BMW 218i Gran Coupe: Right on the money

When BMW launched the first ever 1-Series way back in 2004, the plan was to lure new customers to the brand with a more affordable entry model. The strategy worked out well enough in Europe and it even spawn some memorable models such as the 1M coupe, but the non-heroic variants weren’t exactly pretty and were hamstrung by tight cabins. BMW’s first entry model never quite caught on in other key markets.

The 2004 first generation E81 1-Series (left) and its replacement, the 2011 F20 1-Series hatchbacks.

While BMW persevered with a rear-drive layout for the second generation 1-Series hatch in 2011 (and the 2-Series coupe subsequently), it also introduced in parallel the first front-wheel drive BMW models in the 2-Series Active Tourer and Gran Tourer in 2014. These MPVs (or ‘Tourers’) offered practicality levels never seen before in compact BMW models, but were somehow muted in styling. They are popular in the continent of Europe but never quite set the world alight.

The 2014 F45 2-Series Active Tourer (left) and the 2015 F46 Gran Tourer (right).
Finally, something properly grand

Why it took BMW that long to conjure up a rival to the Audi A3 sedan (since 2013) and Mercedes-Benz CLA (more recently, the A-Class sedan) is anyone’s guess, but in the 2-Series Gran Coupe – a four-door saloon built on the same base as the third generation FWD 1-Series hatch (F40), BMW now has a striking proposition for customers who prefer something sleeker and lower slung.

From this angle, the sleek profile of the 218i Gran Coupe is unrecognisable from its hatchback sibling.

Decked out in M-Sport trim, I would venture as far as to say that the locally assembled 218i Gran Coupe even throws shades at the G20 3-Series when it comes to bagging eyeballs. Unlike the hatch, the Gran Coupe bears a frontal expression that’s more cohesive, its flatter and wider single frame kidney grille is still probably too big but it cuts a menacing presence in every rear-view mirror.

The Gran Coupe is an intimidating sight in every rear view mirror, even if it only has 140hp.

If the mimicry of the 8-Series’ face was intentional, then BMW did a pretty convincing number on the Gran Coupe; its fastback silhouette is also proportionate and well stretched out, and hints at something more luxurious. Some of the intricate cut-outs on the M-Sport body-kit may not bring any functional benefits but they make the entry saloon look sporty, as do those 18-inch dual-tone alloys which fill up the wheel arches of an already lowered stance courtesy of the passive M-Sport suspension.

From the back, it’s funny how the 2-Series Gran Coupe doesn’t really resemble any current BMW model, it even looks a tad unusual when you set eyes on it at the very first instance. But at a time when BMW design is making some of our stomachs churn, the Gran Coupe strikes a happy balance between progress and a semblance of familiarity.

Unusual at first sight, but the styling of the Gran Coupe gets intriguing over time.
Value, value, value

At RM211,367 (or RM199,177 with the standard two-year warranty), the 218i Gran Coupe is the second least expensive BMW you can buy in Malaysia, a few grand shy of the X1 sDrive18i in base trim. RM200K is no chump change, but when you slide past the frameless driver’s door and settle into the supportive sports seat, it becomes apparent that this is possibly the most well-equipped BMW model for the money, with the exception of tax-exempted hybrids.

The interior appointments of the 218i stand up well to pricier models higher up the hierarchy.

But more than that, the supposed gap in terms of features and quality to the next model in the hierarchy, the 320i Sport, isn’t apparent at all. The touch points bear the same level of tactility, even the iDrive display is of the same size running the same operating system, with a feature set that includes a reasonable dose of driving aids such as front collision warning with brake intervention, blind spot warning, lane departure assist, rear cross traffic alert, park assist with reversing agent.

The only items one could describe as ‘absent’ are shift paddles on the chubby M steering wheel (manual shifts can still be executed using the drive-by-wire gear selector) and a fully digital driver’s instrument; the latter not necessarily a bad thing given how unloved BMW’s new counter-clockwise digital rev meter is, besides, the analogue dials found on the 218i Gran Coupe do an entirely decent job.

Clever execution of the driver’s instrumentation tricks you into thinking they are fully digital.
Drives like a BMW?

Going front-wheel drive for entry models has been a business necessity and no one should resent BMW for doing so, but do these FWD models ‘drive like a BMW’, a phrase seemingly coined by BMW execs to circumvent the thorny subject? The answer is ‘no’, not in the traditional sense because the physics are vastly different between FWD and RWD cars.

Manual shifts can be executed via the gear selector; wireless charging is available too.

The better parallel would be a MINI Clubman or Countryman on the simple fact that these cars are built on the same platform and share common components under the skin. Since the 218i Gran Coupe is a product meant for new customers, whether it drives like a RWD BMW of old is probably moot.

Tasty-looking 18-inch M alloy wheels are essential to the 218i’s sporty aesthetics.

Being a FWD, there is certainly less intrigue in how the Gran Coupe behaves behind the wheel, though it doesn’t mean it’s no fun. While ride quality and rolling refinement are within the ballpark of a Volkswagen Golf – still the benchmark for FWD vehicles of this size, the 218i excels with a front end that resist roll and tracks very precisely in relation to inputs at the wheel, the feel that comes through is also meaty and delicate at the same time, and that inspires confidence over time.

B38 three-cylinder is smooth, even aurally pleasing but it would’ve been nice if BMW gave it a higher state of tune.

If there is any ‘disappointment’ to speak of, it would have to do with the level of performance available for such an outwardly sporty package. Nothing much wrong with how the B38 engine – always smooth after cranking to life with the typical three-cylinder wobble at turnover – and seven-speed dual-clutch auto go about with their chores – but you always get the feeling that the grippy underpinnings of the Gran Coupe can do with more than 140hp and 220Nm; the stats of 0-100km/h in 8.7 seconds and a top speed of 213km/h means the 218i isn’t slow, but a dozen or more horses would’ve been sweet.

Going FWD means BMW entry models now offer generous legroom.
BMW’s grand coup

But let’s not digress, the 218i Gran Coupe is one of BMW Malaysia most important offerings in recent memory. SUVs may be the rage, but four-door saloons are BMW’s staple. After having to peddle space-constrained hatchbacks and not-so-stylish ‘tourers’ to newcomers, BMW Malaysia finally have a product that’s cool enough, practical enough and more importantly, affordable enough to tempt ‘younger’ customers. This is going to fly.

Likes: Unique styling, M-Sport goodies, responsive handling
Dislikes: Need more horses, no gearshift paddles

BMW 218i Gran Coupe M-Sport
: RM211,367 (with SST exemption)  Engine: 1.5-litre turbocharged 3-cyl, FWD  Output: 140hp and 220Nm  Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto  Performance: 0-100km/h in 8.7 seconds; top speed 213km/h  Wheels/tyres: 225/40 R18  Safety: 6 airbags, Front Collision Intervention, Blind Spot Warning, Rear Cross Traffic Alert  Warranty: 5-year/unlimited mileage, 5-year service package