To say that BMW has been on a roll recently is a massive understatement.
Among its many daring moves, it has launched a completely new product line that contains the i3 electric city car and the i8 plug-in hybrid sports car, both made of the most expensive material known to the industry, carbon fibre.
After long proclaiming the superiority of high-revving naturally aspirated engines in its high-performance M division cars, it has gradually replaced them with turbocharged ones. The last holdout, the M3 (and its newly rebadged coupe variant, the M4), followed suit last year.
And now, it has slaughtered this sacred cow: rear-wheel-drive, or RWD, de rigueur in every BMW car since the company’s founding. Its aim is to create a compact front-wheel-drive (FWD) car that maximises interior space by doing away with the extra mechanical parts that RWD requires. This is a fast-growing segment in which BMW has hitherto no offerings.
But, first, an explanation of RWD. By separating the driven wheels from the steer wheels, each pair can concentrate on their dedicated task, leading to better grip while accelerating or cornering.
And, because the heavy mechanical parts don’t have to be packed all up at the front, an RWD car can be designed to distribute its entire weight evenly over the front and rear wheels for ideal balance. Remember, the car’s connections to the bitumen underneath are four patches of rubber, each about as big as your hand. You’d want to maximise that. The list of pros (and cons) of RWD goes on but, if your eyes are already glazing over, then you are not alone.
For the Munich carmaker is betting that most customers of its first FWD car, the 2-series Active Tourer – and that would be families presumably with lots of fragile baggage such as children, accompanied by bicycles for everyone – would use the vehicle in such a manner that the difference probably won’t matter.
It is also betting that its engineering prowess would render most of the disadvantages of front-drive moot, too. After all, the car is based on the UKL platform, on which the Mini Cooper sits. And that car is among the best-handling small hatches in the market.
In fact, BMW believes that its FWD technology is so good, the car deserves an “Active Tourer” badge highlighting its sportiness.
The Peak had a chance to sample most variants of the 2-series Active Tourer: the 218i, 218d and 225i, which were the launch models; as well as the 225i xDrive version, which uses a new FWD-based 4×4 technology. Of these, only the 218i Active Tourer is available in Singapore, in “Business” and “Luxury” spec.
With just 136bhp, this is the weakest petrol powertrain on offer, yet it is arguably the most interesting of the lot. It is the first to receive the three-pot engine (the i8 has a similar engine paired with electric motors) based on BMW’s new 500cc-per-cylinder modular strategy, which results in three-, four- and six-cylinder lumps in capacities of – you guessed it – 1.5 litres, 2 litres and 3 litres respectively.
Three-cylinder engines living in a four-stroke world have a natural tendency to rock. BMW installed a balance shaft to counteract this, effectively using two opposing masses to cancel out the vibrations.
In practice, the engine runs rather smoothly, unless you back off the accelerator suddenly, which causes the car to pitch. Its exhaust note, which BMW touts as that of a “baby six” (the in-line six is technically two in-line threes bolted together), resembles that of a four-cylinder diesel at idle. When pressed hard, though, it exposes a new character that, well, does sound a little like a six-cylinder.
There is a bit of turbo-lag under 1,000rpm but once above the threshold, the turbines spin up and the car pulls ahead adequately. The 0-100kmh sprint takes a leisurely 9.2 seconds but deft manual overriding of cogs in the six-speed automatic gearbox should result in good overtaking times.
That said, the 218i Active Tourer will not win any straight line drag races. However, on twisty roads, where we tested this car in Tasmania, it had little trouble keeping up with the X5 35d pace car.
Of course, the higher-powered cars were crackers to drive. This is perhaps the best indication that the chassis is so well sorted out that the 18i engine is barely pushing any of its limits.
The car tracks corners brilliantly with good steering feedback, even at rather ridiculous speeds. Should you realise you might have entered a bend a tad too quickly, a last-minute jab at the brakes will keep the turn tidy without unsettling the car too much. If there’s understeer in this car – inherent in front-wheel-driven vehicles – you’ll need to be searching hard to find it.
While the 2-series Active Tourer drives well, even with the 25i engine, it doesn’t egg you on like, say, its RWD brethren, the 2-series coupe. For sure it will handle what you throw at it with aplomb, but it goes along with you, rather than trying to lead you astray.
Yet, it would be remiss of us to focus on what the car isn’t, rather than what the car is – a people mover, and a rather competent one at that. With the engine installed transversely, the interior space can be pushed out towards the front, with a very short overhang. The space at the rear is class-leading, rivalling that of the standard wheel-based 7-series. Headroom is generous too, thanks to the high roofline.
The rear seats can slide forward to create more load space, or be electrically folded forward at the touch of a button for a completely flat floor. And, if that’s not enough, there’s an under-floor storage area in the trunk big enough to contain a duffel bag and other knick-knacks.
In Singapore, the cars are generously equipped, with even the base model receiving goodies such as parking sensors, an electrically operated tailgate and BMW’s Connected Drive 3G-activated emergency services.
The “Luxury” spec upgrades include real leather upholstery, full LED headlights and a 6.5-inch navigation system.
Prices start from $160,000, which is great value for something with the Roundel badge. You might not want to trade your M5 for this car, but for a weekend runabout with the kids and the family retriever, it can’t be beaten.