German four-door luxury performance cars have never been more attainable. But should buyers head for the car wearing an M badge or the letters AMG?
The last time you could buy a four-door BMW wearing a proper M badge for less than $75,000 was, well, never.
That changes with the M235i Gran Coupe – the latest offering from the M Performance sub-brand that creates models to sit between regular variants and the hardcore M-cars.
Don’t be confused by the badge. The 2 Series Gran Coupe shares its platform and hardware with the front-wheel-drive third-generation 1 Series rather than the rear-wheel-drive 2 Series Coupe and Convertible.
An M2 Gran Coupe is highly unlikely – BMW has already ruled out a no-limits 1 Series M to sit above the related M135i hatchback – so the M235i is likely to remain the torch carrier of the Gran Coupe range.
Mercedes-Benz of course kicked off the four-door ‘coupe’ trend, with the 2003 CLS, and shrunk the concept 10 years later with the CLA.
The second-generation CLA has arrived this year, though for similar money to the BMW you can get only a CLA250 that falls short on performance and (AMG) badging.
Conveniently, Mercedes this year has matched what is essentially BMW’s first global 1 Series sedan with its first-ever sedan variant of the A-Class.
And the four-door Mercedes-AMG A35 still makes for a natural competitor. Its $72,500 price tag sits right next to the $72,990 of the M235i, and it is also the fastest model in its range (Mercedes is restricting the full-fat A45 badge to the A-Class hatch and CLA body lines).
We’re going to throw in a few quick subjective thoughts on design first, because this is such a crucial area for coupes – whether the two- or four-door variety.
And, at least in our team’s view, the 2 Series Gran Coupe isn’t overly convincing in the looks department.
The M235i’s front end looks neither attractive nor menacing, though the biggest issue is proportions. Sharing its wheelbase with the 1 Series hatch, it means its extra body length all comes in the form of extended overhangs.
Matters aren’t helped by the smaller, optional 18-inch wheels that make our Gran Coupe test car look a bit underwheeled. (They have a performance benefit, though, which we’ll get to later.)
The all-black aesthetic of our test car – created through the M Performance Package that includes the aforementioned wheels and optional Black Sapphire paintwork – at least adds a hint of sportiness. The BMW also puts the Coupe into Gran Coupe by featuring cool frameless door glass.
The A-Class sedan is deliberately designed with less swoopy extravagance than the CLA, yet it looks quite muscular in A35 form. Its proportions are also better resolved than the BMW’s, and our test car also adds some extra sportiness with optional aero bits (even larger boot lip spoiler and aero flics) and a matt-black finish to the 19-inch AMG rims. We’d argue the overall design looks better than the original, droopy-reared CLA.
Pricing and specs
Extra metal costs money, so both models carry a premium over their five-door relatives. The A35 sedan starts $3200 above the A35 hatch; the M235i Gran Coupe starts $4000 above the M135i hatch. A CLA35 is a fair bit higher, priced from $85,500.
The M235i was launched in March 2020 with a $69,990 starting price, but jumped to $72,990 just two months later. (Blamed on exchange rates, the M135i also increased, from $64,990 to $68,990.)
Buyers are looking at about $80,000 drive-away for both cars.
Even for buyers who wouldn’t choose one model over the other based on brand allegiances/attractions, there isn’t necessarily a sufficient difference between specifications to make either the M235i Gran Coupe or A35 more appealing.
The A35 comes standard with heating function and electric lumbar adjustment for the front seats, which are part of a $1200 Comfort Package on the BMW that also includes a heated steering wheel. The M235i includes a head-up display that is part of an option pack on the Benz.
There’s spec-sparring with more expensive features.
The M235i features a 16-speaker, 464-watt Harman Kardon audio system, whereas Mercedes wants more coin ($2690) for a 12-speaker, 590-watt Burmester set-up (plus a head-up display).
But then adaptive dampers are part of the A35 deal, whereas they cost $400 on the M235i – plus another $2200 as they’ll only fit with the smaller wheels of the M Performance Pack.
Our M235i GC test car was fitted with both of the above option packs, as well as a $3770 Enhancement Package bringing metallic paint, adaptive cruise control with stop/go, and a panoramic sunroof.
The latter is standard on the A35, but Mercedes also asks extra for adaptive cruise – a feature that should be standard on both models.
That’s part of a $1890 Driving Assistance Package fitted to our A35 test car, which totalled $78,660 with other additions including a Vision Package ($990) and AMG Aerodynamics Package ($2490) that brings those aforementioned extra aero bits.
Fittingly, there’s a whole bunch of branded M and AMG goodies that don’t cost extra – covering 19-inch wheels, performance braking systems, suspensions, body appendages, seats and steering wheels. Add the exhaust system in the case of the A35.
Tech and infotainment
Standard active safety kit is fairly comprehensive for both models.
There are adaptive high beams that mean the driver doesn’t need to switch headlight settings for oncoming traffic at night, a camera that can ‘read’ speed-limit signposts, auto-braking systems in case the driver has become too distracted to react to a hazard (though the BMW will only slow automatically not come to a full emergency stop).
The Mercedes one-ups with monitoring for driver fatigue and low tyre pressures, plus crosswind assistance. The BMW replies with a standard head-up display (with clear, sharp graphics) whereas it’s an option on its rival.
Both German manufacturers have settled on 10.25 inches as the magic measurement for each of their dual infotainment and instrument panel displays.
Resolutions and presentations are terrific in both cases, as are the infotainment hand-control methods – a rotary controller with shortcut buttons for BMW’s iDrive, and a haptic trackpad with shortcut buttons for Mercedes’s MBUX.
Alternatively, the infotainment displays are also touchscreens.
And if you don’t want to use your hands at all, voice commands can be activated by saying either “Hey, Mercedes” or “Hey, BMW”.
We had slightly more consistent success with the BMW understanding instructions, though there was a longer pause before actions than with the Mercedes, while the BMW system also insists on pleasantries every single time (“Good morning”, “Good afternoon”, etc).
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto feature on the A35. The M235i has CarPlay, with Android users being looked after from later in 2020. I’m in the latter category – my iPhone-owing colleagues tell me the wireless CarPlay can be difficult to set up initially.
The A35’s driver display is superior – with a greater level of configurability that’s also intuitively actioned via steering wheel controls. The BMW’s more limited changes come via the central touchscreen, creating an argument that the display is digital for digital’s sake.
Overall, there’s more to explore with the Mercedes’s display systems, and while that means more time to learn them, the A35 is more of a technophile’s dream.
Those twin tech displays are standard even in a base A-Class, so the A35 ups its interior game in other ways.
Most prominent is the sporty AMG steering wheel, which looks suitably sporty with its dimpled ‘quarter-to-three’ sections, flattened bottom, paddles, and adjustment dials for the A35’s dampers and drive modes.
You can option more hardcore AMG Performance seats, though the standard, leathered set is in keeping with the A35’s positioning – including side bolstering that looks intent of keeping occupants in place during faster driving. They also include electric lumbar adjustment and manual cushion extenders for the front.
A-Class interiors have their detractors who believe they look too blingy, and there’s no denying there’s a fair amount of silver strewn liberally throughout the cabin. But also undoubted is the feeling of expense via the high level of materials and switchgear quality, and excellent tactility that extends to the circular, turbine-style dash vents.
The range of colours available for ambient lighting is also impressively extensive – with 64 choices no less to illuminate parts of the doors, dash and the vents.
The M235i’s understated interior suits the ‘Gran Coupe’ moniker, while it also looks sufficiently contemporary. A chubby steering wheel forms part of the M Sport treatment, along with terrific leather sports seats that are even more supportive than the A35’s courtesy of electrically adjustable lateral bolstering. Relaxingly supple cushioning is great, too, for trips involving longer hours.
Various surfaces yield pleasingly under finger pressure, while owners should be continually satisfied when pressing buttons and turning dials.
Ambient lighting is also effective, though restricted to six colours (including an interesting Lilac option).
As executive-style four-doors, there’s extra emphasis on rear-seat space compared with their five-door hatchback relatives.
The Gran Coupe doesn’t get off to the best start: narrow rear doors that restrict ingress/egress. Then, once ensconced, rear-seat space is neither generous for knee space nor head room.
It’s a touch claustrophobic, though the BMW’s extra quarter-window and optional sunroof bring some welcome light, and there’s good forward vision plus dedicated ventilation.
Good practical touches include dual-section door cubbies, seatback storage pouches, armrest with cupholders, and two USB ports.
A larger rear door greets A35 passengers and, inside, head room is miles better with the A-Class sedan’s rear roof line less beholden to a sloping ‘coupe’ shape.
Again, though, with our 5ft 9in and 6ft 1in co-testers sitting behind each other in turn, leg room proved to be a bit squishy. Our taller tester felt there was a bit more room in the BMW simply because of its scalloped seatbacks.
If all occupants are average height or shorter, space is far more agreeable in both cars.
The standard, single-pane sunroof looks more sophisticated than the BMW’s version. While it doesn’t extend that far back, the A35’s wider rear windows help brightness.
Baby circular rear vents mimic those up front, two USB ports are hidden behind a lid on the rear centre console, and a centre armrest features pop-out, adjustable cupholders.
Whether you’re storing golf clubs or luggage cases, both models provide useful boots. The BMW’s luggage compartment is fractionally bigger based on quoted capacities – 430 v 420 litres.
The M235i has the lower loading lip; the A35 has an aperture that makes loading larger items a bit easier.
Each opts for extra-practical 40-20-40 seatback splits, which allows longer items to be loaded even if both outboard rear seats are in use.
Tie-downs and 12-volt sockets are also common, though the BMW’s boot features a removable floor that allows for a choice of deeper boot or hidden storage. It also adds a bag hook, its side storage area has a higher securing net than the Mercedes’s, and it has release levers for the seatbacks (though they don’t auto collapse; you have to push them down).
Drivelines and performance
M235i Gran Coupe owners can tell their friends their car features BMW’s most powerful four-cylinder production engine yet – 225kW that matches the output of the former M235i Coupe that was powered by a six-cylinder.
Whereas the A45 engine is a hand-built AMG unit, the A35’s motor is a strengthened, upgraded version of the 2.0-litre found in the A250 models. This includes its own twin-scroll turbo, air intake and intercooler.
It matches the M235i’s 225kW but is slightly behind on torque: 400Nm v 450Nm.
BMW opts to put power to the ground via an eight-speed auto, while Mercedes goes with a seven-speed dual-clutch auto.
And there are ‘xDrive’ and ‘4Matic’ systems that turn these front-drive-based cars into all-wheel drivers. Each system uses a clutch set-up to transfer up to 50 per cent of torque to the rear wheels when required.
Mercedes says the A35 sedan accelerates from 0–100km/h in 4.8 seconds. The M235i in standard guise is quoted a tenth slower, though our test car theoretically matches the AMG as it is equipped with the M Performance Package that brings lighter wheels and engine boost.
The result could hardly have been closer during our performance testing, using launch-control systems: the A35 clocked a best of 5.03sec; the M235i registered 5.09sec. There’s some margin for error – owing to a logistical glitch, we were using a stopwatch rather than our GPS timing equipment – but the A35 was consistently quickest.
Both cars shift with a fairly rapid intent befitting their respective M Performance and AMG badges.
The M235i has the beefier torque that also stretches further across the rev range – 450Nm from 1750 to 4500rpm – which ensures there’s plenty of poke always on tap. Yet, as with the standing-start acceleration tests, this doesn’t convey an advantage on the road.
The A35’s maximum torque may be lower and produced higher – 400Nm from 3000–4000rpm – but 95 per cent of the AMG’s cranking effort happens between 2000 and 5000rpm. And for 95 per cent of buyers – if not more – the A35 has all the performance a keen driver needs (especially in Australia).
Paddle-shift levers provide a pseudo-manual element. While the paddles could have greater tactility in both cars, flicking them brings quick gear change responses – slightly quicker in the case of the AMG’s dual-clutch gearbox.
The A35 sounds the best – more natural and with more pops and crackles from its exhaust when in sportier modes. (There’s also a Silent Start mode that will fire up the engine less dramatically, just in case you don’t want to wake the neighbours on an early start.)
The M235i elicits a tuneful exhaust note when taking off from standstill – even if the car is set in Normal mode – though then sounds more artificial at higher speeds with engine noise piped through the speakers.
Both gearboxes are adept at shifting smoothly when you just want to revert to an everyday-luxury-sedan driving style.
Adjusting vehicle settings is easiest in the Mercedes, with conveniently placed dials and toggles on the steering wheel. One toggle on the left hides a mini touchscreen and allows control of dampers, auto and manual shifting modes, and stability control settings. The dial on the right cycles through different vehicle modes: Comfort/Sport/Sport+/Individual.
BMW has ditched the centre console rocker switch that used to make changing drive modes easy on the move (you could hover your fingers over it and knew it was up for more aggressive settings or down for more relaxing modes).
Now there are separate drive-mode buttons on the centre console that, even after plenty of time behind the wheel, require you to look away from the road to ensure you’re selecting the right one.
On the road
The A35 and M235i chassis are beefed up for sharper handling compared with the A250 and 218i, respectively, though the results are markedly different.
There’s a semblance of agility and mid-corner poise to be found in the BMW, which allows it to provide a certain level of driver enjoyment. Numb steering partly dilutes the experience, though, while the M235i feels relatively inert turning into corners and exhibits plenty of body roll through them.
The front tyres also chirp under hard acceleration out of tight corners, pointing to an all-wheel-drive system that doesn’t respond with sufficient speed.
The M235i feels very much like a front-drive car. At least in the dry. Our wet-motorkhana test/challenge revealed fairly impressive traction out of our ‘hairpins’ – and it was actually faster in the wet than the dry!
There’s more of an all-wheel-drive feel to the A35, which delivers excellent traction regardless of conditions. The Mercedes is more naturally balanced than the BMW, its handling less nose-heavy and its lateral body control tighter.
Grippier tyres further boost the AMG’s resistance to understeer and complete the A35 as a very tidy and effective dynamic package. (Drivers desiring greater oversteer tendencies just need to choose the A45 hatch or CLA45 sedan that come with a more rear-biased AWD system, including Drift mode.)
Those 19-inch Pirelli P Zero tyres are also a notable downside – producing tyre roar that can at times be intrusive, and consistently louder than the M235i’s 18-inch Bridgestone Turanza rubber.
Back on the upsides, the A35’s ride quality – aided by a relatively softer Comfort mode – makes the Mercedes the more comfortable car for both daily duties and longer journeys.
The BMW’s optional adaptive suspension – while not duly uncomfortable – becomes the busier under wheel over rougher roads and transfers more surface irregularities into the cabin.
Warranty is now in the A35’s favour after Mercedes-Benz Australia introduced a five-year warranty in early 2020. BMW has yet to respond, sticking with three years.
Owners will find the M235i’s maintenance costs much easier on the wallet, however. Based on pre-paid five-year service plans, BMW charges just $1550 compared with $4000 for the A35.
There’s also potential to save a bit more on fuel with the BMW, even if hardly the kind of difference that would sway buyers a particular way.
Testing consumption over a route combining some freeway mileage and an outer-suburbs-to-city commute, the M235i Gran Coupe registered an average of 6.6 litres per 100km compared with 7.7L/100km for the A35.
Drive them like sporty sedans and those figures will inevitably head into double figures.
With a next-generation Audi S3 sedan not too far away, buyers looking to enter the realm of affordable four-door luxury performance are fast becoming spoilt for choice.
The M235i Gran Coupe marries BMW’s most powerful four-cylinder engine with a frameless-doored, coupe-style body and is almost as quick as the six-cylinder M240i Coupe. There’s also much to appreciate about the interior design, the standard M Sport seats are terrific in both luxury and sporting contexts, and refinement is excellent.
It struggles, however, to meet the expectations created by a model name incorporating the letter M and the word ‘Gran’ – lacking both dynamic prowess and a sufficiently graceful ride. Awkward styling isn’t ideal for a ‘coupe’, either, and it’s a shame the relatively sharp pricing didn’t last long.
There’s also a potential problem if buyers look around a BMW showroom. Even if they’re not tempted to look at the more engaging, six-cylinder M240i owing to cost ($7000 dearer) or practicality (a proper coupe so only two doors), the 330i is only another $2000 while offering both more interior space and a more rewarding driving experience.
The Mercedes-AMG A35 sedan, conversely, may be something of a sweet spot. It offers more performance and better again dynamics than an A250, yet is also notably more affordable than either a CLA35 ($85,500) or – especially – a CLA45 S ($111,200).
We’d even say the A35 makes for a more convincing AMG-lite sedan than the C43. Watch our M235i Gran Coupe v A35 Sedan Skidpan Challenge video to find out how much faster the AMG is against the stopwatch.