At the Paris Motor Show later this month, BMW will roll the dice on its biggest gamble since it launched the 12-cylinder 7-Series in 1986: its first-ever front-wheel-drive BMW model, presented as a plug-in hybrid concept hatchback dubbed the Concept Active Tourer. A version of this car will go on sale soon as a 1-Series
model -- and BMW executives bet most buyers will be willing to give it a spin regardless of what wheels provide the power.
While BMW has been selling sharp-handling front-wheel-drive Minis since 2001, its identity as a luxury car for people who love to drive has been grounded in its reliance on traditional rear-wheel-drive; as recently as 2006, BMW made fun of front-wheel-drive cars in its advertising. Yet as BMW has expanded into the world's largest luxury car seller, its management has come to see the reliance on rear-wheel-drive as a limitation holding BMW back in the push for smaller cars in Europe and elsewhere -- despite worries from some BMW fans that the company was weakening its standards in pursuit of new customers.
The Concept Active Tourer would qualify as a subcompact on American roads, with a length that matches the Nissan Versa. Under the hood lies a 1.5-liter, turbocharged 3-cylinder engine -- also a precursor of the units that will power future small BMWs. In the Concept Active Tourer, it's yoked to electric motors driving the rear wheels and a battery pack that would allow it to travel 19 miles on electricity alone. BMW estimates the CAT would hit 62 mph in eight seconds, roughly what the 1998 BMW 318ti could accomplish, while sipping fuel at a rate of 92 mpg. It also comes with a ECO PRO efficiency driving coach that, in BMW terms, uses the navigation system to "provide tips such as 'Remove foot from accelerator' if a tight bend or speed limit is approaching which the driver cannot even see yet."
While production versions of the concept hatchback will offer regular and hybrid models, it's not clear whether BMW intends to sell such small vehicles under its own badge in the United States; it offers a limited range of its 1-Series cars here, and it isn't a big seller. But the push for tougher fuel economy rules worldwide mean BMW will likely have to sell cars like the Concept Active Tourer widely. BMW executives have been quoted that a majority of its small-car buyers in Germany didn't know if their 1-Series cars were front- or rear-wheel drive -- and a big part of its future rides on the rest of the world caring less about which axle does the work and more about the badge on the hood.