BMW will abandon decades of tradition and launch its first front-wheel-drive hatchbacks in 2013 as new entry-level models to its range.
The new cars will be based on the next-generation Mini platform and be positioned below the 1-series, which will continue in production as a rear-drive family of hatches and saloons.
Surprisingly, the new front-drive hatches are also tipped to carry 1-series badges, giving buyers the choice of BMW’s entry level with either front or rear-wheel drive.
Despite carrying the same badges, the two families of models will be distinguished by unique sheetmetal and price positioning; the rear-drive car will be pitched higher in price and quality than its front-drive stablemate.
Despite the clear overlap with the Mini, BMW is not concerned that its own front-wheel drive models will cannibalise sales of the third generation of the British car, due in 2014.
“Both brands possess a clear and individual image,” a BMW insider told Autocar, pointing to the sales success Volkswagen and Audi have achieved with both the Golf and A3. “Our research shows BMW and Mini appeal to different buyers.”
Just as VW and Audi appeal to different audiences, BMW will aim its front-drive and rear-drive 1-series at different buyers.
The front-drive model will be designed to attract new customers to the brand. The BMW source said, “We want a car that will appeal to non-BMW buyers with a focus on roominess and interior flexibility, yet like our existing entry-level model it will be fun to drive and cheap to run.”
The first of the new front-drive BMWs to appear in UK showrooms will be a tall five-door, five-seat hatchback, a rival for the upcoming Audi A2 and next-gen Mercedes A-class. It will offer the sort of interior space and overall practicality not found in the rear-drive 1-series.
The keys to the front-drive car’s spaciousness are a transversely mounted engine and gearbox. These have allowed engineers to create an uncharacteristically short bonnet for a BMW. This flows into A-pillars positioned well forward of the front wheel arches.
The altered front-end architecture helps to free up cabin space by moving the bulkhead closer to the front axle than in any existing BMW model.
The driving position also moves forward within the wheelbase, and the seat is positioned higher to give a more commanding view of the road.
While we’ve yet to get a glimpse of the new car’s exterior design - prototypes are not planned to start testing until this time next year - it is already clear that the looks of the first of BMW’s front-drive models will be quite different from those of next year’s second-gen 1-series.
A second model under development at BMW’s FIZ R&D centre in Munich is a more sporting variant, conceived to go head to head with the soon-to-be-launched Audi A1.
Clothed in a sleeker body — BMW is undecided on whether it will offer both a three and five-door or just a three-door — the second of the front-drive models is aimed at typical BMW customers looking for a less expensive alternative to the 1-series.