Ryan Bubear hit the Garden Route to drive the new BMW 2 Series Active Tourer at its local launch...
Take a gander back at the long and storied history of the BMW brand, and you'll notice one common thread: rear-wheel drive.
Indeed, every single automobile that the German manufacturer has ever produced has had its (usually considerable) oomph sent to either the rear or all four wheels. Until now, that is.
Yes, the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer has loped into South Africa, in all its front-wheel drive, people-carrying splendour. That's right, the Munich-based manufacturer has hit us with a double-dose of BMW firsts: the Active Tourer is also the brand's eleventh-hour MPV debut, setting foot in a segment that, if anything, is actually shrinking.
It may have you spluttering your Jacobs Krönung all over your German-spec keyboard, but does this really amount to BMW blasphemy? Well, enthusiasts will no doubt argue, but the fact is that there is little need for the sort of dynamic ability that typically accompanies rear-wheel drive when it comes to a family-carrying MPV. In isolation then, the 2 Series Active Tourer's configuration is based on nothing more than utter logic.
A front-wheel drive layout, you see, allows for ruthlessly efficient packaging (with cabin- and boot-space the obvious winners) and vastly improved fuel consumption — two attributes central to an MPV's appeal. The fact that manufacturing costs are generally lower (along with vehicle weight) certainly doesn't hurt either. And, of course, BMW has a fair amount of experience in this department since it's been bolting together the MINI for close to 15 years.
But does the 2 Series Active Tourer — which has taken around a year to arrive in South Africa — actually feel like a BMW to drive, in spite of the major departure from the brand's traditional drivetrain layout? Well, broadly speaking, the answer is yes — even with the somewhat unfamiliar, lofty driving position. There's still that crisp steering, still that refined power delivery (particularly in the case of the range-topping 225i) and, thanks in part to the newly developed chassis and firm-ish suspension, the chunky MPV is far more agile than one might expect, too.
In short, it is still a premium product — and there has quite obviously been a concerted effort to render it as dynamic and precise as any front-wheel drive MPV could ever hope to be, without compromising ride quality. There's even an optional M Sport package available, which sees the suspension stiffened and dropped a further 10mm, and adaptive dampers added to the mix.
The local model range includes a choice of four transversely mounted forced induction engines: one three-cylinder petrol, a single four-cylinder diesel and two four-cylinder petrols (see pricing and details of all models on page two). At the local launch, we sampled the entry model and the range-topper, with the 220i and 220d unfortunately not on hand to drive.
First up, we evaluated the 218i, which employs an energetic mill we initially encountered in the MINI Cooper. This 1.5-litre turbo-triple produces a credible 100kW at 4400rpm and 220Nm (230Nm on overboost) from as low as 1250rpm, which allows for a sprightly sprint to 100km/h in 9.2 seconds. The model we grabbed was fitted with a six-speed automatic transmission (six-speed manual is standard), which combines well with what is a characterful engine.
Emitting a distinctive thrum, the 1499cc powerplant is surprisingly responsive, although with a full complement of passengers and luggage, we suspect it may start to run out of puff on the steepest of inclines. Still, that potential trade-off could well be worth it, seeing as BMW claims a combined fuel economy of 5.1 litres per 100km (5.2 for the auto) — with liberal use of Eco Pro (one of three standard "driving experience" modes), no doubt. Handily, this also sees the 218i slip under the taxable emissions threshold.
At the other end of the range, the high-performance 225i impresses with a generous output of 170kW at 5000rpm and 350Nm, again from just 1250rpm. Married as standard to a silky smooth eight-speed self-shifter with launch control (yes, in an MPV), the 1998cc turbocharger four-potter just pulls and pulls, dispatching the obligatory dash to three figures in a hot-hatch-rivalling 6.6 seconds — and further impressing with a claimed combined return of just 5.9 litres per 100km.
With that much effortless oomph on tap, it's easy to forget you're piloting a five-seater people-carrier. And, rather pleasingly, there's not even a hint of torque steer. In short then, this engine — even though it sends drive to the front wheels — leaves no doubt about the badge adorning the bonnet.
Not that there'd be any uncertainty about the 2 Series Active Tourer's brand identity, thanks to the typically BMW exterior design features, both front and rear. With that trademark kidney grille, famous Hofmeister kink and distinctive headlamps and tail-lights, the newcomer would look perfectly at home in any BMW family photo.
The Active Tourer is relatively compact, measuring 1800mm wide, 1555mm high and 4342mm long — a little shorter than an X1. But with a wheelbase of 2670mm and that all-important FWD layout, space inside is generous. Leg-room on the 40:20:40 split-folding rear bench is appreciable, while the luggage compartment weighs in with a useful capacity of 468 litres (or up to 1510 with the seat folded flat, which can be done with the touch of two buttons).
Handily, the roomy rear perch boasts a reclining function and can slide forwards and backwards, too. Highly unusually (but certainly welcome) is the presence of a space-saver spare wheel under the boot floor, something again made possible by the front-wheel drive design. In addition to this emergency spare, all models are also equipped with run-flats. Belt and braces, then.
The cockpit, meanwhile, is a new take on the traditional BMW layout, featuring plenty of fresh bits and bobs, from the gear-lever to a large chunk of the switchgear. The driving experience control switch and air-conditioning buttons, for instance, are new and uniquely positioned. But, importantly, it's still all quite obviously BMW — and quite clearly well-crafted, too. Also new is an optional head-up display that projects relevant information onto a retractable panel rather than onto the windscreen.
Of course, in addition to the standard model — which includes the well-known iDrive control system, a 6.5-inch display, a leather steering wheel, Bluetooth, rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlights and the Intelligent Emergency Call system — three separate equipment variants (Sport Line, Luxury Line and the M Sport Package) are available. As ever, be careful with the options list, as the two models we drove at launch were each specced about R180k above their respective base prices.
Safety standards, meanwhile, are high across the range, thanks to six airbags and a full range of the usual three-letter abbreviations. Of course, a plethora of high-tech optional driver assistance systems is also on offer. If you're a stickler for visibility though, be warned that the chunky A-pillar — despite its glass quarter-light — can irritatingly obscure the driver's view when pushing hard through the bends.
The BMW 2 Series Active Tourer will, of course, compete directly against the similarly new Mercedes-Benz B-Class. And although BMW is cagey on local sales expectations, its rival seems to quite easily hit the three-figure mark each month. So, will the Active Tourer be able to outmuscle its most obvious competitor?
Well, perhaps more important is the question of exactly why the 2 Series Active Tourer exists at all. The MPV segment has been all but wiped off the motoring map by the ubiquitous crossover — the B-Class is the only other premium MPV out there, after all — so there must be a sneaky reason BMW has suddenly chosen to dive head-first into a lake that has all but dried up.
That reason, of course, involves the future direction of the brand. In essence, we can expect the 2 Series Active Tourer to usher in any number of compact front-wheel drive BMWs in the coming years — from hatches and sedans to small crossovers. Indeed, the German automaker is banking particularly big on its own growth in this slice of the market.
That expansion, of course, will be fuelled by the type of new customers BMW hopes the Active Tourer will in the meantime draw to its dealers. But BMW performance fanatics needn't fret, says the brand: the rear-wheel drive models they know and love aren't going anywhere (although rumour has it that certain future M vehicles will soon adopt all-wheel drive).
The BMW 2 Series Active Tourer, though, is a solid offering. Crucially, it doesn't feel too far removed from the brand's traditional products, even though the rear wheels have been relegated to virtual onlookers. It's still an unmistakably premium product that is utterly enjoyable to pilot, but manages to pack in space, practicality and efficiency, too.
Overall, this front-wheel drive MPV is hardly revolutionary as an automobile — as good as it may be to drive. But it is revolutionary for Bayerische Motoren Werke.
And its arrival signals the birth of a new breed of BMW... and a significant shift in the brand's history.
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See page two for specs and pricing for all four models.