The inside story on BMW's Gran Tourer
Comfy, smart but overpriced
It was a relief, in a way, to get away from crossovers and SUVs and diesels for one week. How nice to be able to drive with a sweet petrol engine under the bonnet of a BMW people carrier.
Don't worry, I still had plenty of scope for gripes and whinges but, importantly, I got to take a different sort of look at the pros and cons of owning a petrol people carrier/MPV (multi purposed vehicle).
It is strange, really, that buying a car such as the BMW 2-series Gran Tourer involves going against quite a substantial trend because MPVs have, to a great extent, been overshadowed by demand for family crossovers and SUVs.
I think a lot of people have not even bothered to consider an MPV such is the myopic preoccupation with those crossovers.
You can't blame them, I suppose. Those cars can look so well and, in many cases, do as good a job at 'people carrying' as the 'people carriers'.
The Gran Tourer, with its seven-seat, three-row (2-3-2) layout, does its best to overcome the bias. There is an Active five-seater version, too, so families do have a choice.
However, I think the Gran Tourer is over-priced, even allowing that it is cleverly designed, well-packaged, stylish, practical - and a Beemer.
I could live with (if not afford) a motor like this for its starting price of €37,200 - just about. But €42,000 for my Luxury version? Fond and all as I was of it, I have to remind myself that it was a compact, not overly large, MPV.
You will buy a spacious Ford S-MAX seven-seater for less (from €35,860), for example. And that, for families, is a key area. At the same time the Gran Tourer does wear the BMW badge, is well specced and was exceptionally easy to divvy-up between passenger and luggage room.
Mmmm... still too dear, I fear. By the way, I haven't a clue who would spend the €56,000 it would take to buy the option-laden one I had on test.
For a car of its dimensions it impressed, though, in how it extracted such decent room for those in the front two rows - which is where 99pc of occupants will reside. The small two at the rear are for occasional back-up.
And so, the obvious question: would you be better off in a crossover with five seats? Or even with seven seats in the likes of the larger Hyundai Santa Fe or KIA Sorento for similar money? Possibly. You'd get a higher driving position, might feel you had a better-looking car (that matters a lot) and could have more passenger room. However, I keep coming back to the fact my test car was a BMW and that, like it or not, means there is a premium attached. Some people will pay for the poshness. Others, like me, will whinge.
In truth, I felt, the real story of the car was about the inside. There was a designed-for-purpose feel about it that made the cabin a grand place to be.
Maybe I'm making too big a thing of it, but that point was well made the other day. I was stuck in shocking gridlock on the M50. It was lashing rain, peak evening traffic. It took me 80 minutes to get from the airport to south Dublin. It was absolutely miserable, yet I felt a great cosiness. Sure, I had leather upholstery and air con; the seats were excellent and I was deeply comfortable but the general layout, design and use of materials, instrumentation and display all worked to maintain a nice-n-easy feeling. On that basis, I rated it highly on doing what it is supposed to do so well: carry people in comfort and with ease.
The other thing that got my attention was the effect the two-litre petrol engine had on my drives. What a great power plant it was. I'd forgotten how smooth, quiet and zippy a good petrol engine like that can be on the open road. I'm not anti-diesel but for anyone covering fewer than 15,000km a year, an engine of that calibre is well worth thinking about. Diesels are, in the main more frugal and have lower road tax but are usually more expensive to buy too. You could be a while getting back your extra outlay via lower running costs.
The front-wheel-drive layout (yes, a Beemer that isn't rear-wheel driven) was another plus. It yielded more room overall, no doubt, but it was also the basis for a much tastier drive; better than most people carriers can manage. It added a touch of dynamism to the equation.
Against all that, though, we have to be realistic. The crossovers are kings and look like being so for some time. They are all things to a lot of people. But the likes of the Gran Tourer, and its mainstream rivals, are not quite finished. My days in the Beemer proved that (price notwithstanding). The problem is so many people won't give them a second thought.
Facts & figures
BMW 2-series Gran Tourer 220i, 2-litre petrol, 8spd auto, 192bhp, 6l/100km, 139g/km, €280 road tax. Prices: from €37,200 on-the-road (218i SE); 220i Luxury tested from €42,682. With extras €56,355.
As well as several safety/comfort items, tested car had Park Distance Controls/Assist; cruise control, technology package, Navigation Plus, concierge service, electronic damper control, sport auto transmission, 17ins alloys, glass sunroof, head-up display, Harman Kardon hi-fi.