The 2020 M235i Gran Coupe has had BMW enthusiasts up in arms since the day it was rumored. Now that it’s here we’ve confirmed the sky hasn’t fallen and BMW dealers aren’t fending off protesters with pitchforks. But is it worthy of the Roundel? Let’s find out.
The 2 Series Gran Coupe takes the place of the entry-level 320i that BMW introduced to combat the front-wheel drive based Mercedes CLA. The 228hp 228i xDrive Gran Coupe starts at $37,500 plus $995 Destination while the 301hp M235i xDrive Gran Coupe retails for $45,500 plus $995 Destination. That gives BMW a new and interesting way into the brand that competes directly with the CLA and Audi A3. So the business case seems solid but just how different is this from an entry-level 3 Series?
Walking up to the front wheel drive based M235i you’re immediately struck by the shift in proportions. Gone is the long hood and short overhangs found in all BMW sedans since the 60s. In their place is a long front overhang and a passenger compartment that’s shifted forward. It’s a silhouette that BMW has differentiated itself from for decades (sometimes directly in marketing), and it’s startling to see a BMW sedan with this shape. Especially given how the proportions of the 3 series is etched into our collective consciousness.
M235i Gran Coup Performance
The 302 hp figure is the headline but BMW’s application of that power is what is particularly interesting. This version of xDrive is the same front-wheel drive biased system found in larger MINIs. That means the M235i acts as a front wheel drive until the rear wheels are pressed into action by your right foot or poor conditions. Luckily that transition is incredibly transparent in this car thanks to the use of BMW’s new ARB system.
ARB is a new variation of stability control that features a slip control system positioned directly in the engine control unit instead of in the control unit for the DSC function (Dynamic Stability Control). Without long signal paths, information is passed on three times faster, with the regulation speed perceived by the driver actually being up to ten times faster.
Can you feel it? We took the the M235i and JCW Clubman (with an identical engine and transmission specification but without ARB) out to a circuit of South Carolina country roads to get an answer. Under normal conditions it was the M235i’s refined FAAR chassis that was obvious difference. But when pushed the M235i had a distinct advantage in seamlessly maintaining grip and control. The key word is seamless. Where you could easily detect the all-wheel drive system of the Clubman calculating how to maintain grip, the M235i felt as if it never lacked it to begin with. In some ways we found the Clubman’s reactions a bit more engaging but there was no doubt the M235i felt more unflappable.
The 2 Series Gran Coupe comes in two flavors; the 228 hp 228i and the 302 hp M235i. Both come with a front-wheel drive biased xDrive system (identical to MINI’s All4 system) and are engineered for at the limit oversteer, but are delightfully neutral until that point. Our test car was the M235i which not only produces that 302 hp figure, but an impressive 332 ft lbs of torque. With the torque and the quick shifting Aisin sourced 8 speed automatic (there is no manual option) the M235i sprints to 60 mph in only 4.6 seconds. That’s an astonishing number considering that the car it replaces in BMW’s line-up (the rear wheel drive 320i) needed 7.1 seconds.
Inside The 2020 BMW M235i
From the driver’s seats it will feel vaguely familiar to anyone who’s spent time in an X1, X2, MINI Countryman or Clubman. The 2 Series Gran Coupe is based on an updated platform derived from the BMW X1 and MINI Countryman/Clubman and takes all of its technology and drivetrain options from those cars. However because this is an evolution of the UKL (it’s officially known as the FAAR) there’s a higher level of refinement in the chassis resulting in more rigidity, a quieter cabin and an almost predictive dynamic stability control.
On the technology front the 2 Series Gran Coupe gets BMW’s latest iDrive 7.0 system and digital cluster display. Both put it head and shoulders above its MINI cousin and most of the competition in terms of infotainment. What it lacks is any autonomous driving features other than adaptive cruise. For the time being BMW is keeping those features for its larger cars.
Is This Really a BMW?
The M235i is a confident and sharp 302 hp all wheel drive sedan that offers class leading performance and technology. But what it cannot offer are the dynamics and overall driving experience that has made BMW unique in the marketplace for decades. In short this is a good, if not at times a great small sedan. But is not a BMW in driving experience.
Does it matter? BMW has created a small performance sedan that offers class-leading interior volume, technology and a highly sough-after badge. In many ways this car represents the BMW brand well in this new front wheel drive world. We have no doubt that the brand will sell plenty of these cars to people who have no idea how this is different Than the 3 Series other than cost.
But is there a cost for the brand long term? No longer can BMW claim to be a brand focused on engineering cars the hard way to create the ultimate driving machine. They have followed every other volume automaker down the path of the front wheel drive based sedan. In doing so the BMW brand has lost something highly valued in the automotive world; the high ground. Some would argue that’s been lost for years since the introduction of the front wheel drive X1, X2 and various 2 Series in Europe. But this is a reinterpretation of BMW’s most hallowed product in the last 50 years – the sports sedan. And it’s a reinterpretation that is focused cost, efficiency and interior volume. Not ingredients in the ultimate driving machine equation.
The BMW M235i Gran Coupe is a good car. Head to a BMW dealer and drive it. You might even find it pretty compelling. But I’d be willing bet you won’t love it.