BMW's new era of front-wheel-drive compact cars begins with the family-friendly and generally well-executed 2 Series Active Tourer.
As far as paradigm shifts go, a front-wheel-drive BMW MPV has got to be up there. The 2015 BMW 2 Series Active Tourer marks the beginning of a new chapter for the Bavarian brand, and while it may get some purists’ noses out of joint, it is in fact the answer to a question a lot of people have asked.
For too long, arch-rival Mercedes-Benz has been making hay with the B-Class, tapping into a market of upwardly mobile buyers with kids and — importantly — without the sort of diehard automotive passion for cars that tells them this type of vehicle is somehow ‘wrong’.
Yes, the car enthusiast community may spit out their morning coffee to hear it, but the truth is, this is just the first as many as 12 (relatively) cheap, practical and front-drive BMWs that will in time be spun off its ‘UKL’ platform architecture shared with Mini.
Generally when reviewing a new BMW, one looks for certain traits and marks harshly if they’re not evident. Generally a BMW ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ should have dynamism at the core of its being, but with a car like this, does the typical metric apply?
Well, BMW has set the bar high for itself. It claims that not only does the Active Tourer get the sort of cabin flexibility that only the front-drive layout can offer, but that it retains a sporting edge that puts it at the front of the the pack for driving fun and fast as well.
We were invited to picturesque Austria, on the figurative (and mountainous) doorstep of BMW’s Munich headquarters to have a first spin, four months before we get the car in Australia in November. Winding and narrow mountain roads mixed with quaint little towns were the order of the day, a clear sign that the company is looking to lure an adventurous sort of buyer.
A quick walk around the car tell you a number of things. To our eyes the look of the new model is a little conventional. Handsome and well-proportioned for the type of car it may be, but also a trifle anonymous. Only the kidney grille identifies it for what it is (one Facebook fan pointed out the similarities between the 2 Series Active Tourer and Kia Rondo!), and people attracted to that propellor badge are nothing if not conscious of style.
The cabin, though, makes a more impressive first impression. This is a relatively spacious, very well-made, stylish and decidedly upmarket interior, made even better by clever packaging. That is the benefit of front-drive: no driveshaft eating up room down the centre of the car.
Some BMW cabins of late have been a touch generic, but the Active Tourer gets a clean and uncluttered stack with signature touches like the chunky wheel and driver-facing instrument panel, livened up by some quality switchgear, premium materials with contrasting finishes and tons of storage solutions.
There is also a cleaner and more resolved gear-shifter design here and a neat toggle to control the driving modes, plus the key fob is heavy and classy like an Audi’s, rather than cheap and flimsy like on many far more expensive BMW models. Small touches, yes, but perception is everything here.
Highlights include the crystal clear 8.8-inch screen perched on the dashtop rather than embedded and controlled by the familiar iDrive console dial with a touchpad atop, and the massive panoramic glass roof on the 225i flagship, which lights up the place (at the expense of some rear headroom). Also good is the flip-up glass head-up display reminiscent of the Mazda 3's, though polarised sunglasses can affect the visibility.
Fact is though, with pricing to sit between $45 and $55k, a few grand more than the equivalent B-Class, the BMW needs high-gloss details such as this. While the BMW is well-equipped across the board (see full Australian pricing and specifications for the 2015 BMW 2 Series Active Tourer here), it is far from cheap.
Cabin space is largely a positive. This is a fairly compact car at 4342mm, less than 100mm longer than a Volkswagen Golf, but it has a fairy long 2670mm wheelbase with short overhangs at either end. The packaging benefits of this, especially for rear passengers, are abundant.
I’m 194cm tall, or 6ft 4 in the old vernacular, and was able to find acceptable knee and headroom in the rear, even with the sunroof. Four big adults will be right at home, with a child a better fit for the middle row. Thankfully there's a set of air vents in the back too, though the seat backs are hard plastic.
The rear row slides fore and aft in a 60/40 split pattern, and folds relatively flat to liberate plenty of storage space. The buttons in the rear that electrically lower the rear seats when loading up an IKEA bookcase or pushbike are a nice touch, as is the foot-operated mechanism to open to electric tailgate.
Shoulder room is less commendable, notably in the driver’s seat, and this feeling of being ever so slightly boxed in is exacerbated by the big blind spot through the A-pillar, despite it being a split setup with a small triangular window.
The first vehicle we drove was the 170kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol 225i, the performance leader and the car that will serve as the range flagship both from launch and for the car’s entire life-cycle.
Without any sort of torque-vectoring device modulating the flow of torque to the front wheels, the task of the car channelling its fairly sizeable outputs onto the wet roads we traversed, even with sticky Pirelli tyres, was a tough one. Those tyres, by the way, send too much noise into the cabin through the wheel-well, reducing the cabin ambience.
Fact is, that full wave of torque is on tap from 1250rpm, meaning a quick jab of the throttle at the wrong moment can coax understeer and torque steer alike (the latter is more marked in Sport mode with its more sensitive throttle setting), under the watch in this case of a largely ineffectual stability control system seemingly programmed for the balance of a 3 Series.
Avoiding all this is a simple matter of adjusting your driving style to moderate throttle inputs in the wet lest the front tyres lose grip and not put the power on too aggressively when exiting a corner, but this is not ‘familiar’ BMW by any means.
What is better is the direct and well-weighted electromechanical steering that adds weight at higher speeds (or in Sports mode). It is pleasingly direct and linear, with only the slightest bit of play on-centre in a nod to a more conservative kind of driver.
The chassis, familiar from the Mini Cooper, is balanced in a fashion that responds quickly to throttle modulation mid-corner. The ride/handling balance skews to comfort - corrugations are dispatched with ease - but it never wallows, and despite that tall-boy styling, there’s barely any noticeable body-roll. It also carries some serious speed through corners, and hangs on with commendable tenacity.
The all-new transverse engine is a raspy number with plenty of pulling power through 4000rpm, and is matched to a largely intuitive eight-speed automatic transmission that errs on the side of shifting up too quickly to save fuel. It doesn’t feel particularly zingy, as its outputs may suggest, but it is a willing unit.
The big news on the petrol engine front is the 1.5-litre, 100kW/220Nm three-cylinder turbo-petrol range opener, in its second outing after the new Mini. Unfortunately, BMW could not give us, nor any Australian media, a chance to get behind the wheel. You’ll have to wait for the local launch in November for out verdict on that.
The other vehicle we drove was the 110kW/330Nm 2.0-litre turbo-diesel 218d, and it proved to be something of a peach. It was much better behaved under throttle than the 225i, because the tractable nature of a relaxed diesel removes the sort of urgent power delivery that causes the front wheels to chirp and spin.
Furthermore, the car never felt particularly nose-heavy like some diesels can, meaning it retained the petrol’s excellent mid-corner balance.
That said, we only drove a six-speed manual version. And, nice as it was to spend time in a proper manual BMW (the self-shifter is a delightful unit with a short throw and a very forgiving clutch take-up point), Australians will only get the eight-speed automatic option.
So, what do we make of the first of what will in time be many front-drive BMWs? As a fit-for-purpose family-hauling MPV, it proved a practical and premium offering that fell short of offering the sort of class-leading dynamism promised.
Does it deliver on the KPI of appealing to a new area of the market for BMW? Absolutely yes, it does. We consider it a very solid first effort at a new type of car from the Bavarian brand. Moving with the times needn’t always augur bad news, after all.