Driven - Mar 2021

Is The Petite BMW 218i Gran Coupe Worth Its Salt?

The original BMW 2 Series Coupe made its global debut in 2014 with its trendy styling and desirable coupe proportions. In 2019, BMW changed the recipe and seemed to start from scratch launching the front-wheel-drive (FWD) F44 generation 5 door as its replacement. Alex Shahini spent time with the 218i Gran Coupe specced in the M Sport package to determine if this has been a success for the Bavarian brand.

While the current 2 Series generation is approaching 2 years of production it is by no means a new car but seeing one on the road can give it that impression. Not only is its imposing styling more aligned with the existing brand identity of current BMW models, but their uncommon presence on the road can provide naive passers by with an illusion that it is a brand new release. This was the Bavarian-based manufacturers attempt at creating a more affordable and attainable model to the heavier and larger 3 Series sedan. It was developed with the intention of retaining loyal customers by providing an expedient, downsized BMW alternative to the likes of the Mercedes-Benz CLA and Audi A3 Sedan.

So, the recipe has changed but how has this influenced the driving experience? The first elephant in the room that I need to address is that this is the new era of FWD BMW’s. While the topheavy looking mommy wagon-esque 2 Series Active Tourer was the first of its kind to do away with rear powered wheels in 2014, our 218i Gran Coupe proved to be an engaging car to drive in more enthusiastic scenarios, albeit with a healthy amount of torque steer. A welcomed surprise because most consumers set on purchasing the 218i may be less focused on its driving appeal and more fixated on its amenities and comfort. 

While the downsized turbocharged 3-cylinder motor with a total displacement of 1.5-litres sounds underwhelming, its 103kW and 220Nm means that it is nippy in most environments it finds itself in – especially considering it has a dry weight of only 1345kg. While this is by no means a fast car, only reaching 100km/h from standstill in 8.7 seconds, it does trundling around extremely comfortably with smooth power delivery compliments of a seamless automatic gearbox in comfort mode. The smaller displacement begins to take some strain with additional passengers and luggage but nothing the additional mass can’t handle. 

While most of it is good there are a few operational issues including a jerky stop-start function, lack of low end torque while accelerating and unintuitive gear shifts in sports mode which makes spirited drivers like myself yearn for paddle shifts. Due to its light stature, windy days on highways can also make the car feel unstable with its light steering input and soft suspension.  

The 218i Gran Coupe can be aesthetically considered as an amalgamation of several different BMW models. The wheelbase, track, interior and front end of the car are identical to that of the new F40 generation 1 series on which its platform is based while its proportions are indicative of a shrunk version of an 8 Series Gran Coupe with much smaller wheels. At quick glance, you may even confuse the silhouette of the two. While the looks can be subjectively polarizing, I find that there is a strong disproportionate element towards the rear ¾ panel of the car that simply doesn’t look correct. Almost as though the 1 Series hatchback has had an improvised tailgate stuck onto the rear as a complete afterthought and without refined integration. Regardless of this, this 218i Gran Coupe comes with a highly useful 430-litre boot with a false floor and easily foldable rear seats. 

The cockpit, while indistinguishable from the 1 series, feels largely more cocooned with its faster raking A-pillar, frameless doors and lower roofline. While this has been done to achieve the recognizable silhouette of a Gran Coupe it comes at the price of rear head room, even with shorter passengers. Its overall interior is an appealing and elegant but busy place to be, with many intersecting joints and a multitude of different textures and touch points. After spending time with the BMW 128ti earlier this year, we were highly impressed with the forward strides BMW have taken in their interior aesthetic and the 218i is no different. The interior dials are all sensibly laid out and all have a familiar tactility to them however the central radio console below the air conditioning is completely redundant with the intuitive haptic rotary infotainment controlling device needing to be used. 

It’s interesting to note how it stacks up against competitors, particularly in terms of price. The cheapest Audi A3 Sedan currently on sale is the 30 TFSI which retails for R520 569. But you must remember that the all-new A3 unveiled internationally in 2020 is yet to reach our shores. Over in the corner of Stuttgart, the Mercedes-Benz CLA 200 has a price tag of R661 000. The BMW 218i Gran Couple slots neatly in between the two at R581 900. 

Even with our generously-specced press unit which had a sticker price nearing R650 000, it still undercuts the entry-level Mercedes-Benz. So in that aspect, it is certainly worth its salt and should be a tempting buy for consumers shopping in this segment. But in my opinion, the smart money is a demo model 3 Series for similar outlay and equal spec. Just don’t tell BMW I told you that!

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