Car reviews - BMW - 1 Series - range
Roomy, stylish and solidly finished cabin, generous equipment, looks better in the flesh
Room for improvement
Over-firm suspension, multimedia system’s proliferation of sub-menus, M135i lacks the dynamic fluidity of its rear-drive predecessor
Lots of hits and a few misses for BMW as new 1 Series shifts to front-drive platform
5 Dec 2019
AT THE launch of the original BMW 1 Series in 2004, I bet no one could’ve foreseen this. A front-drive 1 Series owing more to its Mini cousins – and the designs of its German competitors – than any hallowed classic from BMW’s storied past.
Instead of a modern take on the brand-defining 02-series (1966-’77), which is what the original 1 Series attempted to be, the third-generation model draws a line in the sand for BMW passenger cars. It completes BMW’s transition away from rear-wheel drive for its mainstream entry-level models, mainly because 80 per cent of previous 1 Series owners didn’t even know which wheels were doing the driving!
As a result, the crucial new-gen 1 Series switches to a more space-efficient front-drive layout shared with BMW’s current X1, X2 and 2 Series Active Tourer, as well as Mini’s Clubman and Countryman.
But does that make the F40 1 Series smarter or simply more confused?
Given that the allure of an entry-level model with the same rear-drive flavour as BMW’s performance icons doesn’t seem to matter so much anymore, perhaps the 1 Series’ shift to front-wheel drive was inevitable.
It’s become all about brand association, which goes some way to explaining the oversized kidney grille and prominent blue-and-white propeller badges adorning the F40 1 Series. This transverse-engined BMW hatch wants to be noticed, though not necessarily for what’s playing out underneath its skin.
That visual pull applies to the Australian launch models (118i and M135i) in particular, seeing they both feature M Sport accoutrements as standard. Even the boggo 118i gets 18-inch alloys and lowered sports suspension, despite its turbo-petrol three-cylinder engine and seven-speed dual-clutch transmission being all about driveability, not racetrack times.
Utilising a second-generation version of BMW/Mini’s UKL platform (dubbed UKL2+), the greatest advantage of the F40 1 Series’ switch to front- or all-wheel drive is cabin space. It’s significantly more accommodating than its rear-drive F20 predecessor.
Despite being slightly shorter overall (by 5mm) and riding on a 20mm-shorter wheelbase (2670mm), there’s a whopping 33mm more kneeroom in the rear, as well 12mm extra cushion depth, 19mm extra headroom (thanks to a much larger sunroof that opens outwards), and a more elevated seating position for an expansive forward view.
The new One has grown in other areas too, including 30mm in front track, 42mm in front elbow-room and 20 litres in boot capacity the latter to an impressive 380 litres with 67mm of additional width plus underfloor storage.
But what is arguably more important is the standard of finish, the feeling of solidity and the excellence of seating inside the F40’s roomier cabin. It’s beautifully integrated door grabhandles are just part of the impressive attention to detail that abounds inside the new 1 Series. If only the proliferation of sub-menus in its multimedia system wasn’t so infuriating.
The cynics out there would say that BMW needed to nail the new 1 Series’ cabin in order to distract from the driving experience. And in some ways they’d be right, though perhaps not in the way you’re thinking.
In abandoning BMW’s long-held belief in rear-wheel drive (and 50:50 front/rear weight distribution) the new 1 Series is instantly at a disadvantage. But it’s potentially the spec level of Australian cars that serves to undermine the new model’s potential goodness.
BMW wanted to include an M Sport package as standard on the 118i because “it looks the most aesthetically pleasing of the line offerings available” and it’s what the majority of customers would choose. But does a 103kW/220Nm 1.5-litre automatic with a 0-100km/h time of 8.5 seconds really need 18-inch wheels and sports suspension lowered by 20mm? The simple answer is: No.
What that produces is a car that suffers less vertical pitching than its (flawed) predecessor, but one that still fails to breathe with Australian roads. Yet as respite, BMW’s Dynamic Damper Control (a $400 option on the pricier all-wheel-drive M135i) isn’t available on the 118i.
What we’re left with, then, is a promising car with tidy handling and a tolerable ride, but one that suffers an odd mismatch between its refined, soothingly elastic drivetrain and its over-firm suspension. Surely a Sport-line or Luxury-line alternative would’ve been preferable, dynamically at least.
Fitting the M Sport package as standard on the 118i effectively pushes the M135i further into slightly questionable territory.
There’s no doubt that its 19-inch wheels (with 235/35R19 Continental Premium Contact 6 tyres) look great, but they aren’t available with Dynamic Damper Control either. You need to drop down to 18s for that, yet even the forthcoming M Performance version (which arrives in February) sporting lighter 18-inch forged alloys still won’t have adaptive dampers as standard.
In an era where several UKL-platformed BMWs have been panned for their punishing ride quality on Australian surfaces, it’s a brave decision.
Somehow, though, the heavier M135i’s ride feels less agitated than the 118i’s. And while its sophisticated all-wheel-drive system is capable of delivering incisive handling, huge mid-corner grip and exacting corner-exit prowess, this is all highly dependent on steering angle and throttle position as the M135i attempts to compensate for its front-biased 58/42 weight distribution.
When you’re not plumbing the depths of its electro-mechanical limited-slip front diff and the electronic smarts of its actuator contiguous wheel-slip limitation (ARB) and yaw-moment distribution (which brakes the inside-front wheel in a corner to reduce understeer), there’s an aloofness to the M135i.
The numbness in its steering feel around straight ahead and its lack of dynamic fluidity compared to its rear-drive predecessor seem more about achieving on-paper numbers than delivering seat-of-the-pants satisfaction. The old rear-drive M140i may not have been as quick, but it was more engaging.
The M135i’s 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four-pot is definitely fit for purpose, though only if you switch off its synthesised ‘Sport’ induction sound (buried in several sub-menus). With this amateur engine note set to ‘reduced’, you can finally enjoy the raspy, blurting fun of the M135i’s 225kW/450Nm engine.
In much the same fashion as a 330i, BMW’s pointless ‘tuning’ completely smothers the aural sweetness of the engine buried underneath, even though the M135i’s claimed 4.8-second 0-100km/h time is more about the shortness of the first two gear ratios in its eight-speed auto ’box than actual accelerative muscle.
What cannot be disputed, however, is the new 1 Series’ value for-money. The $42,900 (plus on-road costs) 118i is the leader of the pack because it looks like it’s worth much more than its sticker price, even on the inside (despite the deletion of rear-seat air vents).
There’s a classy, hewn-from-stone solidity to the 118i that feels premium.
To a lesser extent, all that applies to the M135i as well. But with its $63,990 (plus on-roads) price teetering dangerously close to the excellent Mercedes-AMG A35’s ask ($67,200) – a hot hatch that includes crucial dynamic must-haves like adaptive dampers as standard, as does the Volkswagen Golf R – there’s a chance that discerning enthusiasts will bypass the M135i altogether … especially when BMW’s own 330i M Sport, with its uncorrupted steering and exquisite handling poise, costs only $6K more.
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Model release date: 1 October 2019
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