2020 BMW M235i xDrive Gran Coupe: There is Hope

Published on November 8, 2019 in First Drives by William Clavey

SPARTANBURG, South Carolina—The BMW 2 Series as we know it, with rear-wheel drive and a manual gearbox, is dead. It’s being replaced with a new architecture featuring a transverse engine and automatic transmission. Sad times for sporty driving enthusiasts.

We’ve just put the car to the test in Gran Coupe configuration powered by the mightiest engine in the lineup. And you know what? Despite its inevitable evolution, the 2 Series is still immensely fun to drive.

Jumping on the bandwagon
This philosophical and technical shift is a necessary evil driven by sales. Most direct competitors, including the Mercedes-Benz A-Class and CLA-Class, Audi A3 and Acura ILX, user either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Naturally, the little BMW had to follow suit.

It also allows the automaker to reduce development costs and maximize profit in a booming market segment. The new 2 Series is based on the UKL platform, which also underpins the MINI range as well as the BMW X1 and X2 crossovers. Across the industry, most if not all the big companies are doing the same thing.

Photo: William Clavey

And yet… BMW says the next M2 will ride on a different architecture and stick with rear-wheel drive. Rob Dexter, the brand’s public relations manager in Canada, told us “BMW M cars will always have rear-wheel drive.” We sure hope so.

But let’s focus on the M235i xDrive Gran Coupe. As you can see, we tested a pre-production model wearing camouflage. BMW did reveal the 2 Series Gran Coupe in mid-October, but only online. The global public debut will take place at the Los Angeles Auto Show later this month, so The Car Guide was able to take the car for a spin before most journalists even got to see it in the flesh.

Photo: William Clavey

All 2020 BMW 2 Series models come standard with xDrive all-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic transmission. The M235i, in particular, uses a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine rated at 301 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque, good enough to sprint from 0-100 km/h in 4.8 seconds. The chassis is reinforced, the suspension is stiffer and the brakes are stronger.

The base 228i xDrive gets the same engine, but with reduced output: 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque.

This is bad news for the 2 Series’ rivals. For comparison, the Mercedes-Benz A 250 and CLA 250 (not counting the future AMG variants) are limited to 221 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Even the Audi S3 doesn’t come close to matching the M235i with 288 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque.

Photo: BMW

The Bavarian Audi S3
Pitting the M235i against the S3 would be really interesting. Our first impression during this exclusive test event was that the little BMW would put up quite a fight.

The car feels just as solid as a larger model in the BMW stable. While not a dual-clutch unit like Audi’s S tronic, the ZF transmission delivers equally quick and precise shifts. It seemed to lack smoothness at times, however, but we suspect engineers will put some final touches before the production model hits the market.

Steering is impeccably quick and responsive, too, providing a surprising amount of feedback for an electronic setup. The steering wheel is thick enough to make it a joy to manipulate.

We drove the BMW M235i xDrive Gran Coupe on some extremely twisty and sometimes pretty tight roads, which allowed us to assess the tuning of the chassis. First of all, understeer never reared its ugly head. Even when accelerating out of a corner, the small sedan remained firmly planted, so much so that it felt like all the power was being sent to the rear wheels. The locking rear differential deserves a lot of credit. Nice job, BMW!

Photo: BMW

We also need to praise the calibration of the various drive modes. Despite its entry-level status in the BMW lineup, the M235i offers Sport, Comfort and Eco modes that dramatically alter the character and fuel efficiency of the car. Launch control is even included as standard and the fully digital instrument cluster is a nice response to Mercedes-Benz.

That being said, the 2 Series is a tad less refined than the A-Class. It’s louder and the interior fit and finish is not quite as impressive. On the flip side, the engine is much more expressive and structural rigidity is better.

Photo: BMW

More Spacious and Versatile
Unsurprisingly, the new Gran Coupe body style makes the 2 Series more comfortable and more versatile than its predecessor, which only came in two-door variant. Fun fact: the exterior dimensions are identical to those of the E46 3 Series from the early 2000s. Rear-seat occupants enjoy a fair amount of legroom and headroom. As far as small luxury sedans go, this one is highly accommodating.

The trunk is bigger, too, although BMW has yet to reveal its official capacity. We’ll have to wait for the premiere in Los Angeles to get more details.

As we’ve realized once again, change may not always be welcome at first, but it leads to bigger and better things. While the new engine and AWD setup offend many purists, the 2020 BMW M235i xDrive Gran Coupe still ranks as the sportiest car in the sub-compact luxury segment. Plus, it’s more comfortable and more versatile than before. We can’t wait for the next M2!

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