Brilliant, Magnifique, Wünderbar!

‘The 1-series is not a space miracle. It’s not intended to be – that would sacrifice too much driver appeal.’

Exactly. In his neat summary, Gerd Schuster, project leader for BMW’s new baby, perfectly captures the essential point of 2004’s most intriguing new Focus/Golf-class car.Proper sporting cars are rear-wheel drive; BMW set out to build a smaller BMW. That – good (mostly very good) and bad – is exactly what they’ve achieved. The 1-series was never going to be anything other than front-engine, rear-drive – the layout that clarifies Schuster’s description.

The 1-series’ total character – the way it drives, the body’s proportions, the tight rear-seat compartment – all stem directly from the longitudinal positioning of the engine and the decision to adopt rear-wheel drive on a hatchback. To find another ‘new’ small car that goes against the (until now) universal trend to transverse-mounted engine/front-drive layout, you must go back to the first Mazda 323 from the late ’70s.

This is BMW being BMW: confident that, in a class that sells 12 million cars a year globally, there are sure to be 150,000-plus buyers delighted to compromise packaging efficiency for the sake of intense driver appeal. Especially in a car wearing a premium badge.

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.

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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.

To enthusiasts, the frustration is the chassis’ obvious ability to accept more power. One look under the bonnet reveals plenty of space for two extra cylinders: 122i, 125i and 130i models are in the pipeline as the 1-series range expands to include coupé, cabriolet, estate, even a half-saloon/half-MPV and, inevitably, though BMW denies the programme is signed-off, an M2. Until then, the 161bhp 120d is the fastest One: its 7.9sec 0-62mph time beating the petrol 2.0-litre by 0.8sec. To emphasise the diesel’s power and torque advantage, according to BMW’s figures, it takes just 6.6sec to get from 50-75mph in fourth gear, where the petrol version demands 8.4sec.

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No wonder Munich left the 116i and 118d behind during the official launch: they don’t want to create an impression any 1-series is underpowered, especially at the price. Equally, of course, there is immense satisfaction in wringing out an eager petrol engine to fully exploit terrific handling and grip, both of which the 120i has in spades.

The impact of BMW’s layout is immediately obvious in the steering. No loss of directional stability, no twitching of the wheel in the driver’s hands on wet roads, no deflection by bumps under power. The list goes on and on: the steering’s self-centring remains near constant, the inherent balance of the weight distribution means there is no inclination to plough off the road nose first in dogged understeer. Instead, the driver gets a constantly weighted, hydraulically powered steering – no electric assistance here – that’s accurate and quick and fluent on turn-in. Combined with tight body control, it imparts agile and neutral handling.

Because all the basics are in place, the 120i demands to be driven quickly. You want to lean on the outside Bridgestones, playing with the One’s cornering attitude. But, even with the DTC (traction control) and DSC (stability control) deactivated, there is so much grip on the optional 17-inch wheels that there aren’t enough horses to adjust the line on the throttle, at least in the dry.

Tuning the dampers for greater comfort brings a welcome increase in suspension compliance, while reducing the sharp restless motion that upset the early prototypes. Tyre and road noise are also remarkably low. This is going to make a fine long-distance cruiser, as well as a foot-through-the-firewall, back-road blaster.

On German roads (and I suspect the UK’s) the ride is excellent and ideally suited to the 120i’s sporting character. There’s a touch of lean at the front end entering a corner, just enough to prove you’re trying, but because the rate of roll is slow and so quickly contained it’s never an issue. Besides, any body movement is well constrained over humps and low-frequency undulations, which are soaked up and largely ignored.Makes you wonder why everybody switched to transverse engines. Well, only until you try climbing into the rear compartment.

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This is a them-and-us cabin. Those up front are treated kindly: legs straight ahead, good forward visibility (if poor over-the-shoulder vision), high gearlever close to the wheel, sports bucket seats (with adjustable lateral support) that can be lowered sufficiently to suit those who like their bum on the road. In terms of comfort, space and amenities, it could be a 3-series. But unless the driver and front passenger are below average height, rear-seat leg- and knee-room are ridiculously tight. Getting your feet into and out of the footwell is also difficult because the lower door opening is so narrow. An intrusive transmission tunnel means any child attempting to take advantage of the three-point centre belt sits high, and uncomfortably, over any distance.

No complaints about the seat itself, or the degree of headroom, but without exception all the One’s front-wheel-drive rivals beat it hands down in terms of rear-seat accommodation.

The dashboard is simple and belongs to the X3/Z4 school of design. Neat, more businesslike than luxurious, but attractive, with all the major controls ergonomically placed. Not so BMW’s notorious, optional iDrive – £1840 on the base models (because it also brings air conditioning), £1230 on the Sport and £1020 on the SE. It’s just as annoying and lacking in intuitiveness as in the Five, Six or Seven.

All models get a CD-player, six airbags and a trip-computer. The SE adds 16-inch alloys, auto climate control, fog lights, a leather steering wheel, rear parking sensors and a few other toys, while the Sport merits sports trim, body-coloured exterior fitments, sports seats and lower sports suspension.

And the styling? Glad you asked. When the photographs first arrived in the Autocar office they were greeted with embarrassed silence, then by laughter. Seeing bunches of Ones together in a normal streetscape it’s no longer shocking. But upon seeing the new hatch for the first time in the metal, our resident design graduate, Adam Towler, said: ‘It’s immeasurably better than in the photographs. There’s a lot going on at the front, and they’ve not been successful in integrating all the ideas, but the stance is strong and it looks like a BMW.’

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The many complex shapes include tail lights with six separate and diverse edges, and convex and concave contours in the body sides. In profile, the preponderance of visual weight over the back wheels – emphasised by the elongated roofline and rear overhang – detracts from styling’s vibrancy. Don’t make a judgement until you’ve seen BMW’s hatch on the road. Pretty it may not be, but it’s not to be dismissed, either.

The 1-series doesn’t set out to be a Golf or a Focus. But the appeal of a BMW hatchback that drives like a more refined, more agile 3-series adds a new dimension to a class that’s become moribund in terms of technical innovation and choice. Expensive or not, the One changes all that to instantly become the driver’s choice in the class.

Peter Robinson

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