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Pint-Sized Power: Driving the 2020 BMW M235i Gran Coupe Makes Sense—We Think

BMW’s newest sedan packs the company’s most-powerful four-cylinder, at least for now.

Conner GoldenWriterManufacturerPhotographer

I'll be blunt: If your reaction to the $38,000-and-up price tag on this tiny BMW sedan is a mixture of revulsion and incredulity, this is not the car for you. No stream of factoids, anecdotes, and comparisons will transform you into a believer if you don't instinctively find the entry-level subcompact luxury segment appealing. And the above price is just for the base 228i Gran Coupe; with the right options, a loaded M235i Gran Coupe breaks into the mid-$50,000 range. Disgusted? I'm sure BMW would be tickled-pink to sell you a mid-level 3 Series instead.

Alright, now that the looky-loos have left the room, let's talk about BMW's newest—and first in the U.S.—entry into this segment, joining the Audi A3 and both of Mercedes-Benz's A Class and CLA Coupe. BMW is late to the itty-bitty sedan party here in the States, considering the CLA first hit our shores seven years ago, and we've enjoyed the A3--in some configuration or another—since 2005. BMW instead cornered the entry-level premium sport coupe market with the older 1 Series and today's 2 Series coupes.

BMW's not one to leave a segment untouched, so it's strange it took so long to bring a small sub-3 sedan to our shores, especially since the rest of the world enjoyed the funky 1 Series hatchback since the early 2000s. Sure, premium hatchbacks sell like rotten milk Stateside, but it's a bummer they never draped a three-box sedan body over that excellent rear-wheel-drive platform.

Perhaps BMW saw merit in waiting for the maturation of its front-drive-based UKL platform. The 2 Series Gran Coupe rides on the upgraded UKL2 architecture, similar to what underpins the Mini Clubman, Countryman, BMW X1 and X2, and is quite dimensionally diminutive as a result.

All of my time was spent exclusively in the hopped-up M235i Gran Coupe, so if we're comparing Äpfel to Äpfel, the CLA35 is conceptually and monetarily the closest competitor, though you wouldn't guess that after whipping out the measuring tape. The M235i GC is a whopping 6.3 inches shorter than the CLA 35, 1.3 inches narrower, and 0.6 inch taller. Dimensionally, the Mercedes-AMG A 35 is closer, even if the 2 Series GC undercuts the smallest Mercedes by 0.9 inch on length and 1.0 inch on height, only beating it by 0.2 inch on width. The BMW is even down 2.3 inches compared to the A and CLA's shared wheelbase.

In other words, strange proportions for a car BMW bills as the four-door version of a coupe—or is it a fastback variant of a non-existent sedan? Hey, we're just following the precedent set by prior BMW Gran Coupes. It doesn't really have the same stance and profile of those pseudo-swoopy four-door fastbacks buyers so desperately hope make them look interesting, instead appearing more like a regular ol' 3 Series left in the dryer for too long.

These familiar lines initially drew ire from some brand enthusiasts, who quickly compared the upright, slightly squashed design to that of a Corolla-a-la-BMW, but I have to disagree. It's not the shapeliest little sedan, but looking at the current state of global automotive design, what did you expect? I think it's a tidy little package, and a well-executed translation of current BMW design ethos. If the rumors and spyshots of the upcoming 4 Series' massive front grille are accurate, I reckon you'll soon pine for the days of BMW's less-adorned designs like this 2 Series GC.

It's what's underneath this anodyne body that really holds your attention. Regardless of the numerals mounted on the rear decklid, every U.S.-bound permutation of the 2 Series GC packs a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, all-wheel-drive, and a ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic transmission. On the launch program in Lisbon, Portugal, I only got a crack at the potent M235i GC, and not the base 228i xDrive, so I can't speak on the 228i's fitting 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque; I'm sure it's fine and dandy, as per a quoted 0-60 mph sprint of 6.0 seconds.

For roughly $8,000 extra, BMW crams that four-pot full of uprated internals and hardware, including reinforced crankshaft, new pistons, connecting rods, bigger turbocharger, and different injectors. Now, 301 hp and a mighty 332 lb-ft of torque make this the most powerful four-cylinder BMW's offered up until this point, though don't expect that record to hold for long.

That's a heap of power for a FWD-based AWD system to handle, so BMW includes a suite of traction and power-management systems to cull the ever-present specter of both torque steer and power-induced understeer. This is the first gasoline-powered BMW to benefit from what it calls a "near-actuator wheel slip limitation (ARB) system" developed originally on the company's i3 electric vehicle. A slip controller located in the engine control unit rather than the stability control unit "reduces the signal path" and results in quicker response times, BMW says.

Brake-based torque vectoring works in tandem with the AWD system, which in turn splits power up to 50/50 front/rear. On the M235i, the front wheels are given a break from all of that torque with a Torsen limited-slip differential integrated into the transmission, which in turn works with a Launch Control setting that allows for a peak of 332 lb-ft of torque in the first two gears.

All this mechanical firepower diverges into a 0-60 mph rush of 4.6 seconds in the M235i Gran Coupe; power and performance right on par with the aforementioned Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 and A 35's 302 hp compared to the M235i GC's 301, though the BMW's extra 37 lb-ft of torque gives it extra punch. On the tight, narrow roads that cut through the rural Portuguese countryside, the acceleration is alarming, if only for a lack of smooth, straight sections of tarmac. Traction is strong; during full-throttle pulls, it scrambles forward without any wheel-hop or undue disruption, though you can feel wisps of unseen electronic intervention during more aggressive maneuvers. It sounds good, too, with a deliciously aggressive bark customary of these hopped-up, over-boosted four-cylinders.

Dynamically, the news isn't as good. Much like our dearly departed Four Seasons M550i, the M235i GC is extraordinarily quick, but without any of the expected adjunct sharpness that should accompany this capability. Steering is quick enough but also overly light and excessively numb, as are the uprated M Performance brakes and the throttle. Braking was more than strong enough to haul us down to speeds more appropriate for a town square, but the initial bite is disappointing, as is the length of pedal travel required.

Throttle tuning was less egregious, and while shifts were generally quick and reasonably smooth, the transmission was either too sluggish in Comfort and Eco mode, and too downshift-happy in Sport. However, during bouts of the most aggressive driving, slapping the gear selector into "S" shifting mode held shifts to near redline and imparted well-tuned shift mapping. Body control was well-sorted, especially body lean during cornering and bump/rebound over undulating pavement, the only downside being a tendency to crash over potholes and craggy sections. Perceived differences in ride comfort when toggling between drive modes weren't highly pronounced, but it softened up enough to make the roughest stuff more than bearable.

Mostly, the M235i GC drives like it's trying to be one size bigger than it is, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially when you consider the target audience. The dossier on the ideal 2 Series Gran Coupe demographic is bursting with clichés and buzzwords like "urban" and "young," and not "enthusiast." Aside from the small set of buyers who actually need a little sedan like this for inner-city driving, this is absolutely an entry-level luxury vehicle, especially in 228i trim. It's also the third-cheapest way to slide behind a wheel wearing the BMW crest, and to most buyers, that's the most important part.

So, in an effort to appeal to a crowd that is happy with leasing a pint-sized sedan so long as it has a roundel, four rings, or a tri-star up front, the 2 Series Gran Coupe needs to be approachable, easy to drive, and prioritize daily use over any weekend canyon carving. It's still a very capable little car; it's just tuned so that when the average entry-level buyer does mash the throttle, the car never overwhelms.

Moving beyond driving dynamics, you're still getting a full-fledged BMW product. The interior is a scaled-down version of what you would find in a 3 Series, right down to the steering wheel, shifter, pedals, digital cluster, and center console. Materials are top-notch for the segment, as is the traditionally airtight BMW quality control. Again, my M235i tester was top-of-the-line, but I have no reason to believe the buyer of a mid-level 228i would be disappointed. Be brave with the option list, and the car is packed with some serious tech, including the aforementioned digital display, a head-up display, gesture control, wireless charging, automatic parking, BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant, illuminated trim, and a full suite of driver assistance tech.

Crucially, this is also the cheapest way to park a genuine Gran Coupe model in your loft apartment garage. Apparently, buyers—and by extension, BMW—perceive the "Gran Coupe" designation as a more "premium" model family. True or not, BMW's doing something right with its naming convention, as it's sold more than 400,000 cars wearing the Gran Coupe name since its introduction on the 2012 6 Series.

Yup, either you get it, or you don't. If you nodded along in agreement to most of the above, chances are you'll be more than happy in the 2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe. Make sure you're first in line when the car goes on sale later next month.

2020 BMW M235i Gran Coupe
ON SALE March
PRICE $46,495 (base)
ENGINE 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder/301 hp @ 5,000-6,250 rpm, 332  lb-ft @ 1,750 - 4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE TBD
L x W x H 178.5 x 70.9 x 55.9 in
WHEELBASE 105.1 in
WEIGHT 3,605 lb
0-60 MPH 4.6 sec
TOP SPEED 130 mph (155 mph w/optional package)