressed with it. Now, I’ve driven the hot version on track and I can sort of put the two experiences together to understand that this new BMW X2 M35i will be a great everyday driver. It’s spacious enough for either a very young family or a single person with a relatively active lifestyle. It also looks cool enough to stand out from the sea of boring crossovers, while boasting an interior that’s both comfortable and sporty looking.

But what will make the X2 M35i a great daily is the fact that its performance is perfectly suited for road use. It’s punchy and fast but not absurdly so, you can actually use a lot of its power on the road without getting into lose-your-license territory. It’s also sharp and dynamic enough to make the daily commute fun, especially if there’s some twisty roads along the way.

We’ll have to get one to test at home before we can make a proper assessment but I can already tell that the BMW X2 M35i is one of the better all-around performance packages for the road. It’s also the closest we’re going to get to a hot-hatch from BMW in America.

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