The Active Tourer starts a new family of BMWs in impressive style
There's a bit of packaging magic in the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer for sure. But then, a key element in most magic acts is misdirection: the art of distracting the audience with something interesting while the real trickery goes on elsewhere. In the case of this car it starts with the name.
BMW badges go according to size, generally with odd numbers for core models and evens for sports and niche vehicles.
A 2 Series is a coupe version of BMW's smallest hatchback, the 1 Series. But the 2 Series Active Tourer is certainly not that: it's a tall and spacious five-door which the company insists will compete with compact sports utility vehicles (SUVs). It can't be called an X1 because there's already one of those, although it's more like 3 Series size. But why not X2?
Perhaps because this new type of 2 Series is not quite an SUV either, being front-wheel drive and lacking the higher ground clearance of the brand's other crossover vehicles.
So calling it an Active Tourer - a name not used anywhere else in the BMW range - really just causes more head-scratching. Misdirection.
Let's simplify and clarify: the 2 Series Active Tourer is a BMW model based on the latest Mini five-door. It has the same platform and in the case of our $51,900 218i test vehicle, the same 100kW/220Nm 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic gearbox. The packaging magic happens because the front-drive layout liberates more interior space and the car has a pseudo-SUV two-box profile.
It all sounds good, so why the mixed messages? Well, platform-sharing like this makes perfect business sense but there has never been a front-drive BMW before. The company makes many front-drive Minis but takes great pains to keep its brands completely separate.
But the Mini connection means there's little to fear from the Active Tourer's front-drive configuration. Minis are renowned for their sharp handling, so a BMW that's pulled rather than pushed was never likely to be the dynamic disaster some were predicting.
As you might expect, the Active Tourer feels similar to a Mini on the road. The three-cylinder engine is an energetic delight and the chassis is like a slightly less nervous version of the Mini's: the steering and suspension are a little more tailored towards comfort and the centre of gravity is higher. The Active Tourer is less involving than a Mini, but also more comfortable.
Driver-assistance features include an electronic differential lock that becomes active when the stability control is switched off, and a form of torque vectoring called Performance Control that brakes individual wheels to enhance cornering speed and composure.
That's all a bit of a bonus because performance and handling are not supposed to be the core competencies of the Active Tourer. This model is really all about ease of use and interior packaging, hence the high driving position and flexible seating.
Styling-wise the interior is pure BMW, with the signature convex dashboard and a tablet-like iDrive screen mounted atop the centre console. The Active Tourer also comes with the full suite of BMW Connected Drive services, including Internet access and a 24-hour concierge.
There are a couple of quiet nods to Mini design detail, though: the Driving Experience Control selection switch is a toggle like you'd find in a Cooper, and there's something suspiciously Mini-like about the heavily textured seat and door-trim fabric. A little touch of dramatic irony from the interior design team, perhaps?
Another trick picked up from Mini is a rear-seat backrest that can be locked in place in a more upright position to liberate more luggage space while maintaining rear seating.
But that's just the start. The Active Tourer is packed with clever interior features, such as rear seats that slide fore and aft to mix and match passenger leg-room with cargo space.
The seats themselves are cleverly split 40/20/40, like those in a 3-series Touring or X5.
The boot has a false floor that provides a flat load-through when the rear seats are folded, so you can either have a hidden compartment underneath or remove it completely for a deeper boot. And cargo capacity can be expanded to 1510 litres.
The 218i is well specified, even when you consider that it's a small car costing more than $50,000. You get a collision warning alert and autonomous braking at urban speeds, automated parking and rear camera.
This being a BMW, you can add to the comfort and convenience greatly by spending a great deal of money on options. It's tempting stuff: power tailgate ($750), keyless entry ($750), a panoramic glass roof for an even more airy interior ambience ($2500) and folding tables for the back seats ($400).
We could go on and on. Although an extra $400 for a "separating net" in the luggage compartment seems a bit mean for a vehicle with versatility as its ethos.
Our 218i is the entry point to the Active Tourer range. It's a big leap up to the $62,900 218d, but you gain a 2-litre turbo-diesel BMW engine with 110kW/330Nm, an eight-speed automatic in place of the petrol car's six-speeder, and a few high-end features such as LED headlights, larger 18-inch alloy wheels, climate control and higher-grade upholstery.
Even the sternest BMW rear-drive reactionaries - I'll admit to being one myself - would find it hard to argue against the Active Tourer. It's fun to drive, combines city-friendly exterior dimensions with immense interior space and practicality and answers an important question: why can't we have a 1 Series with decent interior space?
The next-generation 1 Series hatchback coming out in 2018 will almost certainly be front-drive as well.
The Active Tourer is the start of a new family of models.
Just as long as BMW keeps rear-drive for its larger and sports models. We need to keep some of that old magic as well.