Quite how BMW is able to square its long-standing, rear-driven, ‘ultimate driving machine’ ethos with front-wheel drive technology is something mildly miraculous to Iain Robertson, whose own beliefs have been battered into a sense of new reality.
Little did Sir Alec Issigonis realise that his lunchtime napkin design for a revolutionary new car, which became the original Mini, would end up in German hands as the capitalised MINI (although I never refer to it in that way). He packaged ingeniously a transversely-mounted, small capacity petrol engine (he wanted a new three-cylinder unit but Austin-Morris could only allow him the already aged A-Series that had powered innumerable models including the infamous Austin A30/A35), which sat above a compact gearbox that shared its sump oil lubrication.
Yet, within a mere 10 feet of car length and less than five feet width, four adults and a surprisingly amount of luggage could be transported. Not only the UK was extracting itself from post-WW2 austerity and the all-new Mini was a necessary automotive antidote that sold for a whisker over £500 and would soon energise the new car market worldwide.
In fact, since that auspicious early-1960s period, virtually every carmaker in the world has adopted the transverse-front-engined-front-driven layout for its more compact models. While imperfect in many ways, the Issigonis original remained a ground-breaker for almost four decades.
Intriguingly enough but hoping to succeed in practically every automotive classification, BMW could be said to have had a mountain to climb with its evolutionary new 1-Series. The Bavarian carmaker is not new to front-wheel drive, transverse engine technology, after all, it has almost two decades’ worth of its own versions of the Mini to fall back on and the 2-Series MPV has been on the go for the past few years.
Yet, when a brand’s entire philosophy has been built and based upon rear-wheel drive and the copious benefits it extolls to the press-on type of driver, allied to years of front-driven denial, a major bridge-building exercise has proved essential. Naturally, BMW will use every tool in its kit to ensure that it avoids product development by consumer demand, an aspect for which it can be said to have relied on with every model line from 1-Series up, in the past.
The 1-Series is a car vital to BMW’s strengths, not least because it is dropped into the most important segment of the high-volume new car scene. The new model is fractionally shorter but marginally wider than its rear-driven predecessor and it retains the BMW-customary short frontal overhang. However, within that overhang is the latest, largest and most cascading style of ‘Double Kidney’ radiator grilles…it is a whopper by any definition and, as a regular reader, you will have noted my comments on it over the past few months, as various new cars have been launched by the firm, all carrying the new and heavy-handed outline grille.
Most important, not just to BMW but also to its customers, is new-found cabin packaging. This is the roomiest 1-Series ever and among the roomiest of all BMWs, a clear benefit of more compact drivetrain packaging. Even the available boot space is enhanced significantly from 360 to 380-litres, which is a clear requirement in the class. Interestingly, even when the panoramic sunroof is specified, additional headroom has been created for rear seat occupants, who also gain from greater knee, shoulder and legroom. However, peer inside the hatchback and it is every millimetre BMW to its core, complete with the driver-focused instrument panel and centre console that have long hallmarked BMW products. Much like its key rival Audi, the 1-Series now incorporates backlit mood illumination on some trim panels and the instrument panel can be driver reconfigured to contain sat-nav and other information on demand.
Front-wheel drive is often a compromising set-up. BMW has always promoted a perfect ’50:50’ front-to-rear weight balance, which removes the inherent negative aspects of front-wheel drive dynamics (excess understeer and increased bump-steer characteristics). Yet, despite greater nose-heaviness, the new 1-Series feels disarmingly neutral in its handling envelope, even though some driver inputs receive a slightly numb degree of feedback. Inevitably, ‘electrickery’ plays a vital role in maintaining the car’s stability and, using vectoring technology that has been employed in the tall and narrow i3S model, the 1-Series relies on mild brake applications (without driver intervention) that reduce both understeer and oversteer cornering tendencies. Yet, using the dynamic traction control system also fitted to the car, a greater amount of slip can be experienced to provide it with more engaging handling traits. BMW has a reputation to maintain and, while relying now on ‘intelligent’ electronics, it is able to hold up its head and propose that it has a positive handle on front-driven dynamics.
With three trim levels (SE, Sport and M Sport) and a choice of three diesel and two petrol power units, with either front, or all-wheel drive, manual, or automated manual transmissions, performance expectations are strong, while frugality is exceptional. There is a flagship M135i xDrive model (£36,430) that promises a 155mph (limited) maximum speed and blitzes from 0-60mph in a mere 4.5s (35.3mpg, 157g/km CO2) but, while its appeal is sure to be strong, it will constitute probably less than eight percent of all 1-Series registrations. Prices (pre-dealer discounts) start at a reasonable £24,430…but beware of the extra-cost options list!
The entry-level model is the 118i powered by the 1.5-litre, 140bhp, three-cylinder petrol-turbo engine shared with the Mini, which emits as low as 114g/km of tax-friendly CO2 and will return upwards of 47mpg, while topping out at 132mph and cracking the 0-60mph sprint in a modest 8.2s. It is sure to be the fleet darling, although the 116, 150 and 190bhp turbo-diesel versions are sure to curry favour in that arena too.
With a mixed bag of expectations, it is pleasant to be surprised at the overall competence of the comprehensively revised 1-Series from BMW. Its place in the business car market looks very secure for the next few years at least, even with that huge ‘schnozzle’.