CHRISTIAAN HETZNER

With its new minivan, BMW ditches rwd for practicality

To preserve its sporty image, BMW is targeting the 2-series Active Tourer minivan at outdoor enthusiasts.
Christiaan Hetzner is Automotive News Europe's Germany correspondent.
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Even auto industry darling BMW has to obey the laws of physics: a rear-wheel-drive car that is compact yet roomy is a paradox. So for traditional fans of the luxury brand, the 2-series Active Tourer minivan is nothing less than a heresy on wheels -- the first modern-era BMW-badged car where power from a transversely mounted engine is applied to the front axle.

The 2-series Active Tourer is perhaps one of the hardest products the company ever designed. BMW for years struggled with the conundrum of how to build a minivan that is sporty and fun to drive.

When this challenge was first put to debate, even the unloved word “minivan” had to be avoided at all costs to avoid endangering the brand’s image as the creator of the ultimate driving machine. BMW resorted to linguistic backflips, instead, coining a term so clumsy and awkward that only the German language could conceive -– raumfunktionales Konzept, in English “space-functional concept."

Norbert Reithofer swiftly buried the project when he became BMW CEO. He feared that a minivan where practicality is more important than driving dynamics would tarnish the image of the brand. The space-functional concept vanished without a trace, allowing Mercedes-Benz, which is normally late to copy BMW’s ever-growing model range, to beat its Bavarian competitor with the B class.

But Reithofer had to do a U-turn, confronted with some undeniable facts.

• First, BMW needs to grow volumes to keep its plants humming at full capacity and maintain an 8 percent to 10 percent operating margin target range at its automotive division.

• Secondly, demand for luxury compact cars such as the 2-series Active Tourer is expected to grow faster over the next 10 years than for the overall premium market, according to BMW.

• Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, ever-tightening CO2 emissions regulations in Europe are forcing BMW to increase the sales of smaller, fuel-sipping cars to offset the thirstier full-sized SUVs and large sedans that are the real breadwinners for the brand.

For that reason BMW developed an all-new front-wheel-drive architecture, an undertaking so expensive that it needs to develop 12 different BMW-brand derivatives to achieve the necessary return on investment.

Now that BMW sacrificed its rwd sacred cow for pragmatism, the brand is ditching its conservatism wholesale and plans to launch a longer version of the Active Tourer with three rows of seats to make room for seven passengers.

Saving face is important for BMW, though. To preserve its sporty image, the brand is targeting the 2-series Active Tourer at rugged outdoor enthusiasts who need cars with lots of space to schlep around mountain bikes, camping equipment and other gear.

It hired Bavarian mountaineer Stefan Glowacz as brand ambassador for the Active Tourer, hoping he can convince the 1 million members of the German Alpine Club that the brand is serious about being environmentally friendly.

The 2-series Active Tourer launches in Europe in September. It arrives in U.S. in early 2015.

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