When BMW announced the sale of Rover on Friday, 17 March 2000, it also revealed hastily drawn up plans for a new small, sporting BMW hatchback positioned between the Mini and the 3-series Compact. The crucially important new 1-series you see here is that car.

The new 1-series, to go on sale simultaneously in the UK and left-hand-drive Europe in September priced from £15,630, pitches BMW into the most competitive car segment of all. It is the key to BMW’s ambition of expanding total sales to 1.4 million cars – including Mini and Rolls-Royce – by 2008. To guarantee the One remains true to BMW’s ‘ultimate driver’s car’ philosophy, the new hatchback ignores the universal small-car layout of transverse front engine driving the front wheels. Instead, it opts for BMW’s traditional longitudinal front engine driving the rear wheels. Given the resulting space limitations, many will see this as a massive gamble.

BMW is unconcerned. Munich has no intention of competing head-on in terms of value for money or sales volumes with the Focus and Golf. By pegging production at around 150,000 a year, BMW wants to position the 1-series as the premium model in the class. Management seems happy to cop criticism of the car’s packaging restrictions, because they know the 1-series drives like no other small car. The One will sire a whole family of models. At least two years after the five-door hatch, BMW plans to add a range of variants, including a 2-series coupé and convertible, 1-series saloon, estate and possibly a roadster. Performance versions are also in the pipeline, but any M1/M2 version is at least three years into the future.

Design

Remember the CS1 concept car, pictured right, and unveiled at the 2002 Geneva show? The 1-series is the hatchback of that convertible. Its appearance is just as controversial and sure to stir debate.

Styled by American Chris Chapman, under the leadership of Chris Bangle, the One persists with the complex surfaces that are now a BMW trademark. Abutting concave and convex surfaces flow from the hard upper and lower lines of the door, bonnet and tailgate shut-lines, and from the curved sills, to create an organically intricate surface treatment. In profile, the proportions of the nose are pure BMW, with an ultra-short front overhang and a long flat bonnet, created by pushing the windscreen to the rear. It could barely be more different from the modern hatchback norm with its sloping bonnet and long overhangs. The glasshouse, however, is contemporary Euro-hatch and, from the rear, not unlike the new Astra. A 0.29 Cd is good, if not outstanding. Thick C-pillars and an extremely shallow back screen mean rearward visibility is poor. At 2660mm, the 1-series’ wheelbase is 65mm shorter than the 3-series saloon and Compact, but 80mm longer than the new Golf. Overall length is 4236mm, just 26mm shy of the Compact, yet 235mm shorter than the 3-series saloon. Its 1430mm height makes it slightly taller than the Compact, the 1750mm width identical.

However, the 1-series’ longer rear overhang accounts for a bigger, 330-litre boot – growing to 1150 litres with the split seats folded, also bigger than the Compact’s. The 50-litre fuel tank is adequate for the four-cylinder diesels, but will restrict the touring range when the bigger-capacity petrols arrive. Construction

Because the 1-series and its closely related 3-series companion are to be built in such high, mainstream volumes – more than 600,000 in 2006 – they are made largely in steel, with far less aluminium than the 5- and 6-series models. Perfect weight distribution was BMW’s aim with the One. A variety of high-tensile steels help achieve a base weight of 1205kg, which is 95kg less than today’s Compact.

However, to realise the 50/50 weight distribution so beloved by BMW engineers, the front suspension is alloy, the rear suspension steel. Runflat tyres are standard on all models. This frees up space to locate the battery where the spare wheel would normally be stored, in a plastic housing under the floor.

Engines

For the moment, BMW will only admit to four-cylinder engines for the One. Take a look under the long bonnet at the space between radiator and four-cylinder engine and it is obvious BMW’s in-line sixes are in the product plans.

American dealers won’t sell the 1-series hatch, but are keen on the 2-series coupé and cabriolet, provided they come with six cylinders. Expect future models to boast BMW’s still-secret NG6 direct-injection six, due in the 3-series next year. Until then, the fastest One is the 137mph 120d – now with 161bhp and a mighty 251lb ft of torque from a development of the 3-series’ 2.0-litre diesel. A 121bhp version of the same unit adds to the diesel choice.

BMW’s Midlands Hams Hall plant supplies the two petrol engines: the entry-level 114bhp 1.6 and 148bhp 2.0-litre with double Vanos, but no Valvetronic. Both diesels and the 2.0-litre petrol get six-speed manual ’boxes or the optional ZF six-speed auto. The 1.6 is five-speed manual only. There are no plans for an all-wheel-drive One.

Suspension and brakes

No surprises here. The 1-series previews next year’s new 3-series with front MacPherson struts and anti-roll bar, plus a new, now five-link (the current Three uses four-link) coil-sprung rear suspension.

Standard tyres are 195/55 R16s with optional 205/50 R17s that come as standard on Sports models. DSC stability control, DBC brake control and EDB electronic diff locks are included, even on base models.

Predictably, steering is by rack and pinion, but where the Z4 uses electric power assistance, the 1-series sticks with a hydraulic pump. The steering rack’s 14.25:1 ratio gives a tight 10.6m turning circle and three turns lock to lock. Four-wheel discs feature on all models. Up front they are vented on all models, and the quickest 120d gets vented rear discs as well. A conventional handbrake, mounted to the left of the gearlever, might be awkward on right-hand-drive cars. Cabin

There is no escaping the limitations imposed by the mechanical layout: the north-south engine pushes the cabin backwards. That’s not a problem for front-seat occupants, who enjoy plenty of room, the driver blessed with an excellent driving position with square-on steering wheel and pedals only slightly offset to the outside.

Although the rear seat provides three three-point seatbelts, the transmission tunnel is so intrusive there’s only space for two adults. Entry is tight into the rear and legroom a real issue, though headroom is excellent.

Strategy

While BMW owned Rover, the British division was the sole source of small cars, as the Germans broadened their range into every niche. Jointly, they had begun development of the R30, a Rover-badged front-drive hatchback aimed at Focus/Golf and due to go on sale in late 2002. But BMW changed its mind and decided that the German brand could indeed be stretched to include a small car.

There was momentary debate about reskinning the R30 into a BMW, but Munich quickly decided on an entirely different species. The 1-series would be developed simultaneously with the next generation 3-series, due mid-2005. Bukhardt Goeschel, head of R&D, claimed flexibility within the 1- and 3-series allows previously unworkable changes to be implemented without upset. ‘It’s a real breakthrough,’ he said.

‘We wanted a pure BMW,’ added Dr Gerd Schuster, the 1-series project leader. ‘A sports package that fits one class below the 3-series and offers real driving pleasure. We wanted a high quality of steering and precise handling in a car that does not under- or oversteer.’Today’s Compact is essentially a stumpy, truncated three-door 3-series. The arrival of the 1-series means it won’t be replaced.

Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • First Drive
    22 December 2014
    Entry-level diesel MPV shares its three-cylinder engine with Mini but, due to long gearing, lacks the authoritative punch of a convincing premium product
  • Car review
    17 December 2014
    The replacement for the CL grand tourer has some big boots to fill
  • Mercedes-Benz CLS 350 AMG Line Shooting Brake review
    First Drive
    16 December 2014
    Elegant, alluring and with some welcome improvements, but not good enough to lead the class
  • First Drive
    15 December 2014
    Hushed, flexible and remarkable value for money. Arguably more fit-for-purpose than any other ‘S’.
  • 2015 Mazda CX-3 review
    First Drive
    12 December 2014
    The Mazda CX-3 has style and substance, and deserves consideration for anyone wanting a compact urban SUV. Here’s hoping Mazda gets the price and equipment right