New BMW 1 Series prototype review

We’ve been for a drive in the all-new BMW 1 Series hatchback ahead of its official arrivalVerdictYou’ll have your opinions on whether the 1 Series’ move from rear to front-wheel drive is a good thing, but it’s here to stay – and BMW has made a great attempt at instilling its traditional sharp dynamics at the forefront of the driving experience. That’s through not one innovation, but an orchestra of every area playing together and the more harmonious interaction of many different parts and systems. Little improvements add up to a lot here, that includes a more refined and comfortable ride, more space, stronger efficiency potential and a package that still promises to be one of the most dynamic and fun in its class.

The next 1 Series will be front-wheel drive and BMW says we should get over it. It’s not the first BMW to adopt this layout as the brand’s 2 Series Active and Gran Tourer MPVs use this setup, but they’re marginal cars for BMW when it comes to sales. The 1 Series is a big-selling mainstream model, so this all-new version marks a massive step in BMW’s history and a huge technical evolution for the company.

The new front-wheel drive architecture – called FAAR – brings many benefits, not least when it comes to packaging, weight and therefore efficiency.

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Spec-for-spec the new front-drive car is up to 20kg lighter compared with its predecessor (25kg for xDrive all-wheel drive versions), while boot space has risen from 360 litres to 380 litres – this means it still isn’t the largest load bay in its class, but it’s a useful improvement that’s complimented by much more space inside.

This third-generation 1 Series is roomier in the rear. In fact, legroom is much improved. BMW’s Head of Project for the 1 Series, Holger Stauch, claims there’s a 20mm increase in knee clearance to the seat in front and 20mm more headroom. It feels it – and this despite only a 10mm growth in the car’s overall length and a 5mm increase in height. 

Our prototype test vehicles were heavily camouflaged outside and in, so we didn’t get a great impression of the design of this now roomier interior, but the driving dynamics are close to final sign-off, with BMW’s engineers only looking to make final tweaks to the setup.

It’s no surprise that petrol power will be most popular, with the 118i the big seller (diesel is predicted to account for around a third of sales). The 118i still uses BMW’s 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine, but it’s been updated so it now produces 138bhp. It’s also now mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. 

The move to front-wheel drive has undoubtedly robbed the 1 Series of some of its defining character. A back-to-back drive in the outgoing car proved as much, but that’s not the full story. A rear-wheel drive family hatch is something of an anachronism, and even if BMW buyers prioritise driving dynamics the firm claims many will still benefit from the packaging improvements, while the car is even more agile. Not least thanks to wider tracks, a more rigid body shell with extra local stiffening – including what BMW calls a ‘boomerang’ strut on the underside of the car at the rear – to improve steering response, suspension control and therefore ride quality, and a new stability system that actually serves to increase the fun factor.

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The real trick is how all of these advances have been applied and integrated over the five years this car has been in development, with mechanical and electronic systems working in a more connected manner and therefore more in harmony with each other. 

As a result the 1 Series character is obviously different, but dynamically it’s almost exactly as you’d expect BMW’s interpretation of a front-wheel drive hatch to be. That means it’s less individual than before, but it’s responsive, offers good body control, has more than enough grip for a cooking model and delivers decent performance.

The 118i pulls strongly and smoothly from low down. Our late prototype’s DCT gearbox still felt a bit clunky and hesitant to kick down at lower revs, plus a little agricultural in conjunction with the stop/start system, but once up to speed it was smooth and swift enough on upshifts.

BMW hasn’t officially revealed performance figures for the car yet, but with 140bhp performance is adequate if not stunning. Less weight and slightly more power means it should improve on the outgoing 118i auto’s 8.7-second 0-62mph time. 

From launch you’ll need the 120d if you want extra grunt. It’s more refined than ever and delivers a relatively linear swell of torque that, in a family hatch, means it’s surprisingly quick.

The 118i we tried was equipped with a standard chassis. Softer in setup than the optional Sport chassis on our 120d test car, it rode well and only started to fidget over bumpier roads as the speed increased, the body control beginning to break down as a result.

It was more compliant than the 120d we tried on the Sport springs and dampers. This rolled less, but with variable ratio steering it felt more alert, yet it didn’t really sacrifice comfort. There’s loads of grip and a greater sense of connection with the car than you’d get from, say, a VW Golf. 

Thank the extra body stiffness, which means it rides well, as the more rigid shell ensures the suspension is less corrupted by feedback from the road surface, allowing a more stable platform to soak up imperfections. 

A new single-pinion design for the steering rack means there’s less friction, so it’s more responsive to inputs at the wheel. Together with the stiffer shell, the front and rear axles feel better connected and the car reacts quicker.

It’s even surprisingly adjustable, thanks to a new stability control system. BMW has integrated part of the traction control system into the engine ECU, which means that the system works up to 10 times faster than before. It’s born out of a tech transfer from the firm’s i3S EV, where controlling the instantly available torque from an electric motor is vitally important.

The trick here is that BMW’s Performance Control setup separates the car’s longitudinal (front to back) and lateral (side-to-side) motion so that understeer is controlled when cornering, but that there’s enough slip allowed to coax the tail round gently and tuck the nose into a corner.

In the system’s half way mode it’ll actively promote this, which in turn promotes fun. It obviously doesn’t have its predecessor’s rear-wheel drive balance and is distinctly different, but for most 1 Series buyers which end the power is sent won’t matter.

What will is that in all forms the lighter 1 Series should be more efficient, roomier and more refined, and more reactive, even if it does now feel different.

Key specs

  • Model: BMW 118i
  • Price: £25,000 (est)
  • Engine: 1.5-litre 3cyl turbopetrol
  • Power: 138bhp
  • Transmission: Seven-speed auto, front-wheel drive
  • 0-62mph: 8.5 seconds (est)
  • Top speed: N/A
  • Economy/CO2: TBC
  • On sale: Late 2019

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