The third-generation BMW 1 Series hatch competitor to the Mercedes-Benz A-Class and Audi A3 is a significant departure from its predecessors, which have collectively managed around 2.5 million sales worldwide since 2004.
Previous iterations of the 1 Series were throwbacks to another era for BMW, using a class-unique rear-wheel-drive architecture that appealed to driving purists, but compromised the back seat and boot space in the process. The company deemed things could not continue this way.
So, while BMW is keen to focus on this new model’s tech-laden and ‘connected’ interior, driver-assistance features and design, it’s the shift to a transverse front- and all-wheel-drive architecture shared with Mini and the X1 crossover that is getting attention.
In many ways, the 1 Series is also a European holdout for a more globalised BMW. Since massive markets like the US and China have limited appetites for small hatchbacks, a remarkable 80 per cent of all its sales are made on the ‘old continent’.
Two versions will arrive locally at a very similar time to bigger markets, during the fourth quarter of 2019. These will be ‘bookend’ models – an entry-grade 118i and a flagship M135i xDrive hot hatch. A mid-level 125i successor will likely follow during the course of 2020.
We don’t yet know Australian pricing because local product planners are still haggling with head office, but it would be safe to use the outgoing 118i’s $38,990 (before on-road costs) tag as a guide, as well as the axed M140i’s circa $60K price for the M135i xDrive.
Before we get stuck into the mechanicals, we should focus on what BMW’s research shows are the key decision areas for its buyers: design, cabin features and connectivity, and space. It would be foolish for us not to empathise with the target buyer’s priorities.
The new 1er’s design is subjective, but what it loses in RWD proportions, it makes up for with muscular body sculpting and a particularly striking use of the signature kidney front grille. Handsome? That's in the eye of the beholder. At 4319mm, it’s actually 5mm shorter than before, and is 20mm shorter between the wheels. It is, however, both wider and taller.
We should also remind you that a new model called 2 Series Gran Coupe launches this year. This is basically the 1 Series running gear and cabin put into a slinky four-door ‘coupe’ body – essentially Bavaria’s answer to the wildly successful Mercedes-Benz CLA. That’s a long-overdue addition. But we digress.
Rear occupants in this 1 Series no longer need to deal with tiny door apertures and a huge centre driveshaft hump, have more head, shoulder and knee room (anyone up to 180cm will be comfortable), and get two USB-C inputs and air vents. The 380L boot is 20L bigger than before and stacks up against a VW Golf’s.
Now, I'm aware that we've given some brands in the small-hatch market a pass recently for reducing back-seat and boot space (Mazda 3 and Toyota Corolla). The counter to this is the fact that the majority of 1 Series sales are in Europe, and there this car is often used by families. If we seem to lack consistency, it's based on geographic market considerations.
Up front, the ‘cockpit’ is oriented towards the driver. Behind the wheel is an instrument display with various layouts and mapping all beautifully framed. Above this is a large projecting head-up display that shows your speed and navigation instructions on the windscreen, right in your field of vision.
Glance to the side and you find a 10.25-inch landscape screen facing you running BMW’s version 7.0 operating system, which sports configurable home-page widgets, gesture controls, a touchscreen, the iDrive rotary dial, and a voice-controlled personal assistant that responds to a ‘Hey BMW’ prompt and is generally as understanding as Alexa or Siri.
Not only can you ask it to call someone, change the station, monitor your oil level or tyre pressure or navigate somewhere, but you can ask it to heat the seats, open the sunroof, and engage sports mode. If you tell it you’re too warm it puts on the AC, and if you say you’re tired it pumps tunes and blows freezing air at you.This system will be constantly refined and updated over the air.
You’ll note that this gives BMW a formidable answer to Mercedes-Benz’s groundbreaking MBUX system used in the A-Class. Indeed, the layout of the 1 Series, with its two separated screens tilted at the driver, is more aesthetic. To my eyes at least.
The connected experience comprises wireless Apple CarPlay and various BMW remote monitoring apps, plus you can use near-field communication to make your smartphone your key fob. Just press it against the door handle, put it into the Qi smartphone charging pad, and go. You can share five profiles, which enables friends to drive the car this way, too.
The rest of the interior is familiar from BMW, and headlined by a plethora of trim choices from blue fabric seats, real black or red leather, or suede, plus grey cabin highlights, an M Sport suede steering wheel, and ambient lights. It’s understated and contemporary, and the quality where it should be.
The engines on offer mark a change, too. There are three small Euro6d-TEMP diesels, but none will come to Australia. There’s also no replacement for the old Golf GTI-rivalling 125i at launch, though something like it is in the pipeline. The bookending product approach clearly leaves a massive hole in BMW’s range for the time being, though.
The 118i uses a lighter version of the 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol making 103kW (up 3kW) between 4600 and 6500rpm, and 220Nm from 1480 to 4200rpm (unchanged), with 10Nm on overboost.
Mated to this is a new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, in place of the old 8AT, channelling power to the front wheels. BMW promises combined-cycle fuel use of 5.0L/100km and a 0–100km/h time of 8.5 seconds. There’s a six-speed manual in Europe, but the interest in this from Australians will be negligible.
Alas, we did not have the opportunity to drive this engine at the launch in Munich this week. So, we will wait. But previous experience in BMW’s little three-pot in the Mini family, in particular, has revealed a thrumming note and a determined torque delivery.
Before moving on, we will note that every 1 Series sports a multi-link independent suspension set-up, in contrast to base Mercedes-Benz A-Class models with a cheaper torsion beam. One BMW engineer made it quite clear that Daimler’s decision was not remotely one that Bimmer would consider, saying “first-time brand buyers deserve the best driving experience”. Zing.
Of more interest is the new M135i xDrive. The fact that this new 1 is no longer able to house a longitudinal drivetrain means there’s no chance of an M140i replacement using the hallowed 250kW/500Nm (in this usage) 3.0-litre inline-six.
Instead, it gets a brand-new 2.0-litre four, the most powerful BMW has ever made, mated to a new eight-speed auto gearbox with torque converter and paddles. Its figures are 225kW peak power at 4500rpm and 450Nm from 1750rpm through to 5000rpm.
Despite the addition of a new 50:50-capable AWD system with hang-on clutch that generally powers the front wheels, a Torsen limited-slip differential at the front, and a new eight-speed torque-converter auto with launch control and paddles, the 4.7-second peak 0–100km/h time is a tenth slower than its predecessor.
But do not for one second think the new M135i xDrive is a soft-hearted effort, because it is most certainly not. The outputs stack up next to the 225kW/400Nm Mercedes-AMG A35, 213kW/380Nm Audi S3 and 206kW/420Nm Focus ST, as does the sprint time, and these are the rivals BMW wants to beat.
There will be no hardcore Mercedes-AMG A45 or Audi RS3 rival in the 1 Series body, but brand enthusiasts can relax in the knowledge that BMW has no plans for the next 2 Series Coupe to go transverse. Instead, these models (including the M2) will be based upon the modular CLAR architecture, have RWD and AWD, and retain a beloved inline-six. It’s not stupid.
The new engine is actually a ripper, with instantaneous delivery from the rapid-spooling TwinPower turbo set-up, vast reservoirs of torque just off idle, a preternaturally slick 8AT, and an inducted organic exhaust note that’s never try-hard or overtly crackly on overrun.
The speed-sensitive electric steering is direct and quite communicative, and the ride quality on two-mode adjustable dampers (Sport and Comfort) suitably soft in the latter and firm and taut in the former. Yet, neither negatively throws out the body control or comfort over corrugations beyond an acceptable point.
While the AWD system cannot send more than 50 per cent of the engine’s output to the rear, the M135i xDrive nevertheless feels agile and anything but neutral or 'understeery'. The mechanical grip is superior, but the car truly does feel suitably light on its feet, fond of rapid directional changes, and pedal-adjustable in corners. It even drifts in competent hands.
Tech includes a slip control module in the ECU housing that removes the need for a relay, for faster responses, plus a system that brakes the inside front wheel to reduce understeer should you barrel into a bend too hot. You could argue adherence to RWD in a car like this would be philosophical only. I understand and empathise with the view that for some the shift is a deal-breaker, but in suitable hands the 1er remains a weapon.
From a driver-assistance angle, you get steering assist, radar-guided cruise control, blind-spot monitoring and all the rest, plus one function that remembers your last stint of forward driving and follows the identical path in reverse, steering autonomously. That’s helpful backing out of tight spots.
Speaking of tight spots, BMW has successfully migrated away from one in producing a new 1 Series that will appeal to a broader buyer base, at the likely expense of a miffed handful. Credit where it’s due, this is a high-tech, relatively practical and dynamically adept hatchback. The line-up is minimalist for now, but it covers the sweet spots and should secure a cluster of new buyers.