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2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe prototype first drive review: A compelling compact sedan

Don't let its front-wheel-drive architecture scare you. BMW's upcoming 2 Series Gran Coupe looks to be a fun little sport sedan.

BMW

For one reason or another, the thought of a front-wheel-drive BMW sedan totally freaks some people out. Never mind the fact that BMW's X1 and X2 compact SUVs -- not to mention its entire Mini division -- already use front-wheel-drive architecture. To enthusiasts who have long championed BMW's commitment to rear-wheel-drive sport sedans, this paradigm shift feels like heresy.

But it isn't.

In June, BMW let me sample two prototypes of its upcoming 2020 2 Series Gran Coupe, the company's first sedan (read: not actually a coupe at all) to ride on a front-drive platform. In both 228i and M235i spec, the little BMWs drive with the same sort of verve I've come to expect from the company's compact offerings. And against competitors like the Audi A3 and new Mercedes-Benz A-Class -- both of which also use FWD bones -- the new baby Bimmer makes a strong play for being the dynamic champ of the bunch.

Two fun, turbocharged options

Ironically, the US-spec 2 Series Gran Coupe won't even have a front-wheel-drive option. Our 228i and M235i models will exclusively use BMW's xDrive all-wheel-drive system, with variable torque distribution to improve both fuel economy and handling. When you're just cruising down the highway in a straight line, yes, only the two forward wheels will be driven. But the moment you dig into the throttle or put some force into the steering, power is sent rearward. Not too much power, however -- BMW says the maximum front/rear torque split at any time is 50/50.

Both models are powered by a 2.0-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine, mated to an Aisin-sourced, eight-speed automatic transmission. In the 228i, BMW says this engine will produce 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, and for the hotter M235i, those numbers increase to 306 and 332, respectively. This makes the BMW the engine champ of the class -- the 228i is more powerful than both the Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz A220, and the M235i bests the Audi S3 and Mercedes-AMG A35.

For most customers, the 228i's power will be plenty. The car accelerates with confidence, whether pulling away from a stoplight in traffic or quickly picking up speed on a highway on-ramp. The 2.0-liter engine doesn't sound all that great under hard throttle, but modern four-cylinder BMWs have never really had the best aural quality. Instead, I like this particular engine because of its plentiful low-end torque and smooth operation, complemented by the quick-shifting, eight-speed transmission. The Aisin gearbox isn't quite as divine as the ZF-sourced 8AT that BMW uses in its larger (rear-wheel drive) cars, occasionally exhibiting a harsh downshift or laggy upshift. But I'll also reserve final judgment until I test this car in its all-systems-go, production-ready state. BMW admits these 2 Series Gran Coupe prototypes are still undergoing development work.

On the road, the 228i has noticeable pep in its step. Steering is light but responsive, and the car feels spry on its feet while cornering. The 2 Series gets new traction control tech borrowed from, of all places, the BMW i3s, which uses its ECU to manage power delivery proactively rather than the system reactively using the brakes to prevent wheel spin. This reduces instances of understeer under hard cornering, but also makes the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) less trigger-happy. It all comes together to make a very competent little performer; even this early prototype feels more eager and tossable than the Audi A3 and Mercedes A220.

Both the 228i and M235i are very light on their feet.

BMW

The M235i is a little firecracker. This really isn't a surprise, given it shares its engine and transmission tuning with the surprisingly playful X2 M35i I tested earlier this year. But with a lower center of gravity and less weight to lug around, the M235i takes the great attributes of BMW's high-riding hot hatch and amplifies them further. If I were to register any complaint, it would be that the extra piped-in engine noise sounds way too artificial -- I'm hopeful BMW will take this down a notch before the car actually goes on sale.

The M235i has a stiffer suspension tune, bigger antiroll bars and BMW's Variable Damper Control, all of which make it better to drive on tight, twisty roads, yet they don't ruin highway ride quality. Even on its largest, 19-inch wheels and 235/35-series tires, the M235i isn't too harsh to be driven on the daily -- something I can't necessarily say for its X2 M35i sibling, especially on its 20-inch wheel/tire setup.

A small, svelte sedan

BMW will peel back the 2 Series Gran Coupe's colorful camouflage in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show, so you'll have to wait a few more months to see this car in its final form. But after walking around an uncovered M235i xDrive model in Germany, I can tell you that I really like what I see.

The 2 Series Gran Coupe has great proportions. It's low, wide and pretty big. BMW says the four-door 2 Series is only about 4 inches shorter in length than the new 3 Series sedan. If you're like me and think the 3 is a little too big these days, the 2 Series Gran Coupe might feel like a right-size option.

The 2 Series Gran Coupe is about 4 inches shorter in length than a 3 Series sedan.

BMW

Up front, LED headlights are standard and the M235i will have a mesh-pattern grille, as opposed to the vertical bars you'll see on the 228i. Around the side, 17-, 18- and 19-inch wheel options will be available, and the 2 Series Gran Coupe uses frameless windows. The production car has slim taillights and a relatively clean rear fascia, with a simple strip of gloss black trim that connects the taillights. LEDs are once again standard back here, though I'm sad to report that the small vents just aft of the rear wheels are completely nonfunctional. This fake-vent trend cannot die soon enough.

Unlike the larger 4 Series Gran Coupe, BMW has opted to use a standard trunk instead of a liftback design, which has both positive and negative results. On the one hand, this means rear-seat passengers have more headroom than they otherwise might with hatchback hardware overhead. On the other hand, it means you don't get the surprisingly capacious dimensions of most liftback-style sedans. Then again, the A3 and A-Class also have conventional trunk openings, so I suppose this is par for the course.

I'm unfortunately unable to show you the 2 Series Gran Coupe's interior just yet, but I can promise you won't be shocked. Take what you see in the new 3 Series, scale it down a bit and voila. Everything from the way the large infotainment screen curves toward the gauge cluster, to the small digital readout in the center of the climate controls, to the flush-mounted buttons around the gearshift carries over. The 2 Series Gran Coupe has a low beltline, which is great for outward visibility, and two adults can sit up front with plenty of shoulder- and elbow-room. Back-seat riders don't have a ton of space given the car's size, but the rear accommodations are hardly cramped.

The 228i will get round exhaust outlets, while the M235i will use this squared-off design.

BMW

A solid contender

The 2020 2 Series Gran Coupe will go on sale early next year, and BMW says it'll be priced competitively within the segment. My best guesstimate puts the 228i xDrive just below $35,000, with the M235i xDrive coming in about $8,000 to $10,000 above that.

BMW will continue to sell the two-door 2 Series Coupe and Convertible models alongside this new Gran Coupe, and next-generation versions of those models are expected to arrive in due course, still riding on rear-wheel-drive architecture. I'm told the new coupe and convertible will be restyled to better bring them in line with the new 2 Series Gran Coupe. But still, it's odd that BMW will sell a coupe, convertible and sedan under the 2 Series family name, even though they use two fundamentally different platforms. Of course, that's a problem for BMW's dealers and marketing department, not me.

As it stands, the new 228i and M235i Gran Coupe look to pose a real threat to Mercedes' new A-Class and CLA-Class models, as well as the older Audi A3. The 2 Series is great to drive, pretty darn attractive (again, take my word for it) and should come with all of BMW's latest and greatest tech. That it rides on a front-drive platform makes absolutely no difference.

BMW

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