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Road Test: BMW 2 Series 218d Sport 5dr (2014-2015)

£25,750 when new
Road test score

Car specifications

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On the one hand, this car matters stupendously. Or at least it represents a Very Important Happening. It’s the first front-wheel-drive BMW, and it won’t be the last. From this technical wellspring will eventually be drawn anything up to a dozen different body styles, including the replacements for the X1 and 1-Series hatch, and a small saloon. There might be a small coupe and roadster in the mould of an Audi TT, and a saloon to face off against the Mercedes CLA and A3 saloon. Remembering too that the new Mini also uses a narrower, lighter version of the same platform, you get a sense of its scope.

But on the other hand, I fear it is in itself a pretty irrelevant car. It’s a five-seat family MPV. Probably nearest to the Ford C-Max in dynamics and capability. (Although BMW probably thinks the Mercedes B-Class is the rival, because BMW always thinks Mercedes is its rival.) But, critically, MPVs are a dying breed, as families shift into faux-4WD crossovers. I could never have seen the 2-Series Active Tourer reversing that trend, unless it were dazzlingly brilliant. Turns out it isn’t.

Oh, in many ways it’s a good car, but there’s a clear deficit of fitness for purpose. ,It’s not a terribly good MPV. The rear seat is a simple three-way split, whereas the more versatile French competitors have three individual seats. The BMW’s seats do slide, but they don’t tumble-fold and can’t be removed, so when you eject your passengers you still can’t get an inanimate tall object into the load bay.

And when you do have passengers, they won’t be having an easy time. BMW has earnestly striven to make this the BMW of people-carriers. Which means its chassis settings have been sportified with a degree of zeal that’s almost comic. BMW’s own publicity material informs us of the 225i Active Tourer’s Nürburgring lap time (“under nine minutes” if you’re interested), and that if you switch the DSC to Dynamic mode, it’ll do lift-off oversteer. Come on, guys, it’s a family MPV, for pity’s sake - get over yourselves.

In such a tall vehicle, the inevitable penalty for all this track-biased mania is an unyielding ride, even in a straight line. And down a twisty road, if the driver is having such a gas exploring the BMW-style handling, it’ll all be happening at a faster pace than with other people-carriers, so the passengers will be clinging onto the grab handles for dear life while a rising tide of vomit fills the footwells.

But it’s worth looking under the skin of the Active Tourer because they’ll spin off so many cars from the same bones. BMW’s big cheeses say that with transverse engines and front- or all-wheel drive, this whole group of vehicles will eventually account for some 40 per cent of all the cars the group makes. Once BMW had decided it wanted to build a range of compact cars, it needed to do a transverse-engined FWD platform, because as the existing RWD 1-Series proves, a compact car with a longitudinal engine is too cramped inside.

The whole platform was designed with BMW’s all-new modular three- and four-cylinder engines in mind. From that family, there will be two launch engines in the UK when the car goes on sale in September. The cheapest is in the 218i, the 3cyl turbo petrol from Mini Cooper. In the Mini, it’s a delightful engine, and 136bhp is plenty, but in a loaded Active Tourer it might struggle. But I can’t tell you for sure because BMW didn’t field any for sampling.

Instead, I’m driving the 218d. It’s a 2.0-litre four-cylinder making 150bhp, and it’s really good. For a four-banger transverse diesel, it’s amazingly quiet and smooth, and works hard from 1,500rpm to 5,000rpm. The economy and CO2 figures are competitive, of course, albeit not startling. There’s also a new six-speed manual gearbox, which needs development work on the shift. Its narrow gate and inconsistent weight are frequently annoying and occasionally defeating.

Within a couple of months, there will be xDrive versions, the 225i and 220d, and in front-drive a 216d and 220d. Normal enough BMW range development.

A wide wheel track front and back, short overhangs and a palpably stiff body are good fundamentals for both handling and ride, though BMW has chosen the one over the other. Working with a carefully engineered front-strut suspension, the electrically assisted steering is a nicely accurate set-up with good road feel, but it isn’t perfect because it’s slightly tainted by torque steer. Stiff anti-roll bars and the four-link back suspension mop away much of the roll and understeer you’d expect from such a tall car. And, sure enough, it’ll controllably edge the tail out if you lift off at the limit. That’ll be a worthwhile characteristic when they do the hot versions of the next 1-Series hatch, but right now it’s a bit pointless.

Of far more relevance in a people-carrier is a ride that’s definitely on the hard side. The roll stiffness that’s been dialled in to sharpen up the cornering also has the effect, in a tall car, of rocking everyone’s heads from side to side on a lumpen road, even in a straight line.

Sitting in the driver’s seat, a strange mix of MPV and BMW genetic material presents itself. As in any MPV, the windscreen is distant, its pillars impinge on your view and you’re sat far enough off the floor that your legs dangle onto the pedals. But the instruments look the same as in any BMW, and the iDrive is standard operating procedure. There’s a head-up display option, but instead of reflecting in the windscreen as with other BMWs, a transparent flap hinges up from the instrument binnacle - a budget but effective solution pioneered by Peugeot and since used by BMW in the new Mini.

The Active Tourer can be had trimmed out in wood and leather like a big BMW. Alternatively, as with the test car, it can be trimmed in fabrics that make the cabin look like a suburban garden pergola full of stripy deckchairs. That’s another indication that this machine is pitched to a family audience. Talking of families, within a year there will be a longer seven-seat version.

Now, a lot of people seem profoundly disturbed by the idea of BMW making people-carriers, full stop. In some ways, it’s a reissue of the squeals of indignation that greeted the first X5.

One-and-a-half decades on from that, and everyone but the most bulging-eyed purists are prepared to accept that BMW has managed to make SUVs without fatally diluting the image of the brand that also makes the M3. By the same token, the Mercedes Vito van hasn’t hampered the sales or image of the Mercedes SLS AMG, or at least not to any extent I’ve noticed.

I think the bigger problem for the Active Tourer is timing. When BMW launched the X5, it was a prescient move because crossover SUVs were about to go mainstream. Whereas the five-seat MPV market is in reverse. For example, in the UK, Ford’s five-seat C-Max has been emphatically overhauled by the Kuga (7,000 to 11,500 in the first half of 2014, fact fans). Even Vauxhall, which used to do nicely with the Zafira and Meriva, is saying the next versions of those two will ditch their one-box vanette look and instead get a dose of crossover fancy dress. And BMW is entirely cognisant of the trend, so is busily working on next generations of the X1 and Mini Countryman. They’ll both shift onto the same architecture as the Active Tourer.

One last thing. You might remember when BMW wheeled out cars such as the 2 coupe and the 4-Series, they told us that the even Series numbers were for sporty body styles, and the odd numbers for the more practical. Which means this car should surely have been the 1-Series Active Tourer. Circumstantial evidence, then, that at the last minute they gave it a higher number to gloss it up. That sounds like a lack of confidence. So if you don’t like the idea of the Active Tourer, be reassured that you probably won’t see one very often.

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