Photos: Patrick George
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“Wait a minute. Holy shit,” I said out loud in near-total disbelief as I walked up to my friend and Jalopnik contributor William Clavey as he started up the new BMW M235i Gran Coupe. I was not expecting a bellowing and cracking exhaust note I could hear from 20 feet away. “That was you? That’s what it sounds like?”

The 2 Series Gran Coupe does not have any of the hallmarks of a truly great BMW. It isn’t like the 2 Series Coupe that everyone loves so much. It’s not rear-wheel drive. It’s all-wheel drive, but the platform is derived from the front-drive Mini family. It does not have an inline-six engine. It does not offer a manual gearbox in this country, even as an option.

Yet on a brief drive where I went in with low expectations, the newest and smallest member of BMW’s sedan family ended up being full of surprises. Good ones. Granted, there’s a lot to like about the M235i’s 301 horsepower rating, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

(Full Disclosure: BMW flew me down to Spartanburg, South Carolina for Test Fest, where it hands auto writers the keys to almost its entire lineup and lets us do basically whatever we want. Nobody crashed or died, as far as I know. BMW also paid for my food, hotel and booze.)

Did you know that these days, crossovers and SUVs (or Sport Activity Vehicles, as they’re called there) make up 58 percent of BMW’s total business? We’re firmly in a world where trucks and hatchback on stilts are, simply put, the norm. The people want big vehicles, and they want to ride up high in them. Even if those vehicles run on electricity.

Still, BMW says that small cars and sedans are still viable as an entry-level product. They make enough money in the four-door segment that it’s still worth doing. Besides, Audi has the A3, and Mercedes has both the A-Class and the CLA in America now. That sort of aggression just can’t be allowed to stand in the German Luxury Car War of Attrition.

BMW used to try and compete in this class with the 320i, which we liked so much in cheap, manual transmission form we, uh, named it after ourselves. (It seemed like a good idea at the time? I dunno. Go ask Matt Hardigree.) But that car and its somewhat anemic 180 HP went out with the last generation F30 3 Series.

This car, BMW’s new entry sedan, is much closer in concept to the aforementioned A3 and CLA—though it’s given the confusing name of 2 Series Gran Coupe.

Let’s be clear about one thing: this is not the same car as the rear- or all-wheel drive 2 Series that everyone loves, the coupe that’s spawned beloved enthusiast hits like the M2 Competition. The car has the same number but it rides on a totally different platform. Here, you get the FWD-based UKL platform used on various Mini models.

This, unfortunately, means it suffers from proportions that just scream “economy car.” That and its humble underpinnings may enough to chase off plenty of purists. Thing is, they’re missing out. At least in top-trim form, the 2 Series GC is actually a blast to drive.

I’ll note that at Test Fest, we sampled a pre-production car—hence the camo, more to cover up unsightly development holes and marks than to hide its identity from the good people of Spartanburg, South Carolina. That means it might not be 100 percent like the car you’d end up buying, but we were told it was very close to final spec. Regardless, an official verdict comes when the production model gets tested.

The 2GC without any camo.
Photo: BMW

Do you like the E46 3 Series of the 2000s? Was it, to you, the last “good” BMW? The 2GC at least boasts a footprint that’s incredibly similar to the E46 sedan; its length, width and wheelbase are all within one or two inches of that car. Clearly BMW wants to target sedan buyers who think the 3 Series has just gotten too big. And it kind of has.

While there’s too much front overhang and the profile is awkward—I’ve said it looks too much like a Ford Focus and I stand by that—the important thing is this little thing does not drive like an economy car. And as much as I enjoy Mini Coopers, having owned two myself, the 2GC has a character all its own.

Out on the winding back roads that Clavey and I found near BMW’s factory, the car proved to be both agile and planted—as playful as it was direct and predictable. It’s less like a Mini and more like a legitimate Volkswagen Golf R or Audi S3 competitor, done up BMW style. Or a grown-up Subaru WRX, maybe. BMW’s current all-wheel drive systems happen to be extremely good, and as such, we found only a slight amount of front bias at work.

On the M235i you get a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder good for 301 HP and 332 lb-ft of torque. It’s the same motor and output as some of the new Mini JCW models, and it finally gives those cars the spice they’ve needed for years. On the BMW sedan, the motor is an eager partner in shenanigans, providing lots of low-end torque and a hard, linear charge to redline.

With the “Shadowline” package, or M Performance package as it’s called in other markets, the M235i GC will do zero to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds. Not bad at all. And those bursts of speed are accompanied by a pretty raucous exhaust note, as well as some nice work by the eight-speed paddle-shift automatic.

I didn’t get as much time as I would’ve liked, and I think we’ll get more when the production car launches, but I can say that if you’ve ever driven a Golf R or Audi S3, you get the idea here. They’re very similar. Except the BMW boasts more torque, a smoother gearbox and is, as near as I can tell, quite a bit louder from the factory. It’s also not as uncouth and unhinged as the last-generation CLA45 AMG was, although I haven’t driven the latest A-Class or CLA and so I can’t speak to how much the model has improved.

We were pretty impressed by the inside, too, where the GC boasts touches like BMW’s excellent latest iteration of iDrive, a digital display suite and light-up door trim. It doesn’t ever feel cheap in any way.

But I don’t expect it to be cheap in top trim, either. Pricing hasn’t been announced yet, and it won’t be until closer to the car’s launch in March. But like Edmunds, I’m anticipating the mid-$30,000 range for the base 228i and the mid-$40,000 range for the M235i. That would put it pretty squarely in the sights of the Audi A3 and S3 it’s clearly targeting. (Other variants with smaller engines, diesel power and manual gearboxes will be available in non-U.S. markets.)

I do suspect most people who buy this car will opt for the 228i, which also packs a 2.0-liter turbo four, AWD and as much horsepower as its own name. I didn’t get to drive that at Test Fest, but I have a hard time believing it will be a snoozer. And I doubt most of those people will care about what platform it’s on.

Will the BMW purists accept the M235i? Can they be made to see it’s a more premium step up from something like a WRX, a Ford Focus ST or even a Mini Cooper S? I’ll withhold final judgment until I drive the real thing, and I still can’t get past those looks.

But for people willing to put platform snobbery aside, I think they’ll be on board with something that seems to be more fun than any of us gave it credit for initially.

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About the author

Patrick George

Editor-in-Chief at Jalopnik. 2002 Toyota 4Runner.