What is it?
BMW’s 2-series Active Tourer comes with the choice of both three-cylinder and four-cylinder engines, and now it also comes with the choice of front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. This is the all-wheel-drive model, hooked up to a punchy 188bhp 2.0-litre, four-cylinder diesel engine.
BMW says the all-wheel drive system is based on the familiar Haldex clutch mechanism, which is mounted on the side of the gearbox and – when activated – sends power and torque to the rear wheels.
However, the company says it has modified the standard-issue Haldex unit to incorporate what it calls an "efficient valve". This is, in effect, a spring-loaded valve, which helps to control the oil flow to the Haldex’s clutch plates. The speed at which oil can be released to flow between the clutch plates governs how quickly the clutch pack locks up and then diverts drive from the engine to the rear wheels.
Even thought the latest, fifth-generation Haldex unit is by far the quickest-reacting version yet, BMW says its modification makes its version of this familiar all-wheel drive system is faster still. The Active Tourer's rear differential also has its own electronically controlled clutch pack, which has to be activated to get drive to the rear wheels.
The combination of these two high-speed clutch packs, say BMW engineers, marks the Active Tourer’s all-wheel drive system out from other, ostensibly similar 4x4 conversions of front-wheel-drive cars. BMW claims the all-wheel drive mode can kick in in just 0.1sec and it is active in most driving situations, rather than just in extreme conditions or after traction has been lost.
That means the xDrive Active Tourer will deploy four-wheel traction even on winding country roads, at motorway speeds and when cruising at lower speeds. As pointless as this sounds, splitting the engine’s effort between both axles should always pay dividends in terms of driving dynamics, even at lower speeds.
What's it like?
Pretty impressive. Firstly, since we last drove a diesel 2-series, it’s clear that successful work has been done on engine refinement. This unit was more refined than the lower-powered four-cylinder engine fitted in the 218d that Autocar drove last summer at the Active Tourer's launch.
At speed, there’s a fair amount of road noise on coarse surfaces, but the engine is more refined than that of either a Mercedes B-class or a Volkswagen Golf SV, and you won’t feel short-changed driving the BMW. And while we are comparing the BMW with the Mercedes, it could be argued that the former has a much more appealingly sporty interior design theme (though the latter is £1330 cheaper in 'Sport' spec).
Where the BMW completely flattens the all-wheel-drive B-class is on the road. Where the Mercedes stumbles and rolls, the BMW is quick and agile in its handling.
Certainly, it feels far less traditionally front-drive nose-heavy than anything of a similar size and shape, and it has a decent turn of overtaking speed (helped, in Sport spec, by the paddle shifters, which make for very crisp downshifts).
The steering feels surprisingly positive and pointy on tight windy roads, which is presumably an added consequence of some drive being sent rearwards and helping ‘push’ the car around tighter bends.
To test its off-road ability, we also tried the car on a local motocross circuit and were frankly amazed by the car’s ability to scale rubble and rock-strewn 40 per cent-inclined tracks without any wheel slip. Downhills were similarly within the car’s stride, even with one of the rear wheels dangling free in the air.
All this is possible even without the added help of hill descent control or other off-road trickery and bodes well for the next X1, which is likely to use the same newly developed four-wheel drive system.
Should I buy one?
At a fiver under £30,000, the Sport-spec 220d xDrive Active Tourer is hardly a bargain, but there’s no doubt that this can be described as a true premium product.
From the stylish and well made interior to the way the 4x4 transmission does much to disguise the essential ‘front-driveness’ of the 2-series Active Tourer layout, this car is an intriguing proposition.
Having said that, its main rival, the Mercedes B220 CDI 4Matic, is even pricer in AMG Line trim and nowhere near as complete a dynamic package, nor as capable if you do get possessed by the urge to take it off road.
What is really unexpected is the ability of this new all-wheel drive system when the going gets really rough. For a vehicle billed as an Active Tourer, it is a great pity that a version with a slightly raised ride height and underbody protection is not in the works. That really would be a segment-busting ‘white space’ vehicle.
BMW 220d xDrive Sport Active Tourer
Price: £29,995; 0-62mph: 7.3sec; Top speed: 138mph; Economy: 61.4mpg (combined); CO2: 122g/km; Kerb weight: 1585kg; Engine: 4 cyls, 1995cc, turbodiesel; Power: 188bhp at 4000rpm; Torque: 295lb ft at 1750-2500rpm; Gearbox: 8-spd automatic