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Is BMW’s Golf-rivalling hatchback a better car for ditching rear-wheel drive?

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BMW’s determination to make rear-wheel drive work in the ‘compact premium’ hatchback segment goes back even further than two generations of the 1 Series – the latest version of which is our road test focus this week. Further, some would say, than the foundation of the compact premium class itself.

In 1993, three years before the original Audi A3 and four ahead of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, BMW gave us the 3 Series Compact – its first hatchback of any kind for almost two decades – and teased keen drivers with the idealism of rear-wheel-drive handling in a modern passenger car available at a more alluring price than they’d seen before from BMW.

The move to a transverse engine and front drive makes for radically different proportions, which are taller, shorter of bonnet and much more cabin forwards. Plenty of ‘wedge’ is used on the bonnet and bodyside to try to mask the change.

It was precisely that prospect that it appealed to again with the original 1 Series in 2004. This was a car that, like the Compact, shared mechanical componentry with the bigger 3 Series but was available in a much wider range of bodystyles than its indirect predecessor, and used a trademark BMW rear-wheel-drive mechanical layout to distinguish itself in what proved to be an increasingly popular market segment throughout the 2000s. You may well remember the car’s decidedly psychedelic TV ad campaign with its variously kaleidoscopic tortoises, wobbly legged foals and kids riding tricycles.

Initially, the 1 Series sold promisingly and another rear-driven-model generation followed in 2011. But BMW gradually realised that, rather than helping it succeed, a longways engine and a driven rear axle might actually be holding the car back. The decisive moment in shaping ‘der Einzer’s’ future came, very memorably, when then BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer admitted to journalists that 80% of 1 Series owners believed their cars to be front-driven anyway.

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BMW’s commitment, at that stage, was to begin making predominantly front-wheel-drive compact cars in 2014, using a platform shared with the Mini brand; and, after the launch of the current 2 Series Active Tourer, BMW X1 and BMW X2, it’s taken until now to switch the 1 Series hatchback away from the mechanical identity that was once considered to be its nuclear-strength unique selling point. Stand by to find out how much 1 Series DNA is left in BMW’s Volkswagen Golf rival, then, in much more class-typical and mechanically conventional third-generation form.

The BMW 1 Series line-up at a glance

From launch, the 1 Series was powered by a range of two petrol engines and three diesels. Our 118i represents the entry-level petrol, while the all-wheel-drive M135i hot hatchback crowned the range. The 302bhp turbocharged unit at the latter’s nose is the most powerful four-cylinder engine BMW has ever produced.

There’s plenty of performance on offer, for starters, even in base 118i form, as tested: it has a 1.5-litre turbo triple petrol with 138bhp. Diesel cars begin with the 113bhp 116d and work through from there to the 2.0-litre 118d with 148bhp and the 187bhp 120d, which has four-wheel drive.

In terms of fast 1 Series variants, there’s the BMW 128ti, with a 261bhp 2.0-litre engine, and the M135i. The latter is the most powerful car in the current line-up. It has a 302bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine that sends its power to all four wheels through an eight-speed automatic gearbox. It’s quick, punchy and can do 0-62mph in only 4.8sec

Fuel economy isn’t an issue in any 1 Series. The 116d gets an impressive official average of 61.4mpg, while the 118i can boast 47.1mpg. Even the M135i achieves a decent 35.3mpg.

The trim levels are SE, Sport and M Sport. SE models have 16in alloys, LED headlights, climate control, front and rear parking sensors and an 8.8in infotainment screen.

Sport brings bigger, 17in wheels and more supportive sports seats in the front, along with dual-zone climate control. M Sport gets you sharper exterior and interior styling touches, plus 18in alloys. M Sport Plus Pack models have upgraded 19in wheels, as well as adaptive suspension to stiffen or soften the ride accordingly.

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Model tested: BMW 118i M Sport DCT; Price £27,230 Power 138bhp Torque 162lb ft 0-60mph 8.2sec 30-70mph in fourth 11.5sec Fuel economy 37.0mpg CO2 emissions 114g/km 70-0mph 46.6m

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - BMW 1 Series

DESIGN & STYLING

BMW 1 Series 118i 2019 road test review - hero side

It’s interesting to note that BMW’s press material for the ‘F40’ 1 Series only references the fact that it’s now primarily front-wheel drive just once.

Perhaps Munich might still be nervous of a backlash from any disgruntled brand traditionalists, despite what it’s come to learn about the people who actually buy the 1 Series. Regardless, BMW’s smallest model is now based on the same UKL2 mechanical model architecture that underpins the likes of the BMW X1, BMW X2 and Mini Clubman. Proportionally, it’s now shorter than its predecessor (in terms of both overall length and wheelbase), while also being both wider and taller.

Though prominent, this isn’t one of BMW’s bigger recent ‘kidney’ radiator grille interpretations – and it’s different from others because the chrome of the kidneys meets in the middle. It may seem awkward to some, but at least it’s a distinguishing feature.

This also sees the 1 Series switch from longitudinal to exclusively transverse-mounted engines for the first time. One three and two four-cylinder powerplants make up the diesel line-up, in the 116d, 118d and 120d xDrive (read all-wheel drive) models, with power outputs ranging from 114bhp to 188bhp. On the petrol front, there’s the range-topping M135i xDrive and the 1.5-litre three-cylinder fitted to our entry-level 118i.

The ‘B38’ engine tested here is related to that used in the Mini hatchback and produces 138bhp and 162lb ft. A seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox sends this power exclusively to the front wheels in our test car, though a six-speed manual is the standard transmission option. The more powerful four-cylinder engines, meanwhile, come with an eight-speed torque-converter gearbox with four-wheel drive.

MacPherson front struts and a rear multi-link arrangement represent the basic suspension architecture of all 1 Series models, though there are three configurations to choose from. SE and Sport models get regular coil springs as standard; suspension is stiffened and lowered by 10mm in M Sport models. BMW will also sell adaptive dampers as an option, though you’ll have to forgo the option of 19in alloys, as well as the uprated M Sport brakes and variable-ratio M Sport steering that come as part of the M Sport Plus package – which our car had.

BMW quotes a kerb weight of 1320kg for the car, although on our test scales the 1 Series was 1431kg – split 51:49 front to rear.

INTERIOR

BMW 1 Series 118i 2019 road test review - front seats

The move to the UKL2 platform has had a marked effect on the 1 Series’ interior packaging. With no longitudinally mounted engine impinging on cabin space, the BMW 1 Series is now noticeably roomier up front. Admittedly, the low-slung driving position of its predecessor has been compromised somewhat so that you now feel more perched in your chair than before, but it seems a fair trade-off for the comprehensive gains made in general spaciousness.

Moving rearwards, these improvements are even more pronounced. Where the at-times-claustrophobic second-generation 1 Series could only muster a typical rear leg room figure of 690mm (about as much as you’d now expect to get from a supermini in the class below), this F40 model has 710mm. That 20mm gain might not sound like a huge improvement, but the car’s hip point is also higher – so it’s enough to put quite a bit more space between your knees and the front-seat backs. It’s also more than you’d get from the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, which we measured at 700mm.

I don’t much like novelty ambient lighting features, but the backlit line patterns that show themselves after dark on the 1 Series’ decorative interior trim foils are really quite attractive. Simple, precise and understated, too: very BMW.

Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, our tape measure also recorded a 30mm reduction in rear head room – from 940mm to 910mm. But while you do feel as though you’re perched to an even greater extent in the rear pews than you do in the front, there’s still enough head room here to ensure adults of average height can sit in comfort.

Boot space is up from 360 litres to a Volkswagen Golf-rivalling 380 litres, too, and can extend to 1200 litres with the second row folded down. There is a small lip to navigate but a handy removable false boot floor too, so loading and unloading items is a painless undertaking. Under the real boot floor, meanwhile, you’ll find a bit more storage space as well as a puncture repair and first aid kit.

The BMW’s interior doesn’t quite nail its premium-car brief for material appeal as effortlessly as some of its homeland rivals. It’s bettered by the A-Class for visual wow factor and for solid tactile quality feel, while the cool minimalism of the (admittedly now rather old) Audi A3 still carries a degree more sway with some of our testers. Still, overall build quality is largely good and ease of use is impressive.

All 1 Series models come with BMW’s 8.8in touchscreen as standard, aside from the range-topping M135i xDrive. Our test car had the Live Cockpit Professional system instead, with a larger 10.25in touchscreen as well as a 10.25in digital instrument cluster. This all comes as part of the £1500 Technology Pack 2.

In terms of the clarity of its graphics and the sophistication of its software, this system is unquestionably one of the best on the market. The touchscreen itself is responsive to your inputs, while voice control is a handy if imperfect navigational feature. However, it’s the dedicated shortcut buttons and rotary controller on the centre console that prove to be the best way of operating this particular infotainment suite – particularly when you’re on the move.

Apple CarPlay is available too, though BMW now makes you pay for this on subscription after your first year of free use.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

BMW 1 Series 118i 2019 road test review - engine

The inherent challenges that come with mounting a three-cylinder motor transversely at a car’s nose make themselves felt from the moment you hit the 118i’s starter button. BMW's 1.5-litre engine sneezes into life with a really vociferous lateral shudder running down the length of the car, before settling into a reasonable idle that’s a little coarse from cold but less so afterwards. As a picture of outright refinement, this isn’t a particularly convincing one – at least initially.

Get moving and things improve. Acceleration through the lower and middle sections of the rev range is far smoother, although the rough-edged thrum from the engine isn’t one all will warm to. It’s not that its soundtrack is offensive, it just lacks some of the warm-hearted audible charm that pervades the most endearing three-pots.

While you can change gears manually by using the gearlever, I’d have liked the option of overriding the twin-clutch ’box with some paddle-shifters instead. They seem appropriate in a BMW.

Still, outright performance is fairly impressive. Traction off the line is strong, with the car’s governing electronics allowing just enough in the way of slip to keep the engine from bogging down under full power. The 118i managed an average 0-60mph time of 8.2sec: in keeping with BMW’s claimed 8.5sec 0-62mph time, then, and bettering the 8.8sec time set by the more powerful Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI Evo R-Line we road tested back in 2017.

In fact, the BMW bettered the VW in every test we use to measure accelerative potency and engine flexibility. The sprint from 30-70mph – which indicates a car’s real-world performance – took the BMW 7.9sec to complete versus the VW’s 8.1sec. Locked in fourth gear, the 1 Series dispatched the same run in 11.5sec, next to the Golf’s time of 12.0sec.

Some of this will be down to the fact that the VW had a six-speed manual, whereas the BMW relied on a seven-speed dual-clutch. It wasn’t the slickest transmission of its kind at all times, and displayed a tendency to be caught out by sudden throttle inputs both great and small, but worked better under lighter throttle loads.

RIDE & HANDLING

BMW 1 Series 118i 2019 road test review - on the road front

The BMW 1 Series’ dynamic smorgasbord takes in wheel sizes from 16in to 19in in diameter, as well as standard passive suspension, lowered and stiffened passive M Sport suspension or adaptive damping as an option (although only in combination with certain trim levels and optional configurations). Interestingly, none of the car’s derivatives that are available in the UK uses run-flat tyres.

Our test car occupied the sportier end of the car’s character spectrum, having not only that M Sport lowered suspension but also BMW’s M Sport Plus package with its 18in alloys, uprated brakes and quickened steering system. For handling appeal, therefore, it was well configured to demonstrate most of the car’s maximum potential, which, for some, will have decreased notionally for fairly obvious reasons.

The feedback of tractive force from the driven front axle that is often mistakenly interpreted as torque steer comes seldom and in easily manageable quantities

The 1 Series’ dynamic appeal hasn’t decreased much in actuality, however – and that has more to do with the fact that the last-gen car always struggled to realise the potential of its rear-driven chassis than it has to do with the capacities of the latest one.

The latter are certainly impressive enough. Our test car had BMW-typical precision and progressiveness of response about its handling. So despite its M Sport steering set-up, it didn’t dive suddenly into corners, had plenty of weight about its steering, and seemed entirely stable and settled at high speeds. But it also felt grippy and agile enough once a quarter turn was dialled into the rack; quite tightly controlled and ever-composed in both its vertical and lateral body movements; and in all respects and on a variety of roads ready to be driven enthusiastically, and not to entertain in spades.

There’s a distinct and appealing sense of directional keenness about this latest 1 Series that becomes apparent almost immediately on the hill route’s snaking Tarmac. While the loss of a rear-driven architecture might dampen the BMW’s appeal in the eyes of some, it still feels like one of the more dynamically capable and expressive hatchbacks in its class when driven hard. It might not change direction with the frenetic sort of immediacy that defines the Minis with which it shares a platform, but there’s still a confident sense of purpose about those quick-witted directional shifts that lets you know you’re in control of a sporting product.

Front-end grip isn’t huge enough to surpass every expectation, but the ability to adjust your line with a minor (or major) lift of the throttle keeps the BMW largely in good graces. Its lowered M Sport suspension trims body roll neatly too, and doesn’t leave the car prone to kickback or inadvertent deflections.

COMFORT AND ISOLATION

The persistent background surface hum and recurrent, impatient-feeling firmness of an M Sport BMW’s ride both manifested themselves in our 118i test car – although neither to a bothersome extent. If you want a more comfortable 1 Series, there are of course ways you could acquire one through the car’s optional mechanical specification, which we’ve already covered.

Our wider test experience suggests that this car will cover off refinement and ride comfort better than the last one managed, albeit still not quite as well as the most comfort-biased cars in the class. A big proportion of UK-market 1 Series owners will by default plump for big wheels and M Sport specification, though – and without doing so with their eyes open, they may end up with a car that offers slightly less rolling isolation than they’re used to.

Because of its relatively firm springing and bushing, the 1 Series does pick up and transmit rough Tarmac more notably than the average hatchback, and its ride is also less absorptive at low speeds, and a little more abrupt and fidgety over bumps at higher speeds. Damper tuning does at least seem good, so that inputs and disturbances are dealt with fairly shortly and sharply – but are generally also dealt with efficiently.

The car’s driving position, though high, offers good all-round visibility, well-placed controls and a seat with lots of capacity for adjustment that both supports and soothes well.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

BMW 1 Series 118i 2019 road test review -

Although list prices on the BMW 1 Series make it look a little more expensive than an equivalent Mercedes A-Class or Audi A3 Sportback, it enjoys slightly stronger residual values with it to market than the rivals have – and that makes monthly finance prices quite competitive.

Equipment levels are very respectable, so that even if you don’t feel inclined to spend much on options, you’ll get a car with touchscreen infotainment, LED headlights, parking sensors all round, cruise control and limited connected services. The car’s distinguishing technology is, of course, mostly optional – although the full wi-fi hotspot functionality, wireless smartphone charging and head-up display are at least corralled into a reasonably priced £1500 Technology Pack. Likewise, its fully digital instruments, enlarged premium infotainment system, premium audio system and fully connected services are gathered into a second one. They’re features you’re expected to pay extra for on most cars in this class.

The BMW’s residuals are expected to marginally outperform the Mercedes A-Class and do considerably better than the VW Golf

Lab-test carbon emissions on the 118i are very competitive with like-for-like rivals from Mercedes-Benz, Audi and VW, too. Meanwhile, plumping for a dual-clutch automatic rather than a manual will save fleet drivers a couple of per cent on their benefit-in-kind liability, which is more than it’s worth on either the like-for-like A-Class or Volkswagen Golf.

 

VERDICT

BMW 1 Series 118i 2019 road test review - static

BMW has hardly ambushed its competitors with this third-gen BMW 1 Series. However, by refocusing on what really motivates premium hatchback buyers and picking the best mechanical layout for a car with strength across the disciplines, it has given the Volkswagen Golf rival a better chance of commercial success than it ever has before.

While a design overhaul was inevitable, it’s a shame Munich didn’t hit on a more distinctive look for the car. It’s a shame, too, that a bit more of the material class of the 3 Series and 5 Series couldn’t be reproduced. But while you might think it a greater shame still that BMW has settled for only an marginally more athletic, agile-feeling take on the front-driven compact five-door norm, we’d wager that owners won’t be among the objectors.

Baby BMW gains plenty and loses little by having a driven front axle

Most will more likely recognise greater accomplishment and drivability in the 1 Series’ ride and handling than its predecessors had, and now be very pleasantly surprised by how much on-board technology, easy everyday usability and space the car has gained. Premium-brand products have to be much more than great to drive to succeed in 2019, after all – and the 1 Series is now a much more complete car than it was.

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

BMW 1 Series First drives