Australia welcomes the first front-wheel drive BMW, the 2 Series Active Tourer. Its compact size, smooth drive, and space and features could see it carve out a new niche.
The arrival of the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer marks the dawn of a new era for the German car maker.
That's because, if you hadn't heard the news, the new Mercedes B-Class-rivalling MPV is the first front-wheel drive vehicle from the Bavarian brand, based as it is on the UKL1 platform shared with Mini.
The UKL platform in front-wheel guise will be used to underpin up to 12 upcoming models from BMW, including the next 1 Series and X1. Packaging requirements, cost-effectiveness and efficiency gains are the driving forces behind the shift to FWD, and while the brand once said it would never veer down this road, the move makes logical sense.
The 2 Series Active Tourer also houses the brand's first 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo engine, though we have seen it before in the new Mini.
It resides in a niche segment of the market, the only real competitor being the Mercedes-Benz B-Class which is due for an upgrade in 2015 after a year of sales decline in 2014 as cars such as the A-Class cut its grass. For now, BMW is offering more kit as standard, albeit at a higher price, which should bode well for healthy competition.
In fact BMW have been so bold as to say they expect 75 per cent of buyers to be new to the brand. Many of these will no doubt from Japanese, Korean and 'tier-two' European brands, though BMW is also perhaps insinuating that B-Class owners may jump ship.
Background aside, the crucial new 2 Series Active Tourer was launched locally in Tasmania this week, with three of the four variants, the 218i, 218d and 225i, laid bare for testing. We've driven it in Europe, but there's no substitute for local roads.
The fourth model in the range, the 220i, will be available in Australia in January. But the aforementioned trio will hit our shores next month.
Prices are as follows: $44,400 before on-road costs for the 218i, $47,800 for the 218d, $50,900 for the 220i and $54,900 for the 225i.
There are three petrol offerings, with the 218i equipped with the all-new 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo-petrol engine producing 100kW and 220Nm. This punchy engine performs well around the city, jumping to maximum torque at 1250rpm and holding steady over an impressive stretch as the revs climb. It may be small but it packs a good wallop.
The 220i has a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine generating a healthy 141kW and 280Nm, while the final petrol offering is the sporty 225i also with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo engine, this time ripping out a hot-hatch-beating 170kW and 350Nm.
Alternatively there's a turbo-diesel option, the 218d, with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine producing 110kW and 330Nm.
Befitting market trends, there are no manual options. The 218i has a six-speed automatic transmission, the 220i and 218d expand to an eight-speed automatic transmission, while the 225i scores the eight-speed sport automatic transmission with launch control and paddle shifters.
For a more detailed rundown of specs click here.
The suspension set up across the range is a single spring front axle with a multi-arm rear axle. Though all models feature three driving modes - Eco, Comfort and Sport - the 225i gets damper control that enhances the Sport mode experience.
The driving mode difference can certainly be felt across all three variants tested at the Australian launch. Eco feels appropriately soggy, the revs rise much slower even with your foot firmly planted.nComfort mode provides a smooth responsive drive and Sport offers a more enthusiastic throttle response. In the 225i the steering resistance increases as does the suspension.
Though front-wheel drive allows for more interior space, the concern was always going to be dynamic imposts.
But, as we found in Europe earlier this year, BMW engineers have done well in sorting through this. The little MPV is nearly as darty as its Mini stablemate and well-balanced to boot, though of course a dab of throttle at the wrong moment can cause the car to push-on. The only time even a hint of torque steer was really noticeable was in Sport mode in the 225i when accelerating from a stand-still.
Befitting its outputs, the 225i can go from 0-100km/h in 6.6-seconds, which is hot hatch-quick. It's an impressively muscular little engine, disarmingly so when you consider this car is focused on practicality and space.
There was plenty of opportunity to test these figures out, over a range of road surfaces during the Tasmanian launch drive.
Ride and handling balance leans to comfort, it floats beautifully over most surfaces but doesn't wallow about when things get a little more twisty or corrugated.
Cruising around windy mountain roads in our scenic island state to the south, the steering weight is light but it also proved direct and loaded-up at greater speeds. On a side note, the steering wheel looked a little large for the size of the car, though it didn't feel it. Sport mode steering in the 225i was weightier and firmer.
Road noise and wind noise (from the tall-boy styling) was noticeable, though not intrusive, while there was very little engine noise, though that trademark BMW crackle and pop could be heard when the tachometer jumped in the 225i and the 218i.
After getting behind the wheel of the first three due to arrive in Australia, there was just something about the 218i with its 1.5-litre three cylinder engine. As a unit, everything seemed to work together in synergy. It's not as fast or as sporty as the 225i, yet there was lovely combination of capability and character.
The cabin is impressive, with plenty of space, quality finishes and loads of kit as standard.
All variants get BMW's ConnectedDrive with emergency call function and TeleService that sends service-related data to your service centre resulting in a reminder call when it's due for a check-up, as well as lane departure warning, pedestrian and collision warnings, and light city braking function. Extra ConnectedDrive features are optional.
There's also cruise control, parking sensors, a rear-view camera, automatic tailgate and satellite-navigation. The infotainment system is anchored by a 6.5-inch touchscreen controlled by BMW's iDrive dial and buttons, though you can option-up to an 8.1-inch screen. It has a six-speaker sound system with CD, MP3, Bluetooth, USB, AUX and phone connectivity.
The 225i has sports seats which are incredibly comfortable, making it a tad disappointing to sit in one of the other variants that don't have hugging moulded seats. Under thigh support is good, and seating position is high (SUV-like) giving clear visibility around most of the vehicle. The A-pillars created a minor visibility problem when taking sharp right-hand corners.
The 218i, 218d and 220i get Sensatec upholstery, a man-made leather, while the 225i scores perforated Dakota leather.
The vehicle we drove on the launch was finished in Canberra Beige coloured leather, and even after a few hours of people climbing in and out, marks were starting to appear. For those tempted to select that colour, be warned, it'll need regular cleaning.
There is plenty of room in the rear with space for three backseat passengers. The functionality is versatile and impressive with a 40/20/40-split back and a sliding 60/40 base that takes the cargo space up to 1510-litres. The seats can be folded from the boot, with levers located on each sidewall.
The dash is well laid out ergonomically and easy to use, plus there is ample storage space with bottle holders in the doors, cup holders in the centre-console, a small centre-console bin and storage compartments in the rear.
Parking isn't a problem, as well as its compact size, there's a plethora of parking aids - near impossible to mess up. Outward visibility is also excellent.
All-in-all the 2 Series Active Tourer is an enjoyable compact car. It's a bit of a misfit segment-wise, but could find a following among those wanting something that combines the size of a hatch, the space of an MPV and the driving position of an SUV.
The fact that it's front-wheel drive is less of a consideration for those likely to buy it. It's not going to light the world on fire performance-wise, but then its not supposed to. It will serve the average person who appreciates a luxury badge and wants a small car, with loads of features and a quality finish.