Two be or not to be: Driving the BMW 218i Gran Coupe M Sport

“You have to try the 2 Series Gran Coupe.” These words from a friend certainly piqued my interest as I slotted a key into the ignition before twisting the engine to life. My drive this morning was in no way quick nor rapid, but with minimal weight to throw around, a light yet delicate shift action and a willing power-plant linked directly to the rotation of my right ankle, every journey took is a (slow) treat for the senses.

The car I am piloting is, of course, not the brand new 2020 2 Series Gran Coupe but a close to 50 years older 2002. A car created in the 60s and sold through the 70s, the same era BMW’s (and quite possibly the automotive World’s) most famous campaign slogan was conceived when Bob Lutz, the former Executive Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing teamed up with ad agency Ammirati and Puris. Creating a line of text that will inevitably be forever linked to the Bavarian marque.

Even though BMW is one of the most recognisable brands today, that wasn’t quite the case back in the 1970s. Back then, BMW was still essentially a niche carmaker. But success in the form of the 2002 gave them the funds needed to develop three new models. The mid-sized 5 Series. the first 3 Series, and towards the latter half of the 70s, the 7 Series. While these cars would have probably sold reasonably well on their own, it was the iconic ad campaign tying the entire line together which created resonance with the car buying audience. Emphasising the driving experience above all else and focusing on driving emotion matched with BMW’s sharp and sporty handling qualities. Sales naturally, skyrocketed and even to this day, this simple line of text continues to unofficially define the machines from Munich. The Ultimate Driving Machines.

BMW now have considerably more than 3 models in their entire lineup and while their slogans have evolved, they still emphasise BMW’s core defining trait, stylish cars that are “Designed for driving pleasure”. That is what we are here for with our drive of this new 2 Series Gran Coupe.

Will it deliver on its present promise and more importantly, can it live up to BMW’s iconic statement coined almost 5 decades ago? If the internet “enthusiast” forums are to be believed, this car is going to be a colossal failure on both accounts.

So what is a 2 Series Gran Coupe in the first place? Not to be confused with BMW’s (rather exciting) up and coming 2 Series 2-door Coupe, the 2 Series 4-door Gran Coupe can be thought of simply as a sleeker looking 1 Series Hatchback with a boot, in similar fashion to how Mercedes-Benz elongated their A-Class hatchback into the CLA, the 2 Series Gran Coupe is both longer (by 207mm) and lower (by 14mm) than the car it derived from.

The design language on the 2GC (and on pretty much all modern BMWs) is clearly of undoubted boldness. For better or worse, it seems as if BMW have thrown restraint out of their design language in both thought process and execution. Lines are strong and angular, with an aggressive front end characterised by a pair of tapering LED headlights visually leading to BMW’s new redesigned kidney grille, all resting above a set of deep and large lower air intakes which similarly taper boldly down.

Over on the rear, BMW have done a pretty good job disguising the rather tall tail section. By almost sectioning the rear into 2 distinct parts just below the tail lights, the overall visual with the use of wide lenses joined together with a faux light-bar manages to give the 2 Gran Coupe a wider-than-it-actually-is aesthetic.

While the tail-end of the car does manage to finish up the design rather well, it is also the rear 3-quarter view that happens to be the least attractive angle of the 2 Gran Coupe.

There are some elements of the design on this (and other modern BMWs) where I do have to voice my dissatisfaction and this has to do with their designers moving away from characteristic well-defined aesthetic elements which have been a part of the BMW design language for generations. While I can understand and appreciate the “confident” overall aesthetic, it does sadden me to see elements like the iconic Hofmeister kink being made almost unrecognisably generic.

It just feels like such a waste that BMW are seemingly moving away from a strong established visual identity which no doubt countless manufacturers would love to inherit. But at the same time, because design is admittedly subjective (and maybe because I am quite a fuddy-duddy), this might not be an issue for a younger audience who might find this new bold take on BMWs perhaps more refreshing.

While I might have some issues with the exterior design of our 2 Gran Coupe, inside is an entirely different story. Keeping in mind our car is the “entry level” 218i (albeit in M Sport trim), the interior cabin is really impressive with little indication you are in anything other than a premium automobile.

Special mention has to go the quality of the materials used inside the cabin with plenty of soft-touch surfaces used throughout and actual metal switchgear presented for various controls. The overall interior feel is exceptionally good and a big departure from what we’ve seen and experienced of the the previous generation’s 1/2 Series.

Wireless charging is also available just aft of the gear level and the array of drive mode selection buttons, this is a BMW ready for the new generation.

While the occupants up front are well catered for in terms of toys and space, we do notice an area where some compromises had to be made to maintain the 2 Gran Coupe’s sleep roofline. Rear legroom is tight for someone of my height (1.8m) after a similar sized human sitting up front has comfortably adjusted his seat, with my knees almost making contact with the rear of the front seats. Headroom is also a premium but if space is a concern, perhaps the slightly taller 1 Series hatchback might be an option worth taking a look at.

The 2 Gran Coupe is after-all, primary designed to be a stylish urban s̶e̶d̶a̶n̶ 4-door coupe so it is perfectly understandable that some tradeoffs had to be made to preserve the car’s aesthetic. Like the rear windows that do not go all the way down.

All 2 Series Gran Coupes on sale now are also fitted with the new BMW Operating System 7.0 infotainment system as standard. Splashed across two large 10.25 inch screens, the new infotainment UI now makes use of a customisable tiled interface to communicate various functions. Allowing drivers and occupants to have a simplified overall view or with a simple touch of the screen or iDrive controller interface, allows them to dive one-level deeper into each individual function. It might look a little daunting at first with some many panels on display, but once you start playing around, it is rather intuitive. BMW OS7 also comes with BMW Siri which while not being quite as useful as Apple or Google’s equivalents manage simple commands decently.

Outside of the screen, BMW, unlike other manufacturers have maintained that certain controls work better with physical buttons and have thankfully, kept them separate from the on-screen UI. If you like, gesture control on the 2 Series Gran Coupe is available as an option although it still remains more of a novelty feature. One thing that is a welcome standard though, is the inclusion of Android Auto. Finally.

While the infotainment is quite a fantastic piece of kit in both usage and visual appeal, the same cannot be said for the instrument cluster which seems to have heavily traded form-over-function. Information presented here can be at times distracting and almost haphazard, requiring that extra bit of cognitive load to figure out, something which isn’t welcome when you powering down the road into towards triple digit speeds. It is also unfortunate that even though BMW was presented with a blank digital canvas to rethink their instrument cluster design, they do not provide much in terms of end-user customisation. Please BMW, allow us to have a “classic” view with traditional round orange hued dials and clock-wise sweeping needles. Going high-tech shouldn’t result in reduced legibility so hopefully an update in the future can improve things.

Storage in the rear is up 50 litres from the hatchback with a very decent 430 litres of space available with the seats upright. There’s even an additional compartment located underneath the boot floor should you require even more storage space.

Extra storage room can be gained with the versatile rear seats folding down in a three-way 40:20:40 manner via a lever in the boot. Coupled with the low opening, makes this a very usable boot space for transporting plenty of long odd-shaped items.

Switching around back to the front, our 218i comes with BMW’s burbling B38 3-cylinder TwinPower Turbocharged power plant we last tested in the Mini Cooper. The numbers here aren’t record breaking but respectable in its class, with 220Nm of torque and 134 horses for your right foot to play with. While official figures suggest a 0-100km/h timing of 8.7 seconds, the 218i’s preppy deployment of what power it does have definitely feels more spritely than the modest numbers suggest.

With the 2 Series Gran Coupe’s sporting ambitions, BMW’s stiff underlying ride quality does suffer a little without adaptive dampers. Even with our test car’s 18-inch wheels, there were instances on rougher roads where things can get a little harsh. One area which doesn’t suffer though is where it matters the most when it comes to cars from this Bavarian marque, the handling department.

Progress on the 218i can be best described as effective rather than outright excitement. On highway stretches occasionally interrupted by long fast bends, our 218i stayed planted and easy to navigate with its direct steering movement. On smaller roads and tighter corners our 218i again can provide quick directional changes and with a more modest power output, allows us the ability to use much more of the throttle pedal more of the time.

Two key chassis development features are at play here to give us this impressive handling characteristic, one is ARB, near-actuator wheel slip limitation(?), first seen on the BMW i3s is fitted as standard on the 2 Series Gran Coupe. This wheel slip control system uses a slip controller in the ECU instead of the stability control systems and in effect, wheel slip can be brought under control up to ten times quicker.

The second key feature at play is BMW Performance Control, a yaw moment distribution system working in conjunction with ARB to increase agility, applying the brakes on the inside wheel of each bend to suppress initial understeer.

While these technological advancements have helped to create a capable machine able to tackle bendy roads at speeds the majority of buyers will never venture into. Not taking anything away from the excellent handling, I did feel that there is still something missing from my drives in this car that I was constantly looking for. A slight edginess to the overall drive that might have been ironed out in the name of chassis development. An edge that could have produced a small sparkle to every journey. Perhaps I was asking too much from a 218i, because at the end of the day, this “entry-level” BMW was driving and impressing like no “entry-level” vehicle should. It is so good that having a 218i badge just feels like a disservice.

Does it matter that this BMW has its driven wheels positioned up front instead of behind? With 134 horses? No. It doesn’t matter, not at all. For mere mortal drivers like us, I’d hypothesise that we would empty out our bravery juice much quicker than this car runs out of talent. Anyone saying otherwise, has yet to drive one.

So now, it’s time for some reflection. While there were instances where I did find myself wanting a bit more buzz from the car, there is no faulting how capable and impressive it is as an overall package.

It isn’t visually perfect, there are flaws in the ride quality and price-wise, it still commands a premium. But as far as “entry level” models go, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything else that can deliver a better overall driving experience. The Ultimate Entry-Level Driving Machine? Why not? Internet forums be damned.

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