FIRST DRIVE | New 2020 BMW M235i serves up pace and grace
I tried to dislike the BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe because I hate the way it looks. And I couldn’t. I really liked it, to the point that I could overlook its clunky design and easily live with one. It does so many things beautifully and nothing poorly. It is mature and calm and comfortable and a real sweetie.
Exclusively driven front wheels have arrived at BMW and they’re not going anywhere. It started with the last year’s 1 Series and now it continues with the 2 Series Gran Coupe.
Confusingly, the harder-core 2 Series performance models, like the M2 Competition and the M2 CS, remain on their rear-drive layouts, but the Gran Coupe has moved on to the 1 Series architecture, which is also shared with contemporary Minis.
And it’s good. It’s very good.
For starters, the M235i isn’t precisely front-wheel drive, but it’s a front-wheel drive with a hang-on differential on the rear, so it can switch any front-end slip to rear-wheel drive at will.
Even then, its front-wheel drive bits aren’t normal front-wheel drive bits, with the road grabbed by a mechanical Torsen limited-slip differential, which is the sort of thing normally reserved for far more expensive sporty cars.
There’s plenty of firepower sitting crossways under the bonnet, a 225kW, 450Nm 2.0l turbo petrol motor, which is claimed to be enough to swoop to 100km/h in 4.9 seconds.
It’s also a big performance jump over its 1.5l, three-cylinder turbo petrol motor’s 103kW and 220Nm (nearly four seconds slower to 100km/h than its big brother).
It also steps straight over the entry Gran Coupe’s seven-speed dual clutch in favour of an eight-speed automatic, stiffened up for faster shifting. In fact, the entire M235i Gran Coupe xDrive powertrain neatly echoes the one in the 1 Series hatchback.
It straddles the gap between the 1 and 3 Series, with 4,526mm of overall length, with 430l of boot space, plus a cubby hole under the cargo floor and a 40:20:40 split-fold rear seat.
The interior is pretty neat, comfortable and well thought through.
For a relatively young market, the M235i Gran Coupe xDrive feels remarkably mature inside, with very little overlooked. Even the poverty pack delivers a 26cm digital instrument cluster, a head-up display, another 26cm screen for the touch-operated multimedia screen, ambient lighting throughout the interior, six speakers and wireless phone charging.
The base assistant package includes a reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors, lane-departure warning, autonomous emergency braking, rear cross-traffic alert and speed-sign recognition.
You get much more inside and out attached to the big engine, including a 16-speaker Harmon-Kardon sound system, leather upholstery, electric seats, adaptive LED headlights, keyless entry and bigger 19-inch rubber.
The front seats are immensely comfortable places to be, and the seating position is excellent, as is front visibility. The smartphone inductive charging pad is tilted and rubberised to resist moderate cornering forces.
The multimedia systems are much more intuitive than the Mercedes-Benz system (though less pretty) and there is plenty of storage inside, including three USB ports.
It’s even set up for over-the-air updates for its multimedia software and its Android Auto and Apple CarPlay navigation info can even be sent to its head-up display.
One of the car’s biggest tricks comes from the electric i3, which needed a near-actuator wheel-slip limiter to govern all of its torque. The junior M car uses the same system to control wheelspin.
The Torsen diff is a high-end thing, too, and the all-wheel drive system can send half of the engine/transmission’s torque to the rear end when it needs to.
Even with all of its urge, BMW claims it’s good for 6.7l/100km.
THE TRICK STUFF COMES WITH CORNERS. IT DOES EVERYTHING WITH A DIGNITY AND APLOMB THAT’S UNEXPECTED
How does the M2350 Gran Coupe drive? Very, very well. From the frameless doors to the fat-rimmed steering wheel, the M235i subtly tells its story as a crisp tourer, rather than an M2-style blaster, and it proves it with every corner.
The engine is quiet when it’s cruising and frenetic when it’s not. Yet it’s never uncivilised, and its performance is like being mashed to a leather wall and held there, calmly.
Overtaking is simple, cruising is simple, gearshifting is simple and driving fast or slow is just, well, simple.
The trick stuff comes with corners. It does everything with a dignity and aplomb that’s utterly unexpected.
There aren’t many cars this size with this sort of engine capacity that will cover ground with a combination of the M235i’s pace and grace.
Its body control is brilliant, even in the most comfortable of its three damper stiffness settings. Likewise, it never falls into the usual BMW overly hard ride in its Sports mode. It just becomes firmer and more precise.
It’s the sort of car that just can’t be unsettled, even with severe provocation, regardless of the road conditions. Foggy, wet, dry, patchy, even gravel strewn, it never seems to matter to the Gran Coupe.
For all that, its ability to drive sedately on heavily broken roads is just as impressive on its 19-inch boots. It soaks it all up well, covering ground without undue influence on its body control and with barely any road noise coming through from below decks.
The rear seat asks an odd question, though. It’s about the only significant oddity.
There is far more legroom here (about 11cm) more than the old 2 Series, but there’s a big reinforcement beneath the seats that extends forward of the corners, the roofline is low to get into it and there’s not much headroom for adults of any size.
But kids of, say, 14 or so would find it perfectly fine.
Should you buy it?
If it’s a junior 3 Series you’re after, well, you probably should. It’s not a case of a car in the class to buy if you love BMW, but more of a car in the class to buy if you want the best car in the class.
It’s also a far more mature, rounded machine than the new 1 Series on which it is based, and it feels like a BMW, rather than a rebodied Mini.
It’s more a fully developed daily driver than the harder-riding A 35 or the CLA 35 from BMW’s arch rivals in Stuttgart and it’s fresher than Audi’s end-of-cycle A3 or S3.
So, if you can bear the sight of it (and it’s a lot less unattractive than the 1 Series), why not?
The 2 Series Gran Coupe is expected to go on local sale in the next few months.