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BMW's smallest drop-top grows outwards and grows up but can it apply pressure on the Audi TT Roadster and Mercedes-Benz SLC?

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Thus far, we’ve been mightily impressed with the BMW 2 Series. Hiving off the coupé from its hatchback brethren may have looked like a pretty pointless marketing idea, but the result is a pithy and potent two-door machine that, at its best, has proven more than a little reminiscent of the classic BMW compacts that helped make it famous.

BMW’s long history of three-box coupés includes plenty of cabriolets – both the 1600-2 and the 2002 spawned limited-production versions before the E21 generation and E30 made them volume editions – and it’s with a soft-top derivative that the 2 Series range now grows again.

BMW's long history of three-box coupés includes plenty of cabriolets, and it's with a soft-top derivative that the 2 Series range now grows again.

BMW claims its predecessor, the 1 Series, was the most popular car in its class globally. Making that assertion probably required some careful squinting at what it felt qualified as a rival because, by our estimation, the 2 Series must now fend off everything from tediously beheaded hatchbacks (think Renault Mégane CC) and mainstream sun loungers (Vauxhall Cascada) to genuinely sporty options such as the Audi TT Roadster and Mercedes-Benz SLC .

It is equipped to do this by virtue of one of BMW’s typically fulsome engine line-ups. Right now, for under £30k, there is the choice of 2.0-litre petrol or diesel engines in the shape of the 218i, 220i, 218d and 220d respectively. For a little more, there’s the 248bhp 230i, or 222bhp 225d which all use a turbocharged four-cylinder motor.

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Or if you prefer your rag-top BMW with a straight six, the range-topping BMW M240i is available for less than what you’d pay for an entry-level Porsche 718 Boxster. At the other end of the scale, the three-cylinder, 134bhp, £26k 218i SE props up the range.

Our test subject is the 220d. It should be one of the most popular variants and also gives us our first chance to run the road test ruler over BMW’s latest four-cylinder diesel engine.

DESIGN & STYLING

BMW 2 Series Convertible rear

The 2 Series is larger than the car that it replaces, being 72mm longer and 26mm wider than the 1 Series Convertible. The increase in size is intended to deliver a more usable product than its predecessor ever managed to be.

The 2 Series’ wheelbase is also 30mm longer than before, meaning that there’s a bit more leg room in the back, and there’s an additional 30 litres of storage in the boot, expanding it to 335 litres in total.

The 'anthracite with silver effect hood' is supposed to reflect the sunlight. To me, from more than about six feet away, it just looks dusty.

The car’s real packaging trick is played out in front and largely on top of the bag-swallowing bit. The 220d’s electrically operated folding soft-top is either pitched or packed away in about 20 seconds, a procedure it will carry out at road speeds of up to 31mph.

BMW claims the skin of the fabric is better insulated against wind noise, by as much as 4dB in terms of cruising refinement, relative to the old convertible 1 Series. We’ll find out if that makes the new car a particularly hushed example of its type in due course.

Thanks to extensive and imaginative use of high-strength steel, the torsional rigidity of the 2 Series has been raised by 20 percent over the 1 Series, with resistance to bending improved by 10 percent. That, says BMW, comes despite a decrease in kerb weight.

Like the closed 2 Series, this weight is distributed evenly front and back, with the bumps managed by front MacPherson struts and multi-link suspension to the rear – both retuned for the new application. Compared with its forebear, the tracks are significantly wider, too.

BMW gave the 2 Series range a long overdue facelift with the largest changes made to the lighting and interior. The latest 2 Series convertible comes with LED headlights, foglights and rear lights as standard, a reshaped air intake design and a refreshed kidney grille. Inside there is a new instrument cluster, redesigned air vents and touches of chrome and the latest generation of BMW's iDrive infotainment system, which includes a touch sensitive screen.

Only the BMW M240i gets the option of a limited-slip diff. As standard, each model comes with a six-speed manual gearbox. BMW’s eight-speed automatic is available if you care to lavish an extra £1550 on it.

Our test car retained the manual gearbox in conjunction with its new 2.0-litre diesel engine, which first appeared in the facelifted BMW X3. It delivers meaningful 14bhp and 37lb ft improvements over the old 120d.

Among the motor’s advancements compared with the previous 2.0-litre engine are thermally joined cylinder liners, integrated balancer shafts, a more efficient turbocharger and a higher-pressure fuel injection system.

INTERIOR

BMW 2 Series Convertible interior

The headline news isn’t perfect for BMW. Our tape measure confirmed that the Audi A3 Cabriolet, completed by the BMW M240i, whereas the coupé has the M2, of which comes with its own additions over the M Sport editions. These include dual-zone climate control, a Dakota leather upholstery, and a range of M Performance tweaked components - such as unique aerodynamic, suspension and steering set-ups. 

The 2 Series' boot opening is 35mm wider than that of its predecessor. BMW says it'll now permit two golf bags to be loaded through longways and we can believe that.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

2.0-litre BMW 2 Series Convertible petrol engine

First things first. An open-air run-in with BMW’s B47 2.0-litre turbodiesel – which now has found itself into the full BMW range – proves that it is a better-mannered engine than the one it replaces. Not by leagues, and certainly not by enough to make it the smoothest of its kind, but in several key ways.

Start-up is one of them. Those new balancer shafts evidently do a better job of cancelling first-order crankshaft vibrations than what went before, because this turbodiesel feels much better settled on its mountings during the big piston accelerations and decelerations you get as the engine starts and stops.

Wind noise seems competitively controlled with the roof up, although the cabin can feel a little exposed to gusts with the roof down

The 220d idles fairly quietly and cruises in a similar fashion. There is not a great deal less overall noise than it might have made using the old N47 unit, but it has less clattery harshness at low and medium revs.

There’s still a touch more mechanical thrash to the engine’s character at high revs than perfectly suits a cabriolet cruiser and slightly poorer refinement overall than in an Audi A3 Cabriolet or even in a Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet, according to our noise meter. But the engine is the source of it. Wind noise seems competitively controlled with the roof up, although the cabin can feel a little exposed to gusts with the roof down.

If you’ve a mind to do more than just cruise, you’ll find the 220d typically brisk, responsive and free-revving – again, all considering that it’s a four-pot turbodiesel. BMW yields to no one on factors such as these, and the 220d pulls stoutly and consistently from 1500rpm right through to 4500rpm, whereas certain rivals have a usable power band of little more than half that size.

We struggled to match BMW’s claimed 7.5sec 0-62mph benchmark; 8.2sec to 60mph was our fastest one-way run, two occupants up and full of fuel as usual. But even at that mark, the 220d can be considered a pacy performer among its direct diesel cabriolet rivals.

BMW's 2 Series drop-top in four-cylinder turbo 220i guise makes a strong case for being the petrol sweet-spot of the range. The blown 2.0-litre motor develops 181bhp at 5000 to 6250rpm and 199lb ft of torque at 1250 to 4500rpm. Those figures don't sound much in a car weighing 1.6 tonnes, but it's good enough for 0-62mph in 7.5sec and a top speed of 143mph.

The 230i variant is only available in M Sport trim and is powered by a 2.0-litre twin turbocharged four-cylinder motor, kicking out 242bhp at 6400rpm and 258lb ft of torque from a heady 5000-6500rpm. It's certainly quick enough - the 0-62mph sprint is done in 6.0sec and it's limited to 155mph. However, there is nothing the way of evocative noise from the engine to do that sort of pace justice.

Despite the halo M240i drop-top weighing 145kg more than its coupe sibling, it still cracks 0-62mph in 4.7sec when paired with BMW's eight-speed automatic gearbox. The 3.0-litre twin-turbo straight six in this form is a revelation - providing a huge slug of torque from revs so low that you can simply forget to change down a gear and still get away with it.

Maximum power of 338bhp arrives at around 5800rpm, but the wait is minimal thanks to its free-revving nature. It's an engine you'll want to rev, too, because its six-cylinder roar, accompanied by a whistling turbo and interrupted by the popping from its exhausts on the overrun, is seriously addictive.

While less involving than the manual version, the eight-speed automatic M240i is still very good, picking up power quicker than many of the VW Group dual-clutch devices and always remaining smooth. The gearbox is quick to respond to manual changes, too, both up and down.

Outright stopping power isn’t compromised by the 2 Series Convertible's kerb weight, at least not in dry conditions and on BMW’s optional 18in alloy wheels. Pedal feel is consistently good and brake fade declined to present itself at all.

RIDE & HANDLING

BMW 2 Series Convertible rear quarter

Even fitted with 18in rims, lowered adaptive M Sport suspension and a variable-ratio power steering set-up, the 220d feels like a particularly laid-back BMW. So it should.

Cabriolet owners will most often appreciate the perfect weight distribution and directional purity of the 2 Series manifested as a level, balanced ride and as uncorrupted steering feel. However, when they go looking for more emphatic evidence that this is a better-handling everyday-use convertible than most, they’ll probably find only just enough of it to satisfy themselves.

The BMW 2 Series turns in quite crisply, holds its line well and resists understeer fairly stoutly

Although it isn’t the tidiest-handling or best-tied-down dynamic prospect in the class, the 2 Series juggles the conflicting briefs of boulevardier and sporting BMW well enough. Even in its firmer settings, the suspension delivers a comfortable, well-isolated ride. Body control is good in Sport and Sport+ modes.

It’s softer and more unchecked in Comfort, rolling somewhat during hard cornering and with larger bumps setting up some vertical heave. It’s nothing like pronounced enough to affect the stability of the car, but it’s also not a problem that some rivals have.

The variable-ratio power steering set-up works better in this application than we’ve found in others, possibly because the 2 Series’ fairly soft chassis rates mask the aggressiveness with which it picks up pace. Only by the scant 2.2 turns of steering between locks are you really aware of its presence.

That suggests the steering’s extra directness off centre addresses perfectly the rate at which steady-state, roll-related understeer begins to set in, which is very rare to find indeed. Even so, the 220d’s bias for limit-of-grip understeer and preference for remoteness from the road surface rather than connectedness to it make it feel like a slightly conflicted BMW at times.

It’s nothing like a fraud to the blue and white propeller but, perhaps understandably, not the most vivid example of what driven rear wheels can do for driver appeal.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

BMW 2 Series Convertible

Convertible buyers are accustomed to paying a premium and

Previous experience has taught us that it's possible to get close to BMW's claimed mpg with careful use.

VERDICT

4 star BMW 2 Series Convertible

Clear-eyed competence, pragmatic dynamic talent and an overriding emphasis on good sense are the most laudable qualities of this new BMW.

Offering greater usability, economy, refinement and convenience than before, the compact BMW 2 Series drop-top has unquestionably matured. If anything, it may have grown up too quickly.

The 2 Series Convertible is a well-judged open-top cruiser

The 2 Series Convertible is a more desirable car than most it’s up against, and this one has an engine with numerous qualities. But its cabin is little more rich or expressive than those of BMW’s small saloons and hatchbacks, and its handling does little to arouse interest.

In the final reckoning, a lack of sporting edge is the most serious criticism that we can level at what the 220d does, although the M240i does its best to rectify that void.

However, given that we’re not entirely convinced by all that the car is – because somehow it’s a less imaginative and special machine than the segment deserves – it cannot quite rank as a class leader.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

BMW 2 Series Convertible First drives