Review: 2020 BMW M235i xDrive Gran Coupe — Does The M Stand For Mega, Or Milquetoast?

Cars, Reviews I By Peter Nelson I June 12, 2020

All photos by Peter Nelson

We’re living through pretty brutal times. After a few months (and more to come) of the COVID-19 pandemic, the automotive industry is hurting. New car sales have sharply decreased, thus putting a major dent in manufacturers’ forecasts, and as things hopefully, slowly get back to normal, there will be a lot to reconfigure, adapt to, and recover from.

There’s been another significant development that’s had a major impact on the automotive industry, which will also be hard to reconfigure and adapt to: the introduction of the 2020 F44 BMW M235i Gran Coupe xDrive.

Humor aside, this is the first time American consumers have been introduced to an AWD, sub-CUV BMW platform. Unlike the 325ix, this is a Haldex-like, FWD-favoring AWD system. To be pedantic, the M235i Gran Coupe's BMW UKL2 platform is shared by the current Mini Clubman and Countryman, which have been here since 2016. But for all intents and purposes, this is our first taste of what Bavaria can cobble together with their own signature switchgear, suspension, and engine tuning.

There’s been some praise, but also a lot of disgust over this new FWD-biased Bimmer. The first thought that seems to come to a lot of enthusiasts’ minds when they hear transverse, front-engine BMW is usually to run away, or prepare a Molotov cocktail addressed to its front windshield. Has BMW lost their minds? Will this have the same feel and excitement as our favorite RWD BMWs? Can the M235i xDrive Gran Coupe’s rear end kick out for a fun, controllable drift like RWD BMWs are known for?

We genuinely wanted to know for ourselves what it’s like. There’s no doubt that modern BMWs are still engineered to have fun-to-drive characteristics, especially when an M is present in its badge. Surely this engineering made its way into this very civilian-looking 4-door. We gave it a good going over, and while there are some unfortunate downsides, there are some upsides, including some familiar BMW traits.

Many thanks to BMW for lending us the 2020 M235i xDrive Gran Coupe for a week. Our tester’s starting price wass $45,500, with the Premium Package added on for an additional $2,650. The all-day-out-the-door total after destination came to $50,295.

Exterior And Interior

A good chunk of the hatred that’s been lobbed at the M235i Gran Coupe is the fact that it looks awfully plain for a luxury compact, to the point of resembling various plain, normie, economy cars in this segment. Some of the lines make it look like Ford Focus 4-doors and Toyota Corollas, particularly between the b pillar and rear bumper. It also has a huge, odd-shaped kidney grille which seems to get more and more inflamed as BMW crowds their vehicle lineup. Additionally, it has weird proportions between the headlights and b pillar, and wheels that look too small for their arches. It’s not the best-looking current BMW, and its competition from Mercedes Benz (CLA 35 AMG) and Audi (S3) are far more striking. Though, over time the looks grew on us a tad.

BMWUSA,com – how we'd personally spec one

If BMW is going after especially-understated performance here, they’ve definitely succeeded. We wouldn’t say it looks bad, and selecting a nice exterior color and optional black wheels really improve its appearance. But rest assure, there are some performance visual cues thrown into the mix: the dark graphite “M235i” badge on the trunk lid, as well as its various darkened trim pieces. These are the amused bouche of what awaits in the M235i’s interior.

Opening the front doors on our tester revealed a lot of pleasant, eye-catching red leather. It covers the M235i’s comfortable, sporty front and rear seats, as well as its pillarless doors. This beautiful red helps highlight the 2er’s driver-centric front seating area, too. M logo colors are thrown in here and there as subtle reminders of this car’s intention and heritage; a nice design touch indeed. The interior materials are for the most part substantial and of a good quality for the 2 Series’ price point, though there is a lot of hard, glossy plastic; the kind that shows fingerprints, dust, and coffee drips a little too well. The steering wheel is comfortable, quite grippy, and has a nice thickness to it. The dash looks nice, though feels… squishy. A friend stated that this might be to deaden squeaks and rattles, which if that’s the case… how very German. The infotainment screen in the center of the dash is angled ever-so-slightly towards the driver for optimum clarity and ease of use; also very German. As expected, BMW’s iDrive system is pleasant and easy to use. The optional LED light accents in the trim pieces are a very nice touch and give this Bimmer’s interior a tad more of an upscale feel.

Backseat room is quite cramped with its sloping roofline, to the point of really only being convenient for anchoring a child seat, or hauling around no more than two sub-5’10” adults, who also have an inseam that’s sub-28”. The front compartment is quite spacious and airy, with tons of knee and elbow room; if BMW were to cut down front room just a smidge, it would really improve rear passenger space. Still, in between the comfortable red leather seats (that will rarely ever support an adult) is a nice armrest with cup holders.

Trunk space is very good at 12 cubic feet, 4.2 more than the Mercedes Benz CLA 35. There is also a concealed area below the luggage compartment for holding/protecting flatter items, a nice-sized netted compartment to keep items from rolling around, the trunk lid opening is nice and wide, and the base of the trunk is flush with the top of the rear bumper, making loading and unloading cargo a breeze. Plus, the rear seats fold down for a lot more room; their most likely use. As far as small, compact 4-doors go, this one is quite versatile cargo-wise.

Engine, Transmission, Brakes, and Suspension Specs

Under the hood of the M235i Gran Coupe is a transverse mounted 2.0-liter 16-valve 4-cylinder engine, equipped with a mighty little twin-scroll turbo, producing 301 horsepower and 332 lb. feet of torque. This is good for launching the 3,600 lb. 4-door to 60 MPH in just 4.6 seconds. Power is sent to the wheels via an 8-speed automatic transmission from ZF, with a front Torsen limited slip differential, and xDrive AWD. The M Sport brakes are large; we could not find exact dimensions at the time of review. Our tester’s M Sport suspension was comprised of reassuringly-premium double-pivot spring and strut-type in the front, and multi-link fully independent in the rear, stiffer springs than standard, and no Driving Experience Control (adaptive suspension). All of this came together and met the road via 18×8 inch M Sport wheels wrapped in 225/40/18 Bridgestone Potenza S005s. BMW states that fuel economy is rated at 23 MPG city and 33 MPG highway, 27 MPG combined, which is on par with what we observed. The fuel tank is quite small at 13.2 gallons.

Driving Impressions

We were a little concerned as we pulled away from our local BMW PR office behind the wheel of the BMW M235i Gran Coupe, nestled between its comfortable sport seats. We have fond memories of jabbing the throttle while turning onto a nearby highway on-ramp with RWD BMWs in the past, letting the rear end kick out a tad as their mighty inline-6s spun up. This time, the experience was a bit different.

We had to re-program our brains. The M235i essentially drives like a FWD compact (well, BMW states it’s a compact anyway) demanding a different set of inputs and strategy to go fast compared to RWD models. Putting it in Sport mode, defeating traction and stability control, and mashing the throttle as we turned the wheel towards this on-ramp was a vastly different experience, though, a very good one. Thanks to the limited slip differential and rear wheels putting in a little bit of work, the car stuck to the bumpy pavement like glue, and pulled like a train all the way up the ramp, with sharp, lightning-fast upshifts interrupting the angry turbo-four’s baritone growl. By the time we reached the point of merging, we had to slow down quite a bit, as even aggressive Los Angeles drivers don’t merge at 90 MPH. Maybe this wasn’t going to be that bad of a driver after all.

Elsewhere when we sought out some spirited driving, the M235i did not disappoint. This 3600 lb. gran coupe hustled through tight canyon roads with ease, and had excellent corner-exit grip and acceleration. There was no real drama when slicing through technical sections of tarmac; a testament to the limited slip differential, BMW’s Dynamic Stability Control, and the rear wheels putting in some work. The brakes felt quite strong and didn’t exhibit any noticeable fade. Steering was incredibly numb, albeit had nice weight in Sport mode which instilled a little bit of confidence. Getting the 235 to rotate with precision through tight transitions was never a tall order; its handling was incredibly neutral. Trail-braking into a tight, decreasing-radius corner, and then jumping on throttle as soon as the steering wheel was turned less than 45 degrees, felt immensely satisfying. Then, the steady surge of torque that opened up around 3250 RPM felt brilliant as we rocketed out of corner exit. The advertised 4.6-second 0-60 time is quite believable.

A common trait among modern, turbocharged 4-cylinders is a lack of turbo lag. The M235i’s engine went against the grain with just a little bit of lag, which we actually appreciated. It built up boost in a sort of old school way, though not to the point of being annoying and having to constantly rev it out. Torque begins to feel nice and pupil-expanding in the middle of the rev range, and builds up very quickly from there. The boost-building experience is a lot of fun, and quite similar to that of the Hyundai Veloster N we tested late last year. To top it all off, this 2er makes hilarious, grin-inducing turbo noises; this soundtrack was nicely amplified while driving along canyon road rock faces.

As far as easy-going, daily driving is concerned, the 235i GC behaved well, though at times exhibited some annoyances. It tramlined on uneven/rough pavement quite a lot, the ride was harsh for a performance sedan marketed towards the masses (no adaptive suspension equipped in this tester), the tiny-sidewall tires made us cringe while approaching even the shallowest of road imperfections, the brakes were unnecessarily grabby, and the Bridgestone Potenzas were quite noisy at highway speeds. While we generally look at these gripes and say “well, it’s an M car, so it’s expected to have to make a few compromises,” this isn’t a real M car; it’s nowhere near an M2, either in regards to dynamics or price.

Elsewhere during normal, daily driving, despite tire noise being a bit high, the M235i felt rock solid and stable at highway speeds. It definitely possessed that well-regarded, king-of-the-highway trait that BMWs are known for, to the point of insulating us from realizing our misdemeanor-level speeds at times. Our post-COVID commute time record was shattered repeatedly during our week with this stable, planted Bavarian steed.

Final Thoughts

To finally answer the question will it drift?: unfortunately no, it will not drift. This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the M235i’s driving characteristics. It was very odd to sit facing its massive BMW badge right in the middle of the steering wheel, and not be able to pitch it into a corner for some harmless, mild oversteer. One of our favorite aspects of RWD BMWs is their balance and control; any schlub can feel like a hot shoe driver behind the wheel. Instead, the chassis follows through and just grips, which is of course a good thing, but a little odd. This will probably broaden the M235i’s appeal: it goes fast, and never exhibits any normie-frightening behavior.

To us, the M235i is a sporty sedan meant for consumers who are after a tad more practicality (though, who also lack any concern for rear seat room), who want something fast, the ability to achieve good fuel economy, the status that comes along with a BMW badge, some fun-to-drive characteristics, and some sporty-yet-subdued styling (quite subdued in this case). Is this an enthusiast’s car? Hard to say. We don’t want get into judging degrees of automotive enthusiasm, but it seems to be a tough sell for hardcore BMW enthusiasts. Possibly as a daily, since it’s nice on the highway and can return good fuel economy. Although, the harsh ride might deter some folks, especially anyone with back issues. It’s good, but not RWD, dynamically-brilliant good, like the M2 Competition, Z4 M40i, F80 M3, E46 M3, etc.

BMW’s strategy with the M235i GC seems to be: introduce middle-to-upper-class consumers to the brand with a fun $45-50K sport sedan that won’t do anything scary (i.e. exhibit oversteer), then, as they earn more money, move them into higher-tier models (including true M cars). Furthermore, the M235i might snare some average, everyday consumers, make them catch the car-and-motorsport enthusiast bug, and then make them want to pick up a RWD, weekender/track car in addition to this essentially-FWD 2er. We hope this happens.

If being unable to drift is the most troubling trait of the 2020 BMW M235i Gran Coupe, then it's otherwise a pretty good car.

Stay tuned for our next review: the 2020 Mercedes Benz CLA 35 AMG.

Check out our POV video!

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