2017 BMW 218d Active Tourer SE (CH)

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Ever since the foundations were set for the modern BMW with the 1500 “Neue Klasse” saloon of 1961, one thing from this Munich-based auto maker has remained constant: an unwavering commitment to the use of rear wheel drive, even when the market made a whole shift to front wheel drive in the 1970s and early 1980s. As sales volumes of BMW models increased, it was largely because what were typically costly and very spartan machines, especially considering the prices charged, had driving characteristics that appeal to the enthusiast, largely vindicating the use of the advertising tagline “the ultimate driving machine”. The reality was that some of the more potent models of the late 1970s were actually quite a handful, especially in the wet, and they regularly got a pasting from the press of the day who were still singing the praises of front wheel drive, for reasons which included safe and predictable handling as well as the undeniable packaging advantages. By the late 1980s, though, with sales of BMWs soaring as they became hot property for those Yuppies whose budget did not quite stretch to a Porsche, a lot of careful engineering development along with better tyres had tamed the wayward rear ends, and a new generation of motoring journalists decided that oversteer and tail slides were a Good Thing, even if rather too many of the buying public thought that they could experiment with this on public roads, often with expensive or disastrous consequences. By the twentyfirst century, it seemed that a while generation of car enthusiasts had been convinced that front wheel drive was Bad and rear wheel drive was Good. And so BMW’s decision to stick with the format seemed prescient, after all. And for large cars and powerful ones, there was probably never really that much of a debate anyway, but for smaller ones, there was a problem, as BMW proved when they launched the first 1 series hatch. Aimed at competing with the phenomenally successful Audi A3 and trying to entice buyers of less prestige-ly badged C-Segment hatches the 1 Series had a significant problem, which was there simply was not enough space inside it. And for a family car, that was a fairly serious limitation. BMW tried to gloss over it by talking about the advantages that applied elsewhere in their range, but it was a hard argument, as the sad reality was that in anything bar the very top of the range models, the 1 Series was not that special to drive. The second generation model tried harder, but the packaging suffered from the same limitations, and there was further doubt raised in the minds of many when it was revealed that over 80% of 1 Series buyers genuinely thought that their cars were indeed front wheel drive. As sales had increased, so the car was being bought by badge snobs and those who got a good finance deal (by this time, BMW seemed to have become a Finance Company that happens to make cars), so there must have been a lot of head scratching in Munich as to what they should do. Certainly when news broke that they were planning to add a family-sized MPV-type car, to be a rival to the Mercedes B Class and a sort of up-market Renault Scenic, then it would indeed have been odd to produce one that was devoid of space inside, the principal raison d’etre of such a model. The solution, of course, was obvious and available in-house. By this time, BMW had been building the new MINI for a good few years, and although the car had done well in the showrooms, the fact that it sat on its own dedicated and front wheel drive platform meant that with the costs of producing new models escalating year on year, the maths for a MINI which shared nothing with anything else simply did not stack up. So, by slipping the same front wheel drive platform under the skin of some of the smaller BMW models, the economies of scale could look a whole load better. And by so doing, there would be a platform which could endow the proposed model with the space it needed. First notice of BMW’s plans came when the Concept Tourer was shown at the 2012 Mondial de l’Automobile, the Paris Show. The production car, looking very similar, made its debut at Geneva in March 2014, going on sale a few weeks later, called the 2 Series Active Tourer. This was a five seater, but a 7-seat version, the 2 Series Gran Tourer arrived in 2015. Although the underlying platform shared nothing with the established 2 Series Coupe and Convertible models, these new cars did use a lot of the same componentry, including some of the same engines, though clearly lacking the sportier ones., and the same sort of enhancements of the M-Sport were offered here as they are on other BMW models. Sales have been steady, though with the market’s move away from the MPV-type vehicle to crossovers, they’re still one of the rarer BMW models. I’ve generally struggled to source BMW models from the rental fleets, but when I arrived in Zurich for a weekend to go and revisit some of the old haunts that I used to enjoy when I worked over there, I found that several BMW models had entered the Hertz fleet in Switzerland, and that a 218d Active Tourer had been allocated to me. It was a couple of classes up the rental car scale from what I had reserved, so I was grateful for the upgrade, and also interested to see what the first front wheel drive would be like.

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For several years now, BMW’s model numbers and the engine capacity of the engine under the bonnet rarely correlate. Not only that but a program of constant updates, not all of which get a lot of publicity, means that you always have to check exactly what is actually powering the car. The 218d Active Tourer has a 4 cylinder 2 litre unit which puts out 150 PS (148 bhp), which makes it the middle of three different diesel models, the others being the 216d, which has a 3 cylinder 14 bhp 1.5 litre unit shared with the MINI and the 220d which uses the same B47 unit as in the test car, but in a higher form of tune, meaning it generates 187 bhp. There are petrol powered models, too, also using a mix of 3 and 4 cylinder engines, all of them turbocharged, ranging from the 108 bhp 216i which was added to the range in 2016, as a less potent version of the 218i, also a 3 cylinder, while the 2 litre petrol engine features in the 220i and 225i and a mild hybrid 225xe joined the range in 2015. All bat the top of the range come with front wheel drive, and there is a choice of a 6 speed manual or 8 speed automatic transmissions. The 218d is one of the most popular models in the range, so it was a good one to test. First impressions were good. This is a very refined engine. It does not really sound like a diesel when you start it up, even when the engine is cold, and you will be more aware of the fact that it will need refuelling from the black pump by the generous amounts of torque that are on offer than the noise whilst you are underway. This is a smooth powerplant, and the 148 bhp is sufficient to give the 218d a decent level of performance, especially as it generates an impressive 330 Nm of torque. The test car had the optional 8 speed Steptronic automatic gearbox, and the combination with this engine is a good one. Without me ever really being aware of it swapping ratios, it always seemed to be in the right gear to make the most of the available power, which was then delivered in a smooth and seamless way. You certainly would not describe this version as fast, but not only was it adequately endowed to keep with the rest of the traffic in urban and motorway conditions, it also seemed unfazed by the long ascents in the mountains. I covered 835 km in my weekend with the 218d Active Tourer, with the driving including a mix of motorway, some flat rural roads on the second day and the challenges of several of the Alpine Passes on the first. The car needed 49 litres to fill the tank before I returned it, which computes to 48.35 mpg, a reasonable result but not perhaps as good as you might hope for in a modestly powered diesel-engined family car. As I only put fuel at the start of the test, the usual proviso with rental cars is that it is possible that in fact it was returned with a genuinely full tank as opposed to one where the needle simply suggested it was. A Stop/Start system featured, and this operated efficiently, with the restart generally being rapid enough.

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If you expect this to the “Ultimate Driving Machine”, prepare for a disappointment. The steering is one culprit. The electro-mechanical power steering set-up used here is different from that employed in the rear wheel drive 1 and 2 Series models. BMW describes it as a ‘single pinion’ set-up, because the electric motor assistance servo acts directly on the steering gear rather than via a secondary gearset. This reduces both weight and friction in the system and enhances the response time and directional accuracy. The end result did not impress me at all. Over assisted, light and vague feeling, it may be no worse than many other brand new cars, but that is no excuse for a car that is supposed to combine practicality with a something you still really want to drive, And the handling was worse, with lots of understeer and a certain amount of body roll. the saving grace is that as delivered on relatively high profile 205/60 R16 run-flat wheels, this BMW rides quite nicely, and the car is quiet when cruising, so you can go on a long journey without undue concern, as long as there are not too many bends in the roads. But that is not the Alps, of course, where I spent one day of my weekend, taking in a number of the famous Passes there. This meant that the brakes got more of a work out than is often the case with a car that you sample for just a few days. Long descents with plenty of hairpin bends are a good test for fade, and indeed in the past I have seen manufacturers on these roads testing for precisely that. Those in the 2 Active Tourer were not found wanting, with the pedal pressure remaining constant and a good feel evident even at the bottom of a long descent. There is an electronic handbrake, operated by a button in the centre console, though as this was an automatic. I did not bother with it. All round visibility was generally fine, though I did find the angle of the A pillar at times to be obstructive. To help when reversing, the right hand door mirror dropped to give a better view of the position of the kerb and there was a rear-view camera which made it particularly easy to judge the back of the car.

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The dashboard of the Active Tourer is all but identical to that of the 1 Series Hatch and other 2 Series models, and that it is not a Bad Thing. It retains the BMW style which has resisted the urge and fashion that others have followed for large slabs of plastic for something which is more modest in size, yet retaining space to accommodate all the features of the modern car. Superficially, it all looks to be of good quality, though like many of the less expensive BMW models, it does not take long to spot that in fact there are plenty of hard plastics and most of the materials used strike you as pared down to what BMW thought they could get away with. The hard edges on the leather wrap of the steering wheel were particularly unfortunate and the plastic inlay which features in this SE trim is particularly horrid. Any Audi has this car licked for quality by a country mile. The main instruments are presented in a simple cowled binnacle, with just two large dials for the speedometer and rev counter, with fuel level and water temperature gauges inset. As with most BMWs models that I have sampled. the odometer is right at the bottom of the display area, between the dials and I found it obscured by the steering wheel the way I was sitting. There was a head-up display in the test car, which I found useful as it projected your current speed (something to watch with extra vigilance in Switzerland where the speed cameras have negligible tolerance for any breach) right in your natural line os sight. Lights operate from a rotary on the dash, with a useful and increasingly commonly seen Auto function, leaving the very chunky column stalks to take care of indicators and wipers, these also having an Auto setting. These are of the one touch variety, which work fine when you get use to them, but even after a weekend, I still got caught out with the indicators on occasions. The steering wheel boss contains the controls for the cruise control and audio repeater functions. The centre of the dash contains the infotainment screen for what is officially called the BMW Professional Media system. The screen is , a 6.5″ unit which is mounted up high, where it is easy to see and reach, but looking a bit like an after-thought, as is the case with so many cars at present. The graphics are crisp, and the system seemed quite responsive. You can either use the touch screen or the control wheel and buttons for the iDrive system, that you find in the centre console, though they all seemed a bit awkward to reach. As well as a decent quality audio system, which thankfully does still have an array of buttons for presets and rotary knobs in a panel below the display unit, the screen also delivered an easy to use navigation system, a welcome feature especially in a rental car. BMW revised the whole system in an 2016 update, and many of the changes they have made have been focused on ease of use. You will also find the button to select Sport or Eco mode in the centre console. Dual zone climate control still functions from an array of buttons on the dash. I did note that the system was surprisingly noisy on even quite modest fan settings. There is a keyless starting, with a large button to the right of the wheel, where it is easy to find if not to see.

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The MPV-like styling and a generous class area means that the passenger cabin is light and airy, and it is also roomy enough for 5 people. You don’t really notice it when you get in but there is an elevated driving position, and the styling of the Active Tourer is such that there is more headroom than in a conventional hatch model, certainly if like me you want to set the seat as low as it will go. It is a case of adjusting the seats manually. A bar underneath is used for fore/aft movement, while the backrest alters in a series of steps, which seemed too far apart, as I wanted an intermediate position, and the lever to do this was also awkward to reach. Although there was plenty of adjustment of the position of the seat, and a telescoping wheel, I still struggled to get truly comfortable. In the SE trim of the test car, the seats were upholstered in a hard-wearing cloth.

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Cars like this are all about practicality and space for people, and those in the back will generally find that they are not short on space, an advantage BMW did not lose when adopting front wheel drive, even though the compact overall dimensions of the Active Tourer mean that it is shorter than a Ford Focus. That is certainly the case if you were to ask two adults to sit here. The central console unit does extend quite a way back, though, and there is something of a central tunnel, required for the xDrive versions, meaning that a middle occupant might not feel quite as generously provided for, though as the rear seats are on sliders, with a about 150mm between the foremost and rearmost positions, and the angle of backrest can be varied, some trade-off could be made if you were to sacrifice a little luggage space. The seats are split on a 40/20/40 basis. Occupants here get their own air vents, a central drop down armrest which includes the almost obligatory cupholders, and for their odds and ends there are nets on the back of the front seats and bins on the doors. There is a good sized boot, accessed by a large tailgate which has electrical assistance as standard. The boot floor is more or less flush with the bottom of the tailgate. A useful net on the right hand side from the wheel arch to the rear of the car provided an area to group bits and pieces together and there is a well under the floor (where you might hope to find a spare wheel, but you don’t) where you could tuck additional items. More capacity is created by folding down the rear seat backrests, something you can do using the electrically operated switches in the boot, rather than having to pull releases on the seats themselves, and the resulting sizeable area has a completely flat floor. One thing I did note is that there is something of a gap at the end of the main load area and this extra load bay and things can and do fall into it, under the seat cushions, from where they are quite difficult to retrieve. Inside the cabin there are plenty of places for odds and ends, with a good-sized glovebox, bins on the doors, a stowage cubby under the central armrest, a recessed area in the dash above the climate controls and a small lidded area above the driver’s left knee.

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Like all models these days, there’s quite a range of BMW Active Tourers, even before you reach to the long (and often expensive) options list. As well as the engine choices detailed earlier in this report, there are effectively four trims on offer, SE, Luxury, Sport and the popular M-Sport. For most of the model’s life, you have been able to order any trim with any engine. SE models have a good level of equipment in their standard specification, This include 16-inch alloy wheels, electric front and rear windows, DAB radio, rear parking sensors, dual zone automated climate control, drive mode selection, keyless start, automatic wipers and automatic headlamps, a 40:20:40 split folding rear seat with electronic folding functionality and 60:40 sliding rear bench, an electrically assisted tailgate, rear Park Distance Control, BMW Emergency Call. Additionally there is a 6.5-inch colour display for the iDrive operated BMW Professional radio with single CD player DAB digital radio, Bluetooth, with a USB interface and audio streaming functionality as well as standard navigation. Performance Control, Comfort Go keyless engine start, Drive Performance Control with ECO PRO, Comfort and Sport modes, rain sensor with automatic headlight activation, a Sport multi-function leather steering wheel and additional 12V power socket are also included as standard. Sport trim gives you larger 17-inch alloy wheels, Sport front seats, LED ambient lighting, Black High-gloss trim and Sport enhancements to the exterior styling. Sport models cost £1,250 over the SE specification. Luxury models have 17-inch Luxury alloy wheels, Dakota leather upholstery, LED ambient lighting, Chromeline exterior, Fineline Stream wood trim and Luxury enhancements to exterior styling. Luxury models cost £2,000 over an SE.. M-Sport specification brings with it 18 inch M- Sport alloy wheels, Dakota leather upholstery, High gloss Shadowline exterior trim, Aluminium hexagon interior trim, M Sport aerodynamic styling, M Sport suspension and M Sport interior styling enhancements including an M-Sport steering wheel.

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If you think of the 218d Active Tourer as a practical vehicle for transporting up to 5 people and their stuff, and an alternative to the other mid-sized MPVs such as the Scenic, the C-Max, the Toyota Verso and the Citroen C4 Picasso, then it has much to commend it. There is ample space in it, though a Mercedes B Class and the VW Golf SV have more and it drives well enough, proving restful over long distances. But if you select it, thinking you are getting a sporty BMW, then you may just feel somewhat disappointed. In this guise at least, it certainly was no more sporting to drive than any of its rivals, and the interior quality was really no better than average, and certainly not that “premium” in feel. As the market moves away from MPV type vehicles towards crossovers, then this may become something of a one-generation member of the extensive BMW range, but if the rumours are to be believed, it absolutely will not be the last model from BMW we see with front wheel drive. Everything points to the fact that the third generation 1 Series will move to this format, giving BMW the economies of scale and hence the profitability that they need to sustain the MINI and to compete in a class where space matters and few drivers care, or even know, which of the wheels are driven.

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