Let's start with the facts: BMW is going front-wheel drive, beginning with the 2015 2-Series Active Tourer. Over the next short while we can expect at least four more BMW models that send power to their front wheels, distressing purists of the "ultimate driving machine" while appeasing modern government regulations.
Sales of the 5- and 7-Series in Europe are declining, and trends point towards the popularity of smaller, premium cars continuing. BMW keeps expanding its lineup while simplifying its platforms, including sharing with its Mini brand.
The 2-Series Active Tourer, which as of now will not see duty on U.S. shores, shares its underpinnings with the new Cooper, making the Active Tourer a more expensive, uglier Mini that features precisely the same 3- or 4-cylinder turbocharged engines. But, before I slip into a purists' rant about the 2-Series Active Tourer not being a true BMW, let's look at the upsides:
Combined fuel economy for the 218i Active Tourer is said to be almost 48 mpg, while the 225i sits at 39 mpg. For BMW, simplifying platforms and sharing them across brands saves money, while allowing easy expansion of products and increased earnings — technically allowing the premium price tags to subside a touch (although I'll eat my own arm if that ever happens).
What the 2-Series Active Tourer represents is a sign of the times. Small, economical vehicles that lack distinction (is the Active Tourer a Ford C-Max, a Mercedes B-Class or an angry beaver?) have found a ready supply of buyers worldwide. And car companies build their products to make money. If the market demands, who are we to poke holes in a strategy that may yield more profitability? And, more to the point, emission restrictions around the globe are forcing automakers to develop new ways to meet stringent mandates.
It's not all gloom, however. We still have the BMW M3 (although it's not the benchmark it once was) and M6, along with interesting impending products like the i3 and i8. The new 4-Series surprised me with its all-round likeability, and the 2-Series coupe appears to be quite the charmer. But, when you look at the characterless M5 for instance — a car that used to encompass enthusiasts' dreams — this changing of the tides suggest BMW has lost some edge, allowing its watered-down models to affect its core product.
At some point, front-wheel-drive BMWs will hit U.S. shores. The question will be whether BMW can still produce vehicles the purists desire, while growing the count of satisfied BMW owners.