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2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe Driven: Can FWD-Based BMW Sedans Satisfy?

There aren’t too many sacred cows left at BMW.

SPARTANBURG, South Carolina—Camouflage will turn heads in rural South Carolina when it's abstract, automotive cloaking and not military-derived. But BMWs? They're less attention-worthy here than one might expect, as the manufacturer's seven-million-square-foot Spartanburg plant churns out some 1,500 Bimmers per day that get trucked, railed, and shipped hither and yon.

As unorthodox as automotive camo may seem, what lies beneath this vinyl wrap is fairly radical: a front-drive-based BMW sedan. Based on the X1/X2 platform, the 2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe is the brand's new entry-level offering in the States, and after a quick spin last summer in Munich, we recently put a few miles on prototypes here in the U.S. While front-drive models are available in other markets, the U.S. only gets all-wheel-drive variants: the 228i xDrive Gran Coupe ($37,500) and the M235i xDrive Gran Coupe ($45,500)— and their base prices can add up to some serious coin for starter models once option boxes get ticked.

My M235i experience started with a road drive, where the car's camo-enhanced head-turning abilities were somewhat distracting from behind the wheel. Chill out, guys; there's just an inaptly named BMW "coupe" with four doors beneath the disguise, not an alien invader. Regardless, my test car didn't feel as entry level as its market positioning might suggest, thanks in part to its generous list of extra equipment. Both models get standard items like active blind spot monitoring, lane-keeping assist, and an iDrive 6 system bundled with an 8.8-inch display. The M235i receives standard leather upholstery and 18-inch wheels, as well as performance hardware like a Torsen front differential and M sport brakes, steering wheel, and suspension to complement the gruntier engine. My car was equipped with the available iDrive 7 interface that mates to a big, 10.25-inch screen, lending the cabin a more sophisticated feel despite the 2 Series's compact footprint and relatively simplistic interior design. Rear legroom is adequate, but not overly spacious for most adults, and is comparable to the current 3 Series. A power trunklid reveals a 12-cubic-foot cargo area with a rather vertical aperture and a removable floor panel for greater storage volume. Remember, this is a "coupe," right? Right.

That said, product specialist Rebecca Kiehne's attitude gave me hope: "Want to try launch control?" she offered relatively early in our drive, as she rode along in the passenger seat. Knowing full well that the front-drive platform is hot-button topic for dyed-in-the-wool BMW enthusiasts, it's understandable company brass are quick to tout the car's performance side. The 228i is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder from the brand's "B" modular engine family, producing 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. M235i models claim 301 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque from the same displacement thanks to a bigger turbo with a built-in exhaust manifold, modified injectors, and a host of structural reinforcements. As such, the bigger engine can hit 60 mph in 4.7 seconds; the overboost function in the optional M Performance Package drops the number to 4.6 clicks.

As I quickly learned, launch control activates easily enough by selecting Sport mode, holding the DSC button until an "off" light appears, clicking the shifter to manual, and squeezing both pedals. Look for the "Launch Control active" message as revs hold at around 2,750 rpm and lift the left pedal, and the eight-speed auto will dump power to all four wheels producing a crisp, clean launch, followed by a snappy upshift. Hard acceleration in the M235i feels fleet and satisfying, though there was no 228i model on hand to experience the milder version in contrast. There's less aural drama here than, say, a true M car. But as an entry model, the M235i holds its own during street slaloming, feeling eager, sharp, and entertaining at most any speed. The M235i's standard M Sport package brings with it a 0.4-inch drop in ride height and quicker ratio steering. Selecting Sport mode via the button on the center console makes the available two-mode adjustable dampers noticeably stiffer, conveying more of the road surfaces below. The setting also weights up the steering and sharpens throttle response.

The M235i proves easy to squirt around town expediently. But the real test of any proper sports car is at the limit, which is why I pressed for seat time at the BMW Performance Center's test track. And here's where the word "proper" becomes the operative term. Earlier drives on the same day in various M-branded stablemates, from the big-boy M8 Competition to the X4 M Competition, revealed a high level of on-track competency that support the general notion that BMW hasn't lost the plot yet. The M8's all-wheel-drive system can be driven in a purely rear-drive-only setting (unofficially referred to as "drift mode"), which was rousing enough to inspire a hearty "Yee Haw!" from this city slicker. Even the X6 M50i, which sits up high, proved surprisingly maneuverable through the tight and twisty bits. The M235i? Well, despite an Aisin-sourced transaxle for more balanced weight distribution, the platform still betrays its front-drive roots, with a Haldex differential allowing only a maximum of 50 percent of torque to drive either axle when called upon. The Pirelli P Zero tires also feel dialed in for the road, not closed-circuit conditions, producing relatively early slippage when the going gets hot and heavy.

Perhaps the 2 Series Gran Coupe, which launches Stateside in March 2020, isn't in danger of winning the hearts and minds of career autocrossers any time soon. But given BMW's expansive portfolio which includes driver-focused efforts like the recently unveiled M2 CS, that's just as well. The brand's Ultimate Driving Machine tagline was easier to uphold in the 1980s anyway, when the product lineup could be counted on one hand: 3 Series, 5 Series, 6 Series, 7 Series. Now that SUVs, niche-fillers, and, yes, so-called four-door coupes are so heavily relied upon for sales volume, it should be no surprise that a front-wheel-drive platform yields a more versatile option like the 2 Series Gran Coupe. Could BMW eventually send us a front-drive version? Maybe product planners are waiting to see if American fans scream bloody murder about this latest model, as they did when automatic-only M5s or subscription-based Apple CarPlay plans materialized. Until then, the M235i Gran Coupe offers what just might be the penultimate driving machine—sporty, serviceable, and just involving enough for a good chunk of the motoring population.

2020 BMW 228i/235i xDrive Gran Coupe Specifications
ON SALE Spring 2020
PRICE 228i, $37,500; M235i, $45,500
ENGINE 2.0L DOHC 16-valve turbo I-4; 231 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 258 lb-ft @ 1,450-5,000 rpm; 2.0L DOHC 16-valve turbo I-4, 302 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 332 lb-ft @ 1,750-4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 21-23/30-32 mpg (city/hwy, est)
L x W x H 178.2 x 70.9 x 55.9 in
WHEELBASE 104.3 in
WEIGHT 3,200/3,440 lb (228i/235i, est)
0-60 MPH 4.9 sec (235i, est)
TOP SPEED 155 mph (est)
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