The only constant thing in life is change. You’ve no idea what I’d give to travel back in time to forewarn the devout Munich faithful so. For the commandments have steadfastly stood for so long – line up thine cylinders alongst thine length, and never shalt they drive fore, nor the chariot rideth high, for then will dynamics be compromised, and an Ultimate Driving Machine it will be no more.
Never say never. Today we have five BMW SUV models, with a big one in the oven. There are SUVs and diesel vehicles with M badges. Hybrids, plug-in hybrids, an electric vehicle, and not one naturally-aspirated motor in sight. But surely there won’t be a people-carrier, or heaven forbid – a transverse-engined, front-wheel drive vehicle, because once you go front, you can’t go back.
Well, they’ve gone and done it, and here’s the result – the new BMW 2 Series Active Tourer. A liberal at heart, she broke away from tradition and embraced modernity, boldly going where no Beemer has been before. Now that she’s rubbing shoulders with the Mercedes B-Class, her 1 Series and X1 siblings, inspired, are also set to move up front to look the A-Class and GLA-Class square in the headlamps. She’s even spawned a longer-wheelbase, seven-seat sister – to which her rival doesn’t intend to respond for now.
And since the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer has just been launched at BMW World Malaysia, there isn’t a better time to tell you what it’s like. We were in Austria some time ago to meet the 225i Luxury and 218d Sport – can the whippersnapper hold its own?
First things first – all the things that make the 2 Series Active Tourer so different from other BMWs. Not only is it Munich’s first MPV (although they won’t call it as such); it’s also its first transverse-engined, front-wheel drive vehicle, and the first BMW-branded vehicle to get a three-cylinder petrol engine (MINIs and the i8 plug-in hybrid aside; BMW i is after all considered a separate brand). It’s also the first BMW to sit on the new modular UKL platform that underpins the new MINI – next up, the 1 Series and X1.
Of course, like the B-Class, the 2 AT isn’t an MPV in the same vein as, say, a Mazda 5 or a Nissan Serena. Besides the fact that the Teutonic pair come from premium brands, these Euro-centric compact MPVs are a different breed from the Asian minivan-like seven-seaters with sliding doors that we’re used to. Think of the Benz and Beemer as tall hatchbacks if you like; they offer enhanced practicality and flexibility within a small footprint, without looking like a bus (or handling like one).
You may argue that compact SUVs GLA and X1 already do that to some extent, and you’d be right, but an MPV – even this petite Continental definition – is that bit more attuned to space and comfort; that smidgen more family-oriented. Plus, SUVs can sometimes look too rugged – maybe you don’t want to project that kind of image. Presentation matters in this price range.
And presentation it has. The car actually looks better in the metal than these pictures suggest. The face is unmistakably BMW, what with the slightly shark-nosed kidney grille and bi-LED headlamps (optional) with corona rings and DRL eyelids. Yes, that face attached to such a short, stout body and that drooping bonnet takes some getting used to, but they’ve managed to incorporate all the main BMW cues into what is a very aesthetically-challenging bodystyle.
I think it’s the best they could do, and better resolved, I feel, than the seven-seat 2 Series Gran Tourer, despite the latter’s extra length. Is the 2 GT the first BMW in recent history without the hallowed Hofmeister kink? There are so many pillars there, and just look at that sudden cliff-faced rear end. On the 2 AT, the rear window is more gradually sloped, and it’s complemented nicely by a Hofmeister kink – dowdy down, dynamic up.
I liked how the original B-Class looked, and if it were that against this in a beauty contest, I’d give Stuttgart the tiara – but the second-gen B cuts a stockier, less flowy and less cohesive figure on the whole. Even the stylish swage lines (including the lower line’s upsweep) do little to distract me from that flat rear end and the way the window line departs from the roof line. Merc has been making many ‘younger-looking’ cars lately, but here, I would divert Moms and Dads who want to resist the ravages of time to Munich.
Contributing to a drag coefficient of 0.26 are Air Curtains in the front apron, active flaps in the grille and lower intake, plus a rear wiper concealed under the roof spoiler – neat touch! The tailgate can be optionally specified with push-button opening/closing or Smart Opener (with the key about your person, swing your foot under the rear bumper and the tailgate opens by itself).
Let’s look at the Luxury and Sport treatments. As its name suggests, Luxury gives you more chrome inside and out – on the grille slats, tailpipes (two for the 225i, one for the 218d), rear apron, roof rails, and around the fog lamps and windows. You also get a brighter leather interior with wood inserts. Sport blackens almost all the aforementioned items, with the tailpipe trimmed in electroplated black chrome. It’s a sea of gloss black inside, with the black fabric upholstery offset by red contrast stitching.
Of course, there’s also the M Sport package, which gives you a bodykit, 10-mm lower M Sport suspension, anthracite headlining and M-specific alloys, steering wheel, sports seats and door sill plates, amongst others. It is yet unknown if the M Sport package will be offered for the 2 Series Active Tourer in Malaysia in the future.
The BMW 2 Series Active Tourer is 4,342 mm long, 1,800 mm wide and 1,555 mm tall, with a 2,670 mm distance between the front and rear wheels. Every parameter save for width is smaller than the B-Class, but by negligibly little. The Merc’s wheelbase is 29 mm longer, and that’s the biggest numerical difference. So we can comfortably consider them equally-sized on the outside.
Open the door and you’ll find the seat’s pretty much at your hip point, making entry and exit very easy. The seating position is actually 116 mm higher than in a 1 Series and 29 mm higher than in an X1. Where forward visibility is concerned, the height of the windscreen may be a bit low for some, but the A-pillar portholes are eminently useful, especially when you’re looking out for traffic coming round the bend.
Despite the more efficient space packaging expected from the switch to front-wheel drive, the cabin is a snug one, no thanks to the high and broad centre console, as well as a dashboard that extends a fair bit into the interior. Vastly airier than the 1 Series it is; than the X1, not so much, and the B-Class, I’m afraid not. Remember, the B-Class has no gear lever or handbrake on the centre console, so the console can be made slimmer, while still incorporating lidded cubbyholes.
The BMW has got an electronic parking brake, but there’s a conventional gear lever, so your centre console storage options are the small lidded tray above the climate controls, fixed twin cupholders and a rather deep tray beneath the front armrest, where you’ll find AUX, USB and a 12V socket. The armrest itself contains a small storage area, and each door has deep pockets for bottles and other paraphernalia. On either side of the centre console, by your feet, are elastic bands that can be used to hold things in place.
The 2 AT’s cabin feels marginally plusher and more premium than the B-Class’, more so if the Luxury trim is chosen. The cream interior, with its wood inserts, looks more expansive as well as expensive. On our Luxury test car, this joined forces with the optional panoramic roof to elevate the illusion of space and combat the deficit of glass area caused by the rising shoulder line. Besides being just too dark and grim, the Sport interior seems slightly naff on a car like this.
The optional 8.8-inch central display (standard 6.5-inch) with touch-sensitive iDrive is intuitive to use as always, with a higher-res screen than our B-Class’ (although the facelift has introduced an optional 8.0-inch display). The 2 AT is also the first vehicle in its class to have a colour head-up display, although it’s a flip-up screen instead of being projected onto the windscreen like on other BMWs.
There’s a classy-looking handle-bar switch below the climate controls; this is the Driving Experience Control toggle (Eco Pro, Comfort and Sport modes). Because it’s so big, it finds your fingers much more easily than the Merc’s E-S-M button – but yes, maybe you won’t use this often. Whether leather or fabric, the front perches are comfortable, and feature extendable thigh supports.
Get in the back, and look – rear air-con vents, something you won’t find in the B-Class. Like its rival, the BMW has a rear 12V socket and a front passenger backrest that can fold back onto the rear seat for a long load length (2,400 mm in this case). Stretchy cargo nets on the backs of both front seats, of course, and the rear armrest incorporates twin cupholders and a small storage box. Legroom here isn’t bad, but the Merc seems to offer a bit more head- and shoulder-room. Not quite Asian levels of space, but not pinched either.
The back seats are split 40:20:40, and can recline, slide fore and aft and fold flat. You fold the seats electrically via switches on either side of the boot, and you’ll find yet another 12V socket on the right wall. Boot capacity with seats up/down is 468/1,510 litres, compared to the B-Class’ 486/1,545. A storage compartment hides under the 2 AT’s boot floor.
Finally, the drive. Normally this wouldn’t be the most important of things with an MPV, but remember, this is BMW’s first front-driver, and you’d want to know if it’s worthy of the propeller badge, or if they’ve passed the point of no return. This is an all-new chassis on the UKL (Unter Klasse) platform, incorporating a newly-developed single-joint spring strut front axle and a multi-link rear axle.
Both the 225i and 218d carry 2.0 litre four-cylinder engines with twin-scroll turbos and direct injection, with the diesel engine’s turbo having variable geometry for 150 hp at 4,000 rpm and 330 Nm of torque between 1,750 and 2,750 rpm. Meanwhile, the petrol engine churns out 231 hp at 5,000 rpm and 350 Nm of torque between 1,250 and 4,500 rpm. Globally, 214d, 216d and 220d diesel versions are also available; petrols also comprise 218i and 220i. xDrive versions too, of course.
I first stepped into the 225i Luxury with some apprehension, but looking at BMW’s experience with MINI over the years, I needn’t have worried. The electro-mechanical steering, enhanced with the optional speed-sensitive Servotronic here (variable-ratio steering also optionally available), provides sharp and quick turn-in, good accuracy and the right amount of feedback. The extra weight’s a bit artificial in Sport mode, but that doesn’t detract from inspiring confidence in the twisties.
Bung it into the apex (why am I doing this in an MPV?) and the vehicle simply complies and yaws towards your target. There is very little body roll, negligible torque steer, and grip is quite impressive – you’d be pretty mad to reach the understeer threshold. The optional electronically-controlled dampers – as fitted to my test car – provided a good balance overall between handling and pliancy, in spite of those 18-inch alloys.
The gearbox here was an Aisin-sourced eight-speed auto – the ZF is suited to longitudinal applications, we’re told. As opposed to the ZF’s joystick-like operation, this one is a conventional in-line-type, like on the MINI. Gearchanges aren’t as immediate as the ZF’s, but overruns between changes help keep things smooth, and it’s got a good ally in the 25i motor, which packs enough torque to keep the ‘box from working too much.
Refinement, however, is average at best. Wind noise is evident around the A-pillars at highway speeds, and the engine note is audible for the most part. There is a discernible clatter at idle, and power delivery could be more linear, although there’s no doubting the thrust on offer. At speed, the 2 AT remains sure-footed and planted; no bouncing or woolliness there.
Entering the 218d Sport’s sea of black dampened my spirits slightly, but a good ol’ six-speed manual provided respite. A joy to snatch-and-slot, as always, but I felt the second-third and fourth-fifth gearing gaps a tad wide. This was exacerbated by power delivery that was even less linear than the petrol – a sizeable shove comes in after 1,500 rpm, dissipating by around 3,500 rpm. Needless to say, some sensitive right footwork is required here.
Funnily enough, in contrast to the petrol engine, it’s quite refined for an oil burner. The clatter is more muted here at idle, and the note is heard less throughout its operation. This 218d was not fitted with the trick dampers, revealing a relatively stiff standard suspension setup that can be caught out by abrupt bumps and ridges. Nothing like EDC for ride comfort, eh?
All things considered, the 2 Series Active Tourer feels just like a BMW to drive. The darty dynamism, alive athleticism and sporty nature remain, so much so you forget it’s front-wheel drive, and then you think, unless you’re at the limit, does it even make a difference? By finally throwing in the towel, BMW has freed up space it wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise on a vehicle this size, while making it no less fun to drive. They should’ve done it much earlier.
Standard tech available under the EfficientDynamics umbrella include start/stop, regenerative braking and Eco Pro mode, while safety equipment comprises DSC, DTC, Cornering and Dynamic Brake Control, Dry Braking function, Fading Compensation and Start-Off Assistant, in addition to front, side and head airbags.
Advanced aids on the menu include Collision and Pedestrian Warning with City Braking (10-60 km/h), camera-based cruise control with Stop & Go (0-140 km/h), Traffic Jam Assistant, Lane Departure Warning, High-Beam Assist and Parking Assistant (auto-parking, perpendicular included). The 225i and 218d get Performance Control, which works to suppress understeer before stability reaches a critical point.
The BMW 2 Series Active Tourer is now available in Malaysia in a sole 218i variant, with Standard and Luxury trims available. The powerplant is a 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo that develops 136 hp and 220 Nm of torque. The 218i asks for RM218,800 for the Standard (priced squarely against the RM218,888 Mercedes-Benz B 200) and RM248,800 for the Luxury, OTR without insurance.