BMW’s determination to make rear-wheel drive work in the ‘compact premium’ hatchback segment goes back even further than two generations of the 1 Series – the latest version of which is our road test focus this week. Further, some would say, than the foundation of the compact premium class itself.
In 1993, three years before the original Audi A3 and four ahead of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, BMW gave us the 3 Series Compact – its first hatchback of any kind for almost two decades – and teased keen drivers with the idealism of rear-wheel-drive handling in a modern passenger car available at a more alluring price than they’d seen before from BMW.
It was precisely that prospect that it appealed to again with the original 1 Series in 2004. This was a car that, like the Compact, shared mechanical componentry with the bigger 3 Series but was available in a much wider range of bodystyles than its indirect predecessor, and used a trademark BMW rear-wheel-drive mechanical layout to distinguish itself in what proved to be an increasingly popular market segment throughout the 2000s. You may well remember the car’s decidedly psychedelic TV ad campaign with its variously kaleidoscopic tortoises, wobbly legged foals and kids riding tricycles.
Initially, the 1 Series sold promisingly and another rear-driven-model generation followed in 2011. But BMW gradually realised that, rather than helping it succeed, a longways engine and a driven rear axle might actually be holding the car back. The decisive moment in shaping ‘der Einzer’s’ future came, very memorably, when then BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer admitted to journalists that 80% of 1 Series owners believed their cars to be front-driven anyway.
BMW’s commitment, at that stage, was to begin making predominantly front-wheel-drive compact cars in 2014, using a platform shared with the Mini brand; and, after the launch of the current 2 Series Active Tourer, X1 and X2, it’s taken until now to switch the 1 Series hatchback away from the mechanical identity that was once considered to be its nuclear-strength unique selling point. Stand by to find out how much 1 Series DNA is left in BMW’s Volkswagen Golf rival, then, in much more class-typical and mechanically conventional third-generation form.
The BMW 1 Series line-up at a glance
From launch, the new 1 Series is powered by a range of two petrol engines and three diesels. Our 118i represents the entry-level petrol, while the all-wheel-drive M135i hot hatchback crowns the range. The 302bhp turbocharged unit at the latter’s nose is the most powerful four-cylinder engine BMW has ever produced.