Car review: New BMW streets ahead of rivals

The cockpit of the BMW 218i Active Tourer is ergonomically designed and the car’s height gives the driver a commanding view. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
The cockpit of the BMW 218i Active Tourer is ergonomically designed and the car’s height gives the driver a commanding view. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
The cockpit of the BMW 218i Active Tourer is ergonomically designed and the car’s height gives the driver a commanding view. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
The cockpit of the BMW 218i Active Tourer is ergonomically designed and the car’s height gives the driver a commanding view. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

The 218i is better designed and equipped than arch-rival Mercedes-Benz's B-class

This is BMW's version of the Mercedes-Benz B-class, with a big dollop of brilliance.

In terms of shape and size, it is similar to its arch-rival's tall hatch. But that is as far as the similarity goes.

Inside and out, the BMW 218i Active Tourer comes across as better designed, better built and much better equipped.

Oh, and it is also a lot more entertaining at the wheel. Which is a pleasant surprise, really, because the Active Tourer is BMW's first front-wheel-driven car, a radical move that critics say will dilute the brand's core values.

It uses a three-cylinder engine from Mini, which belongs to BMW Group. The engine is mated to BMW's trusty six- speed Steptronic gearbox.

If the configuration is unusual for BMW, so is its compact MPV-like styling.

It does not quite convey sportiness or dynamism - adjectives synonymous with BMW.

You would thus expect the 218i to be somewhat weedy, uninspiring and of Economy Class. As it turns out, it is nothing like that.

The car boasts creditable standards when it comes to fit and finish, inside and out, and the Luxury version is as well equipped as a 328i, if not better.

The first surprise is keyless access and ignition. Nice, but even Nissans and Renaults have that nowadays.

Then, as you drive the car, other goodies become apparent.

The motorised tailgate offers hands- free operation, headlights are powered by LEDs and a 5.7-inch TFT monitor lets you access a host of functions, including the latest navigation system.

It has Servotronic adaptive steering, cruise control with braking function and dual-zone climate control.

What takes the cake, though, is the car's list of electronic aids, including lane departure warning, collision warning and autonomous parking.

Solid build and premium features aside, the 218i's level of trim is worthy of mention. While the cabin is not as luxurious as a 3-series, it is a notch above the 1-series. If there are thin, hollow plastic panels in use, they are not at places your hands would come into contact with.

The cockpit is ergonomically designed, with fresh approaches to how the centre console and various controls are laid out.

The slightly higher seating position gives the driver a more commanding view, with electric servos making seat adjustments easier (another unexpected feature).

All well and good, but does the 218i drive like a BMW? In a word, yes.

The 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine beneath its bonnet sounds richer and more mellow than it did in the Mini Cooper.

Rev hard and it even sounds a bit like the creamy inline-four engine BMW uses.

Power delivery is refined, with the Steptronic gearbox working well to ensure there are no voids in the relatively narrow rev band.

Despite its modest output, the car feels nippy, so much so that manual shifts are mostly unnecessary.

You might be able to pick out some differences in the steering behaviour of the car, but that is probably because you have prior knowledge of its front-wheel- drive configuration and only if you paid particular attention.

Otherwise, the 218i is practically indistinguishable from its rear-wheel- drive cousins. And that is a harder task for BMW than decking out its car with a host of premium features.

On that front, it is streets ahead of its rivals.

christan@sph.com.sg