When car enthusiasts think of what BMW stands for, it’s a company flying the flag for straight-six engines and rear-wheel drive even in times when both have been unpopular, and not only have these been staples of their larger sedans, but also of its first real hatchback, the 1 Series, since it launched back in 2004.
To everyone else, however, the BMW badge is actually about being something to flex. If you see that roundel on the front of your neighbours car, you’ll be thinking to yourself that they must be doing pretty well for themselves, no?
That’s why when BMW turned to focus groups of owners that had bought the old 1 Series – a car that, quite frankly, seemed to exist only for the purpose of being a rear-wheel drive hatchback – whether its driveline was a factor taken into consideration when making their purchase, the answer was a clearly resounding “no.”
For the first time then, as it enters it’s third generation, the 1 Series is now, in base form, front-wheel drive, although performance variants have been given a front-biased all-wheel drive system.
Here in Australia, just two variants will be offered – the base 118i on test here, which starts at $42,990 while this M Sport variant comes in at a not entirely unreasonable $47,837 with a couple of options added, and the hardcore M135i xDrive – and in the case of the base model, at least, it looks to only be half the car it should be on paper.
That’s not only because it’s front-wheel drive, but because a mere 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine first used in the Mini lineup now lies sideways under its bonnet, firmly confining a rear-drive, straight-six 1 Series to the history books.
At least on the inside, things haven’t been done in halves at all, as it feels right up to the scratch of the rest of the current BMW lineup. Boasting the latest version of iDrive, one of my favourite infotainment systems around right now, wireless Apple CarPlay, a crystal-clear digital instrument cluster with some funky hexagonal dials, blue cloth and faux-leather upholstery with blue contrast stitching, some incredibly cool adjustable ambient interior lighting within the hexagonal door and dash trim, and a chunky M-branded steering wheel in this example, it’s clearly a quality item.
What’s more, the move away from rear-wheel drive has allowed for some major renovations in the back that have really opened the interior space up to address a couple of major criticisms I and many others had of past generations. With not big differential or driveshafts back there, the boot floor is now much deeper than before, with it segmented by a handy flat-loading false floor, and the rear seats have been pushed further back and lower down to actually allow humans to fit back there.
That being said, there are still a couple of minor issues I have – there’s still no rear centre armrest, the front centre console storage area isn’t quite as wide as you’d like, and you’re only getting single-zone climate control in what is clearly a premium-tier car – but with the biggest points of contention having been addressed, the new 1er marks well on the inside.
I rather like the way it looks on the outside as well, as while it’s certainly different to its distinctly rear-wheel drive predecessor, with its proportions now looking more typical for the class, it’s still all very BMW. Although many aren’t fans of the bigger kidney grilles the company is now utilising, I am a rare defender of the current crop of models as I think they’re all good-looking things, with this being no exception.
The ‘Storm Bay metallic’ paintwork on my tester is a particular highlight as well, looking like a much more interesting Audi Nardo Grey, and the M Sport additions such as the split five-spoke wheels and bigger exhaust really do give it some presence.
And, you see, presence is what the 1 Series is all about. Sure, a couple of you out there may have bought one because of its prior point of difference, but for most, this is really just a status symbol. Thankfully, however, it is a status symbol that does drive rather well.
While the shift to front-wheel drive may seem utterly sacrilegious for a company that flew the flag for the enthusiast’s choice drivetrain for the longest, while its waggly oversteering tail is now gone, it’s easy to say that is still feels like a BMW from behind the wheel.
The steering? BMW. The ride and handling? BMW. The power delivery and drivetrain refinement? It’s all very BMW, at least from where I was sitting.
Although it might not seem like much, the turbo-triple up front is an incredibly charismatic and characterful engine that feels perfectly at home here. Sure, it’s small size may be exacerbated when you’re getting it off the line, but once that turbo spools up it really does feel punchy, with its 103kW and 220Nm outputs and 8.5 second 0-100km/h time totally acceptable for what it is when compared to, say, an upscale Volkswagen Golf 110TSI.
It makes a tremendous noise, too, the off-kilter three-pot. Maybe I’m just losing my mind, but I swore I could hear its straight-six origins – it may as well just be the company’s 3.0-litre six-pot sliced in half – in its surprisingly throaty tone.
This engine is hooked up to a great transmission as well in the form of a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, which, while lacking a set of paddle shifters behind the wheel, never really needs to be told to do as it’s bang on the money, almost always seeming to be in the gear you want, when you want it.
And alright, I’ll admit it, the charm of the old model’s handling and how easy it was to induce and control oversteer in it is something that I definitely miss, but when taking this new chapter in the 1 Series story as just that, it’s remarkably good fun from behind the wheel.
It corners tightly and remains flat and fairly composed through the bends at higher speeds, and even though at lower speeds through tight turns and hairpins there is some torque steer to be felt when getting back on the throttle, the average driver won’t find any undesirable front-drive characteristics rearing their heads.
The ride is nicely balanced also – firm when you want it to be, supple enough when you don’t – and while it is on the sportier side, it doesn’t detract in any way from the premium feeling of the 1er.
This is one of those things that’s hard to put your finger on, but in every way this feels like just that little bit more than a Golf or Mazda3 – the two most premium-feeling of the normal hatchbacks. From the materials to the solidarity of everything, it all befits the badge.
While it will no doubt still have its detractors, as, after all, rear-wheel drive has long been one of the cornerstones of BMWs ideology, make no mistake that the new 1 Series is a better car for being front-wheel drive, at least holistically speaking.
It still looks like a BMW, feels like a BMW, and drives like a BMW, yet this 118i isn’t exactly priced like one, at least before you start delving into the options list.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the old F20 was definitely more rewarding and exciting when pushed hard, but when you look at what makes a car objectively good, boring things like boot space and rear legroom do make a big difference. To you and I, fellow enthusiasts, we may mourn the death of the only rear-drive hatchback on sale, but for everyone else concerned with the 1 Series, they’ll just be glad they can finally get all of their shopping in the back.
2020 BMW 118i M Sport List Price: $42,990 | As Tested: $47,837
Pros: Drastically improved interior and boot space, charming and characterful turbo-triple engine, rides and handles just like a sporty Beemer should – sans drifting
Cons: Some torque steer to be felt at slower speeds, no rear centre armrest and slim centre console storage, more about the badge than the drive
In a nutshell: It might not be quite as rewarding when driven hard, but objectively speaking, this new, more practical 1 Series is technically a better car than its predecessor.
Full Disclosure: BMW Australia provided the vehicle tested here for a week with a full tank of fuel. Additionally, our friends at MPF Detailing gave it a complimentary express detail for us prior to our photoshoot.
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