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First Drive

First Drive: BMW 1 Series

BMW 118i M Sport manual
The story: The third generation 1-Series is a big change compared to its predecessors, swapping rear-wheel drive for front, which brings major cabin space improvements.
Category:Lower Medium
Key rival:Audi A3 Sportback
Efficiency:45.6 mpg
On sale:Now

The 1-Series serves a vital role for BMW, because it’s the entry point to the range and acts as the conquest car, bringing new people into the German premium brand.

This third-generation 1-Series is a bit of a rethink compared with its two predecessors, in that BMW has switched the car to a front-wheel-drive layout, rather than the rear-drive philosophy of its predecessors. Those previous cars were criticised over their compromised interiors, which was caused by the presence of the rear-drive mechanicals beneath. However, the new car offers better interior and boot space despite being shorter than the model it replaces.

But the company has taken steps to ensure the 1-Series retains its position as the driver’s car in the class, with a stiffer body, new steering rack and a faster-responding traction control system taken from the BMW i3S model all designed to counter the switch to front-wheel drive.

First Drive- October 2019- BMW 1-Series-Image 9The three-door model that accounted for no more than 15% of sales has been dropped, as has already happened with the Audi A3, leaving just the five-door this time around.

There are five engines from launch; the petrol 140hp 118i driven here, with emissions as low as 114/km depending on spec, and three diesels – the 116hp 116d, 150hp 118d and the four-wheel drive 190hp 120d xDrive. Finally, there’s the 306hp 135i range topper, which is the most powerful four-cylinder engine BMW has ever put in a car.

The 116d is an RDE2-compliant engine, and so avoids the four-band Benefit-in-Kind penalty for diesel engines, making it the obvious company car choice initially. The other diesels will be RDE2-compliant from this coming March.

First Drive- October 2019- BMW 1-Series-Image 4The 118i driven here is more tax-efficient than its 118d sibling, at least until the diesel gets RDE2 compliance, and is a refined and sweet engine, given the low emissions figures of 114g/km-123g/km, depending on spec and wheel choice.

It doesn’t take long behind the wheel to be assured that BMW has managed to retain the 1-Series’ reputation as the best choice in the sector for those who enjoy how a car drives and handles. The steering is sharp and direct, the chassis secure and capable and, without being told, many wouldn’t notice the change in which wheels are powered, which is a great effort by BMW. The slick and solid gearchange is also better than the notchy manuals in older BMWs.

But some of the old problems remain, particularly the fact that the excellent driving experience still comes at the expense of ride quality. It won’t have been helped by our test car’s optional 19-inch alloy wheels and no-cost optional M Sport suspension, but the fidgety ride never seems to settle down, and doesn’t do a great deal in terms of bump absorption.

Paul Barker

The verdict

The switch to front-drive hasn’t significantly numbed the 1-Series’ position as the driver’s car in the sector, although the ride quality is an issue. The better practicality and tech are welcome.