To say that BMW’s front-wheel drive strategy has been a hit-and-miss affair so far would be putting it mildly. While MINIs continue to be the ultra-hip, ultra-desirable runarounds for wealthy youngsters, Munich’s offerings have struggled to find their identity, having yet to achieve the same level of success as Mercedes-Benz’s incredibly popular compact car range.
It is perhaps the inevitable consequence of having a people carrier as your first front-wheel-drive vehicle. The 2 Series Active Tourer and its even frumpier Gran Tourer sibling were so far away from BMW’s core of building Ultimate Driving Machines (and the intrinsically sporty nature of the rear-drive 2 Series Coupé and Convertible) that it might as well have built an actual boat.
The second-generation X1 SUV received a much warmer response from buyers, while the sleeker X2 has ramped up the want-one factor of BMW’s wrong-wheel-drive (sorry, I’m a purist) cars. But the real litmus test will come with the new generation of these vehicles, kicking off with the latest 1 Series hatchback that is finally shorn of the requirement of having an engine mounted lengthways and power sent to the back.
That car is being closely followed by the four-door coupé you see here, the 2 Series Gran Coupé. Keeping up with all the variations of the catchall 2er is hard work at best, but this is essentially BMW’s answer to the Mercedes-Benz CLA, which sold well enough to warrant a second generation. But is this car just a half-hearted knockoff or something genuinely serious? We drive it in Lisbon to find out.
Munich’s reasons for going front-wheel drive for its smallest models are pretty well known by now, but allow me to summarise. The company has always excelled at rear-drive packaging, but there’s only so much you can do with a limited amount of space, and trying to fit five people and a longitudinal engine inside a small car meant that something had to give. In past 1 Series models, that “something” was the rear passengers’ legs.
Like it or not, the more compact transverse layout simply makes the most sense. But while you could forgive this approach on more utilitarian hatchbacks, MPVs and SUVs, BMW has yet to try the formula on something sportier and more low-slung – something in which interior space isn’t an utmost priority.
Enter the 2 Series Gran Coupé, the first BMW Gran Coupé to be predominantly front-driven. But unlike the 4 and 8 Series, this GC is not a niche model, not in the usual sense. As the cheaper China- and Mexico-only 1 Series Sedan continues to be forbidden fruit, this car is becoming the de facto entry-level four-door for traditional sedan-loving markets like the United States and, yes, Southeast Asia.
The requirements being placed on its dinky shoulders, then, are broad. It not only has to have the svelte looks and sweeping roofline of a Gran Coupé but also the luggage and occupant space – especially at the rear – that these markets demand from a regular sedan. All this seems to have caused some growing pains, which are most apparent on the outside.
The front end is by far the most successful aspect of the design, looking very much like the sporty BMW the car aspires to be. While the trapezoidal double kidney grille has been dwarfed by the humongous full-height one on the new 4 Series, it’s still pretty huge for a car this compact.
But it doesn’t overwhelm the design, and that’s down to the angled headlights that give the car a more focused look, with a stacked design and hexagonal daytime running lights that retain the typical BMW four-eyed graphic. The result is a face that is perhaps a little too big, but it works nevertheless.
The further back you go, the less cohesive the styling appears to be. The low roof and sloping rear windscreen are present and correct, but the car’s length is so short that there’s nowhere for all these lines to go, so they all come to a screeching halt at the rear. The result is a tail that looks quite tall and compressed, looking less Gran Coupé and more Gran Turismo (and no, I do not mean the Maserati kind).
It doesn’t help that the myriad of lines across the rear of the car, meant to accentuate its width, only serve to increase the visual height; the gloss black strip linking the tail lights and the position of the low-but-not-quite-low-enough number plate recess look particularly incongruous. I do like the rather slim LED tail lights themselves, however, with their sweeping L-shaped light guides that add a little pizzazz to the mix.
The cabin will be less divisive – with BMW’s angular interior design language being put to good use here, it neither looks nor feels a world away from what you’d find in a 3 Series. Material choice is pretty good if a little uninspiring, and it’s built to the same standard and has the same idiot-proof ergonomics that one comes to expect from the company. You won’t find any wood or metal trim in here, but that’s acceptable for the price.
Moreover, the compromised exterior design does at least appear not to have impinged on passenger space. Front occupants get plenty of room, and while you don’t sit quite as low as in a rear-drive BMW, it’s still lower than some of the competition. In typical Munich fashion, you also get plenty of adjustment in the seats and steering column to get the driving position inch-perfect.
Things are slightly less rosy at the back, but it’s still an amenable space to spend time in. Legroom is, if not outstanding, at least on par with the standards of the segment, although the low positioning of the front seats means you can’t slide your feet underneath to take full advantage. The sloping roofline also eats up quite a bit of headroom, but if you’re not too tall, you can slouch a bit and still get comfortable.
As for the boot, its 430 litres isn’t quite a match of the CLA’s 460 litres, but it’s big enough to fit a reasonable amount of luggage. It’s also in a neat rectangular shape and comes with a wide opening, some useful under-floor storage and a hands-free opening boot lid.
In terms of technologies, the Gran Coupé is a bit of a mixed bag. Just like in the larger models, you can specify the range-topping BMW Live Cockpit Professional infotainment system, which comes with the biggest centre touchscreen and a digital instrument display, both measuring 10.25 inches across. It also gets the latest BMW Operating System 7 and the BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant voice control system.
However, the 218i that’s been launched in Malaysia gets the base BMW Live Cockpit Plus, offering a smaller 8.8-inch touchscreen, analogue instruments and the previous-generation user interface. It’s a shame considering that the Mercedes’ compact cars get the latest and greatest MBUX system as standard here, but given that the older iDrive variant remains a paragon in ease of use, it’s not that much of a downgrade.
Two models are available for us to test out in Lisbon. The 218i is pretty much identical to what has only just been launched in Malaysia, powered by the B38 1.5 litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine. In its latest configuration, it makes 140 PS from 4,600 to 6,500 rpm and 220 Nm of torque between 1,480 and 4,200 rpm, sent to the front wheels through a Getrag seven-speed wet dual-clutch transmission.
Those outputs aren’t exactly spectacular at a time when even a Honda Civic can churn out 170 hp for little more than half the price. But the bald figures do a disservice to just how readily the three-pot gives its modest performance. Give it a bit of throttle and the 218i slips right into the meat of the torque curve, giving you a decent amount of shove, although it’s not quite as zingy at the top end as I’d hoped.
Don’t get me wrong; this is not a very fast car. But even though it weighs close to 1.5 tonnes, the 218i still has adequate power for most driving conditions, as its zero-to-100 km/h sprint time of 8.7 seconds suggests. The engine’s amicable demeanour is backed by a characterful engine note – a little bit of washing machine thrum low down and a mini-straight-six whine up top, and far smoother than any Perodua triple. In fact, the lack of vibration is a surprise and a real improvement compared to earlier B38s.
The DCT is a willing and able companion, responding reasonably quickly to your right foot and delivering swift yet seamless gearchanges whenever you need it. As with the local specification, the test unit doesn’t have paddle shifters but rarely does the car feel like it needs it, and in start-stop traffic, the gearbox is much less sluggish compared the same unit in the Mercedes A 200. It’s the better everyday companion for it.
In town, the Gran Coupé delivers a firm ride but never crashes over bumps, despite the passive M Sport suspension on the tester. Unlike Stuttgart, BMW has elected to fit even the base models with an expensive rear multilink setup (rather than a torsion beam), allowing the 218i to more effectively soak up imperfections.
One caveat, however – the car we’re driving is equipped with smaller wheels, measuring a scant 17 inches in diameter. We’ll need to try out the local model with the inch-larger rollers to give you a definitive verdict on how it will deal with our pockmarked roads.
The Gran Coupé continues to impress at highway speeds. Munich has come a long way from the days of uncouth F30s and this tiny sedan lets in only the slightest amount of road and wind noise, even with the frameless windows. Three-cylinder engines are usually rowdy affairs, but this one keeps its voice down, especially at a cruise. Thank the long-legged gearbox for that.
It’s only when you chuck it into a corner that the front-drive layout starts to impose some limitations. You get an ever-present sensation of being pulled forward instead of pushed, and overall the car just isn’t as playfully agile as a 3 Series or even a regular MINI Hatch.
That said, some quintessential BMW traits remain. The steering isn’t the quickest but responds faithfully to your inputs, while body movements are helpfully reined-in at anything other than ten-tenths. Push it to its limits and the 218i will run out of talent, but only at speeds well beyond where most owners will take it.
It also resists understeer well, largely thanks to the trick electronics. There’s the faster, more precise near-actuator wheel slip limitation (ARB) traction control, BMW Performance Control torque vectoring by braking and brake-activated Electronic Differential Lock Control (EDLC), all of which help to minimise some front-drive tendencies. Even so, it’s still the front end that loses grip first when you lean on it hard.
We also get to sample the M235i which, given the local spyshots, should arrive here sooner rather than later. This mid-range M Performance variant is a far more serious proposition, being powered by an uprated B48 2.0 litre four-pot. Paired to an xDrive all-wheel-drive system and a conventional eight-speed automatic, it churns out a potent 306 PS at from 5,200 to 6,250 rpm and 450 Nm between 1,750 and 4,500 rpm.
Those figures are almost exactly the same as AMG’s 35-series models, so it’s no surprise that the M235i feels just as quick. It pulls like a freight train, hitting 100 km/h in 4.9 seconds and reaching silly speeds with alarming ease, helped along by an unobtrusive and fast-shifting gearbox.
The growly soundtrack that accompanies the brutish acceleration is artificially augmented and not especially tuneful, but it’s still sporty enough to get your blood pumping. As you’d expect, this considerable turn of speed and all-paw traction make the M235i a devastatingly rapid point-to-point weapon, but one sadly bereft of the driver engagement of a true rear-drive BMW.
Like most other hot hatches of this calibre, it prioritises stability and grip above all else, sticking to apexes without ever feeling like it’s rotating around you. This cornering attitude is perhaps in some part down to design, but it’s mostly due to the rear wheels only ever seeing a maximum of 50% of the torque. The front end is also occasionally overwhelmed by sudden throttle inputs, even with the Torsen limited-slip differential.
So, a little flawed, then. But the M235i is still great fun to hustle in the bends, even if that enjoyment comes from simply getting through a corner as fast as possible. And with the optional adaptive dampers equipped, the car rides noticeably softer than an equivalent AMG 35-series model, making a solid case for itself as a speedy and hugely capable daily driver.
The 2 Series Gran Coupé is a car with some commendable and likeable traits. It’s well built, has a relatively practical interior, is remarkably refined and strikes a mostly agreeable balance between ride and handling. The 218i variant is also blessed with competitive pricing and equipment thanks to local assembly, handing it a distinct advantage especially next to its sedan rivals. Then there’s the fact that the 2er has the four-door coupé market pretty much all to itself, now that the second-gen CLA is AMG-only here.
But there’s no escaping the fact that this particular Gran Coupé feels a little too ordinary to deserve the suffix. Perhaps it’s that gawky rear end – there’s no shortage of detractors, as evidenced by the snide comments in the editorial group chat whenever the 2GC is brought up (I’m looking at you, Hafriz Shah).
Like it or not, the fact that this 2 Series is predominantly front-driven has also robbed it of some of its individuality, leaving behind a slightly me-too machine. The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I levelled this same criticism against the A-Class Sedan, but there’s one key difference – the Gran Coupé has better underlying traits that make up for it.
Even with all the compromises and shortcomings, I still find the 2 Series Gran Coupé to be an attractive little package in its price range. Milquetoast it may be in the grand scheme of things, it’s nevertheless a unique offering within the BMW lineup, and it’s certainly not without its strengths. If you don’t mind the looks (I happen to like them, fat arse aside), you could be in for a treat.
The BMW 2 Series Gran Coupé is now on sale in Malaysia. Just one model is available at launch, the 218i M Sport priced at RM211,367 on-the-road without insurance; as it’s assembled locally, it benefits from a full exemption of the sales and service tax (SST). Browse full specifications and equipment on CarBase.my.
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