Car reviews - BMW - 2 Series - range
Surprising front-drive chassis, high-quality interior fit-out, charismatic 218i three-cylinder engine
Room for improvement
Expensive options, overactive driver assistance systems
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19 Nov 2014
IN AUSTRALIA the big three prestige makers are constantly tussling for attention and a segment left uncharted represents potential lost sales.
BMW saw a gap in the market for vehicles that offer large amounts of interior space while limiting overall outside dimensions, but with longitudinally mounted engines, transmission tunnel and differential mound, its trademark rear-drive transmission robs cabin space.
Enter the third generation Mini. With a front drive system, its platform has no transmission tunnel or rear differential and its engine is mounted up front and out of the way allowing maximum interior volume.
By combining all BMW knows about handling with the practicality of front-wheel drive and the Mini's underpinnings, BMW says its new 2 Series Active Tourer is the perfect balance of functionality and driver enjoyment.
We spent a morning sampling all three variants starting with the flagship $54,900 225i intended for those customers wanting the most driver-focused option while still hauling a load of kids, renovation supplies or camping gear.
The first thing that struck us about the 225i was its top-quality interior fit-out, which is right up there with a 5 Series and felt exactly as a BMW should.
High-quality materials cover all surfaces with leather grain and classy wood veneers adorning the dash, door and centre console trims, a very generous 8.8-inch high-resolution screen and excellent sports seats.
Only the head up display was the cause of slight disappointment which, as a pop-up separate screen, had a slightly add-on feel compared with the almost invisible versions found in larger BMWs which project directly on to the windscreen.
Finding an appropriate driving position was easy in the perforated leather sports seats, which provided support in all the right places without being too firm. Many front-drive cars force an upright position with a shallow footwell, but we liked how the typical BMW long-legged position has been preserved in the Active Tourer.
That said – the seating position was noticeably higher making entry and exit easy, while allowing a decidedly SUV-like and advantageous view of the surroundings once on board.
Curiously, even though both front seats have the same full electric adjustment, we found the passenger side wouldn't wind down low enough, giving the sensation we were perched high up in the cabin and on the seat rather than being in the seat.
As the top-of-the-range version one would expect a good amount of gear and the 225i does oblige.
Up front is a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine delivering 170kW and 350Nm to the front wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission.
BMW says the similarities to the Mini chassis are minimal and the bespoke suspension solution for this car has “virtually eliminated” the dreaded torque-steer so often associated with powerful front-wheel drives.
That is no word of a lie and only on perfect high-grip surfaces could we detect the slightest trace of a pull to one side under full acceleration, but nothing worth complaining about.
That alone is an accomplishment for this chassis, although, if more powerful variants, including a rumoured 228i, join the fold it will be interesting to see how effectively its torque is tamed.
Powering through a few twisty roads outside Tasmania's Launceston was a good test of the Active Tourer's claimed sporty nature.
Its ride is certainly what you would expect from a BMW remaining composed and stable over varying surfaces with only a little too much road noise filtering through and impacting the otherwise good comfort.
The 225i pushed in to corners with no sign of body roll and surprising neutral front-to-rear balance despite all of the drivetrain mass over the front axle.
Steering feel is a strange blend of BMW weight and Mini feel but the result is satisfying, communicative and confidence inspiring. There is no hiding the 2 Series Active Tourer is a front-wheel drive but it is clear BMW has not tried to do so. Instead its impressive chassis has been enhanced to celebrate the foray into front-drive.
The 225i is at its most capable with the Diving Experience Control switched to Sport with lightning shifts from the eight-speed transmission and decent all round performance from the 2.0-litre TwinPower engine.
In this mode its adaptive suspension, variable steering and enhanced throttle sensitivity wrings the very best dynamics out of the sportiest variant, but it is still capable of carving through corners with ease when in Comfort mode. The car's sharp handling comes through in almost all driving conditions.
Aggressive steering input mid-corner will always remind drivers of the Active Tourer that it is the front wheels that are doing all the work, as will hard acceleration in sharp turns, but we feel BMW has made the very best of what is essentially a compromised transmission system.
Next up was the 218d with its 110kW/330Nm 2.0-litre diesel engine matched with the eight-speed automatic, which we found eerily smooth and quiet and has a very high redline of about 5000rpm.
The oil-burner is certainly no firecracker and without all of the sporty features of the 225i, the diesel has a much softer feel in all areas.
No matter how hard we pushed the 218d there was no sense of urgency in power delivery, transmission operation or steering reaction, even when in Sport mode.
We did like the excellent ride however, and the almost teetotal fuel economy, which BMW says can get as low as 4.2 litres per 100 kilometres.
With less torque than the 225i, the front-drive chassis transmits power better than the sporty petrol with less squirm and scrub when accelerating from a standing start.
Finally we jumped into the entry-level $44,400 218i which had clearly had a lot of extras thrown at it. Its Luxury Line upgrade, bigger wheels, Visibility Package, Comfort Package, panoramic sunroof and metallic paint had ballooned its price out to more than the base price of the flagship 225i.
We are still surprised how things like simply making the roof bars a satin colour costs $423. Our advice is still the same Browse the the BMW options list with caution or an open wallet.
Without the excellent 225i sports seats, the lack of passenger seat support seemed exacerbated, but rear seat comfort is very respectable with tilt, slide and fold adjustment for all three rear seats.
We like how that flexible adjustment boosts a decent-sized boot from 468 litres to 1510 litres with a versatile 40/20/40 split electrically released folding function.
Getting in and out of the second row was a breeze with a higher hip height than a standard hatchback and all the interior comfort and more space than an SUV of comparable size.
The pleasant surprises continued when out on the road with the charismatic 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine the star of the show. It might not deliver the potency of the four-cylinder petrol but the personality and nature of the triple through an equally good six-speed auto was addictive.
Its 100kW and 220Nm might struggle when fully loaded but for a light-load blast through Tasmania's stunning countryside, the light weight of the smaller engine and transmission gave the base Active Tourer a lightness on its feet that made it stand out.
Revving the little three-cylinder out to the redline produced a likeable soundtrack and in the absence of the steering wheel paddles as found in the more expensive variants, we thoroughly enjoyed shifting with the gear selector in manual mode.
The combination of lighter weight and lower stress on the front wheels makes the 218i the best front-wheel drive application in the range.
Yes, the 225i is by far the more capable of the three Active Tourer variants offering some of the handling and driver reward one expects – neigh demands – from a BMW and, no doubt the company has a few even hotter and more impressive versions up its sleeve, but let's not forget who the tallboy hatch is aimed at.
The reason BMW took the quantum leap into front-wheel drive was to offer a new level of practicality with a slight compromise to out and out tyre-screaming track oversteer, Nurburgring-demolishing pace and purist driving satisfaction.
If you are after the former then the entry level 218i is our pick with a brilliant engine delivering sprightly performance and an accomplished chassis packaged in a genuinely practical all-round performer.
If you are after the latter then there is something in the rest of the BMW line-up for you.
BMW still says the ultimate in driving pleasure is a transmission that sends power to the rear-wheels and we totally agree, but the company recognises that not all of its customers slip on a Nomex suit and crash helmet for a trip to the seaside.
It is those BMW fans who will love the 2 Series Active Tourer.
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