Carmakers love to sell a glossy lifestyle to car buyers. It’s probably why SUVs have become the must-have accessory in recent years. SUVs are often no more practical than estate cars, but people love the idea that on the odd occasion they have to mount a kerb when parking outside the school gates, their SUV will cope.
But we’ve been here before. In the Nineties, car manufacturers did a superb job at convincing everyone that they needed a large multi-purpose vehicle, or MPV for short. Virtually every car brand had an MPV in their range, and soon every street and housing estate was cluttered with large people carriers. Seemingly every buyer needed essentially a two-tonne van with the ability to remove the seats once in a while.
These days the MPV craze has been superseded by SUV mania, and there are very few people-carriers left on sale. Which is one of the reasons why we were keen to spend some time with the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer.
You could say the practical Beemer shares very little with the good old MPVs of the Brit Pop era. There are no removable seats, for example, and there are no clever storage compartments to lose things in. It’s essentially a normal car with slightly more headroom, and is arguably the only model in BMW’s range that simply focuses on the job of being a car. I like that.
In my time with it, I never wished for the seats to move around to create a conference area like those MPVs of yore. I never yearned for sliding doors, either. It was great at carrying the odd tall passenger and a tonne of luggage or a builder’s bag of rubbish to the tip.
Another way it’s unlike those old large battle buses is the way it drives. Our car, badged 223i, was fitted with a 2.0-litre mild-hybrid four-cylinder petrol engine that pushes out 215bhp. Doesn’t sound all that impressive, I know, but by heck did it shift.
It’s an engine that loves to be revved to the red line before changing gear, too, and with 0-60mph taking just 6.8 seconds it feels hilariously fast for such a tall car. And as it was an M Sport version, it got stiff suspension, a thick-rimmed steering wheel and figure-hugging sports seats up front; it even sounded rather fruity too. In this respect it reminded me of the old Vauxhall Zafira GSi – a very sensible car but with a rather unnecessary, but nevertheless fun, 189bhp 2.0-litre engine and tuned suspension.
The 223i was surprisingly good fun when I was in the mood to drive quickly, but frustrating at the more mundane, normal driving, which was surprisingly disappointing.
BMW has fitted the 2.0-litre with a mild-hybrid system to reduce CO2 and improve fuel consumption, but it annoyed me as much as it delighted me. At very slow speeds or when cruising, the engine would shut off and the car would drive on electric power. At other times there was a little extra electric boost to assist the petrol engine when accelerating.
This was excellent and I’d routinely see 40mpg on the trip computer. What was not so good was the system’s hesitancy when stationary. It seemed to hate being rushed from a junction, for example, leading to a handful of rather dangerous moments at t-junctions or roundabouts. Spot a gap in the traffic and push the throttle and quite often there was no power at all – squeeze harder, and the engine would kick in and I would hurtle forwards.
And while I think of it, that stiff ride that was so good on a twisting b-road was a little too unforgiving around town, and that thick-rimmed steering wheel made low-speed manoeuvres a bit cumbersome.
Speaking of frustrations, BMW’s decision to not fit a rotary controller for the infotainment system is a curious oversight. The Active Tourer gets BMW’s latest infotainment tech and one-piece curved touchscreen display, which is excellent. But while the 4 Series and iX BMW get a wheel on the centre console to control it, the 2 Series doesn’t. It’s an odd decision in what is a family car and it made selecting even basic functions like a radio station or adjusting the climate control unnecessarily complex.
Our car came with the £1,150 Technology Pack which is an option that’s well worth selecting. Not only does it add fantastic adaptive LED headlights – which allow you to drive with your full beams at night and not dazzle other drivers – and wireless phone charging, but a 360-degree parking camera. In an earlier report, I showed how superb the tech is and makes parking an absolute doddle.
I even liked the way the 2 Series Active Tourer looked. The old model seemed to resemble a Kia in my eyes, but the new Active Tourer with its sharp creases and flush-fitting door handles looked quite distinctive. The grille is ghastly though and looks like you’ve crashed through your electric gates, in my opinion.
The six months with the 223i have been enjoyable, and overall I think I could live with all of the shortcomings. It’s a practical car, it has some clever tech on board, and it feels a quality item with solid build quality and an attractively styled dashboard. Factor in performance that will embarrass a hot hatchback, and the 2 Series Active Tourer is a fine example that MPVs can be good cars.