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Take 1 Series underpinnings, top with a rakish body and what do you have? Let’s find out

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There’s an air of inevitability that seems to surround the new BMW 2 Series Gran Coupé’s arrival into the BMW family. And curiously, if not totally unsurprisingly, this stems from the existence of a car of vastly greater proportions than this week’s road test subject, too.

The launch of the original BMW X6 in 2008 was an interesting moment in BMW history. To say it was a curiously styled beast would be to put things very kindly indeed, but for those brand traditionalists still struggling with the idea of BMW making any SUVs at all, Munich’s third X model proved a particularly difficult pill to swallow. Nevertheless, as provocative as its existence might have been at the time, the truth of the matter was that it drove well and went on to sell very strongly indeed.

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

In fact, its success helped BMW to forge something of a reputation for itself as a firm with a sharp eye for identifying new, left-field niches within the car market.

Niches that were, to put it somewhat simplistically, largely defined by a dramatically sloping coupé-style roofline. Admittedly, Mercedes had helped to popularise the idea of the four-door coupé with the launch of the CLS in 2004, but BMW’s success with the more outlandish SUV coupé surely solidified its confidence in the logic of applying the design formula across its entire model portfolio – regardless of bodystyle or whether it might be considered tasteful.

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So we eventually wound up with the likes of the BMW X4 and BMW X2, but we got the strikingly handsome 6 Series and 4 Series Gran Coupé models, too. It’s also how we wound up here, with the 2 Series Gran Coupé, a car those of a more unscrupulous disposition might be inclined to label a 1 Series in a party frock.

Whether or not this new compact four-door coupé will be a hit with the fashion-conscious audience it’s intended for remains to be seen. Right now, we’re going to find out if this new rival to the Mercedes-Benz CLA has what it takes to stand on its own two feet.

The 2 Series Gran Coupé line-up at a glance

Three flavours of 2 Series Gran Coupé are currently available here in the UK. The three-cylinder 218i tested here represents the entry-level engine offering; the 220d is the sole diesel option; and the considerably more powerful M235i xDrive M Performance model crowns the range as the driver’s choice.

M Performance cars aside, just two trim levels are currently on offer: Sport and M Sport. The latter introduces more aggressive styling, extra equipment and uprated, firmer suspension, which may or may not be to everyone’s tastes.

Price £27,240 Power 138bhp Torque 162lb ft 0-60mph 8.8sec 30-70mph in fourth 12.1sec Fuel economy 42.0mpg CO2 emissions 114g/km 70-0mph 45.7m

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - BMW

DESIGN & STYLING

BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe 2020 road test review - hero side

With a healthy amount of the BMW 2 Series Gran Coupé’s appeal expected to emanate from its looks, it’s disappointing to see it head into play from a compromised position.

Next to the elegant Mercedes-Benz CLA, the BMW’s comparatively bulbous proportions leave it looking awkwardly chunky and inflated, compromising its ability to convincingly pass as a sleek four-door coupé. Its fussy, almost cartoonish front end lacks any real sense of memorable elegance and its pinched rear is seemingly doing its best to imitate the BMW X4 and BMW X6 SUVs – both of which are widely perceived to represent low points in contemporary BMW design.

I can’t understand why they’ve designed the rear to look so tall, complicated and generally ungainly. Elegantly salooning hatchbacks isn’t particularly easy, but Audi and Mercedes currently do it far better than BMW.

Although BMW has confirmed that the future versions of the 2 Series Coupé and Convertible will retain a rear-driven platform, this new Gran Coupé sits on the same natively front-driven UKL2 architecture that underpins the latest BMW 1 Series.

A selection of transversely mounted three- and four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines are available at launch, with our 218i test car being the entry-level offering. It features the same 1.5-litre three-pot that appears in the base 1 Series and various Mini models, here making 138bhp and 162lb ft. This is deployed to the road via an optional dual-clutch automatic gearbox, as opposed to the standard-fit six-speed manual.

With 187bhp and 295lb ft on tap, the diesel 220d develops considerably more grunt than our 218i, but it’s the range-topping M235i M Performance model that will most likely get the hearts of keen drivers pumping. Its 302bhp, 332lb ft motor is BMW’s most powerful series-production four-pot yet and, unlike the 218i and 220d, it employs a clutch-based part-time four-wheel drive system that can direct as much as 50% of the engine’s torque to the rear axle. A 400bhp-plus version of that engine is reportedly in the works, too, which suggests that a full-fat M2 Gran Coupé variant could emerge further down the line to take on Mercedes-AMG’s madcap CLA 45.

All 2 Series Gran Coupé models have BMW’s near-actuator wheel slip limitation (ARB) system that first appeared on the BMW i3, too. This can gently brake the inside front wheel during cornering to help prevent understeer.

Suspension is by way of MacPherson struts up front and multiple links at the rear, although configurations vary between trim levels. Our test car employed lowered M Sport springs and passive dampers and it rode on optional 18in alloy wheels.

INTERIOR

BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe 2020 road test review - cabin

Although the BMW 2 Series Gran Coupé’s interior decor doesn’t quite match its Mercedes rival for outright visual panache, it isn’t exactly lacking in upmarket appeal. Material quality is, for the most part, very much up to the standard you’d expect from a high-end compact saloon.

Inevitably, there are a few areas in the lower reaches of the cabin where harder, scratchier plastics are employed, but these are generally pretty innocuous. Our test car’s Oyster Grey leather upholstery contrasted nicely with the polished piano black and chrome trim elements while simultaneously lending the interior a pleasantly light and airy ambience.

Not only is there less space in the back than in the 1 Series hatch, but it seems the rear door aperture is marginally smaller too, making ingress and egress trickier.

As with its BMW 1 Series sibling, the 2 Series Gran Coupé’s transverse engine layout works wonders for interior packaging – at least in the front row. With no transmission tunnel to impede front-row space, there’s a comfortable amount of distance between the driver and passenger.

Unfortunately, this sense of space doesn’t translate to the second row all that convincingly – and the Gran Coupé’s sloping roofline is undoubtedly the culprit. According to our tape measure, rear head room stands at 870mm, which is 40mm less than you’ll find in the standard 1 Series. That said, the Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 we road tested last year had even less, at 860mm.

As for typical rear leg room, the Gran Coupé’s measures 670mm – a figure that’s equal to the rear leg room in the Mercedes but some 40mm shy of that in the standard 1 Series. As a result, it’s somewhat unlikely that adult passengers would find the back row a particularly comfortable place to spend extended periods of time – although, of course, children should fit just fine.

The BMW doesn’t exactly knock things out of the park for boot space, either. With no hatchback opening to call upon, the aperture is relatively compact and provides access to a capacity of only 430 litres, although the rear seats can be collapsed to make loading particularly long items a bit easier. By comparison, the CLA offers up 460 litres of storage.

2 Series Gran Coupé infotainment and sat-nav

Entry-level Sport models have BMW’s 8.8in Live Cockpit Plus infotainment system but M Sport variants are upgraded to the larger, 10.25in suite as standard. The display is impressively crisp and the graphics usefully fluid, while the operating system is easy to navigate and doesn’t take long to learn. This is largely because BMW has retained its useful rotary control dial, which along with dedicated physical shortcut buttons makes the system that much easier to operate while on the move.

It comes with a comprehensive roster of features as standard, including satellite navigation, DAB radio and Bluetooth, although frustratingly our test car didn’t have Apple CarPlay connectivity. However, BMW has said that this will arrive as a standard feature shortly.

The £1500 Technology pack fitted to our car brought with it a head-up display, wi-fi preparation and a useful wireless smartphone charging pad.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe 2020 road test review - engine

Look beyond the coupé silhouette – and the aggressive M Sport bodywork addenda – and it soon becomes apparent that anybody who wants their 2 Series Gran Coupé to move with much intent would do well to avoid the entry-level 218i’s engine.

As we’ll shortly discover, BMW’s B38 three-cylinder turbo unit, which is shared with the Mini, has some commendable strengths but performance is not one of them, despite our car’s reasonably light test weight of 1420kg with a full tank of fuel.

It’s a pleasant car to steer down a B-road at everyday speeds but an underlying softness and resolutely nose-led balance become more apparent when you press on.

At Millbrook, the sprint to 60mph took 8.8sec, the car moving limply off the line with the front tyres never in any danger of losing traction. Were the lowliest 2 Series Gran Coupé merely slow, it wouldn’t matter so much, but in this application, the B38 engine lacks the energy and the more rev-hungry spirit it summons in the Mini. Character, in other words.

While smooth, mild-mannered and impressively linear, it always feels restrained, which is demonstrated by the time the car takes to complete our usual 30-70mph-in-fourth-gear measure of flexibility. Twelve seconds is somewhat un-BMW, even in this new era of rakish bodystyles hiding a front-drive powertrain.

If the 218i Gran Coupé lacks fizz under the bonnet, it performs with more conviction under braking. Servo assistance feels modest and there’s good progression in the brake pedal, which is rare nowadays, even with the products from manufacturers that have historically put the driver front and centre. Reaching a standstill from 70mph in 45.7m is no longer exceptional, but the set-up here is one that gives the driver quiet confidence, with a veneer of polish missing in some of the other controls.

BMW’s Steptronic dual-clutch gearbox also deserves praise. With seven ratios, it does more to mitigate the engine’s lack of firepower than the standard-fit six-speed manual and it shifts quickly but without the unnecessary brusqueness of some dual-clutch transmissions, especially at low speeds. Because of the engine’s shortage of torque at lower revs, it’s also required to drop down a couple of gears fairly often, which it does without trouble. Finally, a long top gear allows sub-2000rpm motorway cruising, usefully reducing noise and fuel consumption.

None of which makes up for the fact that the 218i Gran Coupé has an engine that fails to live up to the expectations of one residing in a car with sporting, dynamic pretensions.

RIDE & HANDLING

BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe 2020 road test review - cornering front

You may pine for the 2 Series Gran Coupé that might have been, had BMW only continued to build its small cars on a rear-drive platform.

The notion of a fine-handling but compact four-door coupé with a short wheelbase, no front driveshafts and a reasonably low kerb weight holds considerable appeal, but the truth is that even the old, tail-driven 1 Series, despite its fine, longitudinal straight-six engine for the hotter models, never drove as sweetly, playfully or predictably as it should have.

Gran Coupé resists understeer reasonably well through tight hairpins but it won’t tighten its line for love nor money.

As it is, the front-driven approach we have here, although capable, is hardly the last word in dynamic finesse and, for the enthusiast, does little to disguise the humdrum driveline orientation.

It’s not all bad, though. The 2 Series Gran Coupé is slightly softer than the new-generation 1 Series, as befits its more cruiser-oriented brief, but this example’s M Sport springs dial the firmness back up a touch. The result is a car that steers pleasingly well in everyday driving and one that contains roll neatly and is easy to place on the road. The steering doesn’t possess the same darting response as that of the larger 3 Series and is lighter still, but it’s accurate and linear and there’s some ebb and flow to the weighting. In combination with a truly excellent driving position, the car is pleasurable enough to flow down a B-road.

However, problems arise when you really want to drive the thing. BMW’s adaptive suspension, which is available on the M235i Gran Coupé only, may make a better fist of controlling the fairly tall body, but our car’s passive set-up isn’t supportive enough during committed cornering and it prompts the chassis to fall back on its nose-led balance. Vertical control is also more lax than expected and overall the 218i Gran Coupé feels out of its comfort zone at just the moment when a BMW should rise to the occasion. In the end, it’s just a bit ordinary.

Limit handling is something the average 218i Gran Coupé owner is unlikely to explore too often and perhaps that’s just as well, because although the car didn’t disgrace itself on the Hill Route at Millbrook, neither did it impress or entertain as we’d have hoped.

It’s true that this weak engine gives the driver few options to alter the attitude of the car, but the impression is that even more power wouldn’t help matters much. The suspension simply doesn’t have the precision to respond to subtle inputs and its softness allows the weight distribution of the car all too often to entirely dictate the handling characteristics. True, the Gran Coupé rarely descends into terminal understeer, but it is certainly inclined to push on whenever the opportunity presents itself.

COMFORT AND ISOLATION

There is very little ordinary about the way the 218i Gran Coupé moves when you simply want to get from A to B. The driving position is excellent, being low slung, supportive in all the correct places and with plenty of adjustability in the steering column.

Even with pillarless doors and the faintly bulbous face, the cabin is also well isolated from wind noise and road roar, and the engine has only a distant presence. At idle, its three-cylinder hum is barely audible, while at motorway speeds the 2 Series Gran Coupé does a passable impression of a 5 Series, loping along in a bumble of its own tranquillity.

For a compact model, it’s an unusually relaxing long-distance companion, with good forward visibility only improving matters. Our test car’s 18in wheels are of an optional style but are the smallest size. (Any smaller would undermine the sense of ‘sophistication’ a four-door coupé needs.) The Bridgestone tyres are also fairly generously provisioned with sidewall, so the car’s tendency to fidget on anything less than a perfectly smooth road is likely to be down to the M Sport springs.

This isn’t to say the car is irksome on the move. In general, its rolling road manners are very good, but the standard springs would be likely to improve matters further, albeit with a handling penalty on B-roads. On the basis that most people will buy the 218i for its looks, that seems a sensible trade.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe 2020 road test review - hero front

As far as list prices are concerned, the 2 Series Gran Coupé comes out on top of its Mercedes rival. In M Sport guise, our 218i test car is nearly £3000 cheaper than the equivalent CLA 180 AMG Line, and no matter how you look at it, that’s a fairly hefty sum. The good news continues when you examine forecasted residual values, too, although the difference isn’t quite as marked. Over a three-year, 36,000-mile period, our experts expect the Mercedes to hold on to 51% of its original asking price, with the BMW retaining 53%.

Equipment levels are strong, with BMW’s 10.25in infotainment suite, leather upholstery, heated front seats and more all included as standard. There are, of course, a number of options packs to choose from, but most of them are sensibly priced. The £1500 Technology pack – with its wi-fi hotspot, phone charging pad and head-up display – is particularly enticing.

BMW performs well against its rivals from Audi and Mercedes, retaining a greater share of its value than both.

Real-world fuel economy is respectable, with our test car averaging 42mpg.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - BMW

VERDICT

BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe 2020 road test review - static

It isn’t difficult to understand why BMW elected to build the 2 Series Gran Coupé. A substantial portion of the buying public prioritises aesthetics above dynamics, so a premium-badged four-door coupé that can be built relatively inexpensively on a front-wheel-drive platform ought to sell well. And, in fairness, this 2 Series does deserve credit in some important respects.

It is unusually refined at a cruise, comfortable over long distances and economical with fuel. This new model is also pleasurable enough to steer at sedate speeds, with well-positioned controls, and BMW’s current cabin architecture continues to lead the way for usability.

Junior Gran Coupé hits some high notes but fails to inspire

Why, then, only three stars? Because we expect so much more from BMW in certain areas. Whether or not you find the 2 Series Gran Coupé visually attractive is an individual matter, but we find its styling contrived and awkward. The 218i is also short of performance and enthusiasm, and these attributes are married to the lax body control that fails to deliver the precision or finesse for which BMW coupés are known. The 2 Series Gran Coupé may sell well, but it’s a disappointing BMW.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - BMW

Mike Duff

Mike Duff
Title: Contributing editor

Mike has been writing about cars for more than 25 years, having defected from radio journalism to follow his passion. He has been a contributor to Autocar since 2004, and is a former editor of the Autocar website. 

Mike joined Autocar full-time in 2007, first as features editor before taking the reins at autocar.co.uk. Being in charge of the video strategy at the time saw him create our long running “will it drift?” series. For which he apologies.

He specialises in adventurous drive stories, many in unlikely places. He once drove to Serbia to visit the Zastava factory, took a £1500 Mercedes W124 E-Class to Berlin to meet some of its taxi siblings and did Scotland’s North Coast 500 in a Porsche Boxster during a winter storm. He also seems to be a hypercar magnet, having driven such exotics as the Koenigsegg One:1, Lamborghini SCV12, Lotus Evija and Pagani Huayra R.

BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe First drives