Buried in an article about the East-West schism between wagons and BMW’s ungainly Gran Turismo series of pseudo-crossovers was a bit of news destined to horrify the BMW diehards that represent a slim but vocal minority of its customer base. Despite indications that it would not be appearing on our shores, BMW will in fact be launching a front-drive car in North America, as per Automotive News Europe
Next year, BMW will add a minivan-styled compact model targeted at young families, sports enthusiasts who need space for their equipment and older buyers who like cars that are easy to get in and out of and have a high seating position. The minivan will be based on the Active Tourer concept and is set to debut in production guise at the Geneva auto show in March. Most likely it will be called the 2-series Active Tourer. It will be underpinned by BMW’s new UKL front-wheel-drive architecture that debuted this week on the third-generation Mini.
The two readers who regularly follow my byline (hi, Mom and Dad) will recall that just months ago, I penned an editorial defending BMW’s move towards front-wheel drive platforms. I still stand by that opinion, and the choice to do front-wheel drive is a rational one for BMW.
Having spent untold sums (likely billions) developing the front-drive UKL architecture, BMW needs to amortize the costs somehow. And with profitability and scale requirements being what they are in a highly competitive, globalized marketplace, BMW cannot confine UKL to the MINI brand alone.
Transverse, front-drive layouts make a lot of sense in terms of packaging and interior space. A car like the 1-Series is a prime candidate for this layout – in Europe, where it’s offered as a hatchback as well as a coupe, the north-south engine layout and rear-drive running gear eats up passenger and trunk space. And with the small, sporty coupe now being sold as the 2-Series, there is room for the 1-Series to become a front-drive, entry-level BMW that can compete with everything from the Ford Focus to the Volkswagen Golf to the Mercedes-Benz CLA. Ford, in particular, must be running scared at the prospect of a C-Segment BMW that will have a higher end (and comparably more profitable) Focus Titanium or Vignale in its sights.
But being a car enthusiast is not about the rational, the sensible or the profit and loss statement. I spend far too much time in these virtual pages wearing that particular hat. If you’d be so kind as to indulge me for a second, I’m going to remove it as I step up on to the soapbox.
Reading the description of the ActiveTourer, instantly conjures up two of the most noxious words in our modern lexicon: “lifestyle” and “brand”. Lifestyle, because this is clearly a “lifestyle” vehicle, targeted at people who like “outdoor” activities, young families who prioritize car seats over sports seats and older buyers who are looking for an easy ingress/egress.
I don’t begrudge any of these types. I like to get some fresh air once in a while, I hope to be blessed with a family at some point in the near (but not too near) future, and inevitably, I will grow old. I have watched my parents migrate from sedans to crossovers as they have gotten older, and my grandmother finds it much easier to get in and out of the Fit in the local Honda dealer than her 2000 Civic.
I’m even willing to concede that front-wheel drive is hardly an impediment to driving purity or outright performance. Look at a Volkswagen GTI or a Fiesta ST if you need proof. But the ActiveTourer’s stated mission flies in the face of that. This vehicle seems to represent the denouement for BMW’s journey from The Ultimate Driving Machine to The Ultimate Lifestyle Brand That Once Made Interesting Vehicles.