LISBON, Portugal -- Practicality, performance and affordability. In the world of luxury automobiles, an old Meatloaf lyric describes the usual state of affairs: Two out of three ain’t bad.
The 2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe looks to nail the trifecta, like so many entry-luxury hopefuls before it. It does a reasonably good job, as long as one maintains perspective on the car and what it’s trying to be.
Let’s start with what this BMW is not. Despite the pinkie-wagging “Gran Coupe” moniker, and the sporty-roofed layout it describes, this is not simply a lengthened 2 Series coupe with bonus doors. Instead of the rear-drive platform of the lower-case coupe, the Gran Coupe seeks corporate and packaging efficiencies by sharing a front-drive platform with the latest Mini Cooper and BMW X1 crossover.
By positioning the engine sideways, with the automatic transmission up front, the platform allows a roomier interior. Since BMW isn’t about to hand tissues to everyone who weeps at the mention of front-wheel-drive, every 2 Series Gran Coupe for America gets xDrive all-wheel drive, standard. That all-wheel drive system can power front wheels alone in steady-state driving, but also lets the rear wheels handle as much as 50% of propulsion.
We arrive in Lisbon to an array of Gran Coupes awaiting our test drive through lovely, rolling Portugal. The 228i xDrive Gran Coupe is the affordable lure beginning in March, with a 228-horsepower turbo-four and a come-hither base price of $38,495. In the BMW multiverse, now dominated by once-alien SUVs, only the X1 crossover costs less. Unfortunately, we don’t get to drive a 228i, missing the chance to get a sense of what a roughly $40,000 BMW can deliver in 2020.
Instead, BMW hands us keys to the best of the breed, starting from $46,495: The M235i Gran Coupe gets 301 horsepower and a sparkling 332 pound-feet of torque from an uprated version of the same 2.0-liter four-cylinder. It adopts new pistons, connecting rods and a reinforced crankshaft (with larger main bearings) to withstand the higher power. Optimized cooling includes a separate plumbing circuit for the transmission radiator, an 850-watt electric fan and two radiators in the front wheel arches.
The 2 Series looks ... fine. But few will cite it as a shining moment in BMW’s design history. Despite every attempt to mimic the elegant proportions of the larger 4-, 6-, and 8 Series Gran Coupes – including frameless side windows and a tumbling roofline – this is a short car trying its damndest to look like a long one. A massive, probing dual-kidney grille dominates the nose, with vertical slats for the base model, and a striking “Cerium Gray” mesh for the M235i. That grille is bookended by four-element LED headlamps and equally angry-looking air inlets. Things get trickier with a shoulder line that rises to meet a sharply upswept trunk. The 2 Series carries so much visual weight up high that it begins to look jowly; not what you’re looking for in a car that’s about 7 inches shorter than a 3 Series sedan in length and wheelbase. Curb weights start at a surprisingly chubby 3,534 pounds, and rises to 3,605 pounds for the M235i — the latter, 16 more than a larger 330i sedan, and 167 fewer than a 330i xDrive.
One culprit appears to be added bracing BMW felt was necessary to boost structural rigidity of the front-drive platform. For the M235i, that includes stiffening the front-axle subframe and tunnel area, plus a strut tower tie bar. The packaging upside includes 34.4 inches of rear legroom, just 0.8-inch fewer than a 3 Series, so it’s eminently comfortable for two largish adults in back. The scrawny trunk’s 12 cubic-feet of space brings you back to reality, versus the cavernous 17 cubes of the 3 Series.
The interior ably flaunts its BMW parentage, with a luxurious, driver-oriented design and nary a trace of cost-cutting. That includes the iDrive 6 infotainment system with analog driver’s instruments and an 8.8-inch center display. The optional iDrive 7 Live Cockpit Professional brings its striking pair of 10.25-inch digital readouts, along with Connected Navigation and the “Hey, BMW” voice commands. Illuminated trim is standard, along with a gamut of driver assistance systems. BMW’s M Sport steering wheel – a bit thick and slippery for my tastes – is standard on the M235i, or as part of an optional M Sport package. A dizzying array of extra-cost features include BMW’s excellent head-up display, the clever Back-Up Assistant, Gesture Control, wireless phone charging and a panoramic sunroof.
On the performance front, the BMW does erase much of the untoward, fighting-for-grip behavior that once characterized front-drive-based cars. BMW says the “ARB” system, adopted from the i3s, significantly reduces power understeer and boosts traction in wet or icy conditions. The system’s slip controller is directly in the engine control unit, rather than the dynamic stability control’s brain, which dramatically shortens the signal path. BMW claims that data is relayed three times quicker, to quell spinning front wheels with no need for corrective DSC inputs. A yaw distribution system can apply brakes on the inside front wheel to divert power to the outside wheel.
On our Portugal drive, the M235i’s standard performance armor included an M Sport suspension, brakes and steering. The latter brings a faster ratio, and an assist curve that varies according to vehicle speed and lateral acceleration.
I’d argue that no luxury brand coaxes such broad, flexible power from its small turbocharged engines. With that 332 pound-feet available anywhere from 1,750 to 4,500 rpm, the M235i’s launch control serves up 60 mph in a sizzling 4.6 seconds. That’s just 0.4 seconds behind the M340i xDrive, despite that car’s additional liter of displacement from a killer, 385-hp inline six. Even the 228i clocks 0-60 mph in 6 seconds flat. The engine doesn’t sing as sweetly as BMW’s sixes, emitting a hollow drone in certain registers. But the M235i’s dual-branch exhaust system reduces back pressure and adds some aural gusto. An eight-speed, paddle-shifted automatic performs admirably. Though left to its own devices in Drive, it occasionally got caught out with a tardy shift before forward progress resumed.
On a section of Portuguese freeway, the M235i pulls like the dickens to 120 mph before I back off, tracking in its lane with Germanic grace and confidence. A new Torsen mechanical limited-slip differential, integrated into the transmission, is another M235i secret weapon, creating a locking effect between front wheels. The car rides a bit stiffly, especially in the Sport mode of its optional Adaptive Suspension. But on winding roads overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the BMW deals with corners in the slingshot manner of smartly tuned AWD cars: Leaning hard on its outside front tire, keeping its body settled, and then melding handling aids and rear-drive teamwork to rocket out the far side.
So, is it as fun to drive as a 2 Series Coupe? Not even close. The traditional rear-drive coupe – especially in M235i or M2 guise – has a pitbull demeanor that demands regular exercise, turning every twisty road into its chew toy. Its chassis feels better-balanced, its handling more joyful. Yet this Gran Coupe is fast, frisky and thoroughly capable, an easy match for either an Audi S3 or Mercedes CLA.
The toughest sedan comparison may come from within the family. Frankly, there’s nothing about the 2 Series Gran Coupe, aside from lower payments, that would make me choose one over the 2020 3 Series. That rear-drive (or AWD) Bimmer is equally all-new, roomier for people and cargo, and better-performing overall. A 330i sedan starts from $41,745 with a 255-hp turbo four. That’s just $3,250 more than a 228i Gran Coupe with 27 fewer horses, and worth every penny of the premium. With xDrive AWD, the 3 Series costs $5,250 extra. The revelatory, track-worthy M340i model starts from a headier $54,995, $8,500 more than the M235i. Still, those price spreads will surely nudge some BMW shoppers in the Gran Coupe’s direction, especially folks who just want a BMW on the easiest lease terms they can find.
That’s not meant as a left-hand (or front-drive) compliment. Those owners should be as happy with their purchase as honchos who drop six figures on, say, an 8 Series Gran Coupe instead of a cheaper, traditional sedan. As for BMW traditionalists, consider this: At least it’s not another SUV.