Space-functional concept. That was the working title of the five-seat BMW 2-series Active Tourer and next year’s seven-seat Grand Tourer. What’s in a name? More than you think. Especially when the initial connotation is MPV or – dare we say it – minivan. On paper, creating a new MPV is a recipe for disaster; vans of all sizes account for the fastest-shrinking market segment, and they are typically not BMW-like in posture and performance. But the man from BMW won’t have it.
‘The 2-series Active Tourer will be a runaway success,’ states senior product manager Frank Niederländer, keeping a straight face. ‘It’s a proper BMW: good-looking, a joy to drive, clever in concept and execution, truly upmarket in terms of content and quality…’
Although the design incorporates most must-have cues, the high-roof five-seater is not an instant crowd-puller; at a glance, it appears more 3-series GT pragmatic than 4-series Gran Coupe pretty. Inside, one may initially frown at the massive dashboard which curves into the cabin like a symmetrical wave crested with wood, leather and brightwork.
The quality of surface materials on the other hand is spot-on, easily eclipsing the current 1/3/4/5/6-series and the X1 and X3. We note two new detail features: the standard driving experience selector is a three-way toggle bar labelled Eco Pro, Comfort and Sport; and the optional head-up display uses a Mini-style pop-up screen.
Spec, trim levels in BMW 2-series Active Tourer
There are four equipment levels: base SE, Sport, Luxury and M Sport. The new BMW starts from just over £22k, which is comparable to a Mercedes B-class and around £1.3k more than the VW Golf SV.
The Active Tourer is not only BMW’s first MPV bar the 1990s 5-series-based Megaron concept, it’s also the first front-wheel-drive model bar a handful of Rover-based prototypes. Another first concerns the availability of frugal three-cylinder engines in a non-hybrid model. The 1.5-litre units are the 134bhp petrol in the 218i and the 114bhp diesel fitted to the 216d.
Both were introduced in the new Mini last year, which shares its basic ‘FAAR’ architecture with the five-door 2-series and the 2016 X1 replacement. Four-wheel drive is an optional extra for the 228bhp 225i and the 187bhp 220d, and an eight-speed automatic is standard on the 225i and the 220d xDrive. The only self-shifter compatible with the three-cylinder engines is the ancient and underwhelming six-speed Steptronic.
2-series Active Tourer review: how does it drive?
The first impression you gain on the move is of praiseworthy refinement; this car is remarkably quiet. Even when you lock the adjustable dampers in Sport mode, and even when – as with our test cars – imposing 225/45 R18 tyres are fitted, generous compliance and a cosseting ride remain. Handling? Failsafe and communicative but quantifiably less entertaining than a 3-series Touring.
Having said that, BMW has done a good job in fine-tuning the Active Tourer’s balance. With DSC off, wheelspin is controlled by a brake-activated electronic diff lock. Although understeer is still the prevailing attitude at the limit, the chips will momentarily nudge the car towards the apex, encourage the tail to swing round, then speed up the torque flow as you open up the steering.
Predictably, there’s a long list of extras. Launch control and shift paddles? Tick Sport transmission. More grip? Opt for 17-, 18- or 19-inch alloys, and don’t forget to choose between adaptive dampers and M Sport suspension. Even sharper steering? Select variable-assist Servotronic or, better still, variable-rate Sport.
Not yet on offer are stronger brakes, more powerful engines (228i/225d) and any kind of alternative propulsion system. A plug-in hybrid is in the making, but it is likely reserved for the stretched-wheelbase Grand Tourer, as well as the new X1 and next Mini Countryman. Based on the 220i, the hybrid is expected to feature a 102bhp e-motor driving the rear wheels.
The 2-series range
The Active Tourer goes on sale late this year. We drove the manual 148bhp 218d, the predicted best-selling version, and the 228bhp 225i auto which should cost about as much as a comparably equipped 320i Touring or X1 20i xDrive at around £28k. Comparing the dimensions of these cars is revealing. The X1 is 4477mm long, sits on a 2760mm wheelbase and can swallow between 420 and 1350 litres of luggage. The 3-series Touring measures 4624mm, sports a 2810mm wheelbase and a 495-1500-litre cargo bay.
The 2-series Active Tourer is notably shorter overall (4342mm) and has the shortest wheelbase (2670mm), but its carrying capacity is just as impressive (468-1510 litres), and rear legroom actually exceeds the 5-series by a couple of millimetres. That’s the advantage of front-wheel drive for you.
Although chassis, suspension, steering and brakes do not deviate significantly from the new Mini, BMW chose as different a set-up as possible to position the Active Tourer away from the next Countryman. The BMW is allowed to roll a little more, it’s more supple, and the responses to driver inputs are not quite as sharp.
The cable-operated manual gearbox may be a smooth and effortless two-finger job, but the throws are rather long, precision was not the number one priority, and the top two ratios sacrifice pep on the CO2 altar.
The 218d diesel and 225i petrol Active Tourers
The 218d accelerates from 0-62mph in 8.9sec, hits 127mph and averages 68.9mpg when fitted with the slimmest tyres. The corresponding numbers for the 225i automatic are 6.6sec, 150mph and 48.8mpg. How come a 208bhp 4 Mercedes B250 can match the 228bhp BMW on acceleration and v-max? Because the 225i is up to 105kg heavier...
We tried both versions on mountain roads between Innsbruck and the Italian border. In this testing environment, the diesel has clear pros and cons. One certainly appreciates the 243lb ft of maximum torque between 1750 and 2750rpm. Other powerplants may muster broader torque peaks, but since 4000rpm is all it takes to unleash the maximum power output of 148bhp, it’s easy to live with.
Performance does suffer when the road points skywards and the long-legged transmission makes a lower gear compulsory earlier than expected. On the very brisk downhill sections, we missed the ventilated front discs that are standard on the 225i. Perhaps one should wait for the 225d...
Alternatively, you could zoom in on the 225i which feels much more like a proper BMW. It even looks like one in M Sport livery, which seems to go down particularly well with the Great Outdoors crowd the brand-shapers are courting with particular vigour.
Building up momentum and then coasting down rolling hills is actually a lot of fun, as is making the best of the 258lb ft the 2.0-litre turbo spreads from 1250 to 4500rpm. The four-cylinder may not sound quite as racy as the petrol-fed three, but even without electronic and acoustic support it is now more characterful than those voiceless early 328i models.
Ride and handling
In both Active Tourers, the electrically assisted steering is no longer artificially flavoured. We preferred speed-sensitive Sport, which matches gearing to turn-in angle for reduced effort around town and enhanced stability above 50mph.
Although this is essentially a two-box design, the A-pillars and quarter-pane supports occasionally obstruct vision, reminding you that this is a high-roof vehicle with unique proportions.
Both cars quickly drew a crowd, with a mixed response. While drivers of non-premium products tended to give the Active Tourer the thumbs up, BMW owners were more sceptical. But perhaps the market is ready for a new-look MPV, a premium space-functional concept complete with LED headlights, fine leather seats, panoramic sunroof and the latest infotainment wizardries. There is absolutely nothing a 3-series can offer that an Active Tourer is deprived of, budget permitting.
It looks as if BMW has not only managed to reinvent the minivan, but also lifted it to a more upscale and profitable basis.