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BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe

There's an M badge on the back and a suitably weighty number next to it, but the M235i Gran Coupe is not what could be termed a traditionalist's choice.

Like the M135i it has been switched to BMW's FAAR natively front-driven architecture with power coming from a four-cylinder engine in place of the sonorous straight-six that still propels the M240i Coupe. Which means lifting the bonnet produces the incongruous sight of a short engine sitting across the bay and mounted entirely ahead of the front axle line. 

Styling may be especially subjective in this part of the market, but it's fair to say the Gran Coupe's design struggles to deliver grandeur with the car's compact dimensions

It's a detail that will offend some, possibly to the point of rage, but it would be unfair to turn this review into an ethical inquisition into the company's bold new direction. Mercedes has been making AMG versions of the similar-deal CLA saloon-coupe since 2013, with the recently launched CLA 35 being the M235i's most obvious competitor. Both make slightly over 300hp from heavily boosted 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbos, and send drive to all four corners through part-time all-wheel drive systems. On-paper performance is identical, both manufacturers claiming 4.9-second 0-62mph time and electronically limited 155mph top speeds. But given our recent disappointment with the way the CLA 35 drives, there does seem to be a poorly defended goal here.

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While the M135i is effectively replacing a rear-driven model, the Gran Coupe is entering a new bit of the market - one that BMW executives admit the constraints inherent in packaging an in-line engine and gearbox meant it couldn't consider building on the old platform. Like most coupe-saloons the four-door 2-Series has been designed to appeal more to Asian and American buyers than Europeans, a reality reflected in a slightly softer chassis tune than the M135i. 

While styling is an especially subjective subject in this part of the market, it's fair to say that the Gran Coupe's design struggles to deliver grandeur with the car's compact dimensions. The 2670mm wheelbase is identical to the 1-Series, as is the jowly front overhang, with the 207mm increase in length almost entirely in the boot. The result is a car that doesn't look quite long enough in the middle, something exacerbated by the heavily raked roofline. The rear lights also seem to have been designed for a considerably larger vehicle.

The interior is better. The Gran Coupe shares the 1-Series's dashboard and most of its cabin architecture and materials feel suitably plush for the segment, with lots of switchgear and componentry familiar from higher up in the range. An 8.8-inch touchscreen is standard as is comprehensive talk-to-anything connectivity. The M235i gets semi-bucket seats, alcantara trim and the Live Cockpit digital instrument pack as standard. Front seat and steering wheel adjustment is generous, and although the rear is short on headroom thanks to the low roof space is sufficient for kids and squashier adults; it’s fair to say nobody shopping in this dinky segment is likely to be expecting more. The 430-litre boot is also respectably big, although access through the tailgate hatch is a little tight. 

How does the 2 Series Gran Coupe perform on the road?

Starting the engine produces a promising fusillade of pops and crackles, although this turns out to be about the most exciting noise the new powerplant makes. It would have been near impossible to replicate the sonorous charms of the six-cylinder 1-Series, and BMW hasn't really tried: the engine makes plenty of muscular sounds, some of which are digitally synthesised, revs turning it louder but not more melodious.  

Yet there’s no arguing with the effectiveness of the downsized engine. The peak 332lb-ft of torque is fully present from just 1750rpm, with the quick-thinking eight-speed auto shifting intelligently and seamlessly to wake it up when required. There is some lag below about 2000rpm, but the only way to find it is by manually selecting too high a gear in manual mode. Performance feels at least as strong as the official numbers suggest, the engine pulling cleanly to its 6600rpm limiter with no sense of reluctance at the top end. 

Rainy conditions in Portugal also gave the boss Gran Coupe a chance to prove its ability to generate impressive levels of traction on damp mountain roads. The all-wheel drive system uses an electro-mechanical clutch pack on the rear axle which can engage much quicker than a viscous coupling. It also gets the an understeer-fighting ARB slip limitation system based on the one used in the i3. So although the M235i can run as a pure front-driver, and frequently does to reduce mechanical losses and boost consumption, it proved almost impossible to catch out, even on tight, slippery corners.

The xDrive system works well to find grip – a point made by just how hard a front-driven 220d had to battle to get power down on the same roads. But it can only do so much, only 50 percent of available effort can head backwards and it reaches the rear wheels through an open differential incapable of torque biasing. So once the M235i has been powered to the edge of breakaway it doesn’t have any tricks left in the bag beyond tightening its line on a lifted throttle. So while it actually resists low-speed understeer better than its rear-driven sisters, it lacks their ability to go and play in the hinterland between grip and slip.

The steering is a highlight, with better weight and communication than many of BMW’s punchier rear-drivers and with minimal corruption from the torque passing through the front axle. Responses are keen, but the M235i feels – deliberately – less front-led than a hot hatch would; FAAR chassis boss Bernard van der Meer says that matching the response rates between front and rear axles was a key objective. Brakes are impressive too, the car doing without an electric servo but getting extra narrow four-pot callipers that have allowed the largest possible discs to be squeezed behind the standard 18-inch wheels.

While suspension settings have been softened compared to the M135i hatch the coupe still feels well lashed down. My test car was sitting on adaptive dampers – set to be a £500 option – which felt pliant in their Comfort mode but which didn’t turn harsh in Sport mode. On a stretch of Portuguese motorway there was a noticeable amount of vertical movement over ridges and expansion joints in the firmer setting, but Comfort turned everything down. Van der Meer says the passive damper tune is closer to Sport.

Don’t laugh too hard, but a twisty wet road in a fully switched-up M235i had me remembering the Mitsubishi Evo. The engine doesn’t have the Lancer’s boosty power delivery – and refinement is off-the-scale better – but the way the BMW turns in and locks onto a cornering line was definitely familiar. Which wasn’t an association I was imagining making before driving the car.

Is the 2 Series Gran Coupe a true BMW?

The changing tastes of the world car market make the 2-Series Gran Coupe an entirely rational piece of product planning.

BMW’s assertion that the majority of buyers won’t even realise the car is natively front-driven, let alone care about it, is likely to grate with enthusiasts, but reflects the truth that got the car signed off. Also the paradox: we might prefer it with six-cylinder power and right-wheel drive, but then it wouldn’t have been built.

With BMW planning to continue with a next-gen rear-drive 2-Series coupe and M2 the lesson here is probably to live and let live. 

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - BMW

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