DSC_0495_editedThe 2014 BMW launch-fest has turned another corner, with the introduction of the companys first front-wheel-driven model and its first entry to the MPV sector, writes Iain Robertson, although (to him) confusion reigns. 

Arriving at a new product introduction, in the motoring business, can either be enthralling, or a completely mind-numbing experience. Seldom less than polarising, I should highlight that I love cars, which is why I do what I do, in writing about them. My subsequent responses to the latest reveals can often be either ‘black’, or ‘white’, but very seldom ‘shades of grey’. Yet, there are times, when I wonder as to the sanity, the wherewithal and the self-belief of some of the players.

So it was, when confronted by the latest and potentially most exciting new BMW to hit our roads for several years, the new 2-Series. I should highlight that this is the Active Tourer (2AT) model and must not be compared with the lovely Coupe, or even the Convertible, models also bearing that Series name. Yet, this is where my first confusion lies. The Active Tourer, apart from its nose and tail, looks nothing like any other BMW, which is understandable, when you reflect on its potential place in the new car scene, alongside the likes of the Mercedes-Benz B-Class, the Vauxhall Zafira, C4 Picasso, VW Golf SV and the Ford C-Max, also junior-league MPVs, or people-movers, of which there are innumerable contenders.

Therefore, as one of the last of the brands to indulge in producing a model for this sector, it could be stated that BMW has had the luxury of time on its side, in order to get it right from the get-go. Well, despite the incessant requirement for every BMW to look precisely the same in both the nasal and rumpal areas, which the 2AT carries off to model confusing perfection, it could pass muster for every other Sport Activity Vehicle in the sector. Where’s the originality?

Mind you, expecting to sell no less than three-quarters of the initial stockholding to buyers new to the brand, maybe BMW has a point. If you cannot tell the difference between any of the rivals, perhaps you will not notice the black, white and blue propeller roundel of the badge, or the ‘double-kidney’ grille. Who knows?

It reminds me of a nonsense joke that used to do the circuit, when I was at school…Q: ‘What is the difference between a duck?…A: One of its legs is both the same!’…I never said it would make sense but, then, to me, neither does the BMW 2-Series Active Tourer. Not complete sense, anyway.

The next major point of confusion lies in the area of its layout. Not so much the excellent amount of cabin space, with plenty of head, shoulder, hip and leg room that every MPV should offer and that the 2AT delivers to perfection, including excellent boot space, enhanced by the split-level floor and the customary flat-folding rear seats. No, not there, but under the bonnet, where, instead of a purring in-line petrol, or even a lightly buzzing in-line diesel, a transversely-mounted power unit resides.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with transverse engines, from any other carmaker, but from BMW this can be perceived as heresy! What in the good Lord’s name happened to ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’? Look, car companies can change their advertising taglines, or slogans, at will, on a whim, as the market dictates. However, the BMW tagline was intrinsic to its rear-wheel-drive ethos and phenomenal on-road behaviour. Front-wheel-drive does dull the surgical incisiveness and there is little can be done about it, as long as braking, steering and suspension efforts are being exerted through the same driven wheels.

Please do not misconstrue my critique, as the 2AT certainly ‘feels’ as good as any of its rivals. However, I have not described any of its competitors as being the sharpest blades to emerge from that scalpel-holder either, which means that you can take it for granted that I was not particularly enamoured by the 2AT’s wondrously scripted chassis dynamics. Look. It is safe but, if you want something less remote, opt for an ‘M’ car instead, rear-driven, preferably.

My third area for concern lies with the model badging. The 218i, were current BMW model nomenclature properly indicative of what was parked beneath the bonnet, should suggest a Two-Series, powered by a 1.8-litre petrol-injection motor. Nope. In fact, the engine displaces 1.5-litres spread across only three turbocharged cylinders. I accept that this is also the 136bhp unit that empowers the £100k BMW i8 super-hybrid model and that it is smooth and pleasantly guttural in its power delivery but I still felt short-changed by it. However, you can warrant that its bottom-end torque deficiency will lead to early clutch wear on 6-speed manual transmission ‘boxes, therefore I would opt for the ever-so-slick 8-speed auto-box instead. It is no slower, actually slightly more frugal than the manual and a lot easier to drive and live with, especially in town.

The 218d is powered by the familiar 2.0-litre turbo-diesel, albeit switched through 90-degrees. It develops 150bhp and is by far the speedier option, for the moment. Driving the 218i in a genteel manner returned around 43mpg, a figure that falls someway short of the 57.6mpg promised by the Official Combined rating, although the 218d promises 68.9mpg, while its actual figure during testing was closer to 53mpg. However, bearing in mind all the current negatives being aired about diesel and you might not wish to carry the extra £2,080 premium demanded for it. Until the emissions ratings change from CO2 to those dealing with NOx figures, they are 115g/km (218i) and 109g/km (218d).

Naturally, highlighting the price premiums means it is time to highlight the prices. The entry-level trim is SE and a base-line petrol starts at £22,125, which is not bad, if you want ‘start-stop’ technology, electric power steering, the adjustable ECU mode and brake energy regeneration as standard, although leather is an extra-cost option. You already know to add £2,080 for the diesel engine, so a petrol Sport starts at £23,375, with a Luxury trim variant from £24,125 and the M Sport package from £25,125. My advice is to be careful, when you start to tick the option boxes, as the price can scale-up alarmingly.

As part of a growing 1 and 2-Series line-up, a full hybrid version will be available from early in the New Year, as will a brand new 1.5-litre diesel, while more punchy 2.0-litre diesel engines will also come on-line at the same time. A 7-seater alternative, with slightly different rear styling, should arrive on our shores by next summer.

In conclusion, the BMW 2-Series Active Tourer does not disappoint on the quality front and, dependent on model, such niceties as contrast-stitching (on the hide), deep door pockets and plenty of neat storage areas will serve customer expectations quite well. The car’s performance is well up to the class average and its handling, while feeling slightly ‘numb’ and disconnected (unusual for a BMW), is perfectly safe and unlikely to pose too many issues to most potential buyers. In many ways, I enjoyed the driving experience, even though it is the first BMW that I have not wanted to drive quickly. If that is a measure of the future, then I am happy to remain in the past.

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).