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2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe first drive review: Hero or heretic?

It may not look like it, but this compact sport sedan is shaping up to be one of this year's most controversial cars. Here's why.

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Chris Paukert
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Chris Paukert

Executive Editor / Cars

Following stints in TV news production and as a record company publicist, Chris has spent most of his entire career in automotive publishing. Mentored by "Automobile Magazine" founder David E. Davis, Jr., Paukert succeeded Davis as Editor-in-Chief of Winding Road, a pioneering e-mag, before serving as Autoblog's Executive Editor from 2008 to 2015. Chris is a Webby and Telly award-winning video producer and has been serving on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards since 2010. He proudly joined the CNET team in mid-2015, bringing a small cache of odd, underappreciated cars with him.

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2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe M235i xDrive

2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe

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Like any good subculture, the automotive world is rife with enthusiasts who obsess and quibble over the smallest details. We car buffs can whinge and whine with the best of 'em, splitting hairs of hairs. As such, it's tempting to assume the burbling fervor around the 2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe is another tempest in a teapot. After all, it's just a car, and people are only talking about which wheels get power to the ground. Actually, in the case of this 2020 BMW M235i xDrive Gran Coupe, it's even more pedantic than that -- they're talking about which wheels get most of the power and when. Lost yet? Allow me to explain.

For most of its history, BMW has cultivated a cult-like devotion among driving enthusiasts through an enviable string of performance-oriented models. Cars such as the 3 Series and its higher-performance M3 offshoot have become icons by delivering decades of enviable dynamics with engaging interfaces that have kept driving enjoyment at the heart of their mission. 

2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe M235i xDrive is a revolutionary in disguise

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In recent years, that grand tradition has come under fire. BMW has followed industry currents, its model lineup increasingly trending toward sport utility vehicles and smothering many of its models' tactile charms under an ever-thickening blanket of luxury, safety and efficiency features, prioritizing comfort, security and ecological responsibility at the expensive of sharpness. Given regulatory and societal pressures, plus the sales payoff, it's hard to blame the company for that.

Even so, the car seen here, the 2 Series Gran Coupe, is being viewed as a revolutionary -- and controversial -- pivot point for the brand. This is the vehicular moment the company transitions one of its sedans from a rear-wheel-drive-based architecture to a front-wheel-drive one. (Yes, BMW did this previously with the X1, but that's an SUV -- sedans, coupes and hatches are still closer to this brand's emotional center.)

In a way, BMW North America seems to be hedging its bets, acknowledging the sensitivity of this moment. Here in the US and Canada, BMW will initially only offer this new 2 Series Gran Coupe with xDrive all-wheel drive, though the majority of the time, the system will favor driving the front wheels, periodically disconnecting the driveshaft to the rear wheels when additional traction isn't called for, as is typical in steady-state freeway cruising.

2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe M235i xDrive
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2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe M235i xDrive

BMW will sell this four-door alongside the rear-drive 2 Series Coupe and Convertible models.

BMW

The question is, is this FWD/RWD deal something important only to the silly and overscrupulous, or does this change fundamentally affect what this car is and how it feels? I headed to the winding, mountainous roads of Portugal to grab a handful of wheel and find out. 

(Side note: Before I go any further, it's worth mentioning I don't generally get scrunchy-faced over such things, and I count front-, rear- and all-wheel-drive cars in my personal stable.)

Which-wheel drive?

So, how did we get here? Well, a handful of years ago, the German automaker created the UKL2 platform, a flexible architecture that has gone on to underpin many small BMW family models, including the X1 crossover, the Mini Countryman as well as the not-for-North-America 1 Series. In contrast to the rear-wheel-drive-based 2 Series Coupe and Convertible, models that rather confusingly will still be sold alongside this one, the UKL2 chassis of this Gran Coupe enables better cabin packaging, more cargo room and lower costs, all hallmarks of a FWD layout. That means this Gran Coupe should also match up nicely against rivals like the Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz A-Class and CLA-Class, all of which share the same type of architecture and driveline.

In the case of this range-topping M235i xDrive, its 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine's 301 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque compare favorably with the Audi S3 (288 hp, 280 lb-ft) and substantially out-torques the Mercedes-AMG A35 and CLA35, both of which offer 302 hp and 295 lb-ft. An eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters is standard, as is a Torsen limited-slip differential and launch control, the latter of which helps enable a factory-estimated 0-to-60-mph time of 4.6 seconds, en route to an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph. Despite its torque advantage, the M235i's performance numbers are essentially identical to those of its German rivals, with a tenth of a second separating all players to 60 mph and identically governed top speeds.

By the splashy headline performance numbers, then, the M235i xDrive and its rivals are a dead heat. Choosing between them is likely to come down to price -- $45,500 plus delivery -- or to values that are more subjective and less data-driven: Styling, features, driving feel and brand image.

2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe M235i xDrive
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2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe M235i xDrive

The M235i has an aggressively unsubtle visage. What do you think?

BMW

Divisive looks

Styling is likely to be a factor here. Audi's S3 has crisp, traditional sedan bodywork that's aging well, albeit while drawing relatively few eyeballs. Mercedes' lozenge-like four-doors veer towards the more slipstream and voguish -- they're attention getters. This 2 Series? It arguably splits the difference. As its Gran Coupe designator implies, BMW has attempted to imbue this car with sleeker bodywork, using frameless doors to help enable a lower roofline, as well as more steeply raked front and rear glass to give the car a coupe-like feel. 

In the metal, though, this design is far less elegantly proportioned than BMW's other Gran Coupe models, all of which enjoy a certain long-legged, sharply tailored presence. Blame the 2GC's abbreviated 178.5-inch overall length and its 105.1-inch wheelbase, but most of all, blame this car's short dash-to-axle ratio -- the distance from the base of the windshield to the front wheels -- for its less graceful, more ordinary looks.

Speaking of less graceful, the 2 Series' new face is likely to split opinions. BMW has steadily been morphing its trademark twin-kidney grill into something both wider and shorter overall, and in this case, the resulting aesthetic is more showy and overdone than refined. Between that and the (mercifully functional) oversized air intakes bookending the front bumper, the emphasis seems to be on the pugnacious and eye-catching instead of the handsome and enduring. That said, the M235i looks properly planted on its 18-inch double-spoke M alloys and 225/40 Pirelli P-Zero tires, inch-larger rubber than the more modest 228i xDrive Gran Coupe that we have yet to test in production form. (19-inch units are optional with either all-season run-flat or performance non-run-flats.)

2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe M235i xDrive
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2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe M235i xDrive

The cabin is available with a wide variety of tech features, including a fully digital gauge cluster and WiFi.

BMW

Cabin tech

If the 2 Series Gran Coupe's exterior is divisive, its interior should bring factions together. Its furnishings and general aesthetic will be familiar to anyone who has been in a modern BMW passenger car, and that's a good thing. Even my Alpine White tester's basic black cabin looks handsome and well organized, matching its purposeful, driver-oriented aura with enough creature comforts to keep just about anyone content. For the more performance-oriented M235i, interior fitments include a grippy M Sport steering wheel (BMW has occasionally made wheels too thick in diameter, but not here), metal pedal pads and optional power-articulated M Sport seats ($750).

In terms of cabin tech, while lesser 2GCs come fitted with a BMW Live Cockpit setup running iDrive 6 through an 8.8-inch display, my tester has the BMW Live Cockpit Professional, which goes a step further by replacing the car's analog gauges with a 10.25-inch in-cluster display running iDrive 7. The well-organized system includes built-in navigation and Apple CarPlay, with BMW mercifully scrapping its plan to charge an annual subscription rate for the latter after the first year. In less-great news, Android Auto integration remains a "coming soon" attraction.

My test car is also fitted with BMW's Gesture Control, tech that allows you to wave your hand back and forth or twirl your finger in the air to execute select infotainment functions, including dismissing a phone call or cranking up the volume on the $875 16-speaker, 464-watt Harman Kardon audio system. Unfortunately, while this $190 party trick may impress in the short term, I've found it's likely to annoy over the long haul due to serial unintended activation. If you tend to talk with your hands, you might want to give this option the middle finger.

Available tech features that are more universally appreciated include a full-color, multifunction, 9.2-inch head-up display as well as a wireless charging and Wi-Fi hotspot bundle ($500).

It's worth noting that rear-seat packaging, while still on the tight side, is noticeably better than that of the 2GC's Mercedes rivals. Ingress and egress is somewhat challenging owing to the short rear doors, but both access and space are far better than in the 2 Series Coupe.

2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe M235i xDrive
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2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe M235i xDrive

The M235i can certainly handle well, and there's plenty of power, there's just not much driver engagement.

BMW

Drive time

Portugal has long been a favorite new-model launch spot for European automakers on account of its temperate weather, twisty roads and general affordability. I've been fortunate enough to drive on the roads outside of the country's capital city of Lisbon many times, and it's always a treat. For this test day, BMW eschewed any track time, instead focusing on the area's excellent public road network, stringing together a route that included numerous tight, winding sections that threaded together picturesque little towns. I've driven more demanding routes in the region, but this route was well chosen to highlight the M235i's small dimensions and ready power and grip coming out of tight corners.

In its move to electric power steering and heavy mix of run-flat tires, BMW has struggled more than most upscale automakers to deliver good steering feel, and this new 2GC sadly reads from that same script. Steering is quick, accurate and pleasingly weighted, but ultimately numb. On the plus side, ride quality in my test car equipped with driver-selectable Dynamic Damper Control ($500) is well judged, and road noise isolation is similarly smartly managed on the region's smooth but occasionally coarse-grained roads. Braking feel is firm and easily modulated.

When flogging the M235i on a challenging road, the overall impression is of confidence matched with ability, but not enough emotion. A good portion of that is likely attributable to this car's FWD-based underpinnings -- the differential can't send more than 50% of the engine's power rearward, so if you're hoping to use the throttle to steer the car, well, tough noogies. As it is, this model reminds a bit of the Volkswagen Golf R, an AWD car that offers surprising sophistication, capability and speed, yet is ultimately a sport compact unwilling to let its hair down.

2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe M235i xDrive
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2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe M235i xDrive

iDrive is really quite good these days. Version 6.0 comes standard, with v7.0 available as part of an option pack including a full digital cluster.

BMW

It's too early to determine whether this 2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe will be branded as a heretic or a hero by new-car buyers. I suspect it'll fall somewhere in between, irking a handful of self-anointed purists while failing to ignite sufficient passion one way or the other among the majority.

If you've been seeking a small, entry-level BMW but need more passenger and cargo flexibility than the two-door BMW 2 Series Coupe and Convertible offer, the Gran Coupe could very well have your number. On the other hand, while very capable, even in top-spec M235i form, the 2GC struggles to be as rewarding to drive hard as the slower, cheaper 230i Coupe, or even the larger 3 Series sedan, a model that's both larger and less expensive.

For now, BMW officials insist the company remains committed to rear-drive 2 Series models as well as these new ones, but with declining sedan sales, I wouldn't bet on this equitable stasis lasting for long. The Gran Coupe's more practical four-door shape and newer tech will probably make it an easier sell to more buyers, even if it isn't as fun to drive.

2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe M235i xDrive
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2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe M235i xDrive

The 2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe arrives in US dealers in March.

BMW

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.