Good: quality, space, practicality, sharp steering, engaging handling, economy
Not so good: styling, small third row seats, pricing, image
BMW stands at a crossroads.
No, wait. Hang on. That's a bit too seventies-cinema-short-feature-documentary, isn't it?
BMW has great challenges ahead of it. No, that's too LinkedIn.
A choice BMW must make between dark side and light. Too Yoda.
Basically, BMW is poised (anxiously?) betwixt one possible future for itself, and another. The old BMW, the one that myself and anyone of similarly raddled age will know, is on the way out. You know, the one that made all the "ultimate driving machines" - those pricey, but perfect (or near perfect anyway) saloons, estates, coupes and sports cars (latterly SUVs) that flattered good drivers, entertained on twisty roads and impressed on driveways and in car parks around the globe.
Now though? It's all change. Oh sure, you can still buy a slinky BMW 3 Series or 5 Series if you want a four-door saloon that mixes common sense with sensuous handling and dynamics. You can buy a BMW X5 if you want to opposite-lock all the way up to your favourite ski slope. You can buy a 2 Series Coupe if you want an E30 3 Series from the 1980s, reborn.
But change is coming. BMW is already making noises about how it will forge forwards into a glorious (we hope) horizon of being a 'mobility provider' - one where its ability to provide digital-friendly services and autonomous driving modes, will be as important as rear-wheel-drive balance and deft steering precision. Don't believe me? Well, how about the fact that BMW is preparing to switch some key models (the 1 Series for now, but more are coming) to front-wheel drive (because, almost to a man or woman, BMW customers neither know nor care which direction their driveshafts run) and it's more than noticeable how much more distant and less entertaining than the helms of those great E-numbered cars of yesteryear the current ones are. BMW products are changing, changing from that which we knew to that which we'll have no ken of.
The 216d Gran Tourer is at one and the same time the easiest to understand and the most baffling. It is, indeed, the very car that most of us probably assumed that BMW would never make - a family-hauling seven-seat MPV. It's a relatively compact car, sharing a platform as it does with the BMW X1 crossover and the MINI Countryman, so it really is quite impressive how much space has been packed inside. After all, BMW has never made an MPV before this one, so the fact that you can adequately juggle the legroom on offer so that four adults and two children can get comfy is really quite something.
There are caveats to that, though. To achieve this seven-seat layout, the adults in the second row must be prepared to sacrifice a bit of legroom (and, for that matter, long-legged drivers will feel a touch cramped) and the seats in the boot are only suitable for those up to around the age of ten. Much older, or lankier, than that and you're into diminishing returns and increasing moaning.
The other caveat is that BMW has, to an extent, sold its soul to achieve such space efficiency - the 2 Series is front-wheel drive. A BMW with drive to the front would at one time have seemed heresy, but as its customer base has expanded, so knowledge of what makes a BMW a BMW has withered, and why not give them the packaging benefits of front-drive if they want it and don't really know what's happening at the oily bits anyway?
Does it make a difference? Some; but how much really will depend on your general levels of car obsession and how many rally jackets dangle in your wardrobe. The 2 Series Gran Tourer has pleasantly sharp steering and decent chassis responses. It's a little firmer over bumps than is ideal for a family hauler, perhaps, but still tolerably comfy, and you can tell that BMW's engineers have taken the experience gained from MINI, and its resolutely front-drive line-up (ok, there are ALL4 four-wheel-drive models, too), and put it to good use. The engine is OK - reasonably refined and very frugal, but lacking in proper pulling power and lacking too in character. And there's no getting away from the fact that it does rankle, a touch, that the engine's power is going in the 'wrong' direction if you're a proper car nut, added to which, for all the rationality one can bring to bear on the subject, a tall-roofed BMW MPV just doesn't feel right.
Well, to me anyway. But then, I'm a weight-gaining 42-year-old with delusions of M5-driving grandeur, so was there any way in which the 2 Series Gran Tourer was going to appeal to me? Well, yes - it should do. After all, I've got two kids and a dog so surely the combo of space and utility, coupled with just-about-enough of that old BMW dynamic magic should be hugely appealing? I mean, by seven-seater standards, the Gran Tourer is very enjoyable to drive, and there's no doubting the cabin quality. Plus, there's the fact that Whizz, my whippet, looks almost lost amid the 560-litre boot. That's with those rear seats folded away - erect them and it shrinks to 145 litres, and that's not enough, even for a skinny whippet. Mind you, fold all the seats down and you have more than 1,800 litres and that's more than the hulking great X5 SUV.
But the one we tested costs €44,000, give or take. Yes, you can get one for €33,000, but that's still pricey by family standards. There's a massive Trotskyite streak in me that just opposes lashing out that much money for the BMW when less would get you the excellent Volkswagen Touran (if you want something with an equal measure of Teutonic sturdiness) or a Citroen C4 Picasso (if you want something stylish and Parisian).
Somehow, Trotsky Me would be much happier spending similar (or even more) on a BMW 3 Series Touring, despite its smaller boot and relative lack of extra seats. Why? Because it's a proper BMW, whatever the future might have to say about that.
The 2 Series Gran Tourer is perhaps a better examination of the present of BMW - a present where the once small-scale car maker has expanded and expanded, seeking out new niches and new markets to drive up its profits and its customer base. It's a good car, and I can see why BMW makes it, but it's just not in the slightest bit appealing to me.