Rental Car Review and Travelogue: Exploring Berlin With BMW’s DriveNow Service

DriveNow is BMW’s car-sharing service in the vein of Car2Go and ZipCar. While those services are often popular with inner-city residents who don’t own a car but may occasionally need one for, say, a shopping trip, they can also be great for tourists as I discovered while visiting Berlin.

Registering is pretty simple. Complete an online application, pay a one-off fee of €29, and then go and visit one of the numerous registration centers with your passport and driver’s license (I brought my international driver’s permit, too, but they didn’t seem to need it). DriveNow is in nine European countries, in major cities such as Berlin and Vienna. My friend Andy had told me about it and it certainly appealed to me more than Car2Go, a rival service that uses only poverty pack Smart ForTwos that don’t even have wheel covers. Those cars are easier to park but DriveNow has more options: the BMW 1-Series hatch, 2-Series convertible, 2-Series Active Tourer and X1, as well as the entire Mini range.

To reserve a car, you open the DriveNow app and find one on the map nearby. Click on one of the bubbles to find out what kind of vehicle it is – you’ll notice the pictograms are different for BMW and Mini models – and then press Reserve. You have 15 minutes to get to the car. Once you’ve reached it, slide the Unlock button on the app and the car will unlock. There are no keys whatsoever. Then, use the infotainment controller to enter your selected PIN and hit the Start/Stop button. Easy!

When you reach your destination, you can choose to either hold onto the vehicle or, as we did, check it back in. Doing so is basically identical to the unlocking process. The cost of the rental is 33 cents per minute which includes insurance and fuel (no need to fill it up!) Street parking is also included – you just can’t park in any places that are clearly restricted (e.g. disabled bays, private parking lots). That saved a lot of translation hassles.

The weather may have been pleasantly warm but we didn’t drop the top of our first rental, a BMW 220i convertible. Why? Well, despite thinking I’d gotten the last of my winter sickness out of the way a week or so before leaving for my trip, I’d managed to get congested and sore again – and so had my brother. The last thing I wanted was a cool breeze.

It was a pity as the 220i was the first convertible I’d ever driven and, astonishingly, my first BMW. I’d come close to driving one before – a 4-Series through Turo – but I had to make a last-minute change. I’d long admired the 2-Series (formerly 1-Series) coupe and convertible even before our Brendan Saur bought one so it was great to finally get behind the wheel.

Our destination was the old Tempelhof Airport. Constructed in 1923, the airport was dramatically expanded by the Nazi government during the 1930s. Unfortunately, we had neglected to research the tour schedule and so we only saw a bit of the airport. The complex is sprawling, as you can imagine, and many of the old runways have been mostly converted into sporting fields and picnic areas.

The terminal buildings themselves are now mostly occupied by government facilities, including a refugee processing center, although you can still explore arrival halls and other airport interiors.

Much as our Tempelhof experience had been too scant, so too was our experience with the 2-Series. I wanted to drive it more as, from my limited drive time, I found it a delightful car to drive. There was plenty of power from the 2.0 turbo four (181 hp, 214 ft-lbs). The steering was tactile and direct and the car seemed eager. I’ve often gravitated towards larger vehicles and have been tempted by vehicles that are larger still but my brief experience with the 2-Series made a compelling case for my next car to be something compact and sporty.

As for the interior, it looks as a BMW should and indeed as all BMWs do. Build quality is solid with soft-touch plastics on the top half of the dash and unpadded plastics below – the norm for a lot of entry-level luxury cars and even for larger luxury cars like the Lexus IS and RX. There’s a rear seat but if you want to actually carry more than one passenger, you’d best look at a Mercedes-Benz A-Class.

For some inexplicable reason, I didn’t take interior photos of any of the DriveNow vehicles. Every car we drove had a black interior which is unfortunate as you can get some very lively color schemes in each of these cars. As an aside, I can understand why rental agencies would purchase cars with black interiors but I’ll never understand why Australians flock to this color scheme, especially considering how hot and sunny parts of Australia can be. It’s a challenge even finding cars with tan interiors here!

Our 2-Series was still available when we set off for our next destination but I thought I’d take the opportunity to drive something else. A Mini Clubman was parked just a block away so we reserved it and hopped in.

I’ve never much cared for Minis and their flamboyant retro styling. Most of all, I despise the interior design of the Mini range. The actual build and material quality is quite good – perhaps slightly inferior to the mechanically related BMW 2-Series Active Tourer, albeit barely – but the huge circle in the middle of the dashboard is daft. The speedometer is now in the “right” place but the central circle a few years back was re-purposed for the infotainment system. There’s a strip of lighting that will change color in certain situations (e.g. it turns partially red in sport mode) but the whole appearance is, in my eyes, more kitsch than charming. But with Minis, you either love them or hate them and that’s arguably the appeal to Mini buyers – not everyone wants a conservative Volkswagen Golf. Our Clubman’s interior was drab black-on-black which didn’t suit the whimsical design at all; more colorful trim combinations are thankfully available.

We set off to Schloss Charlottenburg, the beautiful palace commissioned by Sophie Charlotte, the wife of King Friedrich I. Originally called Lietzenburg, it was named for Sophie Charlotte following her passing in 1705; construction was completed in 1713. It’s a vast rococo masterpiece.

The drive there was too brief to really get to know the Mini but my seat-of-the-pants driving impressions were that ride quality and noise suppression were slightly inferior to the 2-Series Active Tourer we drove next. More noticeable was the oddly oversized steering wheel. Our Clubman was a Cooper D, its 2.0 diesel four producing 150 hp and 258 ft-lbs.

To get from Schloss Charlottenburg to Alexanderplatz and the DDR Museum, we rented another 2-Series. This was the confusingly named 2-Series Active Tourer, a compact MPV on the front-wheel-drive UKL platform shared with the Mini range. Think of it as a Clubman in a more conservative, tailored suit.

It was a bit strange chirping the front tires in a BMW but the 2-Series Active Tourer wasn’t an unpleasant car to drive. There’s a bit more body roll than in the RWD 2-Series but our 218d’s 2.0 turbodiesel four was gutsy, producing 148 hp and 243 ft-lbs. BMW has been criticized for introducing front-wheel-drive models but, frankly, I don’t think it’s a problem. Anybody who has sat in the back of a rear-wheel-drive 1-Series hatchback can tell you BMW’s smallest RWD models are hardly space efficient with their imposing transmission tunnels. At this end of the market, especially in a market like Germany, front-wheel-drive is desirable. Remember, in Germany brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz aren’t nearly as exalted as luxury brands, something the fleets of yellow E-Class Berlin taxis bears out.

My problem with the 2-Series Active Tourer is the name. It’s the same complaint I have with BMW’s weird hatchback models, the GTs. Odd numbered Bimmers are supposed to be sedans and hatchbacks while even numbered ones are coupes and four-door coupes (“Gran Coupes”). The same rules apply for the crossover range, where the more rakish models use even numbers. And yet, here’s the 2-Series Active Tourer, an MPV wearing the same nameplate as a mechanically unrelated coupe and convertible. Mind you, this is a minor complaint and from behind the wheel, the Active Tourer looks much like the convertible.

The 2-Series Active Tourer seems to have missed the height of the compact MPV craze by around a decade but there’s still a market – in Europe, if not anywhere else – for a tall-boy wagon like the Active Tourer. It’s a solid effort by BMW, boasting an airy cabin and perky dynamics. The only fault I could find in my brief test drive was the lousy navigation interface which was low-resolution and confusing – why is land blue?

Parking in Berlin wasn’t the nightmare I expected it to be and we found a spot next to Humboldt University. Although this was our last car rental in Berlin, it wasn’t the end of our automotive sightings. At the DDR Museum there were two cars on display, one of which was this Volvo 264TE which belonged to Bruno Lietz, the Minister of Agriculture of the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

Playing on a television display in the trunk was footage of ministerial vehicle testing. Note the Citroën CX also being used.

By the way, if you’re visiting Berlin you must visit the DDR Museum. It seems like a small museum until you realize how many interactive exhibits there are. There’s also a replica of an authentic East German apartment – including bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen – in which you can open every cabinet and drawer. It’s almost exhausting how exhaustive it is!

In the museum, you get to see how East Germans lived. You also get to see what they drove (if they were lucky) – an actual Trabant! My brother and I had planned to do a Trabant tour but the company didn’t get back to us. This was the next best thing. The Trabant exhibit was interactive, allowing you to steer through a video game quasi-replica of East Berlin by moving the steering wheel in the Trabant..

Near Tiergarten, we did see what we believe were Trabants belonging to the tour company. That would have been a lot of fun but it would have been the polar opposite experience to the one we had with DriveNow.

Berlin is certainly an easy city to get around thanks to an expansive and rather intuitive public transport system – including the excellent U-Bahn underground – but if you want to just get behind the wheel and explore, DriveNow is a very user-friendly option. The same applies for travellers to other cities like London and Helsinki. There are no hassles with filling up or parking (other than finding a spot) and you get to drive some great new metal. Why not?

Related Reading:

DriveNow Germany (English site)