Here's something to ponder: the old BMW M135i and M235i weren't as wonderful as some say. Oh sure, dropping a huge straight-six in a dumpy little hatchback ensured cult appeal from the get-go - and was by far the best bit of the car - but it was a long way from perfect. Not equipping the cars with a limited-slip differential from the factory was criminal, the body control on the standard dampers was a bit sloppy, the steering was numb... at the limit on a bumpy road, neither hatch nor coupe was a confidence inspiring prospect. A great basis for a project given that sweet 3.0-litre and spookily good ZF auto, yes - though arguably not as well sorted as you might have hoped for a car sporting the BMW tricolour, 'junior' M Performance version or not.
Consequently, this new range of four-cylinder, four-wheel drive 35is could make a name for themselves. They'll struggle to deliver on the emotional pull of six cylinders and rear-wheel drive - that's a given. But if BMW can offer a proper contender in this new premium sort-of hot hatch segment (it's the '35 AMGs for now, but there'll be a new Golf R and S3 in time) then that would surely be adequate compensation. Get fans in the door with a competitive package and attractive lease deal now, then watch them move up through M2s, M3s and so on in future. Crafty.
A quick reminder of the 235i package, then, for those who've unconsciously (or consciously, perhaps) avoided the new era. Wheelbase and track is identical to the M135i, the additional length mostly at the rear overhang; a 1.5cm lower roofline is a concession to the coupe aesthetic, and that is far from the last of that.
Like the M135i and Mini Countryman (and damn near every rival the car has), this Gran Coupe is powered by a transversely mounted 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo. Think 306hp, 332lb ft of torque and the ability to hit 62mph in less than five seconds thanks to a swift shifting auto and closely stacked ratios.
While that's less peak twist than in its predecessor, this 35i - even as a Gran Coupe - is more than capable of leaving its predecessor miles behind on a challenging road. Part of that comes from the patent traction advantage of xDrive, though also from a few tangible improvements in ability: even on the standard passive dampers there's better body control and confidence, the brakes are strong and progressive, the incisiveness of the front end benefits from a smaller engine over the wheels and, yes, the steering is improved. Not saying much given the last car, but credit where its due: it's consistent, accurate and well-weighted, unaffected by any corruption in a front-biased AWD system and not even that insufferable in the Sport mode.
The end result is composure - in sufficient quantities for the M235i to carry speed with embarrassing ease. The engine does its bit, offering plenty of vigour once the mild lethargy below 2,000rpm is left behind. Helpfully, the gearbox is a gem; intelligent when left to its own devices and responsive when taking control with paddles or stick. A knuckly BMW manual isn't missed here.
The interior is a vast improvement over the old 1 and 2 Series, too. The transverse engine means acres more cabin space for all occupants; anyone who's squished themselves into an F20 1 Series for no apparent reason given the footprint will appreciate the change. With additional progress in iDrive and cabin materials, as well as a typically good BMW driving position, the 2 Series' interior is beyond meaningful reproach.
So, what's the problem? Well, there's the obvious one. But there's also the fact that the M235i Gran Coupe is a little ordinary and nondescript to drive. Oh sure, it's more than capable - and it would be churlish to underrate the quality of its engineering - but the same is true of the A35, and likely the new Audi S3, too. What's missing is the special sauce which marks the car out as a BMW - a character trait that, for all its faults, was in plentiful supply in the previous generation. And that's disappointing.
Moreover, a 1,570kg kerbweight robs it of the agility and precision of the best hot hatches, and with no more than 50 per cent of torque going backwards there's no sense of rear-driven BMW-ness that characterises the better 4WD M cars. There's meant to be LSD-aping technology on the front, yet the 235 lacks the palpable tenacity of a well-sorted front-driven driver's car. The balance between axles makes it incredibly simple, assured and refined - but it regulates the excitement, too. Understeer can be quelled with a throttle lift, though with no great urgency, and that's sort of it. There's pace and composure up to that point, but it's weird to drive a BMW M Performance car that seems so one-dimensional.
And, yes, there's the way the Gran Coupe looks. Mounting an objective defence, it looks a lot better on the move and suits the M Performance addenda well enough. The philosophy makes sense, too, distilling the 8 Series Gran Coupe aesthetic into a smaller package, with a shallower rake to the windscreen, frameless doors and a pronounced Hofmeister kink. The profile works reasonably well in profile for something on FWD architecture - but, well, let's just say some of the rest of the details are clumsy, and leave it that. Because there's surely a lot more for you to say...
So, is the Gran Coupe recommendable? For the target market, yes, because the performance is considerable and accessible, the interior is snazzy, and the mile-munching ability really good for the entry point to the BMW range. Aficionados will feel a little short-changed, but, fear not - there will be another rear-drive 2 Series in time, this is not the end of the road, ladies and gents.
Truthfully, the Gran Coupe exists because it will sell well enough in the States and Asia, and because BMW wanted a slice of the four-door coupe/saloon pie from its rivals over here. In that respect, with the bar not set tremendously high, the M235i is more than good enough. The underlying concern is that in so slavishly attempting to imitate the competition, the 2 Series fails to convey the kind of cleverly differentiated identity which has typically made BMW's worth seeking out. And if you care about such things, paying out more than £40,000 for one is going to seem like a tough pill to swallow. The previous generation had a quintessential way of sweetening any bitter aftertaste; for all the wholesomeness of the follow-up, it's the absence of that talent which is noticeable.
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
Price: from £37,255 (£43,545 as tested)