As Audi discovered with the A3 (seen by Munich as the 1-series’ closest rival, along with high-end VW Golfs and Alfa’s 147) price is comparatively unimportant on compact prestige models. When the 1-series goes on sale across the world on 18 September, there are going to be plenty of customers prepared to pay well over 20 grand for the privilege. The humble 114bhp 1.6-litre 116i starts at £15,690 (£180 over the equivalent A3), the 120i Sport tested sells for £20,170 and the 120d SE £20,800, all without dipping in to the extensive, too-often essential, options list.
Still, to the person behind the wheel, it’s a no-brainer concept. The 120i drives like a more agile, more refined, smaller 318i. And that means altogether differently to the competition. You won’t find any front-drive rival with the same level of chassis poise (no, not even the Ford Focus), the same consistency of weighting of major controls and, best of all, steering that is as pure, as linear, and utterly unscathed by torquesteer. Simply because there is no torquesteer. Impossible. ‘The axle that steers should not have the burden of also powering the car,’ says Schuster, ignoring for a moment that BMW is also responsible for the front-drive Mini.
Achieving BMW’s traditional 50/50 weight distribution meant moving the engine rearwards, almost behind the front axle line, and shifting the battery to the boot floor, where the spare wheel normally sits. Except there isn’t one: all 1-series were conceived around run-flat tyres.
The cabin is long, the roofline extending the rear overhang well beyond the hatchback norm. The 1-series gets the longest wheelbase – 2660mm (up 80mm on the new Golf, and just 65mm shy of the 3-series) – in its class. Likewise, the overall length (at 4227mm, 23mm longer than the Golf), but the long-bonnet styling and an intrusive transmission tunnel eat into rear-seat space and restrict the fuel tank to a marginal 50 litres.
Most of the chassis elements are shared with next year’s 3-series: aluminium front struts with an alloy sub-frame, new five-link steel rear suspension, a stability control system that can be turned off and slightly more powerful 1.6- and 2.0-litre petrol and turbodiesel engines. A 1.8 will arrive in December. Brakes are by discs all round and the 120i/d and 118d get a choice of six-speed manual or automatic gearboxes – the 116i is five-speed manual only.
Nothing of consequence has changed from the engineering prototypes that so impressed us in the south of France earlier this year (23 March). The suspension engineers have softened the dampers a little to improve ride comfort, but made no changes to spring rates, bushes or anti-roll bars. They’ve succeed, too, though not without detracting just a smidgen from the mule’s darty handling. Few will care; only a handful of those who drove the early cars will notice. You still won’t find a better-handling compact hatchback.
Plug the electronic key into its slot, 7-series style, press the gimmicky start/stop button (from the Z8) and the 148bhp four (up 5bhp on the version in the 3-series) instantly whirrs, quickly settling down to a new, silent idle. The Hams-Hall built dohc four gets double Vanos variable intake and exhaust camshaft control and valvetronic valve lift, plus twin balancer shafts. The emphasis on refinement and economy, rather than peak output, is obvious, for it’s a sweet unit across a broad rev range, getting agitated only over the last 250rpm to the 6500rpm red line. The 148lb ft of torque crests at 3600rpm, and max power arrives at 6200rpm.
Operate in this range and the performance is sparkling, if not inspired, provided you’re willing to make free use of the typically slick BMW gearchange. What mitigates against the performance is tall gearing and 1260kg of mass. In the interests of steady-state fuel consumption (an impressive 37.7mpg in the combined cycle), sixth (at 25.9mph per 1000rpm) is an overdrive – the 135mph v-max arriving in fifth. Fourth gear becomes the ratio of choice; sixth is reserved for relaxed high-speed cruising, a gearing trend begun at BMW with the current Five and certain to extend across virtually all future models.