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IAIN ROBERTSON

The people-carrier segment of the new car scene has been slowly but surely overtaken by the demand for SUVs, states Iain Robertson, and while BMW was a late arrival it is marching across it arrogantly with its front-driven entry.

 

There once was a time, when some family units developed, with parents determined to procreate their own minimum of a five-a-side football team. Apart from the inevitable need for judicious management of the domestic budget, with associated considerations made for clothing and feeding and educating the little darlings, the prospects of providing them with individual seats in the family car presented innumerable issues, many of which were soon overtaken by legal and safety demands.

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Traipsing around in a wooden benched compact van is not exactly conducive to either of these latter aspects. Yet, apart from the inimitable Volvo estate car, or Land Rover Defender, and possibly selecting either a big Citroen, or a Renault, the up-to-seven-seats transport choice of sixty years ago was sorely restricted. Although a smattering of more comfortable options existed, several of which originated in Japan, it was the arrival of the Renault Espace that changed the approach and opened up the all-new Multi-Person Vehicle segment in late-1984, with UK sales commencing in the summer of the following year.

 

It was a risk-laden gesture for Renault, which used its Matra division to develop what started out as a fibreglass bodied ‘unibox’ design on a steel chassis. It got off to a creaky start in more ways than one. However, the concept grew in popularity and rival products started to emerge from almost every carmaker in the world. However, the concept-turned-reality allowed comfortable seats for up to seven persons, complete with safety restraints and countless practical features, as the MPV was transformed into the consummate and most desirably complete family car.

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It is interesting to note that the SUV (Sport Utility Vehicle) segment also grew at a similar rate, although there are some manufacturers that decided not to head down a separate MPV route. Audi, one of BMW’s biggest rivals, decided to combine the benefits of both model types in its Q-range of models, while Mercedes-Benz, dipping into its truck and van reserves, elected to instil luxury into its commercially-biased variants. However, despite its late arrival onto the MPV scene, BMW has determined that a family car based on its 2-Series platform is the most apposite route.

 

At the launch of the new line-up, just over a year ago, I declared that I was unhappy with the balance of the all-new Grand Tourer…well, it was not the seven-seat variant, to be fair, and was actually the slightly shorter five-seat Active Tourer, which was also BMW’s first-ever foray (apart from its Mini) into the front-wheel-drive market. When one drives for a living, there are a number of psychological inferences that need to be taken into account. While accepting the tenets of front-wheel-drive was going to be an inevitability for BMW, not least on the space efficacy of several of its models’ platforms, the ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ would surely lose its marketing advantage, because of the quite dramatic dynamic differences between rear and front-driven cars.

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The 3-Series still benefits from a rear-drive layout and the word ‘benefits’ is not being bandied about carelessly. Boasting a near-perfect 50:50 front-to-rear weight distribution, allied to positioning the driver low down in the body shell, provides a confident and enthusiastic driving experience. No matter how diligently BMW’s engineers would rework the front-driven oracle, achieving similar balance from a car that steers, brakes, applies power and is suspended through the same axle-line is always going to be fraught with problems. The head expects BMW levels of competence, while the body receives mainstream Astra average values.

 

The Grand Tourer is a seven-seat variant of the Active Tourer, the rearmost pair of seats (not really suitable for adults) unfurling from the flat boot floor, when needed, and in test car guise is also equipped with the company’s growingly-popular X-Drive transmission, by which all four wheels are driven and power is distributed electronically to each corner of the car, as is determined by road surface and environmental conditions. Yet, the car remains predominantly front-driven, which is fine from a stability viewpoint, as the weight distribution of the car, while still biased towards the front, is now much closer to the 50:50 ideal, a factor helped by the 21cms extra bodywork for the extended rear cabin. Incidentally, the hatchback rear door can be opened electrically via a switch in the driver’s side door pocket, or by moving one’s foot below the rear bumper unit. Opening it reveals a boot space of around 540-litres, as long as the third-row pair of seats remains in its location beneath the floor.

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As for the rest of the passenger area, it is archetypically BMW, complete with the ever-so-clear instrument pod ahead of the driver (with a motor-wound ‘head-up-display‘ screen for speed read-out and sat-nav ‘tulips’) and a wide-screen sat-nav that doubles as a rearview screen for the reversing camera (+£1,395) and information screen for other elements of the car, including its operational manual, in the centre of the dashboard. Beneath it is the now customary bar of programmable preference buttons, which tie in with the stereo head-unit and, lower down, the heating and ventilation controls.

 

The electrically operated sport front seats (+£650) are optionally warmed (+£295) and provide an, unusually for any BMW, elevated driving position. Thanks to a decent range of adjustment of both seat and steering column, to which the paddle-shifters for the 8-speed automatic gearbox (the Sport option adds £135 to the bottom-line) are also mounted, obtaining a comfortable and commanding seat position is a doddle. The front seats also offer flip-up tables in their backs, for two of the middle-row seat occupants. As with all BMWs thus equipped, some of the steering wheel spoke-located minor controls can be programmed to specific requirements. Above the driver’s head is a panoramic sunroof, complete with tilt/slide opening section (+£945). All of these extra-cost elements, plus the £550 fee for the Estoril Blue metallic paint finish (and you know my views on paying for paint finishes on new cars!), heft the price tag of the test car to a more than sizeable £38,390 (£32,005 base price), which is at the seriously premium end of the MPV segment.

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The driving experience is an interesting one. Despite its M Sport specification, which usually gifts BMW models with overly harsh suspension and electronically tightened dynamic responses, the 220d is actually perfectly charming to footle about, tackling back lanes with as much aplomb as it does main roads and motorways. On the streaming wet roads of much of the test period, I was able to discover the early onset of understeer as its predominant handling characteristic, which is understandable, when you read what you need to in my previous comments. Yet, in most normal circumstances, the 220d is a delight to drive, absorbing mid-corner bumps as proficiently as it flows along smooth tarmac. The ride quality is not spine-jarring and roll resistance is excellent, which means that barrelling into and out of junctions and roundabouts, where visibility permits, is a veritable joy. My earlier misgivings have been countered by the 4WD layout.

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Packing the power is a version of BMW’s popular 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine, in this case turned to 190bhp. Renowned for its frugality, its Official Combined fuel figure is given as 55.4mpg, while CO2 emissions are pegged at a moderate 133g/km, which ensures that its taxable benefit to company car users (at 24%) is averagely acceptable for a 4WD seven-seater. Driven in a mix of cross-country and town motoring, after a week of regular use, I achieved a fuel return of 40.5mpg, which I believe is highly creditable, when you take the Grand Tourer’s available performance into account. Although it feels slightly disappointing, when compared with other BMW models sharing this engine/transmission set-up, the 220d will still crack the 0-60mph benchmark in a respectable 7.5 seconds, before topping out at around 135mph.

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There are other engine and manual/auto gearbox combos worth considering, as the range starts with 1.5-litre diesel and petrol options, while an even punchier 2.0-litre petrol provides near-140mph performance, although what your passengers might say about that could be a rich seam.

 

Conclusion:   To be frank, I think that spending almost £40,000 on a relatively compact people-mover is vaguely ridiculous. BMW is alone in having a 4WD transmission option for its MPV offering. While it provides an assured handling compromise, if you really need 4WD, then I would opt for an SUV alternative instead, not least because so many of them also possess up to seven seats. Instead of being a memorable car, the 220d Grand Tourer is eminently forgettable. Yes. It is a BMW, which also hails in a number of high-end expectations but the trim quality is not at a premium level. It’s good, just not good enough.

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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).