Torque steer and front wheelspin... We test a BMW with a big difference.
You know you’re in a BMW with a difference when you accelerate hard and the steering wheel tugs with torque steer and the front wheels spin.
This is an experience possible when driving the BMW 225i Active Tourer, the range-topping variant of the German car maker’s first ever front-wheel-drive vehicle (not including Mini, of course).
There’s a simple answer if you’re wondering why BMW may have sacrificed decades of rear-drive DNA to create this 2 Series range: the Mercedes-Benz B-Class.
Benz’s pint-sized MPV has hitherto been virtually unchallenged in offering a model that appeals principally to older buyers who appreciate the higher step-in point and elevated view once inside. So that’s where the Active Tourer comes in.
The four-cylinder turbo BMW 225i Active Tourer is priced from $54,900 (plus on-road costs), positioning above the $44,400 three-cylinder turbo 218i and $47,800 four-cylinder turbo diesel 218d. A 220i model using a less powerful version of the 225i’s engine joins soon.
Key features over the 218i and 218d include adjustable suspension, 18-inch wheels, LED headlights, paddleshift levers, seats made of real rather than fake leather, and a Visibility Package mixing in more interior lighting and side mirrors with auto-dimming and auto-dipping functionality.
We might typically start our assessment of a BMW with the driving experience, but the interior of the Active Tourer is its focal point.
BMW moved to front-drive to derive all the packaging benefits that bring. (Not that its own version of the Mini learnt from the ingenious packaging of the British original).
The Active Tourer is just over 4.3 metres long – not much longer than a Toyota Corolla – yet it presents an invitingly spacious cabin.
Leg and foot space are generous in the rear seat, as is headroom even if the optional ($1962) panoramic glass sunroof is fitted.
The availability of four-wheel-drive variants overseas means a transmission tunnel comes at the expense of a flat floor, though, and a narrow middle seat means this is realistically a car for four adults and no more.
The seatback angles can be adjusted via pull-straps, and Isofix hook points that are clearly visible when plastic cap covers are pulled down make it easier to line up the matching child seats compared with those often hidden between cushions.
The rear bench also slides for cargo-versus-passengers flexibility.
All Active Tourers feature an electric tailgate that can be opened via keyfob or driver door switch. Also standard are electric release levers to drop the 40-20-40 split seatbacks into a horizontal position.
It’s a good-sized boot even with the rear seats in use, and there’s also a huge underfloor storage tub beneath the boot floor (carpeted rather than offering a wet area).
Useful boot additions include netted side section, elastic strap, tie-down latches and moulded carry-bag hooks.
Storage is fantastic throughout the cabin. Rear passengers get an armrest with shallow tray compartment and vertical flip-up cupholders, and door pockets front and rear are not only wide and big but have moulded dividers and bottle holders.
In addition to a glovebox, the dash also features extra lidded compartments in both the centre stack (where it’s a touch fiddly to access) and to the right of the steering wheel.
The typical BMW driver’s armrest lifts up out of the way and incorporates a snap-in phone section, and the centre console features tray and cupholders. The latter, like a number of storage areas, feature ridged rubber mats.
This is just one of the examples of how BMW seems to have learned from criticisms of the interior quality of its other compact models, such as the 1 Series and X1.
With a better combination of materials than those models, tight fit and finish, and a more premium design presentation – notably the tiered dash – the 2 Series Active Tourer doesn’t look an obvious entry-level BMW.
Those tiers – merging centre stack and centre console – are divided into Audio, Heating/Ventilation and iDrive. It’s beautifully simple, as is the iDrive set-up that allows the driver or front passenger to choose/change functions via the rotary controller and 6.5-inch colour display that is more neatly integrated into the dash design than the iPad-style monitor in the rival B-Class.
BMW’s larger, 8.8-inch display makes a big difference visually, though it’s optional even on the 225i - $2900 as part of a Professional Multimedia Package that also includes head-up display, digital radio, and a Harman Kardon audio system.
The front seats offer thick side bolstering and have manually extendable under-thigh support to aid comfort.
The view all around from the driver’s side is mostly excellent, with only the windscreen pillar occasionally obstructing vision to the right despite the pillar’s integrated window.
Beyond the power-down tugging, the steering isn’t as consistently precise or as enjoyable as the steering of the company’s other 2 Series-badged models – the rear-wheel-drive Coupe and Convertible.
Yet while die-hards are only likely to be disappointed if they expect the Active Tourer to drive like a traditional BMW, the MPV’s grip and composure are sure to be welcomed by the circa-75 per cent of buyers expected to be new to the Bavarian brand.
Many of those conquest customers, however, are likely to notice that the 225i’s standard variable steering is surprisingly heavy to operate around town.
The standard steering in the 218i is better in this respect, though both could be more settled around the centre position to avoid the need for fussy inputs on straight roads. At least the turning circle is tight, making for easier inner-city manoeuvres.
Ride comfort is the Active Tourer’s key dynamic downfall. Even in the Comfort setting of the standard adaptive dampers, the 225i Active Tourer seems unnecessarily firm and the result is a busy, thumpy and often loud ride.
Driving the 218i in the same week, though, proved this is another BMW that needs adjustable suspension to be at its ‘best’.
Even on smaller, 17-inch wheels, the ride quality of the 218i picks up even more urban road irregularities and jars over sharper, smaller bumps. The tyres are generally quieter than the 225i’s 18s, though.
The 225i’s 170kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder serves up useful flexibility, producing its peak torque even lower in the rev range than the diesel-powered 218d Active Tourer.
There’s enjoyment to be found in exploring higher revs, particularly if you select the Sport mode for sharper throttle response, and paddleshift levers are also standard for moments when the driver would prefer to take charge of gearchanges.
The eight-speed auto is superb enough to be left to do the work, however.
A 0-100km/h claim of 6.6 seconds makes it the quickest Active Tourer currently available by some margin, and real world performance translates into the ability to easily fill a gap in traffic not long after first spotting it.
The 225i’s engine is the thirstiest in the Active Tourer range, though its official fuel consumption figure of 6.1L/100km undercuts the 6.5L/100km of its direct rival, the Mercedes-Benz B250.
The BMW’s stop-start system, which aids fuel savings, is also one of the smoothest around.
We wish we could report the same about the ride of the 2 Series Active Tourer, but this does summarise a model that makes a 180-degree turn compared with other compact BMWs - the X1 and 1 Series.
Where the rear-drive SUV and hatchback have restrictions on boot space and rear seat room but are hugely satisfying to drive, the cabin is very much the hero of the company’s first front-wheel-drive model.
And for many buyers, that will be the most crucial factor.
For more BMW 225i Active Tourer images by Christian Barbeitos, click on the Photos tab.