BMW has previewed its controversial new front-wheel-drive car, the first in the company's history.
The brand has done what one former chairman once described as unthinkable in abandoning a long tradition of road cars fitted exclusively with longitudinally mounted engines.
The Concept Active Tourer is a plug-in petrol-electric hybrid concept car with a space saving transverse engine layout set to heavily influence the design, packaging, ride and handling properties of the German car maker's next generation of small cars, which for the first time will offer the choice of either front- or, in combination with certain engines, four-wheel drive.
The Concept Active Tourer five-door hatchback closely previews a practical new people mover crossover model with raised seating and a unique interior design that BMW is already extensively testing in prototype form and plans to introduce to its entry level 1-Series line-up in early 2014 as a rival for the likes of the Mercedes-Benz B-Class and Volkswagen Golf Plus.
Conceived to appeal to family car buyers who place greater emphasis on space and versatility than the traditional BMW qualities of performance and dynamics, the tradition-defying vehicle is being looked upon to attract new customers as part of current chairman, Norbert Reithofer's, plan that calls for two million sales annually by 2020.
The tall five-seat concept car, which is set to get its first public airing at the 2012 Paris motor show at the end of September, also showcases BMW's new 1.5-litre three-cylinder direct injection petrol engine as part of a plug-in hybrid drivetrain that will be used by its i sub-brand's new i8 sportscar – as previewed at last year's Frankfurt motor show.
The twin scroll turbocharged unit, which receives BMW's patented valvetronic valve timing system, hails from a new modular engine family that will eventually support three-, four- and six-cylinder petrol and diesel powerplants boasting up to 60 per cent component commonality for more flexible production than today's engines.
Mounted transversely under the Concept Active Tourer's short-by-BMW-standards bonnet, the new three-cylinder engine is supported by an electric motor, with drive channelled through an eight-speed automatic gearbox to all four wheels. Power is put at a combined 140kW.
Energy for the electric motor is provided by a lithium-ion battery pack mounted within the floor of the boot that can be charged both from a regular powerpoint and on the run via the recuperation of energy under braking and when coasting.
Significantly, BMW says the petrol engine exclusively drives the front wheels, while the electric motor provides power to the rear - the first tacit acknowledgment that non-hybrid versions of its new people-mover running conventional petrol and diesel engines, including versions of the company's new three-cylinder, will come as standard with front-wheel-drive, abandoning the brand's commitment to rear-wheel-drive that it has long claimed is superior to front-drive. In all electric mode the Concept Active Tourer is propelled by its rear wheels alone.
Although BMW is yet to reveal any theoretical weight figures for its latest concept car, it claims 0-100kmh in less than 8.0 seconds, a top speed of about 200kmh along with combined average consumption of less than 2.5L/100km for a CO2 rating of less than 60g/km and electric-only range of up to 30km.
The first transverse engine car to wear BMW's distinctive blue and white roundel is based on the company's new UKL platform architecture, which has been engineered to support both front- and four-wheel drive layouts. The term UKL is derived from the German words unter klasse or entry level, with the new platform set to underpin not only the production version of the Concept Active Tourer but the next generation of Mini models as well.
Up until now, BMW has steadfastly defended its decision to base its production cars around a longitudinal engine layout, saying it provides key advantages in weight distribution over transverse engine designs, in turn heightening dynamic properties for more entertaining driving traits. The layout became such an integral part of BMW road cars that former chairman, Joachim Milberg, once described the notion of the German car maker switching to a transverse design as ''unthinkable''.
The about turn, which makes a mockery of some of the German car maker's earlier advertising campaigns, has been driven by the need to reduce production costs as well as provide competitive packaging for its new generation of small cars.
Yet despite holding firm to longitudinal engine layouts and a predominately rear-wheel driven line-up of models longer than most competitors, BMW is no stranger to transverse engines and front-wheel drive, having engineered the critically acclaimed Mini line-up.
Credit for the styling of the new hatchback goes to a team of in-house designers working under the BMW's new design boss Karim Habib. They have delivered an uncharacteristically proportioned BMW with short bonnet, comparatively high roof line and angled tailgate, albeit one flaunting the German car maker's latest exterior design treatment to provide it with a highly contemporary appearance that insiders suggest won't be altered much prior to reaching production at BMW's Leipzig factory in Germany next year.
Although it will likely be badged as the 1-Series GT in production trim, the new car owes little to the look of the latest 1-Series hatchback. Instead, the Concept Active Tourer uses details that align it more with the 5-Series GT – a signal that BMW is attempting to provide its new GT models with a family look in a move similar to its more rugged X off-road or SUV models.
Within the concept car's generously dimensioned wheel houses are a set of 20-inch wheels, though expect the production version to get more conventional 16-inch alloys as standard.
At 4353mm in length, 1834mm in width and 1560mm in height, the Concept Active Tourer is 6mm shorter, 49mm wider and 5mm taller than the second-generation B-class. The UKL platform it sits on boasts a 2670mm wheelbase – 30mm shorter than the Mercedes-Benz, providing the new BMW with relatively short overhangs and what is described as adequate space for five adults.
As with the exterior, the interior design differs from that of BMW's more traditional rear-wheel-drive models, aiming to provide the new car with a much more spacious cabin by taking full advantage of the packaging improvements offered by its transverse engine layout.
While the concept car uses an opulent mix of materials, expect the production version to boast a level of perceived quality in line with the 1-Series. The front seats are raised to a height comparable to that of the BMW X1. The rear seat folds to extend boot space in a 40:20:40 split, while a table can be erected on the rear of the front seat backs to extend the concept car's practicality.
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