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BMW dips its toe into front-wheel drive with an upmarket MPV that goes up against VW's Golf SV and the Ford C-Max

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Imagine having been a fly on the wall of that meeting room, at BMW headquarters in Munich one day in early 2010, when those infamous customer survey results were given an airing.

You know the ones. “About that hatchback we’ve spent millions on engineering in authentic-BMW ‘standard’ rear-wheel drive. The thing is, Dr Reithofer, four out of five 1 Series owners don’t care.”

The 1970s New Class Tourings were very similar in spirit to the new 2 Series

“They don’t care. Really? Okay. Let’s give them some front-drivers to get excited about.”

Perhaps not the exact words of BMW's top man, who’s still in charge today, but they might as well have been, given that a whole series of new-wave compact models is now waiting in the wings, all of them front driven and none of them allegedly any less of a true BMW as a result.

The rear-drive 1 Series’ death warrant has been signed. Until now, there had never been a propeller-badged model driven and steered primarily by the same axle.

The new 2 Series Active Tourer is the first of many. It has more to show us about the future of BMW than any RWD saloon the firm has launched, and has already spawned the larger seven-seater 2 Series Gran Tourer.

So does the new front-wheel-drive BMW offer more than established alternatives such as the Volkswagen Golf SV, Mercedes-Benz B-Class or the Citroën C4 Picasso? Let's find out.

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DESIGN & STYLING

17in 2 Series Active Tourer alloys
These 17-inch wheels are standard with Luxury trim. Moving to 18s means run-flat tyres, but they don't hurt the ride as much as they used to

BMW has no direct precedent in making one-box MPVs, but the 2 Series Active Tourer is still able to trace its lineage back through the company's history. The closest that it has to parents are probably the Touring versions of the 'New Class' 1600 and 1500-2 saloons, introduced as they were in the 1970s.

These weren't BMW Tourings as the tag would later be applied, but compact three-door hatchbacks designed to be affordable, practical and small.

Can't spot the rear wiper? It's roof-hinged and hidden away under the trailing edge of the roof spoiler. A neat touch.

Much as it might upset brand traditionalists, BMW’s decision to go with front drive for its smallest models is eminently sensible. If the 1 Series proves anything, it’s that driven rear wheels impose at least as much packaging pain on a compact hatchback as they grant dynamic advantage – probably more.

The only way to expand the brief of that hatchback towards greater passenger space, cargo volume and general versatility is to turn the engine through 90deg under the bonnet to make for a longer cabin and do away with the transmission tunnel. In doing that, BMW joins the rest of the car-making world by adopting the mechanical gospel of small car design written by the likes of Alec Issigonis and Dante Giacosa half a century ago.

The 2 Series Active Tourer, then, uses a transverse-engined, front-drive platform codenamed UKL1. It grants variable wheelbase lengths and hip points, and is shared with the Mini hatchback, Mini Clubman, Mini Convertible, and the BMW BMW X1.

It’s built from high-tensile and ultra-high-tensile multi-phase steels, which keep weight down and add crash strength where appropriate. The front axle represents the biggest departure for BMW in order to do the steering and the driving for the 2 Series. This mixes steel for the subframe and wishbones, with aluminium for the swivel bearings.

The Active Tourer’s electro-mechanical power steering set-up is new, too. BMW describes it as a ‘single pinion’ set-up, because the electric motor assistance servo acts directly on the steering gear rather than via a secondary gearset. This reduces both weight and friction in the system and enhances the response time and directional accuracy.

Power comes from a mix of new three-cylinder and four-cylinder turbocharged engines and drive from gearboxes newly developed for the front-drive layout.

Petrol options range from the 134bhp 218i to the all-paw 228bhp 225i auto, which also includes a hybrid version as well. Diesels start with a 114bhp, sub-100g/km 216d and end with a 187bhp 220d.

Measuring just longer than 4.3m and just under 1.6m tall, the Active Tourer is a five-seat hatchback, although those looking for seven-seats are catered for with the Gran Tourer. Packaging bang for the buck is its reason for being. Although square and upright, it’s shorter and squatter than a Mercedes-Benz B-Class and shorter even than a Ford Focus.

The success of BMW’s styling effort can be debated. Our conclusion is that the overall result isn’t brilliant, but it’s very acceptable. Grafting a sporting identity on to a car like this is a fool’s errand, but the Active Tourer is more business smart than power suit, and the better for it.

INTERIOR

BMW 2 Series Active Tourer's interior
Forward visibility is compromised, despite the split A-pillars. It's better sideways and backwards

The Active Tourer’s spec sheet leaves it a bit to do in this section. People who buy extra-practical hatchbacks, be they MPVs or compact estates, necessarily value the space that they provide. So they may be initially disappointed that this new BMW offers less outright boot space – seats up and down – than both a Volkswagen Golf SV and a Mercedes-Benz B-Class.

Living with this car, we suspect, would be less likely to disappoint those customers – for several reasons. Firstly, the available space is accessible, flexible and pretty plentiful in isolation. Open any of the passenger doors or the boot and you’ll find it hard to sniff at what’s afforded.

The pedal spacing is good and the steering column has plenty of reach and rake adjustment

There’s good headroom in both rows – about an inch less of it in the back than in a Mercedes-Benz B-Class – and it matches the Mercedes on rear legroom thanks to deep front footwells. Entry and exit are easy because of the high-set seats and wide doors.

The back seats slide fore and aft by about 150mm, as well as reclining and tumble-folding into the floor to make an almost flat load bay. That last trick can be performed from the boot opening, via remote release switches just inside the rear hatch.

A folding front passenger seatback helps to accommodate extra-long loads as an optional extra. These are all pretty common modern MPV features, but together they make this a very practical family car.

For most testers, though, it wasn’t practicality that they found most convincing about the 2 Series’ cabin but classy material quality. Even without the chrome finishers of the Luxury-spec versions this is a plush, tactile, expensive-feeling interior with a modern-looking sculpted fascia, ‘floating’ control consoles, smooth leathers, soft plastics and plenty of generous storage areas. In that respect, it gives a Golf SV much more trouble than a 1 Series gives a normal five-door Volkswagen Golf.  

Four trim levels are offered: SE, Sport, Luxury and M Sport. The Active Tourer’s basic SE trim comes with BMW's iDrive infotainment system complete with a 6.5in screen, DAB radio, sat nav, Bluetooth and USB interfaces all as standard, while there is also the inclusion of dual-zone climate control, rear parking sensors, automatic tailgate, wipers and lights, and forward vehicle collision warning.

Upgrade to the Sport trim and you benefit from 17in alloys, sports seats in the front and interior LED lighting, while the Luxury embellished models get numerous chrome details. The range-topping M Sport Active Tourers get numerous M designed fitments, including 18in alloys, sports suspension, aggressive bodykit, interior and exterior badging, and a Dakota leather upholstery.

A host of options are available, incluing a Driver Comfort pack that adds front and rear parking sensors, cruise control and additional detail lighting, but expect these to be very costly.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

BMW 2 Series AT's rear
An eight-speed automatic 218d Active Tourer we tested dispatched the 0-60mph sprint in 8.9sec

There's a range of powertrain options for the 2 Series Active Tourer, encompassing three- and four-cylinder turbocharged engines, manual and automatic gearboxes and even the option of four-wheel drive.

Diesels range from the three-cylinder 1.5-litre model – badged 216d – to the four-cylinder 2.0-litre 220d, while the petrol range extends from the three-cylinder 1.5-litre 218i to the flagship four-cylinder 2.0-litre 225i xDrive.

Buyers can opt for a six-speed manual, an eight-speed automatic or an eight-speed sport automatic

Most come with a six-speed manual as standard, while eight-speed automatic and sport automatic options are available for an additional cost – the exceptions being the 216d, which is only available with a six-speed manual, and the eight-speed automatic is the sole choice for the 225i xDrive.

As you might expect from a modern turbocharged petrol engine, it's a refined unit that delivers a good blend of performance, flexibility and economy. It's rarely evident that it's only got three cylinders, too. The four-cylinder petrols are certainly spritely and gutsy compared to the 1.5-litre triple, while the 225xe iPerformance hybrid utilises the same 1.5-litre petrol engine as the 218i but is paired to an electric motor capable of covering 25 miles on its own.  

The entry-level diesel, the 216d, isn't quite as competent as the equivalent petrol. It's quiet and smooth, but it lacks keen responses and there's a lot of lag under 1800rpm. This, combined with tall gearing, means the 216d can be quite hesitant and sluggish at lower speeds. You'll have to keep changing gears to keep it from labouring.

It's the 218d that, on the diesel front, seems like the better bet. It doesn't command a huge premium over the 216d but the four-cylinder engine delivers an experience that's much more likely to tally with your expectations. 

Weighing 75kg more than the B200 CDI we figured in 2012, the 218d Active Tourer has the measure of its immediate rival in every way that matters. It isn’t the perfect comparison, because the Mercedes had a six-speed manual and the BMW an eight-speed auto.

In the light of that, you’d expect the 2 Series to be the faster-accelerating of the two, and so it proves. But it was also five per cent more fuel efficient than the Mercedes-Benz B-Class and far more refined.

An output of 148bhp may not seem a great deal of power by BMW standards, but it’s generous in an MPV class where 130bhp to 140bhp is about average – and it’s used super-efficiently by an excellent eight-speed transmission.

The gearbox seldom seems to hesitate either to shift up or lock up, and both are desirable traits when it’s working in tandem with a torquey diesel engine. Pace is easily picked up without the need to rev the engine much, and good fuel economy is equally easily returned.

When the need arises to overtake, the gearbox has an uncanny knack of selecting the right gear and grabbing another one just before that 2.0-litre four-pot begins to get breathless or coarse. But the fact is that the engine never really gets coarse at all. At times, it’s fully 4dB quieter than the B200, according to our noise meter.

We’d criticise the transmission on only one point: at times, its bias for full engagement creates slightly snatchy low-speed accelerator pedal response. But we’ll gladly accept that as the only quirk of an otherwise excellent engine and gearbox.

Expect similar behaviour from the 220d, one of the other derivatives offered with BMW's 'xDrive' four-wheel-drive system, albeit with a notable hike in performance. It's capable of dispatching the 0-62mph sprint in 7.6sec, compared to the 8.9sec of the 218d, for example.

RIDE & HANDLING

BMW 2 Series Active Tourer
The Active Tourer is upright, grippy and more involving than you might expect

There are three suspension specifications offered on the car (normal, M Sport and adaptively damped) and three power steering configurations (normal, Servotronic variable assistance and a quicker variable-ratio system).

On standard springs, adaptive dampers, Servotronic steering and sensible 17-inch wheels, the 2 Series has the breadth of dynamic ability that cars like this need to cope with day-to-day family life – and to do it with aplomb.

The use of ultra-high-strength steel in the platform's front end enhances steering precision

There may be a smidgen too much steering weight for the stereotypical MPV driver at times, but there’s certainly fine response and precision that more than make up for it.

Grip is as tenacious as it needs to be – high enough that you can drive the 2 Series as hard as you would any five-door diesel hatchback on the road without ever really being made aware that you’re in an MPV.

Body control is unusually stout for something so upright. If it weren’t a BMW, you’d argue that the car could afford to roll a little more in corners and be a bit less fussy for head toss and other high-frequency body disturbances over a patchy surface. Still, the ride is quiet and fairly supple in town and deals with potholes well.

Only experience will tell if the same is true of the car in other states of tune, but the 2 Series as tested does a better job of mixing compliance with dynamism than most compact MPVs. It’s a vastly more rounded drive than the stiff-legged Mercedes-Benz B-Class, but whether it beats a Ford C-Max or Golf SV is less clear cut.

There’s much to admire about the way that the Active Tourer handles in extremis. This may be the first attempt at a BMW-badged front-drive hatchback, but the car has laudable balance and is at once adjustable, predictable and well resolved as you run beyond the grip level of its tyres.

The risk that BMW has taken here is by making a high-sided car stiffer, grippier and more agile than the average. Inevitably, those facets make the car break away more quickly when its rear tyres run out of lateral purchase, which they will do under certain circumstances, with the stability control switched off.

BMW hasn’t set up this car with a safety-first bias for understeer, and its DSC can be fully deactivated — so in slippery conditions it can be a lively handling prospect. But leave the electronics on and it’s as safe and secure as they come.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

BMW 2 Series Active Tourer
The BMW 2-series Active Tourer goes up against the likes of the Volkswagen Golf SV and Ford C-Max

BMW’s ownership sums would appear to add up here just as neatly as they do for its more established rear-drive saloons. The car is priced at a premium just small enough to be almost totally offset by its residual strength relative to its non-premium-brand rivals.

So compared with an equivalent Citroën C4 Picasso, which is a couple of grand cheaper at list price, the BMW would be broadly comparable on price as a monthly finance prospect or as a company car.

Both the Mercedes B-class and VW Golf SV are beaten by the 2 Series on the residuals front

Equipment isn’t as generous as you’ll find with the upper-level volume brand rivals, but it’s certainly far from mean.

On CO2 emissions and economy, meanwhile, the 2 Series is close to the head of its field – the manual 218d, for example, is only fractionally behind the Mercedes B200 and easily capable of 50mpg on a day-to-day basis.

It's worth considering the petrol versions too, especially if you're a business user. The 218i, for example, emits 115g/km of CO2 and attracts a lower company car tax rate than the 218d. Even if it didn't, it'd still be worth paying the premium for the petrol version's balance of performance, flexibility, refinement and economy.

We'd recommend opting for a 2 Series in SE specification, as it is well equipped, but add metallic paint, 17-inch wheels, a folding front passenger seat and electronic damper control.

 

VERDICT

4 star BMW 2 Series Active Tourer
It has many premium-brand qualities but isn't quite a handling benchmark

The 2 Series Active Tourer succeeds where its key rival falters. Our top five pitches it against the volume-brand people-movers whose various standards it must exceed.

But the truth is that only the Mercedes-Benz B-Class really offers the combination of desirability and practicality that the Active Tourer seeks to emulate – and on performance, refinement, economy and balanced ride comfort and handling dynamism, the BMW beats the Mercedes resoundingly.

Powertrain and cabin ambience beat the SV, but it's not as roomy or expertly tuned

Munich’s new MPV has been executed very thoroughly. It has an excellent powertrain, a cabin of distinguishing versatility, quality and richness and a commendable driving experience, and with the addition of the seven-seater Gran Tourer as well only further strengthens its position.

The handling isn’t quite good enough to trump everything else in the class. The C-Max and Golf SV are both better drives in their own way. The SV also offers a superior blend of comfort, quality and cabin space, making it our class champ.

But for BMW's first effort at front drive, comfortably beating the B-Class must be the kind of qualified success for which BMW would happily settle.

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

BMW 2 Series Active Tourer 2014-2021 First drives