All good things must come to an end." That proverb has stood the test of time for centuries, and now we see its validity in the end of exclusively rear-wheel-drive BMWs after a ninety-year run (if you include motorcycles; just eighty-five years for cars). It's true that all-wheel drive became an option for some of BMW's cars twenty-seven years ago, but until the appearance of this Concept Active Tourer at Paris last year, there had never been a BMW-branded front-wheel-drive vehicle. And despite my fondness for the dynamics of longitudinal front-engine, rear-wheel-drive BMWs, all I can say is that it's about time.
Agility comes from instability. That's what makes fighter planes and racing cars so exciting. They are at their best only when their pilots provide the skilled inputs that keep them on a knife edge between going where they should or tumbling out of control. The faster you go, the more skilled you must be to control unstable vehicles. Porsche 911s are more unstable than BMWs, which are in turn more unstable than, for instance, past high-performance front-wheel-drive cars such as the Citroen SM and the Oldsmobile Toronado. For safer, more stable, low-cost family cars, there's nothing to equal a nose-heavy front-driver. These cars want to go straight, and if you're too fast in a turn, simply lifting off the accelerator will usually restore the desired trajectory. Don't try that in a 911. It doesn't work.
This Active Tourer MPV wants to be more stable than a BMW M3, and using the Dante Giacosa-pattern front-wheel-drive layout compacts the mechanicals and saves space for people in the reduced overall length of what will surely become a production 1-series tall-sedan crossover. Of course, this concept is not a pure front-wheel-drive design; there's electric drive to the rear wheels, but as in most hybrids, it's not used all the time. In any case, when the car comes to market in 2014 it won't have the electrical stuff at first; it will truly be front-wheel drive, like the Minis with which it will share a platform. BMW has had three-cylinder engines before, in its motorcycles, but this new 1.5-liter turbocharged unit is optimized for front-wheel-drive cars and has a promising future.
In the meantime, this attractive, chubby, chunky, tall hatchback will find a ready market. I suspect that it's going to be fun to drive, a sporting alternative to more prosaic small family wagons like Ford's B-Max. And we already know that various high-performance Minis drive extremely well, so there's no shortage of front-wheel-drive handling knowledge within the BMW Group. Whichever wheels are doing the driving, any car with the BMW badge on it is likely to be at the top of its class in handling, roadholding, and prestige.
FRONT 3/4 VIEW
1 This toothy, Buick-like grille texture hides some behind-the-bars aerodynamic shuttering for added efficiency.
2 Sharply defined creases add visual interest while stiffening the hood.
3 Headlamp cluster with "eyebrow" LED running lamps is a clear BMW identity mark and is appealing in that it expands the lower perimeter at the outer corner.
4 A-pillar is a lot bigger than it ought to be for driver visibility but is no doubt required for strength.
5 Mirror support is a lavish production in its own right. Count on this being a concept-only solution, not what we'll see in production.
6 Left-side energy-input door is for electricity. Gasoline or diesel fuel is on the right.
7 Above the side crease running atop the door handles, surfaces are calm. A deep undercut and flexed-muscle swelling below add a lot of visual interest to the flanks.
8 Perimeter of the front-corner inlets is a lot larger than the actual opening at the bottom. A protective buttress at the corner is a nice idea and further reduces the actual opening.
9 Main cooling-air inlet is below the bumper strike face, with notched inset horizontal bars that recall Hudson grilles from the 1940s.
10 Quite sharp lip above the lower grille leads to a shelf that runs across the front, rises above the outer inlet complex, and fades away at the corner. The whole front end seems overdone.
REAR 3/4 VIEW
11 Headlamp cluster protrudes so as to be seen from behind, which is good for visibility of turn signals.
12 Cab-forward morphology requires this slim pillar so door glass can descend.
13 Door handles are entirely beneath the clean band running from the middle of the headlamps to the rear, where it crosses the hatch to continue on the other side. Nice surface development.
14 Herr Hofmeister's legacy remains, but the perimeter around the fourth side glass is quite pointed.
15 Visor over backlight extends the roofline to improve the drag coefficient and mask the CHMSL lens.
16 These curious earlike flaps extend the side surface, again in search of lower drag and increased stability at speed.
17 The rear of the car is quite tall. These sharp horizontal creases and the light-gathering surfaces above them help reduce visual height and increase visual width. A similar crease below the license-plate niche helps for height, not width.
18 Decorative brightwork around exhaust outlets seems a bit frivolous for a BMW.
19 Door cut defines body cross section: glass slopes outward at the bottom, then the body goes out to a peak, in, out to a radius, in to a crease in the door, out to a chrome strip, and in to the bottom of the sill. Complicated but very effective.
20 Chrome piece defines an outlet that really isn't one, with a negative crease running back from the top edge, a bright strip back from the bottom, defining a rising crease in the rear door skin.
21 Deeply inset steering-wheel spokes are a new look for BMW and are quite attractive in this execution.
22 Distinct separate visor over the "instrument" screen is practical and pleasingly driver-oriented.
23 Discrete screen for the head-up display is more sensible than projection onto the windshield glass itself.
24 Large screen is practical, and its inclination toward the driver's or passenger's eye height is smart.
25 Orange light piped around the interior, including the steering wheel, is intriguing, but one wonders how agreeable all that would be when driving at night.