When is an armrest not an armrest?

“When it’s the main control centre for the car, that’s when.”

Phonebox Motoring by Tom Johnston


I don’t mind admitting that when I grew up, most cars followed a fairly standard design in terms of the important controls and instruments.

So, the ignition was usually a lock on the side of the steering column where you put the key. The gear stick was either on the floor between the two front seats or (especially with French cars) a lever on the steering column.

The hand brake, similarly, usually sat on the floor behind the gear shift and, if you were lucky enough to have a radio, you would almost certainly find it somewhere on the dashboard in the middle of the car where other controls, such as the hazard lights switch might have sat.

Now I know that cars have come on a long way over the last few decades and there have been great leaps in design, especially on the inside where more space in a smaller car body has become vitally important.

People want smaller vehicles to drive around but with plenty of family-style size and versatility inside.  And that’s where the clever interior designers come in.

Look at the BMW Active Tourer for example. It’s a good looking car, with the signature BMW grille and smart 19-inch alloy wheels really setting the hatchback off.

Set in what looks like an armrest is an armoury of vehicle controls. Sat neatly where you rest your elbow as you drive is everything you need to operate the car – at your fingertips.

The newly designed control panel contains the gear selector, the Start/Stop button, a volume control for the radio, and switches to activate the parking brake and various other vehicle settings such as Park Assist, which helps you squeeze into spaces without damaging your bodywork.

It combines with a smart curved infotainment display in front of the driver, containing two screens with crisp, graphic displays of handy information.

It’s all clever stuff and is part of a major overhaul to create more space for growing families in what is, at the end of the day, a BMW 2-series, a car at the smaller end of the German maker’s range.

This new car has been given increased headroom, shoulder room and elbow room – the last one is particularly handy when you have three young kids in the back all vying for their own space. I actually had three adults on the rear seat at one time during my test week, and they reported nothing but space and comfort.

That rear bench even splits three ways – 40:20:40 to create more room in the boot and load capacity can be enlarged to a mammoth 1,455 litres if you need it. An automatic tailgate operation comes as standard.

The technology continues once you’re out on the open road with the BMW. Two new petrol engines and one diesel are offered in this latest-generation car. My test vehicle, the 220i Luxury Active Tourer, featured the sprightly 1.5-litre three-cylinder unit, which combines lively acceleration and overtaking ability with excellent fuel economy.

That’s all thanks to a neat 19 hp electric motor integrated into the gearbox, which assists the 156 hp petrol engine in pulling away and with mid-range acceleration, saving valuable fuel while having no effect on the performance. The system enhances the smoothness of the Start/Stop function, while storing energy for this in a 48V battery underneath the boot, charged by recuperation during coasting and braking.

Power delivery through that seven-speed ’box is smooth and refined, producing an effortless feel to the drive. With a 0-62mph figure of 8.1 seconds and a top speed of 137mph, the performance you’d expect from a BMW is certainly there. Sure, that acceleration figure isn’t uber-quick, but it’s certainly more than enough for a family wagon like this.

And the clever tech doesn’t stop there. The Active Tourer is a mechanical dictionary of safety and driver assist equipment. There’s automatic speed limit assistance which maintains a safe distance from other cars while observing speed limits on every road.

Using the car’s satnav systems it ‘looks ahead’ up the road and reduces speed when approaching a bend, roundabout or junction. The system also adjusts your speed as you enter built-up areas.

Cruise control with braking is fitted as standard while optional ‘Active Cruise Control’ with Stop&Go function maintains a preferred speed while also keeping a safe distance from vehicles travelling ahead by using sensor data from the car’s cameras and radar. Front-collision warning and lane departure warning are also standard.

And with more recognisable features such as heated steering wheel, folding mirrors with auto-dimming, wireless phone charging, panoramic glass sunroof and head-up speedo display, you have a car that really is looking to the future.

And it all starts with that armrest…


At a glance:

Power: 170 hp

Top sped:        137 mph

0-62mph:        8.1 secs

Economy:        47.9 mpg

CO2:    148 g/km

Price:   £30,265


Quick bursts


Helping hand

For most of us, filling a car with fuel, or charging an electric vehicle is a simple task. But for disabled drivers and older people it can be a significant challenge.

Now Ford has developed a prototype robot charging station that drivers operate via a smartphone from inside their electric vehicle. The technology could enable disabled drivers to stay in the vehicle while charging, or they could leave the car while the robot does all the work.

Disabled drivers have already identified ease of charging as a key purchase consideration for electric vehicles, so Ford has been testing the robot charging station as part of a research project to develop hands-free charging solutions for electric vehicles and fully automatic charging for autonomous vehicles.

Researchers are now putting the robot charging station to the test in real-life situations. Once activated, the station covers slides open and the charging arm extends towards the inlet with the help of a tiny camera. After charging, the arm retracts back into place.


Show countdown begins

The countdown is on for the greatest show on Earth! At least if you’re a car fan…

New cars, classic cars, supercars, thrilling live action, motoring celebrities, stunt shows, test drives, breath-taking passenger rides, interactive features and a fun day out for the entire family are just some of the attractions for this year’s British Motor Show, which takes place at Farnborough International, Hampshire, on 18th-21st August.

With stars including Car SOS hosts Fuzz Townshend and Tim Shaw, automotive TV pundit Mike Brewer, Olympian Iwan Thomas, YouTube sensation Yanni, the amazing Paul Swift stunt show and a host of hands-on interactive features never seen at other automotive events, the British Motor Show continues to build on its mission to reinvent the concept of the motor show and make it a family event, not just a showpiece for new models. It’s working: last year more than 47,000 people flocked into the motor show’s halls. And this year organisers are hoping to go one better – over 70,000 guests are expected. www.thebritishmotorshow.live.

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