“Everyone does the same thing when they order wine in a restaurant,” said my friend, the food critic. “They either order something really pricey, if they’re pushing the boat out. Or they go to the bottom of the list, find the house wine and choose one or two up from that.
“In fact,” she went on, “if you want the value option, choose the house wine. People pooh-pooh it, but a restaurant’s reputation will be staked on the quality of its house wine. If it’s a good restaurant, they’ll have chosen something that’s both good value and decent quality.”
I’ve come to the conclusion that the same applies with cars and might be true of the BMW 2-Series Coupe. Of course, if you want thumping power, immense grip and four-wheel-drive traction, you choose the M240i xDrive, which sits at the top of the range.
But at the bottom of the price list, the entry-level 220i is just as worthy of your consideration. Here’s why.
Great to drive
Practical for a coupe
You won’t win any traffic light grand prix
Ride is on the firm side
Lacks the raw edge of a proper sports car
In 1966, BMW launched a car that would come to define the Bavarian marque. It was called the 1600-2, the first of a line now known as the 02 series, and it spawned, most memorably of all, the 2002 ti – a sporting variant with a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine that came along in 1968 and put it right up there with the Ford Escort RS2000 and Triumph Dolomite Sprint as one of the most desirable sporting saloons of its day.
It was the car which forged the reputation of BMW as a maker of light, lithe, exciting sports saloons; until then, it had had a slightly disparate range of glamorous coupes, old-fashioned roadsters, quirky rear-engined compact cars and large, frumpy saloons.
You can trace a line from the 2002 right through to the 220i of today. It runs through all the great four-cylinder BMWs that have escaped mainstream attention, but that enthusiasts acknowledge with a knowing nod. The 318iS, for example; a strict two-door coupe that came with BMW’s rev-hungry, race-bred 16-valve M42 engine, in order to homologate it for use in touring car championships throughout the world.
The same engine went into the dumpy 318 ti, turning it from an unloved mongrel into a zingy hot hatch – the first to be rear-wheel-drive since the Vauxhall Chevette HS.
The 320 Si was the next in the line – now a four-door due to the racing rules of the era, but with a similar raison d’etre, its motorsport origins even more firmly on display thanks to its close-ratio six-speed gearbox, lightweight alloy wheels and beefed-up brakes.
It was to be the last of BMW’s four-cylinder homologation specials, sadly. But not the last great four-cylinder BMW.
Driving pleasure to the fore
Enter the new 220i Coupe. Not the first car to wear that badge, but it is very different to the one that came before it.
That’s because the new 2-Series Coupe no longer sits on the same platform as the 1-Series, and nor, indeed, as the 2-Series Gran Coupe and 2-Series Active Tourer. All of those are now front-wheel drive (using the FAAR chassis platform, in BMW parlance).
BMW couldn’t bring itself to make its smallest coupe front-driven, so the 2-Series sits on a shortened 3-Series (or CLAR) platform, meaning not only that it’s bigger than before but that it now has very little in common with the rest of the 1- and 2-Series family other than a badge.
This is why the 2-Series now has a wider track and why, as a result, every 2-Series Coupe – not just the heavyweight M240i – has flared wheelarches and a bonnet bulge. As a result, the 2-Series looks pleasingly pugilistic, like a Jack Russell terrier fearlessly fronting up to an Alsatian.
Its bark is worse than its bite, however, in this form at least. 181bhp is not all that much in this day and age, especially in a car weighing one and a half tonnes, and the 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol turbo propels the 220i to 62mph from rest in a relatively leisurely 7.5 seconds, barely any faster than the old 320Si 15 years its senior – and slower even than its diesel equivalent, the 220d Coupe. Eek.
By modern standards, then, this is not a fast car. And while it doesn’t have that many natural rivals – these days, traditional coupe buyers all seem to be plumping for crossovers instead – those it does have tend to be faster, whether you look at the upmarket Audi TT or less plush, more driver-focussed alternatives like the Toyota GR86 or Mazda MX-5.
Where the 2-Series gets one over on all of these is in terms of interior space. Indeed, you might reasonably expect it to do so, given the size of its platform. In the front, in fact, it’s a dead spit of a 3-Series, with an almost identical dashboard; that’s no bad thing, as that means you get lovely, tactile buttons instead of fiddly touchscreen-based controls.
In the back, meanwhile, space is not exactly profligate, but there’s more than enough for two adults to sit upright and in reasonable comfort, which is more than can be said for most small-ish coupes. The rear seats split and fold 40/20/40, too, and when they’re down they’re flush with the boot floor, making this a surprisingly versatile car.
On the move, however, boring old practicality feels like the last thing on the 220i’s mind. Indeed, it gambols playfully over lumpy bits of tarmac, the suspension’s underlying firmness making its sporting intent clear.
And yet, it can get away with that firmness, because there’s a sense of a car with little unsprung weight and a low centre of gravity; of control, rather than undisciplined stiffness. Of wheels that fall neatly into holes in the road, and dampers that react quickly to sharp lumps, despite the stiffness of the springs and bushes, so that while you feel them course through the car they don’t jar you or intrude. And as a result, firm though it is, the 2-Series never actually becomes uncomfortable.
Recipe for fun
And boy, is it fun. Granted, you don’t get quite the fine granularity of feel you do with a GR86 or an MX-5, and yet the 220i is cut from similar cloth in that it uses exquisite balance and fine chassis response to make the best of what little power it has.
Indeed, you might even argue this lack of power is one of the 220i’s strengths; there simply isn’t enough of it to get you in trouble, which means you can floor the throttle almost everywhere – in a straight line, confident you won’t lose your licence and revelling in the engine’s parpy induction note and its keenness to rev, or out of bends, allowing the tail to slip gently without fear you’ll end up in a hedge; a cheeky, playful ‘hello’ from a car which seems to revel in such things.
Indeed, if you’ve never learned how to get the best from a rear-wheel drive car, this is a great way to do it.
As with all of those cracking little four-cylinder BMWs, then, the wider public will simply see this as a cheap, entry-level BMW with a power deficit. But those who know will see much more than that.
The Telegraph verdict
OK, so the 220i can’t boast the same sort of homologation-special mythos of its forebears (few cars can these days). But it is nevertheless a car that takes up where they left off.
Imagine a spectrum, formed at each end by the light but raw Toyota GR86, and the posh but remote Audi TT. The 220i sits somewhere between, which is rather a nice place to be. It teams its driving enjoyment with the sort of quality you’d expect from a premium brand, not to mention far more space and versatility than you might expect.
But there’s more going on here than just a well-balanced set of talents. Today, BMW pumps out performance and electric cars with vast power figures, all of which cater to the willy wavers that demand such things.
What the 220i proves is that, somewhere in Munich, there’s a team of engineers that remembers the aforementioned 2002 ti, 318 iS, 318 ti and the 320 Si, and still wants to make a four-cylinder, entry-level BMW that feels special. An accessible car in every way, which appeals to enthusiasts on a more basic level.
I don’t know about you, but I find that quite gratifying to know.
On test: BMW 220i M Sport Coupe
Body style: two-door coupe
On sale: now
How much? £34,990 on the road (range from £34,990)
How fast? 147mph, 0-62mph in 7.5sec
How economical? 44.8mpg (WLTP Combined)
Engine & gearbox: 1,998cc four-cylinder petrol turbo engine, eight-speed automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive
Electric powertrain: none
Maximum power/torque: 181bhp/221lb ft
CO2 emissions: 144g/km (WLTP Combined)
VED: £230 first year, then £165
Warranty: 3 years / unlimited miles
Spare wheel as standard: No (not available)
Audi TT 40 TFSI S Line STronic
The Audi TT is getting a little long in the tooth now, but you’d never guess it to look at it – it’s still as sharp as it ever was, both inside and out, and arguably a touch more stylish than the 2 Series. Its hatchback boot is a nice touch, but the luggage space itself is small, the rear seats are cramped, and as crisp as it is to drive, it feels a little one-dimensional next to the BMW.
We’ve yet to drive the GR86, but if it’s anything like its predecessor, the GT86, it’ll be an absolute blast. Not only does the GR offer the power the GT86 lacked, but it’s smarter inside, too. And at this price, with a 10-year warranty thrown in, it looks like it’s going to be very hard indeed to beat.
Mercedes-Benz CLA200 AMG Line
Strictly speaking, the CLA is a rival for the four-door 2 Series Gran Coupe, but Merc doesn’t offer a two-door of this size, so it must consider the 2 Series Coupe part of its remit, too. And it doesn’t come off brilliantly; while the CLA is of course more practical, it’s also less involving and slower still – and while it does cost a little less, you’ll have to pay extra for the smart widescreen dashboard that really makes the interior pop.
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