New car review: BMW 218i Gran Coupe M Sport

Lively baby Beemer with three pot power .

In a sea of competing marques, car brands strive through marketing, motorsport and other activities to establish their points of difference, and to convince consumers of their merit. 

In some cases, however, hard-won points of difference, or brand attributes, can become a millstone as a brand seeks to reinvent itself. 

Witness what happened to Holden when the car maker that was seen as quintessentially Australian stopped building cars here. 

For many years BMW could be fairly easily characterised as the German prestige brand that built sporty coupes, sedans and wagons with above-average handling dynamics, sonorous six cylinder engines, and almost always in rear-wheel drive configuration (albeit with all-wheel drive also available). 

It was upon this formula that the brand’s enduring “pure driving pleasure” marketing catchline was built, and it’s through this prism that many consumers still view the brand today. Except that it’s not entirely accurate anymore.  

The new BMW 2-Series Gran Coupe is a case in point.

It’s a handsome looking machine that blends compact four-door sedan accommodation with the low and sloping roofline of a coupe.

In this regard it’s every bit the chiselled BMW form we’ve come to know and love.

BMW 218i gran coupe

But positioned as it is between the less expensive 1-Series hatch and the well-established 3-Series sedan, its size and pricing mark it as being part of the new breed of BMWs. 

In the case of the 218i variant tested here, a front-wheel drive layout and compact three-cylinder engine also flag it as something a bit different from the BMW norm. 

The 218i sits alongside the sportier and $22k more expensive M235i xDrive, which gets a bigger 2.0-litre engine and the extra traction of all-wheel-drive.

The former shares its engine, transmission and drivetrain with the closely related 1-Series hatch, meaning a 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo-petrol engine (103kW/ 220Nm), mated to a seven-speed dual clutch auto ’box.

Despite its small displacement and the circa 1375kg kerb weight it’s tasked with hauling around, the three-pot surprises with its personality and pep, feeling livelier than the manufacturer’s modest 8.7-second 0-100km/h claim suggests. 

It’s no sports car, to be sure, but the 218i feels lively enough, at least once some initial “delay” off the line is overcome.

The off-beat three-cylinder engine note adds some character to proceedings, without becoming “thrummy” or harsh as some triples can.

Drive_MOTORING

In fact, the car has the suitably premium air of overall refinement that buyers would expect of this marque, at this price. 

An exception is the roughish engine restarts when using the default stop-start function, something we found it was better to deactivate, in order to enjoy the otherwise fairly serene interior. 

The flip side, of course, is modestly higher fuel consumption. 

The 218i feels impressively nimble around town, riding on its lowered M Sport suspension, with steering that delivers impressively crisp turn-in and only minimal evidence that it’s the front hoops being driven.

But the story changes for the worse when you head out of town, on twisty back roads that challenge the chassis and steering. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the 218i lacks the sweet and engaging balance that the marque’s rear-drive cars are known for.

While it’s entirely competent, the harder you drive the little coupe, the more obvious its FWD layout becomes.

BMW 218i gran coupe

In these conditions the 218i displays a tendency to push its nose into gentle understeer, while throttle-on torque steer can corrupt the steering when exiting corners.  

The cabin is a pleasant place to be, though, with excellent sports seats and a good driving position, premium fit and finish, plus surprise-and-delight features like colour-adjustable ambient lighting embedded in the textured door and dash trims.

There’s also a healthy array of driver assistance and infotainment tech, including head-up display with speed-sign recognition, and BMW Live Cockpit Professional with dual 10.25-inch instrument and control displays.

The 430-litre boot capacity is expandable, courtesy of 40:20:40 split flat-fold rear seats, but the sloping coupe roofline compromises headroom when the rear seats are occupied.  

Like practically all of its prestige car rivals, BMW has pursued a strategy of broadening its range and lowering the pricing of its entry-level models to try and capture more market share.

While that will undoubtedly help the Bavarian car maker’s bottom line, some such product decisions mean the brand’s much-vaunted sporting credentials are now a little overblown. 

That’s certainly the case with the 218i, which is an impressive car on many levels, but not for those traditional BMW virtues of performance and dynamics. 

For many buyers, however, these attributes aren’t paramount, in which case there is plenty to like in this baby BMW coupe. 

Key stats

MLP: $47,990

ENGINE: 1.5-litre, turbo-petrol 3 cylinder

ANCAP CRASH RATING:  Not rated

TAILPIPE CO2 (g/km): 135

For

Good driving position, refinement, tech and safety features, lively three-cylinder engine.

Against

Rear space limitations, FWD layout detracts from dynamics, price.

NOTE: Pictures are of an overseas, left-hand drive model.