The astonishing 2 Series Gran Coupe is yet another niche-busting BMW. The compact sedan-slash-coupe spearheads the new 2 Series family – but does it feel like a true BMW to drive, given that it's a product of the firm’s platform-sharing programme? Matt Robinson travelled to Portugal to drive the newcomer...
Brutalism, in architecture, had its heyday in the late '50s/early '60s. Characterised by simple, straight lines, loads of exposed building materials and an aversion to blending into the background – it was never the most sympathetic of construction styles. After its brief apogee, it aged very badly, very quickly. As a consequence, most Brutalist structures were considered eyesores in the '70s and ‘80s and unceremoniously torn down. Most of the surviving examples in South Africa are in Jozi, such as the Wartenweiler Library, or some of the towering grey edifices looming over downtown. They’re not pretty, but there's a small yet fiercely-appreciative section of society that adores this short-lived fascination with unremittingly ugly buildings – individuals who wish to protect them from destruction.
Styling may be subjective, but you would have to be under the influence(r) to believe the front end of the 2 Gran Coupe is pretty.
Maybe the same DNA that’s found in the fans of Brutalist architecture will be needed (in 20 or 30 years' time) to defend BMW's current design approach. The Bavarian manufacturer has brandished a styling Brutalism all of its own in recent times, under the tutelage of Dutch design director Adrian van Hooydonk. Under the premise that "good automotive design should elicit a response, be that good or bad; indifference to aesthetics is what is criminal", Van Hooydonk and his team have been turning out some thoroughly… challenging creations. Consider the 3rd generations of the X6 and the Z4. The monstrous kidney grilles on the facelifted 7 Series. The gargantuan double-kidney grille of the upcoming 4 Series. The baffling Vision iNext Concept. All are not what you’d call conventionally pretty.
But perhaps the most visually demanding vehicle turned out by the Munich-based firm to date is this: the all-new 2 Series Gran Coupe (GC). It’s a compact 4-door sedan, based on the same front-wheel-drive (yes, FWD) underpinnings as the 1 Series and Mini families, which draws inspiration from the looks of the bigger 4 Series-, 6 Series- and 8 Series Gran Coupes that have come before it. But when you're looking to tempt buyers out of their Mercedes-Benz CLAs and Audi A3 Sedans, how can something this brutal to behold possibly win favour with your customer-base?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder…
Sportier and beefier styling of the M235i tries to aid the kerb appeal.
Car design is a highly subjective matter, we know that, so it may well be that you’re looking on the BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe’s form and wondering what our apprehension is about. Yet, to us, this is the least successful bit of design that has ever been put into production by this particular company – apart from, possibly, the old 2 Series Active Tourer MPV. That (now discontinued) model, however, at least had the defence of its bulbous form "following function". Quite why the (supposedly desirable) 2 Series GC has to be so grim-looking is beyond us.
Squashing the swooping roofline of the BMW Gran Coupe formula onto a car that's 4 526 mm long with a compact (2 670-mm) wheelbase just doesn’t work. There are so many bad angles to the 2 Series GC; the rear 3-quarter view, in particular, looks particularly dumpy, hefty and busy. Even when fitted with 18- and 19-inch alloys, the BMW looks seriously under-wheeled and, viewed in profile, there is simply too much metal perched above the arches at both ends of the car. The headlights sit above the tops of the front tyres, which is a feature you’d usually find on an SUV, not a coupe, while the back of the car is a mishmash of contrasting design lines. Finally, all of the details at the front of the car come across as oversized, as if they were supposed to be on a much bigger vehicle...
If what Van Hooydonk says is true, then yes – this is good car design. Because it has elicited a response in us and that response is: "ugh, it’s hideous". Not even the sportier styling and beefier stance of the M235i flagship can save it.
Interior designers at BMW clearly weren't given many opportunities to explore new elements.
Thankfully, things improve immeasurably when you move inside the 2 Series GC, primarily because you no longer have to look at the outside. There is the worry that all of BMW’s interiors are starting to look the same these days, dominated as they are by the combination of the Live Cockpit Professional digital instrument cluster and the BMW Operating System 7.0 infotainment screen, but there’s little to fault with the material quality or ergonomic correctness of the GC’s forward accommodation. As is the case with the 1 Series hatchback, the cockpit is the newcomer's single best feature.
Of course, the whole point of having 2 extra doors at the back is added practicality, and taller occupants (who stand around 1.8m) sitting in the rear will find 33 mm more kneeroom than in the old 2 Series Coupe, as well as acceptable headroom – despite that sloping roof. Plenty of glass in the back of the 2 GC means the driver’s visibility rearwards isn’t compromised for low-speed manoeuvring, while a 430-litre boot is useful and can be accessed from the passenger compartment via 40:20:40 split rear backrests. Yep, it’s much nicer to sit in the newcomer than stand outside it!
Aim for the top
BMW SA currently plans to bring the 118i, 22d and M235i xDrive version to SA.
BMW SA is going to take the full launch line-up that is slated for other markets around the world. That means a trio of 3- and 4-cylinder TwinPower turbopetrol and -diesel engines, delivering between 103- and 225 kW. The base car is the 218i, with its 1.5-litre, 3-cylinder petrol delivering 103 kW and 220 Nm; it’s the only 2 Series GC that can be fitted with a 6-speed manual gearbox, although an 8-speed Steptronic automatic is optional. Whichever transmission you choose for this front-wheel-drive derivative, the claimed top speed is 215 kph and 0-100 kph sprint time 8.7 seconds.
We drove the other 2 versions. The 220d employs a 2.0-litre turbodiesel 4-cylinder motor with 140 kW and 400 Nm, resulting in a 0-100 kph time of 7.5 seconds and a 235-kph top speed. Like the 218i, this is front-wheel drive only (for now) and it comes with the 8-speed auto 'box as standard. It’s also the eco-champion of the range, with a best (claimed) combined fuel economy of 4.2 L/100 km.
The one to focus on, though, is the M Performance flagship – the M235i xDrive. Whereas the 218i and 220d come in base, Luxury Line, Sport Line and M Sport package trims, the M235i has a specification all of its own. It also has easily the most powerful engine: a punchy and robust 2.0-litre 4-cylinder unit with 225 kW at 5 000 to 6 250 rpm, backed up by 450 Nm from 1 750 to 4 500 rpm. As its name insinuates, power is channelled to all 4 wheels (xDrive) via the 8-speed automatic transmission and performance is decent: 0-100 kph takes a scorching 4.9 seconds and the top speed requires limiting to 250 kph. You pay for this performance with consumption rising to a claimed 7.1 L/100 km, but it’s unquestionably the drivetrain that serves the 2 Series GC’s "coupe" aspirations best.
Steady, stable… a bit safe?
Top M235i model features all-wheel-drive.
There’s no doubt that xDrive makes the 2 Series GC feel more... BMW-ish. The M235i is not the most thrilling machine ever to wear that single letter and those 3 hallowed stripes of light blue, purple and red, even allowing for the fact it’s not a full-fat M car. The steering has too much artificial heft to it in Sport mode and there’s a background firmness to the ride quality courtesy of the M Performance suspension and big alloys shod with low-profile tyres. Yet it never descends to the realms of unbearable and, on freeways and driving in urban areas, the M235i GC is a civilised, premium-feeling car.
It's a pretty fine engine that pulls strongly through its rev range, allied to that super-sweet and near-faultless 8-speed transmission. By displaying next to nothing in the way of turbo-lag characteristics, the M235i feels every bit as quick as some of its larger M Performance stablemates with 6-cylinder engines. It emits an appealing sound, too; the turbocharged induction is given a chance to shine over and above the rumblings of the exhaust, although there is a degree of augmentation to the soundtrack of the 4-cylinder motor that’s too easily discernible in the cabin.
What makes the M235i such a devastatingly quick car across the ground is that it is phenomenally stable in all conditions. On greasier, slipperier surfaces slicked by recent rainfall and sand (thanks to our test-drive taking place on the Atlantic coast of Portugal), the M235i just bites into the asphalt and goes. You can configure the BMW to have the steering in its more pleasant, lighter Comfort mode along with the engine and transmission in "maximum attack mode", and it proves a supple enough car to take on even the bumpiest roads with a huge degree of aplomb.
At 430 litres the boot is surprisingly big.
But, ultimately, it’s not quite as engaging to pilot as BMW aficionados would have hoped. Although you can feel a push from the rear in the xDrive system, the M235i is resolutely neutral in the corners and doesn’t have the involvement of BMW’s finest rear-driven machines of the past. There’s not a lot of feel from the steering in any mode, even if it’s consistent and accurate to use, and there’s the suspicion that anyone could get the best from this M235i in very short order of climbing in behind its way-too-fat steering wheel. In that regard, it feels like a good number of high-performance all-wheel-drive (Quattro) Audis from the recent past (to the shock and horror of the staunchest of Bimmer fans, I'm sure). Those Audis weren't particularly known for any shining dynamic deftness.
So the M235i Gran Coupe is fast and secure and capable in all conditions, but is it a compelling compact sporty BMW? No, not really. It’s admirable, yet not hugely desirable. It is, however, better than the 220d, which is commendably comfortable on the freeway, but which will descend into scruffy understeer and scrabbling front-drive traction issues if you try to take liberties with it. So, to make the most of the 2 Series’ chassis, xDrive is the only way to go.
While competitors have filled this niche, did BMW need to really need to follow suit?
South African pricing will be the key to the BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe’s success (it's projected to land in Mzansi in the 2nd half of the year). If it undercuts comparable 3 Series derivatives by enough of a margin, then – provided you can stomach the way it looks on the outside – there’s not much about the way it drives and its smart interior that will put you off. However, we can’t help but feel that this is a niche that BMW didn’t necessarily need to explore. The 2 GC isn’t notably sporty to drive and, with those unprepossessing looks, it’s certainly not something that packs oodles of undisputed showroom appeal. Unless you’re a real fan of the 2 Series, or indeed Brutalism rendered in car form, there are better options than the smallest Gran Coupe available elsewhere.