“Where’s the BMW?” anybody in a state of ignorance might have asked on entering the room where the new 2 Series Gran Tourer was being launched.
Standing there were two quite ordinary-looking family MPVs (when we say an MPV looks ordinary, that can be taken to mean “like an inverted Christmas pudding on a plate” – ie short-nosed, high-domed and abruptly perpendicular at the back, as if somebody has hacked off a quick slice of the pud while everybody else is waiting for the Queen to finish her speech: that’s what they looked like)
Cars Tested: BMW 2 Series Gran Tourer 220d xDrive and 216d Luxury
That outline is not – it surely goes without saying? – the shape of a BMW as we have come to know and love them?
To my (admittedly literal-minded) way of thinking, the words “Gran Tourer” summon up visions of Maserati 5000 GTs and Facel Vegas, of Porsche 928s and Aston Martin Virages. Essentially, they call to mind a car in which a couple can hurtle across Europe from five-star hotel to five-star hotel, having their filthy way with each other at every stop.According to the classical prescription, a BMW may be a roadster, a coupe, a saloon, an estate or an MPV; it might be beautiful or it might be a dog; but, in all cases, it has a long bonnet, accommodating an engine with its cylinders (preferably six of them) in a straight line or a V conformation. The driver sits with legs and feet extended in front ,rather than under the seat, as in an MPV; and a transmission shaft runs between the front and the back of the car, connecting the engine to the rear, driving wheels. That traditional set-up is what makes a BMW so rewarding and involving to drive and also makes it different from almost everything else on the road.
That’s not how any MPV looks. It’s not how the 2 Series Gran Tourer looks.
However, the letters BMW are not the only element of its nomenclature that seem to sit uneasily with this car.
To my (admittedly literal-minded) way of thinking, the words “Gran Tourer” summon up visions of Maserati 5000 GTs and Facel Vegas, of Porsche 928s and Aston Martin Virages. Essentially, they call to mind a car in which a couple can hurtle across Europe from five-star hotel to five-star hotel, having their filthy way with each other at every stop. If, however, they have been so unfortunate as to have to drop off their children with the grandparents before setting off on their racy jaunt, the GT’s occasional seats in the rear could accommodate the little blighters at a pinch.
Gran Tourer does not, therefore, equal MPV. It is not to be confused with “people carrier”. It is not in the same bracket “Mum’s Taxi” – the vehicle in which you could transport a Brownie Six or the guests for a five year-old’s birthday outing. So what are they doing in connection with this car?
And then there’s the moniker “M Sport”, which is joined to some versions of this 2 Series. Doesn’t that have to mean sleek, low-slung, raffish and fast? Doesn’t it involve rowdy exhaust tail-pipes and tyres squealing at the limits of their adhesion? Isn’t there a sense in which a car needs to be capable of an outing on a racing circuit to deserve the title M Sport? What possible relevance does it have to a unibody minivan?
In all these ways, the new BMW Series 2 Gran Tourer may be assuming airs and pretending to be things that it is not. What, then, is it in truth?
What it is, most definitely, is an exercise in niche-marketing (yes, another one). Meeting the specific demands of a limited number of customers is where the growth in sales can be stimulated for all premium car-makers. BMW have spotted the possibility of snaffling 5-6000 sales a year with a seven-seater MPV and have, thus, made a car to meet that demand. Acquiring that potential business self-evidently means more to them than sticking sentimentally to the qualities and car dynamics that we have come to associate with BMW.
Following the five-seater 2 Series Active Tourer that came out last year which was BMW’s first front-wheel drive car with a transverse-mounted engine, the Gran Tourer is, therefore, BMW’s first seven-seater MPV. From the nose to the C-pillar, it is actually identical to the Active Tourer. The main body difference is a longer rear section to accommodate folding sixth and seventh seats (though this car is actually two inches shorter overall than the 3 Series Tourer).
It is also pretty much identical to a host of other family MPVs on the market. During the product presentation at the recent launch, the only interior item I noted down as distinguishing this car from a VW Touran or a Vauxhall Zafira or a Citroen Grand C4 Picasso was the option of an entertainments rail between the first and second rows of seats into which the kids can plug their tablets and phones and Nintendos and such.
It’s a great little gizmo but does it justify the premium that a customer will have to pay for this car? With two petrol versions on offer and three diesels, the base price for the 218i petrol Gran Tourer is £24710. The top-of-the-range 220d xDrive I drove first at the launch costs £32540 on the road. My favourite was the middle-of-the-range three-cylinder turbocharged 216d, which is expected to be the most popular version at £26645. But the one I drove would cost £30175, including all options. That’s more than the all-in price of the most expensive Zafira.
What are you buying for all that extra moolah? What are you getting in return? Apart from the entertainments bar which happens, of course, to be extra?
Badge swagger, is the answer. Envy, covetousness and social standing are the commodities that come with this purchase. That lofty look you can paste on your face when dropping the nippers at the Cubs’ barbeque. That flounce of swank in the supermarket car-park. The poisonous jealousy of your neighbours, struggling out of their drive in their 10 year-old Saab estate. Priceless.
The premium for the 2 Series Gran Tourer certainly doesn’t buy you a much better car to drive. BMW staged a display on a deserted landing strip to show off the car’s nimble handling characteristics which might give the driver a slight edge in steering away from a sudden emergency on the road. But, on the public roads of the test route, I kept thinking about Ford’s C-Max – my favourite MPV to drive – and musing that for sharpness, lightness of touch and sensory feedback, that car with its blue-collar badge makes this fancypants BMW look….well, a little ordinary.
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