I spy a five-seat people carrier. Hardly the sort of car where image and excitement reign.
No this is a sector of the market sorely lacking in The Fizz. But hang on. You're witnessing a moment in history. It's the arrival of the first front-drive BMW. (OK, BMW engineered the Minis and the Rover 75, but they aren't actual BMWs). Not to mention this is the first BMW people-carrier.
I wonder why BMW is bothering. But I'll come to them later. First, is this, to paraphrase the car rental guy in Get Shorty, "the BMW of minivans?"
Amazingly, it is. It's tall and the windscreen is miles ahead of you, bounded by huge pillars that block the view in tight bends. You can't see the bonnet of the stubby nose. Your feet are below you rather than ahead. All the static signals are that it's going to drive like any other family box. But guess what: the steering doesn't have mild dementia, the body control isn't vaguely drunk, the performance isn't wheezing. No, the 2-series Active Tourer closely approaches the dynamics of an actual car.
OK, a car. But a BMW?
We're talking about the Bavarian Motor Works, so let's start with the brand-new engine. The 218d uses the modular diesel powerplant that's part of the same family of three-and four-cylinder petrols and diesels first seen in the new Mini and i8. Eventually they'll roll out, in longitudinal as well as transverse installations, across a vast swathe of BMW models.
In the 218d this two-litre four-cylinder makes 150bhp. For a four-banger transverse diesel it's amazingly quiet, smooth and free-revving. The economy and CO2 figures are competitive of course, but not startling. There's also a new six-speed manual gearbox, which needs development work on the shift: the narrow gate and inconsistent weight are a bit of a lottery.
And the handling? No powerslides surely?
No powerslides, absolutely. But that doesn't mean it's not a BMW. You can't powerslide an X5 or 318d or i3 or even an i8. And yet the Active Tourer engineers were so obsessed with making it 'dynamic' that they've gone further than surely 99 percent of people-carrier buyers would want.
The steering, in pursuit of impressively vivid feel, also transmits a fair bit of torque kickback. The ride, because it controls roll and understeer so well, is pretty firm and sometimes thumpy. And oh lordy when you semi-deactivate the stability control and get to the cornering limit, you can lift-off and nudge out the tail like a lairy hot hatch. It's remarkable fun, even if it's an irrelevant quality in a family van. And of even less relevance, the engineers say the more powerful petrol version will lap the N*rb?rgr!ng in under nine minutes. They just can't help themselves.
Family van then. Any good at that?
The rear room is decent for the class, but no better than that. The seats slide forward to make the boot bigger, and the backrests recline a little, and flop forward at the touch of a switch in the boot, and the boot itself has an underfloor bin. But really that's about the extent of the MPV trickery. In French MPVs, kids enjoy the territorial aspect of each having an individual seat to themselves. But this one isn't like that - it's a conventional 2/3 and 1/3 split. And the seat backrests simply drop down - they don't tumble-fold.
And in front?
Good support from the seats, and decent dash quality. You can of course tick off a big menu of the normal connected drive systems, driver aids and power-assist options. There are some pretty out-there options for colour schemes too. Our test car had red stitching on the dash and deck-chair striped seats.
I'm not convinced by the exterior design.
Nor us. It's certainly the most dynamic-looking of MPVs and it rocks all the usual BMW cues. But maybe an MPV shouldn't try so hard to disguise what it is.
Not too assaulting at first. It starts at £22,125 for the base spec 218i with a 150bhp three-cylinder petrol. The tester, a 218d Sport, would have been £25,455. But there's always the sting of extras.
Very well. It's the BMW of people carriers. But rivalling the Citroen Picasso is a pretty random thing for BMW to be doing, surely?
Well, five years ago BMW decided it would gain a lot of sales by expanding its range downwards. So it conceived this front-drive architecture because smaller cars need to be space-efficient. The architecture was designed to support up to 12 different body styles of BMW, though they won't all necessarily be built. We do know this five-seat Active Tourer will be followed by a stretched seven-seat version - even more off-brand perhaps. And XDrive will come later. After that we expect hatchbacks, a small crossover, and a saloon. For clues, just look at what Audi does with the A3 (3dr, 5dr, cabrio, saloon) and S3 and Q3. And of course the FWD BMWs share many ideas - though not a lot of parts because they are different sizes - with the new Mini.
So if BMW makes this FWD people carrier drive satisfactorily, there's hope for all those future cars?
Quite so. And yes, it turns out that this dynamic feat has been accomplished.
But you didn't answer the question before last. Sure, BMW has made a decent MPV, but just because BMW could doesn't mean BMW should have, does it?
Three things here. For a start, you can argue that however 'premium' and 'dynamic' BMW's people carrier is, it's still a people carrier, and the wider public will think that's a brand dilution. But then, Mercedes makes Unimogs and trucks and that doesn't dilute the allure of the S-class.
Second point. While some people buy BMWs because they're good cars, some buy them purely for the image and badge. People in the MPV market aren't image-conscious, surely, because while MPVs are clever and useful they aren't image cars. So I think few buyers in a non-image sector will pay for an image badge. If they want image, they'll get a BMW X1.
And finally, mention of the X1 brings us onto a significant market shift. Because so many people have bought crossovers - see the Qashqai, Kuga, etc - the MPV segment is the fastest-shrinking segment of all. In the past, when BMW has gone into new segments it's been into growing ones. The first X5. The Z3. The Mini. Then the Countryman. The 6-series Gran Coupe. The i3. They all launched into sectors that were new and small but growing (crossovers, roadsters, premium little cars, small baby crossovers, four-door coupes, EVs).
It's possible that the 2-series Active Tourer has arrived fashionably late at the MPV party. But it's also possible it's arrived so late everyone else is getting their coats and phoning a minicab home.
Pictures: Rowan Horncastle