GEORGE, Western Cape - In the early days of South Africa the ox-wagon began to open up wheeled communication through the hinterland east of Cape Town. Then came Thomas Bain, a man who had never seen a motor-car – they hadn’t been invented, then – yet built many of the passes we take for granted today.
His roads followed, so I’ve read, the millennia-trodden routes of migratory elephants and there’s perhaps none so beautiful, so natural, so primeval, as the Seven Passes route between George and Knysna.
It was one of three passes covered during two days’ driving on the South African introduction of BMW’s 2 Series Active Tourer. The other mountain memorials to Mr Bain? The Outeniqua over the mountains of the same name, opened in the early 1950’s to replace the Montague Pass, and the seven-times rebuilt Robinson Pass that connects Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn.
Take a virtual ride over each:
The Outeniqua Pass.
The Robinson Pass.
Try all seven of the Seven Passes.
History tells us that Thomas Bain began building the 75km Seven Passes Road in 1867 and it was completed in 1883 – the same year as the motor-car came into real existence thanks to Karl Benz. It crossed 10 rivers and seven gorges, including the Kaaimans River whose current bridge is in the photograph above; it replaced a timber bridge in 1904, but uses the same origial stone columns.
It was replaced by the N2 in 1952 but if you’re driving – in any car, not just a BMW – east take the pass and fall back into history.
Of which the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer is making a little of its own. It’s reversed the flow of automotive technology from BMW to its recently adopted sister Mini to make the 2 Series the first front-wheel drive BMW.
JOY OVER THE PASSES
How much of a Mini lies under the skin of the Tourer I couldn’t pry out of BMW people at the launch but, from the talked-about specs during the model presentation at the Oubaai resort near George airport, it’s a lot. The cars are built on the same chassis at the Mini five-door.
Certainly the FWD configuration made the two units I drove (a 225i and a 218i) sheer joy over the passes. There are seven models in the South African range based on the two above and two 220 models, one petrol and one diesel.
IMAGE GALLERY: 2015 BMW 2 Series Active Tourer
Each is primarily an eight-speed auto with six-speed manual an option and BMW promises, despite front-wheel drive, that there is no torque-steer. After driving the cars, no argument there…
Base prices range from R378 000 to R447 000 – but there’s a tempting options list that can easily add R100 000 to your bill.
Whatever, the compact car, it’s now obvious, is the way to buy in today’s financial, traffic and social situation and with the FWD 2 Series Active Tourer BMW has produced a car of modest dimensions but capable of brilliant road performance. It’s a five-seater with rear seats that slide to accommodate various configurations of people and luggage to a maximum load length of 2.4m and anywhere from 460 to 1510 litres of boot volume.
'HALLMARK BMW DYNAMICS'
There is in existence a seven-seat Grand Tourer but BMW, asked if it would reach SA, simply said “maybe”. Engines are shared across the brands; no doubt BMW techies spent a lot of time at the Mini factory - Plant Oxford - not far from London.
BMW SA describes the Tourer as “bringing the functionality of space and comfort, combined with hallmark BMW dynamics, style and elegance, to the premium compact class”. The cars are 4.34m long, 1.8m wide and 1.55m tall.
Each of the new transverse engines – three or four cylinders, the choice is yours but don’t be put off by the concept of three! – is turbocharged and managed by a comprehensive package of BMW EfficientDynamics and the extensive connectivity provided by BMW ConnectedDrive.
BMW’s Edward Makwana explained: “The cars are all about bringing functionality of space to BMW dynamics. The next five years will, in fact, see BMW’s share of smaller vehicles increase – we have already seen five percent growth in the segment.
“The 2 Series is simply a premium small car targeting groups for which we have never before provided – such as the Active Tourer – without them having to scale-down.”
WHERE'D THE IDENTIY GO?
He listed the type of potential buyer: somebody who has an active lifestyle, wants higher seating but with space and a compact exterior, and functionality. BMW says front occupants have a far higher seating position than in a sedan: better all-round view and easier access. There is also the option of a large glass roof.
Despite all the hype about its looks, however, the 2 Tourer has morphed from BMW’s traditional instant identity into one of a kind, with some kinks in the general market’s mould. The kidney grille, thank heavens, still carries the BMW image – but if this is the style of future BMW’s, the poor grille is fighting a losing battle.
Despite what BMW calls the distinctive twin circular headlights and the L-shaped tail lights.
Get in, however, and it’s pure BMW with all the aircon, radio and air vents angled towards the driver.
But what about the engines? As I said earlier, three or four cylinders, each transverse and turbocharged: the 218i has three, the rest four – and I promise, after driving one, that the 1.5-litre 218i will not disappoint in performance: it does have 100kW on tap, after all. It also has a distinctive engine note and I guess that pretty soon owners will be bragging that their car is a three-pot (pssttt, and it does 5.11 litres/100km, mate).
LESS WEIGHT, LESS FUEL
Top in the SA market is the 225i Active Tourer (5.9/100km claimed with the standard eight-speed Steptronic gearbox). It’s fast, it’s beautiful to drive and packs 170kW to make 6.6sec to 100km/h and the needle will swing to 240 km/h (actually, how many of you give a hang about acceleration you’ll be daft to use and top speed that will put you in jail).
(Fuel consumption figures have been calculated as per the ECE test cycle and may vary depending on the tyres fitted.)
Lightweight construction throughout the cars, BMW says, is just one among many BMW EfficientDynamics technology elements; also included are auto stop/start, braking energy capture, optimum gear position indicator and an “integral air curtain” that uses two vertical air inlets in the front bumper to direct the airstream along the front wheels.
In addition to the standard model, BMW also offers the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer in four other variants with an interior, exterior and specification tailored even more closely to customers’ requirements.
Standard equipment for the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer includes a Radio Professional including hands-free Bluetooth, BMW iDrive control system with controller on the floor centre console and 16.5cm Control Display, auto headlights and wipers, sports leather steering-wheel, “emergency call” (crash, and the car calls for help), parking radar, cruise/braking control and a multifunction steering wheel.
Sport Line adds alloy wheel rims and sport seats while “the high-gloss black kidney grille bars, model-specific air intakes and the accent strip on the rear apron underline the car’s presence”.
Luxury Line adds “subtle exterior chromed applications” and leather upholstery.
“The 2 Series Active Tourer,” BMW emphasised, “will also be available with M Sport specification: M aerodynamics, Shadow Line trim, M Sport suspension, 18” M light-alloy rims (try the ride before you buy, Wheels24 says), M leather steering-wheel and leather sports seats.
Then there’s the assistance systems and infotainment features that are collectively known as BMW ConnectedDrive which, BMW says, bring smartphone applications into the car and allow innovative features to be added at any time in the future.
The BMW 2 Series Active Tourer is also the first model in the premium compact class to be offer a head-up display, and in full colour. However, instead of beaming on to the windscreen, it displays on a retractable transparent screen above the steering column.
Relevant information, BMW says, means attention does not need to be removed from the road to read important information.
Mr Bain, bless, him and his, would have been utterly amazed – just as you should be by his road engineering, no computers required.