The BMW 1 Series has long been something of an oddity in the premium small-hatchback segment, but for all the right reasons, being the only rear-driven competitor since it launched in 2004.
Unlike its rivals, the 1er wasn't just an affordable front-drive hatchback with a luxury badge stuck on its nose. From the start, the 1 Series has been rear-wheel drive, though this is set to change with the new-generation model due to debut later this year.
Yes, there is a 1 Series sedan available in China with front-wheel drive, and the 1 Series has been available overseas with xDrive all-wheel drive, though the latter is still rear-drive biased.
So, here on test we have one of the last of the current breed, the 2019 BMW 125i M Sport, priced from $49,990 before on-road costs.
Equipment highlights include adaptive LED headlights with selective beam, front and rear parking sensors, Dakota leather upholstery in black with blue contrast stitching, dual-zone climate control with rear air vents, auto-dipping side mirrors with electric folding and anti-dazzle functions, variable sports steering, and the 8.8-inch Navigation Professional infotainment system with DAB+ digital radio.
There are also electric front seats with driver's memory (including lumbar), and heating for the front pews as well.
Our Alpine White tester (the only no-cost paint option) was fitted with a number of extra-cost items, too, including an electric sunroof ($2000), 18-inch M light alloys in bi-colour finish ($700), an upgraded seven-speaker HiFi sound system ($540), a wireless phone charger ($154), and wireless Apple CarPlay integration ($479).
It's also worth noting that adaptive cruise control, automatic high beam and an automated park assistant remain relegated to the options list, and part of the $900 Driver Assistance Package – surely, BMW, this could be standard?
Safety kit includes "light city braking function" (which is a basic form of AEB that doesn't bring the vehicle to a complete stop), six airbags, lane-departure warning, forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection, and driver-attention alert.
The 1 Series wears a five-star ANCAP safety rating, though the score was awarded in 2011 to the pre-facelift models equipped with a 1.6-litre engine and was based on a left-hand-drive vehicle used in Euro NCAP tests.
All up, the as-tested sticker totalled $53,863 plus on-road costs, which isn't cheap.
In saying that, there's not much, if anything, that makes the 125i feel 'cheap'. Our tester looks suitably upmarket with the M Sport package and polished bi-colour alloys, while the chrome exterior accents nicely complement the white exterior. Further to that, the blue M Sport brake calipers pop against the neutral body.
The 1 Series has never been the most handsome premium small hatchback – especially the pre-facelift, ew – but the specification we have here on test certainly looks the goods, at least in this reviewer's opinion.
Hopping inside further reiterates that premium feel, with plenty of soft-touch surfaces across the mid and upper tiers of the doors and dashboard, hardy leather trim with contrasting blue top-stitching, and gloss-black trim inserts in the case of our tester.
Unlike a lot of mainstream vehicles in this class, the BMW 1 Series features the same yielding door trims in the second row as well as the first, while also featuring rear air vents.
Back to the front, the M Sport steering wheel remains one of the nicest to hold in the hand, thanks to the chunky rim and smooth, soft leather trim.
In typical BMW style, the controls and switchgear are pretty logically laid out, and the 8.8-inch touchscreen, which can also be toggled using the rotary iDrive controller on the centre tunnel, has a high resolution and quick response times despite being the previous-generation iDrive 6 interface.
Further to that, the optional wireless Apple CarPlay integration, which really should be standard mind you, worked seamlessly and reliably every time I got into the vehicle. The only bugbear regarding phone stuff was that the wireless phone charging pad under the centre console armrest doesn't fit a larger phone like my iPhone XS Max.
The instrument cluster isn't fully digital like, say, an A-Class or an A3 (optionally), but the dials are nicely clear and the multifunction display positioned beneath them shows all the necessary information like a digital speedometer, trip computer functions, and navigation prompts.
Now to passenger accommodation. Up front, you're pretty well catered for in terms of head and leg room for the driver and passenger. It's cosy in the sense that everything seems to wrap around you along with the high window line, but it doesn't feel tight.
Further to that, you're seated quite low up front, adding to that more sporting flavour BMW is presumably going for. It's quite nice, provided that's what you're into.
Moving into the second row, again, it's not quite as flash. Thanks to its rear-drive architecture, the 1 Series has always struggled with rear accommodation. Taller passengers don't get a huge amount of leg room, and the driveshaft to the rear axle means there's a massive hump in the middle of the floor, limiting space even further.
It's behind the class leaders for sure, but who's buying a 1 Series to transport their six-foot-three teenagers anyway?
Parents of young kids are catered for with two ISOFIX seat mounts on the outboard rear pews, and there are also three top tether points.
As for luggage space, the 1 Series claims to have a 360L boot with all five seats in place. Folding down the rear seat-backs expands that to a more capacious 1200L, and the floor is nicely flat when you do so.
How about the driving? That's what we're really here for, right?
Well, if you're someone who sees driving as a hobby rather than something you just 'have to do' on a day-to-day basis, this is where the 1 Series really sells itself.
It starts with the sporty drive position and that lovely M Sport steering wheel, then you fire it up and get going, and you notice there's a sense of sharpness and engagement in the Bimmer that's lacking in a lot of modern cars.
Under the bonnet of the 125i is a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine making 165kW at 6500rpm and 310Nm from 1400 to 5000rpm – that's basically at idle. You'll remember not long ago that the Volkswagen Golf GTI made 169kW and 350Nm for similar money, though that was, and still is, front-wheel drive.
The 125i is nicely punchy, and the four-cylinder motor is an enthusiastic unit that really likes to rev out when you give it a good boot.
Acceleration isn't mind-blowing, but nevertheless you make steady progress in any gear, at any time. Keep in mind BMW claims a 0–100km/h time of 6.1 seconds for the 125i, meaning it's pretty much as quick as the current 180kW Golf GTI Performance and the 202kW Hyundai i30 N – figures on paper don't always make that much of a difference.
It's certainly brisk enough for most people, though if you want even more performance, you can always try and get your hands on one of the last 250kW M140i hot hatches before they cease production.
Unique to the 1 Series in the small-car segment are its aforementioned rear-drive underpinnings, which will sadly be phased out with the new-generation model due to be revealed later this year.
What it means for the driving experience is that the front end feels sharp and light, as the front wheels don't have to worry about turning and accelerating like all of its rivals.
The steering is beautifully direct, if a little on the lighter side, and the push you get from the rear under acceleration isn't replicated by any front-drive rival. Furthermore, the 1 Series is balanced and sure-footed through corners, and really lives up to BMW's 'Ultimate Driving Machine' promise.
We hit up some of the roads around Mount Dandenong in Victoria's east to test out the 125i's ability in continuous bends and climbs, and it handled them with ease. There's minimal body roll through the corners, and there's heaps of grip from the Bridgestone Potenza tyres (225/40 front and 245/35 rear) regardless of the weather.
On the open road, meanwhile, the 125i offers a big-car drive feel. It's planted and stable regardless of speed, and exhibits little to no noise from the powertrain.
Like BMWs past with run-flat tyres, though, the 125i suffers from some intrusive tyre roar over most road surfaces, particularly at higher speeds. Considering how quiet the engine is at speed, along with the minimal wind noise, the lack of insulation from road noise really detracts from the premium cabin ambience on the move.
The ride is a little on the firmer side given the M Sport suspension, which may not appeal to all who navigate pothole-ridden city streets on the daily. It does settle at highway speeds, however.
We also experienced a couple of technical bugs with our tester, too. On several occasions the instrument cluster would show a warning message saying the engine's full power wasn't available, then would disappear the next time we turned it on.
The other glitch we experienced was a locked seatbelt for the front passenger, which was caused unknowingly after the seat was adjusted without someone sitting in it. We managed to fix it by raising the seat to reduce the slack, but it was a headache nonetheless.
As for fuel consumption, we managed an indicated 8.9L/100km over 500km of mixed driving skewed towards urban commutes. While it's a respectable figure for a performance hatchback that spent most of its time in the city, that's quite a bit up on BMW's 5.9L/100km combined figure, and even the official 7.4L/100km urban claim.
Regardless, with the indicated readout as a guide, you can expect over 500km per fill from the 125i's 52L fuel tank in real-world driving. It's worth noting it requires minimum 95RON unleaded, too.
In terms of ownership, the 1 Series is covered by BMW's three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty with three years of complimentary roadside assistance. While we have to knock the brand for not offering a warranty longer than three years like an increasing amount of brands in Australia, it's on par with its main rivals from Germany.
Scheduled maintenance is based on an array of vehicle sensors to determine when work is required. However, buyers can opt for the BMW Service Inclusive package that covers the first five years or 80,000km and priced from $1465, or $293 per year. Not bad.
The 'Basic' package covers all the necessities like filters, brake fluid and spark plugs, though you'll need to shell out more for the 'Plus' items like brake pads and wiper blades – pricing for the premium package is available upon request from your BMW dealer.
All told, the BMW 125i is the last of a dying breed, and tends to be overshadowed by its M140i sibling in the performance hatchback space.
While it lacks the outright pace of the six-cylinder flagship, the 125i is probably the sweet spot in the soon-to-be superseded 1 Series range, and offers the most balanced blend of performance and comfort for many drivers.
There's the unique selling point of rear-wheel drive, too, which will soon be swapped out for front- and all-wheel-drive underpinnings within the next 12 months. So, if you're an enthusiast, we'd suggest getting your hands on one now.
We'd like to see a few more features and technologies included as standard, given the ever-developing competitive set from both the premium and mainstream segments, though the 125i remains an engaging, fun and premium little hatch.