The front-drive 2-series Active Tourer feels like a premium product and should perform well on city streets, but this 218d model isn't the pick of the range

What is it?

More than twenty years after BMW built a series of experimental front-wheel-drive 3 Series models, the German premium brand has finally entered the automotive mainstream with the new front-drive 2 Series Active Tourer

It is firmly positioned as a premium product, but the 2 Series is also firmly planted in the biggest market sector in Europe, that of the ‘C-segment’ hatchback. 

BMW, like Mercedes and Audi, is also on a continuous expansion plan and it says it has indentified new trends including the dual habit of downsizing and more people living in cramped urban areas, as well as a distinct new market made up of affluent middle-class couples with a sporting bent.

The ‘semi-command’ driving position is also a big part of the Active Tourer’s make-up, BMW director Ian Robertson told Autocar.

He added that the Active Tourer is not evidence of the brand going downmarket, so much as it reaching down towards to top-end of the mainstream market and encouraging buyers to reach back up to a premium brand. Roberston also said that BMW expects about 70 per cent of Active Tourer buyers to be new to the brand. 

The upshot is that the Active Tourer is small enough to park, big enough to carry your expensive mountain bike and priced – in the 218d SE form we drove in Austria – only about £3000 more than the equivalent diesel Ford C-Max Titanium. 

To put the car in context, the newest BMW is 4323mm long, making it a touch longer than the 4255mm Volkswagen Golf Mk7 and at 1800mm wide, within 1mm of the VW. The BMW’s height of 1555mm is noticeably taller than the 1452mm Golf. The Active Tourer is also very similarly sized to the Mercedes B-Class, which is probably its closest direct rival.

Under the skin is the longer and wider version of BMW’s UKL1 front-drive architecture, which also underpins the new Mini. The Active Tourer’s structure includes the use of expensive ‘tailored blanks’ in its construction and the front and rear suspension systems are also impressively sophisticated. 

BMW says the front end of the Active Tourer is ‘exceptionally stiff’ thanks to the high-strength steel subframe and front wishbones. The front struts swivel on aluminium bearings and the anti-roll bar is hollow with variable wall thicknesses. At the rear, the company’s distinctive multi-link rear axle is one feature that BMW would never re-consider.

The new ‘single pinion’ electric steering system is claimed to offer ‘very low friction’ because the servo unit and steering gear are combined into a single component. Even so, BMW doesn’t overclaim for its first front-drive model, saying the set-up is ‘largely torque-steer-free’.

What's it like?

In truth, this 218d test car – which we drove on the roads around Innsbruck, Austria – came up short in a number of areas. The first failing came apparent from the moment we rolled down the road. At lower speeds, a rush of road noise was being transmitted up through the car’s front structure from the front wheels. That said, the test car rolled on 225/45 R18s, which is a somewhat aggressive tyre.

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Also surprising was the diesel engine’s relative lack of refinement. Fitted to the new Mini, this four-cylinder unit is smooth and hushed. In the nose of the 2 Series, it is no more than acceptable at best.

The other failing with this particular model was the gearshift. While the stick is sportingly short and short-throw, its action across the gate is surprisingly notchy. The detent between first and reverse – which are next to each other – was also awkward and it needed a very firm shove to get it into reverse gear.

Finally, this Active Tourer’s high-speed refinement is not all it could be. At motorway speeds, the swirl of wind noise around the windscreen pillars and roof rails was unexpected.

On the road, the car is fundamentally sound but perhaps lacks the fluidity of the best front-drive rivals.

It handles neatly and is easy to place in corners. The steering is weighty and quite pointy in an attempt to give the car a traditional BMW flavour, and it’s none the worse for that. In ‘Sports’ mode, however, the steering is probably overweighted, especially at lower speeds.

The Active Tourer’s ride was fine on Austria’s roads, even on relatively low-profile tyres. Overall, it is tuned to feel quite direct and involving for the driver, though trying to make its first front-drive car ‘feel like a BMW’ may have resulted in a compromised result.

On a practical level, the boot measures 468 litres, but I suspect that the now-ubiquitous false boot floor means that a chunk of that space is hidden away. The rear bench splits 40:20:40, which is useful and will work well with the optional folding passenger seat, which gives a load bay length of an impressive 2.4m. 

Rear legroom is quite generous, although the tightly drawn roofline and high sides make the rear of cabin somewhat enclosed. Up front there’s decent shoulder room with two full-size adults in the seats but it doesn’t feel quite as airy as the latest VW Group cars based on the MQB platform. 

BMW has clearly lavished money and time on the 2 Series Active Tourer’s dashboard and cabin and it has paid off handsomely. Aside from the overall structuring of the fascia – which is rather more sophisticated than anything offered by mainstream makers – it is also beautifully built. 

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And this cockpit is exceedingly practical, too. The door bins are huge and the big cupholders in the centre console cleverly staggered. There’s also a huge space under the armrest and a very clever hidden compartment in the centre stack. Only the slightly cheap cover for the (optional) head-up display is anything less than exemplary.

The exterior styling is clean and professional, but it has arguably lost the cripsness and greater surface contrast in production that was so effective with the Active Tourer concept.

It also has an admirably slippy drag coefficient of just 0.26. Lighter metallic colours do it greater favours than the dark red of our test car.

Many buyers may well feel that the Active Tourer feels ‘sporty’ as a BMW should, but this kind of sporty doesn’t always translate well in front-drive cars, especially one with a raised driving position. In that, the 2 Series engineers may learn something from the way the new Mini Cooper models are tuned.

With that car, the engineers have achieving driving satisfaction through precision of the driving experience, rather than making the chassis a touch overly direct in its responses.

Should I buy one?

Even though the driving experience isn’t outstanding and there is question about this combination of diesel engine and manual 'box, that is not to write the Active Tourer off by any means. 

Specified as the 218i, with three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine and six-speed automatic gearbox, virtually all of these refinement and drivability issues would be swept away, and without a great penalty in fuel economy. 

The Active Tourer is built to a premium standard, has a first-rate interior and is cleverly packaged for the city streets. The wide range of engines and transmissions (including three- and four-cylinder turbo petrols, six- and eight-speed automatic gearboxes and, later this year, four-wheel drive) among which will certainly be class-leading combinations. 

Indeed, the £22,1250, 136bhp three-pot, turbocharged, petrol engined 218i Active Tourer SE (which gets an automatic tailgate, dual-zone climate control, rear parking sensors, sliding rear seat, Bluetooth and DAB) is only a few hundred pounds more than the diesel Ford and promises an average 57mpg. 

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With the likely better residual values, the logic goes, the BMW 2 Series would be both cheaper to lease and better value than the Ford C-Max. It is competition the hard-pressed mainstream could well do without.

This 218d manual is not the best BMW can do, but the company’s first front-drive car is clearly only a sensible transmission and wheel and tyre specification from being among the best and is, in any case, a compelling offering against high-end mainstream rivals.

BMW 218d Active Tourer SE

Price £24,205; 0-62mph 8.9sec; Top speed 129mph; Economy 68.9mpg (combined); Co2 109g/km; Kerb weight 1375kg; Engine 4cyls, 1995cc, turbocharged diesel; Power 148bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 243lb ft at 1750-2750rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual

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Carmad3 20 July 2014

Front Drive BEEMER

Finally BMW has acknowledged that rear drive cars are rubbish in bad weather and joined the front drive lobby. Welcome to the 21st century BMW
Carmad3 20 July 2014

Beemer Active 2 series

Anyone else noticed how like an old Renault Scenic it looks in side profile?
spqr 19 July 2014

Junk. Except for the bottom line.

Citytiger is correct if BMW are going to make their first FWD car it should define the segment or else why bother? If, as a company you are going to prostitute your decades old brand values to make a fast buck and in the process mark your fans angry you should at least make it drive better than a Ford. The fact that you did not confirms (if it was ever in doubt) that BMW has lost the plot. Yes it will make money for the shareholders but it damages your reputation with old customers forever. I have owned 10 BMWs but after this I have told their marketing department to stop sending me emails, magazines and brochures as I will never buy another BMW. Why? Because if BMW are making 4 cylinder front drive cars that are no better than average why pay a BMW price? Just buy a Golf. Paying BMW 's prices means you are just buying the badge. You can do that already. Buy an Audi. Or just save your cash and get the Golf.