Never let it be said that the average car buyer is short of choice nowadays. Just three years ago there was no Hyundai hot hatch at all, leave alone a riotously fun five-door, this new Fastback and a smaller i20 version on the way. By a similar token, the rise of modular architecture and part sharing means this 2 Series Gran Coupe's B48 engine is used in everything from a Mini GP to a Toyota Supra. There's even a choice of slightly odd, 306hp crossovers, with both Mini Countryman JCW and BMW X2 M35i using ostensibly the same mechanical bits.
All of which means there are new niches springing up almost every week. This i30 N and M235i sit in that coupe-cum-hatchback-cum-saloon segment arguably kicked off by the old Mercedes CLA. Don't expect them to be the last to occupy it, either, given the demand in both North America and Asia for four doors as opposed to the Euro-centric hatchback, even at the entry points to model line-ups.
It would be fair to say that the 2 Series Gran Coupe has had a tough time of it thus far, for reasons evident to anyone with the power of sight. However, it's worth noting from the off a few things that may have passed the casual observer/derider by. It's spookily close in size to an old 3 Series, for one. As the 3 Series has grown larger and more luxurious, it has left a space below for a more compact car to fill. And, let's be honest, did anyone need much more saloon than an E90 335i? This 2 Series matches its output to the horsepower (306), is just 6mm longer, 20mm narrower and exactly the same height; the new car isn't even a million miles away on kerb weight, at 1,570kg against 1,510.
So it's a rebooted old 3 Series for the 2020s, right? Well, not exactly. The missing cylinders and additional driven wheels see to that notion. But the point stands that the 2 GC should sit in quite a sweet spot for the UK in terms of performance, size and space. As a long distance device it's very respectable indeed, its driver surrounded by vivid displays and expensive materials while being appropriately isolated from the outside world. BMW's iDrive remains probably the best way of navigating modern infotainment, the driving position is spot-on and there's so much space compared to the old 1 and 2 Series that sharing a name does it a disservice - tell people this was a 3 Series interior and most probably wouldn't contest it.
As a more serious driving device, it's key to separate what the M235i Gran Coupe is billed as and what we expect of it. When even something like an M2 Competition has only around 20 per cent take up on its (standard) manual transmission option, it's clear that the traditional concept of a driver's car is even less appealing to the buying public than some wizened enthusiasts might think. The success of cars like the Golf R and Audi S3 hasn't escaped BMW's attention; cars that deliver more than adequately across the board and require a minimum of skill, effort or attention to get quite startling performance from.
So that's what the 35i does. It doesn't dazzle anywhere, instead delivering predictably and consistently from throttle pedal to turn in, brake feel to chassis balance. It will never bewitch with its immersive tactility or adroitness, but nor will it ever catch its driver out either. Come rain or shine, rough road or smooth, track hand or 90 year-old Grandad, little will impact the speed across ground of an M235i. It's impressive in its own way. And a bit too Audi-ish for its own good.
Given the quality of the powertrain, that's a shame. While the 2.0-litre turbo makes a fairly odd, synthesised growl, its effortlessness from low revs and willingness even beyond its power peak make for a wide powerband and punchy performance. Gear choice from the eight ratios is largely a secondary concern (not a luxury afforded to the manual Hyundai), even if the automatic shifts up and down really smartly. Though perhaps that's just the point, making the task of piloting the Gran Coupe simpler still.
The Hyundai, on the other hand, could hardly seem more different - despite the obvious similarities. The interior feels immediately older, cheaper and less stylish; the driver sitting higher in a less comfortable seat, with the integration of technology less cohesive. That impression continues on the road. Both cars use four-cylinder turbos, matched on size to the cubic centimetre, but the differences are even more stark than the respective outputs suggest. The i30's engine is coarser and less willing, taking longer to get going than the 235's and never pulling as hard, even allowing for the accelerative differences of a six-speed manual car against an eight-speed auto.
Predictably, the i30 isn't quite as fast when the road becomes twisty either. Naturally there's the traction disadvantage of being front-wheel drive - even with an admirable job done by the locking diff - but also less composure in its control of wheel and body movements. Not to the point of being ragged, by any means, though to an appreciable degree because the BMW is flustered by so very little. That despite a nominal weight advantage for the i30, too.
There's an appropriate irony, actually, in the Hyundai harbouring a few old, not-necessarily-good BMW M traits; or what should be called the Biermann influence. So there's a whole smorgasbord of configuration choices through Eco, Normal, Sport and N, altering everything from differential behaviour to steering weight, where it needs far fewer; between Normal and your bespoke mode, every single base is covered. Much like any M car with that button on the wheel, in fact. The steering only gains unwelcome resistance with the racier modes, alongside suspension that becomes unbearably tough and noise that's just silly - remind you of anything? The tribute act even extends to simple, clear, attractive dials - an old feature modern BMWs could well do with reinstating if this 2 is indicative of progress.
By comparison, the Gran Coupe shows the next stage in development for its maker. The car is passively suspended, with drivers choosing between just two settings for throttle response, steering and gearbox behaviour. And that's it, perhaps an admission there is such a thing as too much choice. Furthermore, while still no arbiter for steering greatness, the BMW's system is better than recent efforts and never afflicted with Hyundai's gratuitous weight and friction.
All that said, there's one very significant saving grace for the Hyundai. Where the BMW is as much fun as waiting in for a broadband engineer, the i30 N is boisterous and brilliantly entertaining. Get it set up correctly - ignore the pre-set modes, and make the powertrain aggressive (including the diff) and the suspension accommodating - and the i30 N is wickedly enjoyable. So while you bemoan it for not being as plush around town or at a cruise as the BMW, throw it at some bends and the situation is steadily reversed. Sure, it's slower across the ground, but it's still more than quick enough, and - this is the crucial bit - the N seeks to involve and engage the driver in the process, as opposed to almost consciously distancing them as in the BMW.
With the Hyundai's steering at its least obtrusive, there's some feel coming back through the wheel, with greater agility on turn in as well; the brake pedal is firmer and easier to gauge; there's less grip overall but more ways of adjusting how you corner. Furthermore, this is a more progressive, less snappy i30 than it once was, the Fastback chassis alterations (now also featuring in the hatch) taking the edge off the ride and leaving the overall feel a little less feisty.
That all this comes with a decent manual gearbox and an engine that, while feeling a bit old hat, sounds way more interesting than the BMW unit, makes the i30 the one for enthusiasts. That's a small, 300hp BMW coming off second best to a cheaper Hyundai - the world may well have come to a halt right now, but wonders will never cease.
Of course, the rigours of objectivity demand we stand back a bit, and it's impossible to disregard the fact that the BMW is faster, more efficient, more capable, more luxurious, more refined and at least comparable on practicality grounds. For all that people will want to dismiss it on aesthetics alone, the M235i is the superior vehicle. As well it might be, for such a significant amount more money.
Neither car is beyond improvement: the BMW could do with a shot of the Hyundai's excitement and energy, the i30 would on occasion benefit from the 2 Series' additional maturity and finesse. As they are, however, and given what we care about in assessing fast cars, the i30 N Fastback is the victor in this comparison. As well as being the more entertaining car to drive, it's substantially cheaper and, surely, the better resolved piece of design - faint praise though it might seem.
While the BMW has its patent (and desirable) advantages, they're not persuasive enough to offset the Hyundai's small wins elsewhere, nor to compensate for a disappointing lack of personality. By the same token, the Korean's deficiencies aren't notable enough to deny it a triumph. If this latest automotive niche is one that fits your bill, the advice from this encounter is clear: the best driver's car doesn't come with a BMW badge anymore.
SPECIFICATION | BMW M235I GRAN COUPE
Engine: 1,998cc, four-cyl turbo
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 306@6,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 332@1,750-5,000rpm
0-62mph: 4.9 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,570kg (with driver)
Price: from £37,255 (£43,545 as tested)
SPECIFICATION | HYUNDAI i30 FASTBACK N
Engine: 1,998cc, four-cyl turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 275@ 6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 260@1,450-4,700rpm
0-60mph: 6.1 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,516kg (including 95 per cent fuel and a 75kg driver)
Price: £29,995 (£30,580 as tested)
Photos | Dafydd Wood