BMW creates the most powerful four-cylinder production engine in its history... and then promptly installs it in a compact crossover, in the form of the X2. But, even if you're anti-crossover/SUV, don't despair - because the new X2 M35i is a brilliant little machine.
In the Metal:
It's a relatively subtle makeover for the X2 M35i, but an effective one nonetheless. Starting with the striking appearance of BMW's smallest even-numbered SUV is a good platform to build on, with the M35i adding 19-inch alloy wheels (as standard, 20s an option), larger 100mm tailpipe finishers for its M Sport exhaust system, a bigger roof spoiler jutting out at the top of the boot and Cerium grey details - these are mainly clustered around the nose of the X2, as you'll spot the hue on the door-mirror caps, the kidney grilles and the outer air intakes of the front bumper. Throw in the 'M35i' M Performance boot badge for maximum kudos points and you've got a seriously good-looking little crossover-SUV.
Inside, the X2's rather plainer dash architecture is rooted in the past generations of BMW, so although the dials are all crisp and clear in the black-panel cluster, and there's the latest version of the pin-sharp iDrive infotainment on a large console touchscreen, it feels a step behind the cabin of the company's grandest current products. It also, as is the way with M Performance and full-on M cars of recent years, is possessed of a steering wheel rim that's just too thick in diameter, although the wheel itself is at least perfectly round in shape - which is something to be commended. However, there's a big plus point in here, although it's admittedly an option; but the X2 M35i is the first non-M BMW in which you can specify full M Sport seats. These one-piece items are more deeply sculpted than the standard sport chairs and they look terrific, especially in the red finish; they also help to promote a properly sporty feel in this hot mini-SUV before you've even so much as turned a wheel in it.
The exterior and interior makeover of the M35i may be relatively underplayed, but there have been plenty of mechanical upgrades, not least to the 2.0-litre TwinPower Turbo petrol engine under the bonnet. Employed in the lesser sDrive20i X2 model with 192hp, here it gains a bigger turbocharger, new pistons and conrods, a reinforced crankshaft and optimised fuel injection valves. This, along with the freer-flowing exhaust system, means the four-cylinder unit delivers 306hp and 450Nm; imposing enough figures to allow this 2.0-litre motor to claim the title of 'BMW's most powerful production four-cylinder' yet. So potent is it that the M35i has six different cooling systems for various bits of its hardware, which is notable.
Beyond this, there's been a programme of updates to the underpinnings. The rear axle's construction has been redesigned, while standard-fit springs and dampers are lower (by 10mm) and stiffer than the equipment on the regular X2 range. Two-stage adaptive dampers are an option, and they were fitted to our test car, while the M Sport braking system has a tougher pad compound plus larger discs gripped by blue callipers. The M Sport steering is also retuned to be sportier but perhaps the most interesting feature of all on the M35i, even considering that 306hp engine, is the M Sport locking differential on the front axle. This is fitted despite the X2 M35i being equipped with xDrive all-wheel drive, in an effort to make the BMW more invigorating in corners.
The thing is, we weren't expecting to find the X2 M35i quite as thrilling as it actually turned out to be. We were ready for fast and secure, sure, but what stunned us was the deeply impressive way the BMW's damping could breathe with lumpen road surfaces, with its general ride comfort remaining pleasant at all times; sure, it's firmer edged, as a result of the 19-inch wheels, but never so uncomfortable as to feel like the X2 was banging about the place. The xDrive system gives it a quite phenomenal amount of traction and there's a steadfast level of grip, which means the M35i can deploy its power and torque efficiently and quite brutally - it's ridiculously quick and it even sounds excellent too, although its voice is augmented by the stereo system's speakers. If that really annoys you in other cars, it's going to do the same in the BMW.
Yet it's the differential that elevates the X2 M35i from 'meh' to 'wow'. BMW M Performance's steering is still too stodgily weighted in Sport mode, this being an effort to make heft to stand in for feel, but you won't mistake the sensation of the differential helping the car accelerate out of a corner if you're brave with the throttle. We happened to drive the X2 on a 130km test loop that started off in quite atrocious rainfall, with the roads drying up later. And the traction and adjustability on the throttle that the X2 M35i could find in these conditions was utterly remarkable; even more so, when you consider it was fitted with Pirelli P Zero tyres, widely considered to be less effective in the wet than the tyre darlings of the moment, Michelin Pilot Sports.
We genuinely enjoyed driving the X2 M35i, then, on roads that we'll admit weren't the most challenging dynamic test for its chassis. But we can think of plenty of hot hatches that wouldn't be able to match the BMW's poise or involvement in similar circumstances, and - as far as crossovers go - the X2 is one of those that does a damned fine impression indeed of convincing you that you're in a low-riding car, and not something that's more that 1.5 metres tall. Sadly, however, there is one area where the X2 betrays its crossover/SUV intentions and that's on the brakes. With a porky mass of 1,685kg, the M35i takes a fair amount of pedal pressure to slow it down and you'll need to reattune to that if you're jumping into it from a lighter hot (or warm) hatch.
Nevertheless, we love the way this X2 drives in an engaging manner, we love how refined, grown-up and solid it feels when you're just cruising around in it and we absolutely adore the mighty reach and flexibility the peachy drivetrain has - it'll lug cleanly from low revs in a high gear, as happily as it will spin around to its 6,500rpm redline, while the eight-speed Steptronic gearbox really is faultless. Put it another way, the disarmingly easy manner in which this X2 reels in and then surpasses 230km/h (on a derestricted German autobahn only, please) makes it feel every bit as strong as one of BMW's six-cylinder M40i models.
What you get for your Money:
Aside from the M Performance know-how and the school-run status having the M35i flagship will undoubtedly confer on owners, the top BMW X2 comes with full satnav with DAB and Bluetooth, dual-zone climate control, LED headlights, cruise control with a braking function, rear Park Distance Control, heated front seats, a multifunction steering wheel and a powered tailgate, among more. That's a generous level of kit, which couples with the X2's usable rear-seat space and large boot to make it a practical and comfortable family machine. It's admittedly some €25,000 more than the very base-spec X2 with the '18d'-badged diesel, but even so, we reckon that's not a huge premium for such a huge upswing in performance and driver involvement.
We're keen to get the BMW X2 M35i back onto our roads and try it again in drier weather, to see if we revise our opinion of its handling, but on this first showing in near-deluge conditions the German crossover put in a blinding performance. It clearly has a first-rate drivetrain, yet it's the undoubtedly talented chassis that makes it worth the most serious of consideration by enthusiasts that may not have previously considered going for a compact crossover. Yes, we're sure you could say 'but if only BMW would put that drivetrain in a 1 Series or a MINI'; however, we'd counter by saying a) that's about to happen soon anyway, so keep your eyes peeled, and b) that's not a strong enough reason at all to ignore something as capable and fun as the X2 M35i. This is one of the best performance crossovers that has emerged so far - and it maybe represents a new breed of hot hatch for the future. If they're all as good as this, you won't find us complaining.