One direction as BMW goes back to front

BMW’s new 1 Series is changing from rear to front wheel drive. Packed with the latest tech, it eclipses the car it’s replacing, says Jack Evans

One direction as BMW goes back to front

BMW’s new 1 Series is changing from rear to front wheel drive. Packed with the latest tech, it eclipses the car it’s replacing, says Jack Evans

What is it?

It’s a big one, this. The BMW 1 Series has proved to be an immense hit. It is, therefore, a very important car — both to BMW, and to Irish drivers too.

But sales success aside, there’s another key factor here, because for the first time in the 1 Series’ history, it’s front-wheel drive.

BMW says that the average 1 Series owner won’t be too worried about the change in driven wheels, but has it impacted the overall feel of the hatchback? We’ve been out in the 118d version ahead of the car’s UK introduction in September to see.

What’s new?

Of course, becoming front-wheel-drive is a big deal for a BMW — the German firm has, historically, always stated that rear-wheel drive is best, but we’ll digress. BMW says that the switch to a front-driven setup allows for better interior space, as well as a larger boot without a diminished driving experience.

On top of this, the new 1 Series has been jam-packed with cutting-edge technology, and gets the very latest designs both inside and outside. A range of cleaner, more fuel-efficient engines and gearboxes have been introduced too.

What’s under the bonnet?

Our test car came in 118d specification, which sees a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine transversely mounted under the bonnet, sending drive to the front wheels through a seven-speed automatic gearbox. Power-wise, there’s 148bhp on tap along with 350Nm of torque, enabling the 1 Series to go from 0mph-60mph in 8.2 seconds and carry onwards to a 135mph top speed.

However, it’s when it comes to efficiency and economy where the 118d impresses. BMW claims up to 60.1mpg combined, while CO2 emissions can be as low as 108g/km, depending on wheel size.

It’s also a smaller car than the one it replaces, coming in at 5mm shorter in total, with a wheelbase which is now 20mm shorter than the older one series. However, it is wider and higher, too.

What’s it like to drive?

Though the way the power in the new 1 Series is delivered to the road has changed, the people who drive them haven’t. And back in 2010, it was found that 80% of 1 Series owners thought that their car was front-wheel drive, negating the importance of having those rear wheels driven.

So despite the change of drive being important in terms of BMW as a whole, it’s likely to make little difference to those who put their hard-earned cash forward to buy one.

Which is why the way the new 1 Series drives makes sense. Push hard and yes, it will move to understeer, but for everyday driving it’s superbly refined, comfortable and easy. The steering hasn’t been overladen with fake weight to give it ‘sportiness’, and the transmission shifts with little fuss — though it can be a little dim-witted when moving off from a dead start.

How does it look?

For a little while we were unsure about the way the 1 Series looked. The crease lines at the side make it look a little high, and closer to the likes of the X2 crossover. In the metal things do improve, but it still doesn’t look quite as sharp or dynamic as the older car — but then that’s to our eyes, of course.

The huge oversized kidney grilles which are now de rigeur on BMW models are present and correct, while even 118d models can be specified with purposeful looking twin exhausts.

The white shade our test car was finished in didn’t help it to stand out all that much, while blue versions fared far better — we’d opt for a brighter colour, if it was our choice.

What’s it like inside?

The transverse mounting of the engine, as well as the front-wheel-drive layout, means that BMW has been able to free up some additional space in the cabin. It certainly feels it up front, where the bright and airy cabin feels accessible and open, with plenty of soft-touch materials dotted around.

For the most part, it’s the same in the back. Leg and knee room is excellent, but it’s headroom where the 1 Series falters. It’s likely to be down to the sloping roofline, but even average-height passengers are likely to find their heads touching the roof – so taller people will no doubt find it an uncomfortable place to be.

Boot space has been bumped up though, now up to 320 litres — 20 litres more than the older car. You can expand this up to an impressive 1,200 litres by folding the rear seats down, too. This new 1 Series is only available as a five-door too — there’s no three-door option on this occasion.

What’s the spec like?

BMW is aware that those looking to get their hands on a 1 Series are likely to be pretty tech-savvy, and therefore wanting more buttons and features from their regular hatchback.

It gets much of the equipment that we’ve already seen on the larger 3 Series, and in turn on the even more expensive 8 Series. It sees premium features such as a full digital cockpit available, along with gesture control and a head-up display. These are features that would be expected of a premium saloon, but are genuinely impressive on a hatchback.

You’ve also got the option of a new digital key system, which allows you to unlock, start and lock the car via a smartphone. You can even send close friends and family a ‘key’, which they can then use on their phone to get access to and drive the car.


There was a lot of outcry from motoring enthusiasts when the decision was made to shift the 1 Series to front-wheel drive. But if you think about it, the move makes perfect sense. Eliminating the need to send drive rearwards means better space and more boot room — crucial considerations for a hatchback owner.

Yes, the new 1 Series may not be quite as involving to drive as the car it replaces, but in many other areas it completely eclipses the older car — and all in areas which matter most to 1 Series buyers.

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