The 2 Series Active Tourer will be remembered as the first front-wheel drive BMW. Can it prove to be more than a historical footnote? Jonathan Crouch reports
Ten Second Review
BMW always said it wouldn't go front-wheel drive but it's caved in with the 2 Series Active Tourer. It also marks a first foray into the compact MPV market and goes head to head with the Mercedes B-Class. Certain things are traditional BMW. A lot of money's been spent on engines and chassis development.
In 2006, BMW ran an advertisement in many popular magazines. It featured a rabbit with puny back legs and outlandishly big front legs which looked plain wrong, underlined with the caption "That's why we don't have front wheel drives." The message was clear. Cars that sent their power to the front wheels were inherently second rate, an exercise in cost-cutting. Fast forward eight years and BMW has revealed the 2 Series Active Tourer, its first front wheel drive car.
Some may call that hypocrisy, while others recognise that BMW needs to adapt to a changing marketplace. It's also true that BMW has been building and selling front-wheel drive cars for years, albeit with MINI badges rather than BMW roundels on their noses. The other thing strange about the 2 Series Active Tourer is that BMW's product policy seemed to suggest that the odd-numbered model lines would be the more practical cars while the even-numbered vehicles would be the sleek coupes and convertibles. Yet here was a compact MPV, possibly the least racy looking car in the whole product portfolio, being badged a '2 Series'. Stranger things have happened. We just can't think of one right now.
The 2 Series Active Tourer offers a choice of transversely-mounted engines developed from the same modular source. At entry level, there are 1.5-litre petrol and diesel powerplants, then there are a couple of 2.0-litre diesel units in the 218d and 220d or, if you prefer something pokier, a 2.0-litre petrol turbo in the 220i model. If you want to go hi-tech, there's also a plug-in hybrid variant that mates a 1.5-litre three cylinder MINI petrol engine with electric power.
Just because all 2 Series Active Tourer models drive through their front wheels doesn't mean that BMW has decided to go on a manic cost-cutting frenzy. Where you might expect to find a compact torsion beam rear suspension, BMW has instead fitted a much more complex and expensive multi-link rear end. It's almost as if the Bavarians are overcompensating for something. The 2 Series Active Tourer also benefits from a chassis where weight has been taken out where possible with the use of ultra-high strength steels in key stress points. The result is that the kerb weight of the 218i is a mere 1,320kg. That's only two kilos more than a 1.4-litre Vauxhall Meriva. A six-speed manual comes as standard, but there are six-speed and eight-speed automatics on offer.
Design and Build
This is a compact MPV and as such, it's fairly inevitable that the basic shape is going to be somewhat generic. Cover the badges and grille and most would probably identify this as a Mercedes. The details are nicely executed, but this remains one of the more conservative designs. Compared to something like a Citroen C4 Picasso, this one's very toned down. Some of the most fascinating aspects of this car's execution aren't immediately obvious. The three-cylinder 1.5-litre petrol engine also sees service in vehicles as diverse as the BMW i8 hybrid supercar and the MINI. Ignore the 2 Series name for a bit as this car doesn't share its underpinnings with the 2 Series Coupe. Instead, it runs on a lengthened version of the MINI chassis with the wheelbase extended to 2,670mm.
This car was launched in five-seat form, but BMW has also developed a seven-seat Gran Tourer version. For a company with no real track record in MPVs, the Munich maker has clearly been studying what works in rival cars. There are sliding and reclining rear seats that allow you to prioritise space for passengers or luggage. Maximum boot space is a respectable 468-litres - which is 20-litres less than the Mercedes B-Class. The rear bench is a versatile thing that can split 40:20:40 and when fully folded there's access to up to 1,510-litres. The front passenger seat also folds to accommodate items up to 2.4m long.
Market and Model
If we hadn't had cars like 3 and 5 Series Gran Turismo models adjusting us to an alternate BMW universe, the 2 Series Active Tourer would have come as an even greater shock. Commercial realities have also conditioned us into seeing cars like this as an inevitability. After all, Mercedes does good business with its B-Class range. Was BMW really expected to sit idly by while its chief rival cleaned up? Clearly not and although the 2 Series Active Tourer is unusual by BMW's standards, it's right on point.
Prices start at around £23,000 and BMW is going large on product plans for this model, with a flagship 225i xDrive all-wheel drive model powered by a 168bhp 2.0-litre turbo. That's joined by 220i, 220d and 216d models, plus the 225xe Plug-in hybrid. To improve the handling, BMW is offering M Sport suspension, which is 10mm lower than the standard set-up, plus you can spec adaptive dampers. There's gear like a head-up display and a Traffic Jam Assistant, which can steer, accelerate and brake for you in traffic up to 40mph. The range runs from entry level through Luxury and Sport models, with M Sport variants also available to order.
Cost of Ownership
The 1.5-litre turbo petrol engine that many customers will inevitably gravitate to makes some extremely good numbers, recording 57.6mpg on the combined NEDC fuel economy cycle. Economy figures that good make you wonder why you'd pay extra for the diesel but the additional torque of the 218d will prove a draw for many and 68.9mpg economy isn't going to put too huge a dent in the family budget.
The usual suite of BMW EfficientDynamics energy-saving features is responsible for making those vaguely implausible looking figures, including Auto Start Stop and ECO PRO. When in ECO PRO mode, the throttle response is adjusted to encourage a more economical driving style. The extra economy created in that ECO PRO setting is fed back to the driver, with the in-car displays showing the additional number of miles achieved. Top of the tree when it comes to economy is inevitably the 225xe Plug-in hybrid variant, which can be charged up in 2 hours 20 minutes from a BMW i Wallbox, will travel up to 25 miles on all-electric power, is supposed to record 141.2mpg on the combined cycle and emits just 46g/km of CO2.
If you're a rear-wheel drive BMW fundamentalist, the 2 Series Active Tourer will have you frothing at the mouth but then the X5 probably did the same when that was first launched and look how significantly that vehicle has contributed to the Munich maker's bottom line. In many regards, it was BMW themselves that were responsible for perpetuating a dogmatic engineering-led line and it's one they now have to chew through a lot of humble pie in order to move forward.
The 2 Series Active Tourer is the kind of vehicle this brand needs to make. In recent years, it's a company that's often been blowing budget developing models that appeal to minuscule sub-niches without addressing a major market. That's largely due to the fact that in order to exploit the MPV sector, it needed a front-wheel drive car and it needed to overcome that awkward moment. That seems to have happened: the 2 Series Active Tourer looks good and we all need to move on. It's a new era for BMW and one that will only be good for UK customers.