LAS VEGAS – The least-expensive luxury car one could buy in the U.S. used to be a midsize sedan.

But then premium manufacturers smartly realized there was a growing number of people who would love to purchase one of their vehicles but couldn’t afford to.

Enter the compact luxury car.

When BMW began offering the 1-Series here in 2008, many industry-watchers gave it the side-eye. Would Americans spring for the not-a-3-Series?

But in that first year out, 12,018 of the coupes were delivered, WardsAuto data shows. Two years later, deliveries reached their pinnacle (13,132).

While demand slumped in recent years, every sale still represents added volume for the German luxury automaker. The car hasn’t seemed to cannibalize the 3-Series, whose volume has grown.

Now, BMW is back with the second generation of its entry-level 2-door, albeit with a new name.

The 2-Series replaces the 1-Series moniker, in keeping with the German automaker’s new odd-number-sedan, even-number-coupe naming scheme.

The 2-Series is a well-equipped, inexpensive-for-what-you-get sport coupe and not at all a comedown for those unable to afford the larger 4-Series 2-door, which recently replaced the 3-Series coupe.

In fact, the 2-Series has a roomier backseat than the 4-Series, plus its electric power steering provides a direct, more-connected-to-the-road feel.

The 2-Series, on sale now, is available in just two variants in the U.S.: the 228i, with BMW’s fine 2.0L turbocharged I-4 engine making 240 hp, and the M235i, which carries over the departing 135is’ excellent 3.0L turbocharged I-6 N55 engine, a 3-time Ward’s 10 Best Engines winner.

The M235i, fitted with an 8-speed automatic transmission with paddles, is the grade we drove last month in Las Vegas.

In the 2-Series, the N55 maintains the 320-hp peak of the 135is but now produces more torque: 330 lb.-ft. (447 Nm), up from 317 lb.-ft. (430 Nm).

Simply put, the N55 is powertrain perfection, even more so in the M235i due to that monster amount of torque, which comes in as low as 1,300 rpm.

But while the engine can propel an automatic-equipped car from 0-60 mph (100 km/h) in an impressive 4.8 seconds, the N55 easily is reined in for street driving, thanks to the standard Adaptive M suspension, that features a Comfort mode with a tame tip-in and leisurely shifting.

Other mode selections, which also will firm up or soften the suspension, include Sport, Sport+ and Eco Pro.

Sport and Sport+ prove perfect here at the Las Vegas Speedway, giving the M235i the classic BMW fun-to-drive character of fast and fling-able.

The Eco Pro mode may have the most restrictive tip-in of any similar mode we’ve tested; not fun, but fine for those times of heavy, plodding traffic. With Eco Pro on, BMW says coasting is possible between 30 and 100 mph (50 and 160 km/h) when the accelerator is released. With the optional navigation system, an active-driving assistant coaches the driver when to take his foot off the gas for maximum fuel efficiency. Nifty.

The M235i rides on BMW’s familiar double-pivot spring-and-strut front suspension and 5-link rear suspension for a characteristically firm ride, even in Comfort mode.

BMW says to expect the M235i to return 22/32 mpg city/highway (10.7-7.4 L/100 km). Our real-world fuel economy during periods of heavy street traffic is 23.8 mpg (9.9 L/100 km).

Interior Comfortable But Disappointing

The 2-Series is larger than the 1-Series it replaces, with almost 3 ins. (76 mm) of added length and a nearly 1-in. (25-mm) longer wheelbase.

Compared to the new 4-Series coupe, the 2-Series is 8.1 ins. (206 mm) shorter and 1.6 ins. (41 mm) taller, but 2.1 ins. (53 mm) narrower in width. It’s also roughly 100-200 lbs. (45-91 kg) lighter, with the lightest 2-Series, the 228i with 6-speed manual transmission, weighing in at 3,260 lbs. (1,479 kg).

And the new 2-Series, as many Bimmer fans are wont to tell you, is close dimensionally (less than an inch shorter in total length) to the third and fourth generations of the 3-Series, which were beloved for their near-perfect power-to-weight ratio.

A disappointing bit of the M235i is its interior.

While the fit-and-finish is impeccable, the design is standard-issue BMW. The center stack with the protruding screen up top, two side-by-side air vents below it, then tiny knobs and vague buttons for the audio and climate systems near the bottom, looks dated relative to other luxury interiors.

The monotone nearly all-black interior in our M235i test car doesn’t help matters, but fortunately there are snazzier colors available, including red, brown or pale-gray leather.

The base interior in both the M235i and 228i is faux black leather with red trim.

Passenger comfort is high, however, even in the backseat. In the second row, the 2-Series has more head and shoulder room than the larger 4-Series coupe. And while legroom is basically the same in the two cars, the smaller coupe has deeper, more enveloping seats.

The car’s outward appearance, thanks to the added length, is less stubby than the outgoing 1-Series, and with a less-bulbous greenhouse.

The sinewy, 18-in. double-spoke wheels on the M235i are quite possibly the best-looking yet on a modern automobile.

Americans can get into a 228i for $32,100, roughly the average price of a new vehicle in the U.S.

The 228i, not tested by WardsAuto, comes standard with an 8-speed automatic transmission (a 6-speed manual is a no-cost option); stop/start; 4-wheel ventilated disc brakes; automatic climate control; Bluetooth; and iDrive. That’s not too shabby a list, although a power driver’s seat would be nice.

The M235i adds 10-way power seats for both driver and front passenger; aluminum-hexagon interior trim; a dark-gray headliner; sport instrument cluster, 1.1-in. (28-mm) larger ventilated front disc brakes and 18-in. wheels instead of the standard 17-inchers on the 228i.

Considering all that content, plus the excellent N55 engine, the M235i’s $43,100 price is a relative steal and should please diehard U.S. BMW fans who’ve been wanting and waiting for a car like this.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com

'14 BMW M235i Specifications

Vehicle type 2-door, rear-wheel-drive, 4-passenger car
Engine 3.0L DOHC turbocharged all-aluminum inline 6-cyl.
Power (SAE net) 320 hp @ 5,800-6,000 rpm
Torque 330 lb.-ft. (447 Nm) @ 1,300-4,500 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 89.6 x 84
Compression ratio 10.2:1
Transmission 8-speed automatic
Wheelbase 105.9 ins. (2690 mm)
Overall length 175.9 ins. (4,470 mm)
Overall width 69.8 ins. (1,770 mm)
Overall height 55.4 ins. (1,410 mm)
Curb weight 3,535 lbs. (1,603 kg)
Base price $43,100 (includes $925 destination and handling charge)
Fuel economy 22/32 mpg (10.7-9.4 L/100 km)
Competition Audi A3, Cadillac ATS, Mercedes-Benz CLA, Lexus CT 200h, Volvo C30
Pros Cons
Stellar performance $10,000+ upcharge for best engine
Comfortable interior Dated center stack
Pick-your-flavor driving Eco mode, ugh