"Space-functional concept" was the working title of the five-seat BMW 2 Series Active Tourer and next year's seven-seat Grand Tourer. But what's in a name? More than you think, especially when the initial connotation is MPV -- people mover – a.k.a. minivan. Vans of all sizes account for the fastest-shrinking segment of the market, and soccer moms and dads don't fit the typical BMW customer profile.
"I am convinced that the 2 Series Active Tourer will be a runaway success," senior product manager Frank Niederländer counters. "After all, this car is a proper BMW: good-looking, a joy to drive, clever in concept and execution, truly up-market in terms of content and quality. Driving is believing."
Munich's high-roof five-seater looks more 3 Series GT pragmatic than 4 Series Gran Coupe pretty. Inside, a massive dashboard curves into the cabin like a big symmetrical wave crested with wood, leather, and brightwork, though surface material quality is spot-on, easily eclipsing the current 1/3/4/5/6 Series and the X1/X3. Two new detail features are the standard Driving Experience Control, which is a three-way toggle bar labeled Eco Pro, Comfort, and Sport, and the optional head-up display, which employs a Mini-style pop-up screen.
The 2 Series Active Tourer is BMW's first front-wheel-drive production model, and its first available with frugal, nonhybrid three-cylinder engines. The 1.5-liter units in question are the 136-hp turbo gas engine installed in the 218i and the 116-hp diesel fitted to the 218d, both introduced last year in the new Mini, which shares its basic architecture with the five-door 2 Series and the 2016 X1 replacement. Four-wheel drive is a $2700 extra for the 231-hp 225i turbo and the 190-hp, 220d diesel 2.0-liter four-cylinder models. An eight-speed automatic is standard on every 225i and on the 220d xDrive. The only automatic compatible with the three-cylinder engines is the ancient, underwhelming six-speed Steptronic.
Nearly every item that extends the car's DNA toward higher education is an extra-cost option. Launch control and shift paddles? Tick the box marked Sport transmission. More grip? Opt for 17-, 18- or 19-inch tires, and don't forget to choose adaptive dampers and the M Sport suspension. Sharper steering? Select the Servotronic or, better still, the variable-rate Sport steering.
The Munich grapevine says a plug-in hybrid is in the making, but it is likely reserved for the Grand Tourer (and for the new X1 and next Countryman). Based on the 220i, it is expected to feature a 102-hp e-motor driving the rear wheels.
BMW of North America says there are no plans to import the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer, which goes on sale in Europe late this year, though Munich indicates the long-wheelbase Grand Tourer and PHEV will make it to the U.S. We drove the manual-transmission 150-hp 218d, which marketing predicts will be Europe's best-selling version, and the 231-hp 225i automatic, which costs about as much as a comparably equipped Euro-spec X1 xDrive20i and gives a predictive preview of the X1's '16 replacement.
The X1 is 176.2 inches long, sits on a 108.7-inch wheelbase and can swallow up to 47.7 cubic-feet of luggage. The 3 Series Touring (wagon) measures 182.1 inches long, sports a 110.6-inch wheelbase and a maximum 53.0-cubic-foot cargo bay. The Active Tourer is just 170.9 inches long and has the shortest wheelbase (105.1 inches), but its carrying capacity is just as impressive at 53.3 cubic-feet with the rear seat down, the kind of packaging advantage front-wheel drive yields.
Although chassis, suspension, steering, and brakes do not deviate significantly from the new Mini, BMW chose as different a setup as possible to position the Active Tourer in a different corner of the market from the next Countryman. The BMW is allowed to roll a little more, its spring and damper setup is notably more supple, and the responses to driver inputs are not quite as sharp and aggressive. It is remarkably quiet, of solid build, and blessed with a high level of refinement.
The picturesque mountain roads between Innsbruck and the Italian border, where traffic is light even in the midst of summer, are challenging for both the 218d and 225i Active Tourers. The 244 lb-ft of maximum torque available between 1750 and 2750 rpm, and maximum horsepower reached at 4000 rpm, make the diesel quite livable until the road points skyward.
The 225i feels much more like a proper BMW. It even looks like one in M Sport livery, which seems to go down particularly well with the Great Outdoors crowd the brand-shapers are vigorously courting. Building momentum and then coasting down the rolling hills is a lot of fun, as is making the best of the 258 lb-ft the turbocharged 2.0-liter unit will readily spread all the way from 1250 to 4500 rpm. The four-cylinder may not sound quite as racy as the gas-fed three, but even without electronic and acoustic support it is now more characterful than those voiceless early 328i models. In both Active Tourers, the electrically assisted steering is no longer artificially flavored. We preferred the speed-sensitive Sport version, which matches the gearing to the turn-in angle for reduced effort around town and for enhanced stability above 50 mph. Modern times.
Even when you lock the adjustable dampers in Sport mode, and even when 225/45R18 tires are fitted, generous compliance and a cossetting ride are the main dynamic fortes. Handling is failsafe and communicative but quantifiably less entertaining than a 3 Series Sport Wagon. With dynamic stability control deactivated, a brake-activated electronic differential lock controls wheelspin, allowing all the action with none of the torque steer. Although understeer is still the prevailing attitude at the adhesion limits, the chips inside the main control unit will momentarily nudge the car's front end towards the apex, encourage the tail to swing round just a little bit, then speed up the torque flow again as you open up the steering and the line finally straightens.
Although a two-box design, the A-pillars and the quarter pane supports occasionally obstruct your field of vision, reminding you that this is a high-roof vehicle with unique proportions. Both test cars quickly drew a crowd, but the response was mixed. While drivers of non-premium products tended to give the Active Tourer the thumbs-up, BMW owners seemed skeptical. But perhaps the market is ready for a new-look MPV, for a fully equipped and accordingly expensive space-functional concept complete with a dozen different assistance systems, LED headlights, fine leather seats, a big panorama sunroof, and the latest infotainment wizardries. There is no kit a 3 Series can offer that a BMW 2 Series Active Tourer lacks, budget permitting. A top-secret sales forecast calls for 500,000 units globally over the seven-year lifecycle, plus 300,000 Grand Tourers, and an almost equally impressive fleet of Minis. It looks as if BMW has not only reinvented the minivan but also has made it more upscale and profitable.
2016 BMW 2 Series Active Tourer Specifications
|On Sale||Late 2014 (Europe); not for U.S. sale|
|Engines||1.5L turbo I-3, 136 hp, 162 lb-ft; 1.5L I-3 turbodiesel, 116 hp, 199 lb-ft; 2.0L I-4 turbodiesel, 150 hp, 244 lb-ft; 2.0L turbo I-4, 231 hp, 258 lb-ft|
|Drive||Front- or four-wheel|