The 2020 BMW 1 Series is more than just an all-new model, it’s the company’s first conventional hatchback.
The first two generations of BMW 1 Series – from 2004 to 2011 and then from 2011 to 2019 – were rear-wheel drive and unique to the rest of the class. The 2020 BMW 1 Series marks the first time the company has adopted front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive for its smallest hatchback.
BMW got some practice with how front-drive works after it took over Mini 20 years ago. But putting the BMW badge on the nose of a front-wheel-drive car took some convincing.
It wasn’t that long ago BMW was poking fun at cars like this and claiming it would never build a front-drive vehicle. It ran advertising campaigns to show how counter-productive front-wheel-drive cars were, including publishing a photo of a rabbit with massive front legs and tiny rear legs. It pulled the same stunt with photoshopped images of a racehorse and a frog.
The tagline on each of the three ads was the same: "That's why we don't have front-wheel drives".
BMW’s philosophy was simple: send the power to the rear wheels, let the front wheels take care of steering and most of the braking.Dividing the responsibilities between the front and rear also helps balance the overall weight of a vehicle. Front-drive cars – which package the engine, gearbox and steering in a relatively tight space – are typically nose-heavy.
Rear-drive layouts were done for simplicity when the automobile was invented – and still make sense in performance cars and large vehicles – but times and technology have changed.
In addition to having to eat its words from all those years ago, BMW now has the challenge of playing catch-up after giving everyone else a head start of more than half a century.
The first mass-produced front-wheel-drive car was a Citroen in 1934, but the compact layout was quickly adopted by countless other manufacturers because it saved weight and money – and made way for roomier cabins, flatter floors, and deeper boots.
The original Mini Cooper was front-drive from job one in 1961. Cars like the Volkswagen Golf have been perfecting the front-drive formula since 1974 – even the Toyota Corolla, the world’s biggest-selling car, switched to front-drive in 1983 and hasn’t looked back since.
In the end, BMW could no longer ignore the practicalities of front-drive, especially as the automotive industry finds itself on the brink of electrification. Space is now at a premium, and a front-drive layout solves a lot of problems.
Perhaps BMW also adopted another pragmatic view: the Mercedes A-Class and Audi A3 hatchbacks are front-drive and they seem to sell okay.And so here we are, with not just a new BMW 1 Series, but a car that marks a number of firsts for the German brand.
The bold new look was done not only because BMW is in the process of rolling out ever-larger grilles on its latest models, but the designers wanted to stretch the proportions of the new 1 Series to disguise its front-drive layout. That’s why the large, tapered headlights look like they have been pulled towards the back of the car.
Rear-drive cars enable very short overhangs (the space between the front bumper and front wheel arches), and BMW was trying to create the same impression using the trickery of design.
The 2020 BMW 1 Series has a shorter but wider footprint than its predecessor, which has helped create more cabin width. The rear wheels have been pushed back to create more back seat space. There is still a hump in the middle of the rear floor, however, to make way for an all-wheel-drive system.
The boot is bigger than before (up 20L to 380L) to bring it in line with its rivals such as the new Mercedes A-Class (370L), current Audi A3 (380L) and Volkswagen Golf (380L). The back seats fold almost flat to create a 1200L cargo hold.
Overall, cabin width is on par with a Mercedes A-Class, though it's not as roomy as a Volkswagen Golf, especially when it comes to head room.
Price and equipment
Just two models will initially be available in Australia: the BMW 118i from $42,990 plus on-road costs, and the BMW M135i from $63,990 plus on-road costs. Both represent price rises of at least $4000 over their predecessors. However, BMW has loaded them with more standard features than before.
Both models come with a widescreen digital instrument cluster, a head-up display (which reflects vehicle speed and other main functions onto the windscreen in the driver’s line of sight), wireless phone charging, front and rear parking sensors, and lane-keeping assistance.
Exterior 'approach' lighting under the door handles, 'puddle' lamps under the doors, and interior ambient lighting are also standard.
Apple CarPlay is standard and, as this article was prepared, BMW announced it would axe the $479 three-year subscription fee that was due to kick in after 12 months. Android Auto is still coming, though we are told it's not far away.
An option pack that bundles metallic paint, a panoramic sunroof, and 19-inch wheels is $2900 on the 118i, while an option pack for the M135i bundles metallic paint and a panoramic sunroof with radar cruise control (it already comes with 19s) for the same $2900 price.
Another $2300 option pack on the 118i bundles seat heating, extended lumbar support, and electric seats. On the M135i, the $2300 pack buys seat heating, lumbar support and a heated steering wheel.
The list goes on: a powered tailgate, 40/20/40 split-fold seats, and a luggage net are bundled for $1200 on both models.
BMW charges $2100 for an M Sport dress-up package for the 118i, and another $1300 if you want to add radar cruise control, adaptive LED headlights and tyre pressure monitors.
If you think this is getting a bit carried away, you’d be right. Tyre pressure monitors are standard on a Hyundai i30, and you can get one equipped with radar cruise control for less than $25,000.
With an options list that adds up to $10,000, you can easily build a base-model BMW 118i that costs beyond $52,000 before on-road costs. A BMW M135i with the works eclipses $70,000.
Service intervals are condition-based, but a basic five-year/80,000km pre-paid capped-price servicing package costs $1465, and one with the works costs $3790.
The warranty is three years/unlimited kilometres. BMW says it has no plans to introduce a longer warranty, even though the top 12 brands have adopted five-, six- and seven-year coverage.
On the road
First up, we tested the flagship BMW M135i.
In place of the lusty 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder turbo sending power to the rear wheels, the 2020 BMW M135i has a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo sending power to all four wheels.
The M135i’s output of 225kW/450Nm compares to 250kW/500Nm from the previous six-cylinder M140i. Despite the smaller capacity, claimed average fuel consumption has increased from 7.1L/100km to 7.5L/100km. BMW says it can run on 95, but recommends 98-octane premium unleaded.
For further comparison, the new Mercedes A35 AMG pumps out 225kW/400Nm and the new A45 AMG is available with an epic 310kW/500Nm. The Volkswagen Golf R delivers the same or better performance from its 2.0-litre turbo (213kW/380Nm) and all-wheel drive, and is almost $10,000 cheaper.
Although the M135i wears an ‘X-drive’ badge to indicate it is all-wheel drive, in reality it is predominantly front-drive. Even with the throttle floored, it can only send a maximum of 50 per cent of power to the rear wheels.
Perhaps it was the wide, low-profile tyres – or a sign of how the all-wheel-drive system operates – but the M135i tended to tug the steering wheel coming out of tight bumpy turns. It wanted to follow the contour of the road, rather than exactly where I wanted to point it.
In my experience, other all-wheel-drive hot hatches are more fluid and seem to do a better job of disguising how much power goes to the front wheels.
A Sport-mode switch changes throttle response and the shift behaviour of the eight-speed torque-converter auto – holding revs in Sport mode and tripping into low revs in Eco mode – but the suspension settings are fixed.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a view among chassis engineers that a car only has one good setting, and any alternative settings are a compromise.
The M135i gets more advanced shock absorbers, of course, than the base-model 118i, so it does an admirable job of dealing with the worst our roads can throw at it, especially considering it’s on low-profile 19-inch rubber.
It’s not plush but nor is it bone-jarring. The suspension is busy. You can feel it working with the road without being too fidgety. However, I want to reserve final judgment until we test it on familiar roads against some likely rivals. Not every performance-car buyer enjoys the compromise of sports suspension, especially if it’s a daily driver.
An adaptive suspension package is available for $400, but comes with 18-inch wheels as the 19s won’t fit over the high-tech hardware.
Performance and power delivery from the 2.0-litre turbo are okay, though I am kicking myself for not bringing the V-Box to test the 0–100km/h claim of 4.8 seconds.
In my experience, having done countless 0–100km/h times, it’s rare to get close to BMW’s claim and, by the seat of the pants, this doesn’t feel like a 4.8-second car. I wasn’t alone in that opinion, but we’ll time it when we get it back on our turf.
The M135i still accelerates with enthusiasm, and you can feel the surge of turbo power, but it lacks the low-end torque of the previous six-cylinder. Some buyers who are thinking of upgrading might miss that.
They may also miss the intoxicating six-cylinder sound, though BMW has done a fair job of trying to create an artificial six-cylinder purr through the speakers. (Get used to it kids, as we get closer to electric and hybrid cars, and more noise restrictions, fake sound is going to become an increasing reality.)
For me, the most impressive aspect of the M135i was its braking performance: massive 360mm front discs clamped by four-piston calipers.
The seating position was snug; it still feels like a BMW from the driver’s seat, with ample adjustment every which way.
Overall, the BMW M135i is a good first effort. I’m just not sure it’s a class-leader on its debut outing.
Next up, we got into the BMW 118i. Under the bonnet is a 1.5-litre turbo three-cylinder with a modest output of 103kW of power and 220Nm of torque. It has a frugal claimed fuel consumption average of 5.9L/100km. BMW says it can run on 91, but recommends 95-octane premium unleaded.
The 118i has the same engine (with the same output) as the Mini Cooper, but the numbers are tame given the BMW's sporting pretensions. For example, the 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo in the upcoming Ford Fiesta ST has a healthy 147kW/290Nm output.
BMW has done a fair job of muting most of the thrum that is a trait of three-cylinder engines, and it moves along without fuss, but it’s not an ideal companion to the seven-speed twin-clutch auto. It can be a bit delayed when taking off from rest and fidgety when parking.
Even though the BMW 118i tested was on 18-inch wheels and tyres, it didn’t soak up bumps and thumps as well as the M135i. We suspect there are a couple of factors at play here.
Aside from the 118i's suspension being less sophisticated than the M135i, run-flat tyres by design are not as good at absorbing bumps as conventional rubber. The thicker sidewalls tend to have less give, so you feel every bump.
Again, we’ll reserve final judgment until we drive the 118i on familiar city and suburban roads. Winding back roads near wine country might be the natural habitat for a BMW 1 Series on weekends, but you still need comfort as a daily driver.
One footnote: the lane-keeping assistance on both the 118i and M135i were overzealous during our test drive, as is the case with similar tech on rival brands. It's worth exercising caution, as at times the system wanted to steer me into other traffic rather than away from it.
The RRP and the cost of options are high, and it’s safe to say BMW has not set a new benchmark in its front-drive debut. But, the new BMW 1 Series is worthy of a test drive for anyone who loves the badge and loves the look.