There must be something in the water that Munich is brewing its beers with. Throughout the entirety of its 87-year automotive history, BMW has built its cars with drive sent to the rear, the foundation on which its reputation for producing the Ultimate Driving Machine stood for so long.
Despite toying around with a few prototypes, the company had always flat out refused to build a front-wheel drive car – even though its blasphemous four-wheel drive X line of SUVs have been around for close to two decades now. It’s even made advertisements deriding the format, such was the contempt BMW held against it at the time.
Well, it’s now time for it to have egg on its face – after announcing its intention to the world via a concept in 2013, BMW built its first front-wheel drive car with last year’s 2 Series Active Tourer, with the next-generation 1 Series and front-biased X1 set to follow. Brand purists, fearing the news for quite some time now, must have run amok, I’m sure, so can you imagine the look on their faces when they got wind of the news that BMW was also building – shock, horror! – a seven-seater multi-purpose vehicle?
That would be the car in these pictures – the new F46 BMW 2 Series Gran Tourer (which is coming later this year), ready to fight such worthy machines as the Ford C-Max and Volkswagen Touran (Mercedes-Benz, whose B-Class the 2 AT now competes, simply thumbed its nose at the seven-seat idea and said, “no, thanks”). It may be practical, but shorn of an ideal front-engined, rear-driven layout, can it retain the trademark driving precision BMWs are known for, or will it fall flat on its face?
Zadar, an idyllic seaside city on the western coast of Croatia, hides innumerable treasures from the depths of time. Situated by the Adriatic Sea, it was the centre of the ancient Roman province of Dalmatia and has been inhabited since prehistoric times; no wonder, then, that part of Zadar is under consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It holds everything from pristine Roman-era forums, churches and aqueducts to prehistoric relics stored in its many museums.
But despite its wealth of history, the city isn’t averse to creating new landmarks, such as the Sea Organ that plays music through waves interacting with tubes hidden under the marble steps, as well as the Sun Salutation that utilises a large circular array of solar panels, using the energy stored to produce a brilliant display of colourful light at night. It’s probably no surprise, then, that BMW used this city as the venue for the 2 Series Gran Tourer’s international media drive, as a representation of its own recent reinvention.
The Gran Tourer is not the first seven-seat BMW – that title goes to the second-gen E70 X5, and the current F15 model retains the optional third row. Of course, even the cheapest X5 is bound to be far pricier than the most expensive 2 GT, which was why the latter was developed in the first place.
Like the Active Tourer, this car exists simply to cater for a market BMW has hitherto yet to serve. Munich has stated that nearly 70% of 2 AT buyers are beginners to the brand – a number that should be even higher in the case of the Gran Tourer.
It’s clear this is uncharted territory for the company – as accustomed as we are to the one-box MPV look on other cars, its amalgamation with traditional BMW design cues can at first strike as uncomfortable. The face is typical BMW – large double kidney grille flanked by four discrete headlight units – but because it sits so close to the windscreen this time around, it rests slightly awkwardly under the sloping bonnet.
Speaking of the face, you’ll notice that the grille doesn’t bleed into the headlights as on many models in the current lineup, like the 3 Series. BMW small car design lead Jacek Fröhlich – who designed the F10 5 Series Sedan, incidentally – told us that this was to ensure that the car had a “cute” look, differentiating itself from the more “serious” aesthetic of larger models.
Still, this writer can’t help feeling that the front end just isn’t striking enough, losing much of the sharpness and fine detailing evident elsewhere in the lineup. The bulbous shape of the headlights in particular makes it very difficult to shake off the nagging feeling that the designers simply plastered the double kidneys onto a rather more humdrum vehicle.
Thankfully, other BMW details – such as the deep character line down the sides and the characteristic L-shaped tail lights – work much better here, although the longer rear overhang and particularly the almost-vertical rear windscreen rake versus the Active Tourer does (whisper it) give it a slight hearse-like look from certain angles. The shallower Hofmeister kink on this car has stirred controversy from some quarters, but as this has been seen before on cars like the X1, it really isn’t big news.
What is big news stylistically on the Gran Tourer is a new line over the rear wheel arches to provide an illusion of added rear track (in reality, it’s a negligible 1 mm wider than the front). This more “tangible” approach actually works better at projecting said effect than the simple blown surfacing employed on coupé models like the 4 Series, even though it looks contrived on a car so focused on child-carrying practicality.
Step inside and you’ll find that much of the interior is identical to the Active Tourer – the same BMW-redux dashboard is front and centre (literally), cantilevered forward to maximise the feeling of space inside.
Despite sharing much of the switchgear as on other BMWs and going so far as to employ Mazda 2-esque leather coverings on the lower dashboard (optional), it still feels like a lesser car than its siblings inside – there’s just something about the pared-down design that looks ever-so-slightly low-rent. It’s a good job, then, that the typically stout Germanic build quality is still present and correct.
As stated in Jonathan James Tan’s review of the 2 AT, however, you’ll note that there’s actually very little room to stow your odds and ends – a particular sore point on this supposedly roomy variant. An electronic parking brake saves space, but the gear lever is still located on the centre console; worse still, it’s a traditional mechanical item rather than the usual BMW nudge-pull electronic joystick, so it requires a full P-R-N-D gate, robbing yet more precious real estate.
The upshot is that storage space at the front is limited to an admittedly handy slot above the climate controls, two cupholders aft of the gear lever, a deep cubby hole behind that and some space under the armrest lid for connecting your smartphone. It gets markedly better as you move rearward – neat under-seat nets for books and magazines and an armrest full of cupholders and cubbies in the second row; another pair of nets either side of the third row that are perfect for storing toys and the like.
There’s added space for passengers back here too – the Gran Tourer is 214 mm longer (4,556 mm) and 53 mm taller (1,608 mm) than the Active Tourer, with a 110 mm longer wheelbase (2,780 mm). Apart from freeing up space for a third row of seats, this also means the now-standard sliding second row gets oodles of head- and legroom for even the lankiest of people.
Third-row space is tight for adults as with other similarly-sized rivals (although one journalist did remark that there was more space back there than in his first-gen Volvo XC90), and the thin squab and backrests provide precious little support, making them suitable only for short- to medium-length journeys.
Luggage space has also been improved here – sure, with the rear-most seats in place, the boot is tighter than a hardcore rocker’s jeans (BMW hasn’t posted a figure with all seats up, which is telling), but pull the backrest-mounted flaps to fold them down and it’s boosted to 560 litres. You can then stow the 40:20:40-split second row seats remotely via standard electronic releases in the boot (nice), netting 1,820 litres.
Curiously, there’s also a five-seater option available, effectively making the Gran Tourer a 2 AT estate of sorts – I suppose the name Active Tourer Touring would be far too awkward to stomach. Here, the figures rise to 645 litres with the rear seats up (805 litres if they’re slid forwards into “cargo” position) and a massive 1,905 litres with them down. In contrast, the 2 AT musters just 468 litres and 1,510 litres respectively.
Optional features include bi-LED headlights (interestingly, they’re projector units, rather than the reflectors used elsewhere in the lineup) with “eyebrow” LED daytime running lights, as well as BMW Navigation system Professional with an 8.8-inch display and head-up display (projected on a flip-up screen as on MINI’s version, rather than directly onto the windscreen like on other BMWs).
Also selectable are a powered tailgate (with kick-to-activate contactless opening with the Comfort Access option) as well as a rail system behind the front seats to which you can attach tray tables (adjustable for rake) or iPad holders.
The latter can be hooked up to the new myKIDIO app (available in Germany only for the time being) – part of BMW’s also-optional ConnectedDrive suite of services – that allows the driver or front passenger to control age-appropriate entertainment displayed on the tablets behind, via iDrive.
Under the bonnet, you’ll find either a 1.5 litre three-cylinder petrol (136 hp/220 Nm 218i), a 1.5 litre diesel (116 hp/270 Nm 216d), a 2.0 litre four-cylinder petrol (192 hp/280 Nm 220i) and a 2.0 litre diesel (150 hp/330 Nm 218d, 190 hp/400 Nm 220d), all turbocharged and from BMW’s new modular engine family.
The top-dog 231 hp/350 Nm 225i variant in the Active Tourer is absent here, presumably because BMW doesn’t see the need for so much power on this car. Instead, the 220d is the most expensive 2 GT, and is mated exclusively to an Aisin-sourced eight-speed Steptronic automatic transmission (the ZF ‘box that BMW normally uses is designed for longitudinal use, rather than transverse) and xDrive permanent all-wheel drive.
All other variants are front-wheel drive only and come with a six-speed manual, with the auto available as an option (a six-speed ‘box in the case of the three-cylinder mills). Come summer, there will be a cheaper front-wheel drive 220d – available in manual or auto – as well as an entry-level 216i.
At Zadar, we sampled both range-topping variants, both automatics – an M Sport-equipped 220i and a regular 220d xDrive in Luxury Line trim. Off the line, the petrol engine needs quite a lot of throttle to pull its 1,470 kg heft, but it’s revvy enough to exploit (with an engine note that’s not entirely unpleasant), and progress is considerably easier once you get going.
The 220d is a markedly different kettle of fish; even at nearly 200 kg heavier than its petrol sibling at 1,640 kg, the 400 Nm of twist at hand makes light work of it, even though the otherwise smooth gearbox can be quite hesitant in kicking down (particularly apparent during one rather steep uphill climb). Even more impressive is the oil-burner’s refinement – slight truck-like clatter at idle aside, the mill is reasonably muted throughout the rev range, a world away from the rough and noisy nature of most BMW diesels.
While the engines are refined, other aspects left quite a bit to be desired. Tyre noise was kept at low levels, but the wind noise on the pre-production cars was unusually loud, noticeable even at moderate highway speeds. The engineers present at the drive event apparently made a few adjustments to the door fitments of the cars after our first day in the 220i, and while it was definitely quieter in the 220d the next day, it still was’t what you’d call hushed.
But enough about that, I bet you’re thinking. All you enthusiasts are probably only concerned with whether the car can still earn its propeller badge in the corners. Well, in a word, yes – flick the quick, accurate and hefty (if lacking in feel, like most BMWs these days) steering and the Gran Tourer carves its way into the apex with all the immediacy that you’d expect, and hangs there resolutely thanks to strong front-end grip. If I had driven fast enough along the twisty downhill route to unstick it, I’d have fallen off Zadar’s treacherous cliffs.
Sure, with such a big, heavy body, the 2 GT is bound to produce some roll in the corners, but that being said, the body control is still mightily impressive, the people-hauler staying remarkably tied down through the bends. One trade-off seems to be the ride – we weren’t able to test it fully on Zadar’s glass-smooth roads, but across undulating tarmac and some speed bumps, the Gran Tourer can feel quite bouncy, particularly with the M Sport suspension.
To sum up, the F46 BMW 2 Series Gran Tourer mostly delivers on Munich’s promise – it brings the typical BMW driving experience to more people than ever before, both figuratively and literally.
Despite reservations about the shift in the company’s tack and some minor blemishes in its armour, it’s clear that BMW has spent a lot of time making sure that its first family car provided both the practicality families demand and the entertainment value behind the wheel that drivers want. It may seem like a stretch for most people, but keep your mind open and the 2 GT may just be worth a look.