What do you do when BMW offers to teach you how to cook? You may well think there may have been a bit of a mix-up, but obviously, if you’re the sort of person who looks for the cooking instructions on an egg, then you’ll go along with it. So I did. It provided a top chef, Steven Saunders, Michelin-starred and commendably tolerant, and its nice compact SUV/estate car to transport me to my journey of culinary discovery. Both went well, I’m pleased to say.
The idea was that even the most indolent old curmudgeon (I like to think I was hand-picked) should be inspired to adopt an “active lifestyle” by the new BMW 2 Series Active Tourer, a smart but pricey little car which is a kind of 1 Series on platform shoes, a sort of hybrid of a small estate car, a people carrier (though only for five) and an SUV. BMW has a poll that purposes to show that 68 per cent “feel more driven than ever to embrace life and step out of their comfort zone to try new things”. Apparently, skydiving and conquering a mountain range are among the top ambitions. If you say so, lads.
Obviously, some of us need more coaxing than others and the chance to prepare and eat some excellent food in pleasant gastropub surroundings (the lovely Willow Tree restaurant at Bourn, near Cambridge) did the trick. I’m just about confident enough about Covid to venture out occasionally, and the Willow Tree has fortunately retained some of the plastic geodomes they installed for diners in their garden during the worst of the pandemic, which gives extra Covid security.
BMW 223i xDrive Active Tourer
Price: £33,810 (as tested; range starts at £30,265)
Engine capacity: 2.0ltr, 4-cyl, 7-sp auto + electric motor
Power output (bhp): 215
Top speed (mph): 148
0 to 60 (seconds): 6.9
Fuel economy (mpg): 43.5
CO2 emissions (WLTP, g/km): 148
Having not driven a BMW for a little while, I was relieved to see that the traditional BMW virtues haven’t been overlooked in their latest product. It used to have the advertising slogan “ultimate driving machine”, which was a bit arrogant and pretentious, but there’s little doubt that, with some occasional lapses, it’s obviously taken its engineering and design seriously. The dials and switchgear were as ever unfussy and clear, the plastics of premium quality and everything worked with that sense of sharp precision and durability that BMW drivers are familiar with.
It’s all up to date in the cabin, and I was especially impressed by the way the designers have integrated the satnav and a front-facing camera so that the 10-inch dashboard screen adds helpful arrows as you approach roundabouts and tricky junctions. There’s also the option of a “heads up” display that projects key info such as your speed via a plastic screen up into your eyeline, but for the technically minded, and fussy, it’s not quite the real thing, which magically makes it appear in the middle distance. Like the adjustable cruise control and reversing camera and automatic “parking assistant” it’s the kind of feature buyers in this market increasingly demand, and which, once sampled, you can quickly acquire a taste for, rather like fine food and wine.
The styling of the BMW is less palatable. Mostly it’s fairly inoffensive, and the famous BMW “kidney” grille finds itself rather garishly chromed and enlarged, stretched and bent up into the bonnet line, which leaves it looking almost comically aggressive, like an angry chihuahua. On the other hand it handles tidily, and the elevated seating position gives you a little extra visibility. There’s a wide range of propulsion available, with plug-in hybrids, petrol, electrically assisted petrol (mild hybrid, as tested) and even an unfashionable diesel, plus lots of trim and equipment options.
My test car had the xDrive system, which is more about adding grip than off-road capability. As usual with a BMW the best default is a smaller petrol model in a more basic trim – all the essential engineering you need at minimum cost. If you have a particular pattern of commuting a plug-in hybrid might be the suitable green option, so you can exploit the 30-mile electric-only range. Very regrettably, for a new model, there’s no all-electric option – you’d probably look to a Peugeot 2008 instead, a highly accomplished modern competitor that these days seems to have a bit more of a quality feel.
The options are wide, in fact. For most families, the mainstream Nissan Qashqai still offers a fine compromise between cost and quality, and for those who are badge-conscious, the principal option is a Mercedes-Benz B-Class, GLB or the new green seven-seater electric EQB. The basic truth is that if you really do want to buy into the BMW experience and lay out for a new Active Tourer, these days, with vehicles in such short supply, you’ll be lucky to find any bargains or used options for such a recently released model. Food for thought.
All of which brings us to dinner time and the tutelage of Chef Saunders, Michelin-starred, author of books and star of Ready, Steady, Cook among others. I “cooked”, under fairly close supervision, and enjoyed: truffled goats cheese bon bon; scallops cooked in pastry; truffle and leeks; creamy parmesan and truffle sauce; sirloin sous vide with gremolata new potatoes, new season asparagus and red wine juices; dark chocolate mousse; Italian meringue; and summer berries and orange puree.
I never knew how simple fancy stuff such as scallops and Italian meringue (a sort of soft cheat meringue) can be. Such was the luscious tenderness of the sirloin “under vacuum” I have now committed to buying the miniature warm bath the professional cooks use to tenderise the meat (in a vacuum-sealed bag and left to soften up for hours before finishing in the pan or on the BBQ). It’s a bit of an indulgence, but so is a BMW 2 Series Active Tourer.