I shudder to think what a minute of press conference time at the Paris motor show costs, offering as it does the undivided attention of the most powerful pens in the business, but between 7.30am and 7pm on Thursday, all 690 of them were accounted for by the richest of the assembled manufacturers, with barely time to turn a notebook’s page in between. Most took 15-minute slots, apart from the three home favourites of Citroën, Peugeot and Renault that splashed out on 30 minutes each, and the VW Group with its lavish mid-morning 90-minute set split unevenly between seven brands.
BMW could barely fill its 15 minutes of fame today. At the beginning, a cross-section of the brand’s most efficient vehicles milled slowly around the stage like a fairground train detuned for toddlers, doomed to waste its talents edging about in infinite formation. At the end, French triple gold-winning Olympic canoeist Tony Estanguet joined BMW sales and marketing boss Dr Ian Robertson to talk precious metal and the rounded talents of his 5-series GT.
But in between, a handful of prized minutes were apportioned to the Concept Active Tourer (CAT) plug-in hybrid. The CAT’s rear wheels will be driven electrically, while the fronts will benefit from a blown 1.5-litre, three-pot petrol engine. There will also be variants that do without rear axle shove altogether. True, the cost-saving and packaging benefits of this de-shackling are many and meaningful, but for me, it’s the promise of front-drive BMWs that stole the imagination.
Most of us spent our formative driving years with the powered wheels ahead of us – perhaps not as God intended, but with charming foibles such as torque steer and understeer to befriend and manage. A tidy-handling front-driver is always a pleasure to explore, and handy new tech like apex-sucking front limited-slip differentials only add to the fun.
Many commentators, both inside and outside the company, still think front drive is unbecoming of the marque, but times are changing rapidly and BMW can’t afford to look away. Personally, I can’t wait to experience what Munich’s engineers produce. CAT designer Michael de Bono told me to expect a “new agility” from the production versions. The car has to handle, while offering ride and refinement beyond the third-gen Mini with which it will share a new platform. How that is achieved will be fascinating.
If Ford can make everyday front-pullers as accomplished yet engaging as it does, just think what premium-brand BMW can do.