Landmark BMW 1-Series transitions from rear to front-wheel drive


It has taken a while for BMW to re-engineer its most compact conventional 1-Series from rear to front-wheel drive, highlights Iain Robertson, but it has been time well spent on refining and improving the drivetrain to meet high expectations and remain competitive.

Making earth-shattering alterations to a market acceptable product, whether it be a confectionery count-line, or frontline motorcar, is sure to upset somebody. When that carmaker is BMW, the implications could be horrendous. Audi carried out a swap of drivetrain, from transverse to in-line, a few years ago but was very careful to work on the basis that 99.9% of its customers were unlikely to ever raise the bonnet on those cars. It got away with it.

Mind you, for BMW, we are looking at a car that has been due for some major surgery for several years. When you consider how much business the ‘Big Three’ (Audi, Merc and BMW) generates in the UK new car scene, the reticence shown by BMW in respect of swapping the drive from rear to front axles of its high-volume 1-Series is eminently understandable. After all, it is a market sector that will not tolerate errors and, predominated by the company car scene, the need to meet vital parameters is no less than life affirming.

The best-selling 1-Series has been with us for 16 years now. It is very well established. Yet, it was becoming abundantly clear that its packaging was below expectations, even though drivers have always adored its dynamic balance, gifted by rear-wheel drive, which provides uncompromised steering and a near 50:50 (perfect) front-to-rear weight distribution. It is one heck of a trade-off; get it wrong in either area (space and driving dynamics) and buyers are alienated. It is also a gargantuan shift in focus, with the engines being turned through 90-degrees, connected to the gearbox that helps to fill the under-bonnet space.

Well, let me answer the big question…despite my knowledge and understanding, unlike the 2-Series from BMW (also front-wheel drive but imperfect at its launch), the new 1-Series feels virtually identical to the rear-driven model it replaces, which completely bamboozles me, because I expected even a smidgen of front-end waywardness, perhaps even some tyre scrabbling, or plough-on understeer, yet there is none. Instead, the 1-Series is well-balanced, exceptionally well assembled and results in a total ‘win:win’ situation, because the new 1-Series boot is now 380-litres in carrying capacity (20-litres increase, with up to 1,200-litres with the rear seats folded forwards) and the cabin also benefits from significantly greater occupant space, although rear headroom remains at a premium due to the almost coupe-like profile of the car (the only way by which a VW Golf can beat it).

The 1-Series is equally impressive outside too, with a pleasant hatchback style that is derivative but purposeful, fronted by the now customary, larger conjoined kidney grilles. They are bigger than before but not to the comic book dimensions of the larger models in BMW’s extensive line-up. It is a handsome machine overall and, despite sharing a similar footprint to the rear-driver, the new car is actually wider, taller and marginally shorter, if only by a few millimetres in each direction.

BMW suggests that the 2.0-litre 118d will be its best-selling variant but, while the company car sector still believes in diesel technology, the rest of the market is travelling at some rate along the petrol route. Yet, I have managed to get my hands on the excellent 118i; the least expensive turbo-petrol model. Displacing just 1.5-litres across three cylinders (the unit also powers base versions of the latest BMW Mini), it still develops a moderate 138bhp, which is enough to whisk it from 0-60mph in a respectable 8.2s, topping-out at a maximum of 132mph. It makes a pleasant low grumble under full-throttle, while emitting 114g/km CO2 and returning up to 47.1mpg, and costing from a low-ish £24,430 (pre-discount), which is competitive in the sector.

No less than three gearbox options are available: the standard 6-speed manual, a 7-speed twin-clutch automated-manual transmission and an 8-speed fully automatic gearbox. My test example featured a manual gearbox that was more than sweet enough for slicing up and down the ratios. To be honest, were I BMW, I would stick to either manual, or automatic. The dual-clutch unit works well but is largely unessential. Yet, thanks to the latest intelligent connectivity, which can link gearbox to sat-nav mapping, if left to their own devices, the mapping will influence gear position and either shift up, or down, without driver intervention on either auto, or automated units. Clever stuff.

Of course, the 1-Series range offers three power outputs of the turbodiesel engine, 114bhp (116d), 148bhp (118d) and 188bhp (120d, in X-Drive Sport trim), while the only alternative to the 118i is the 2.0-litre turbo-petrol, which develops a hefty 304bhp in M135i X-Drive form, using BMW’s TwinPower technology, which is enough to propel it from 0-60mph in just 4.5s, to a limited top speed of 155mph. Priced at £36,430, it is the top model in the present range, which is certain to grow in coming months.

Interestingly, three trim levels (SE, Sport, M-Sport) and three suspension systems are also offered. The standard system can be enhanced in M-Sport form that also includes a 10mm reduction in ride height, while a new adaptive system allows the driver to select between Comfort and Sport settings for even more focused handling.

The weight difference between rear and front-driven models is just 15kgs in the latter’s favour. However, the new 1-Series feels just right, straight out of the box. Its comfortable cabin is impeccably assembled, using high quality materials. It is well-equipped but indulge in the usual BMW options list and it will add seriously to the bottom line. Complete with LED headlights, alloy wheels, central touchscreen and adaptive driving modes, it would be fair to state that BMW has got its sums right.

BMW took some risks with its new 1-Series but it would appear that they have paid off, without compromises, which is even more surprising. This is a car that can now set fresh parameters for the class.