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New compact hatch ditches rear-wheel drive for front drive. Any car enthusiast or BMW fan worried by that should read on

Our Verdict

BMW 1 Series 118i 2019 road test review -

Is BMW’s Golf-rivalling hatchback a better car for ditching rear-wheel drive?

James Attwood, digital editor
26 March 2019
BMW 1 Series 2019 prototype

What is it?

There’s only one place to start when discussing the new fourth-generation BMW 1 Series: at the front. As opposed to the rear. Because the front is where you’ll find its driven wheels.

That’s a fundamental shift. Since the first-generation 1 Series was launched in 2004, it has been rear-wheel drive, a layout long viewed as an essential part of BMW’s ‘ultimate driving machine’ philosophy. Worth talking about, then, right?

Except Peter Langen, BMW’s driving dynamic boss, would rather not. “I would like not to discuss with customers whether it’s a front-wheel-drive car or a rear-wheel-drive car,” he says. Instead, he simply wants people to talk about how the new 1 Series is better than the old one, because “every new BMW has to be a better car in terms of drivability”.

BMW research suggests the bulk of 1 Series buyers don’t care – or even know – whether the car is front- or rear-wheel drive: they simply want a family hatch with BMW’s blend of premium style and comfort.

What those buyers do care about is space – and they want more of it. Because of its rear-drive architecture, the 1 Series simply hasn’t been able to match front-driven rivals such as the Mercedes-Benz A-Class and Audi A3 for space, particularly in the back and boot. Hence the shift to front drive for the new, F40-generation model.


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The new 1 Series sits on the latest version of BMW’s FAAR front-drive platform, also used for the 2 Series, X1 and X2 SUVs and Mini Countryman. It means that, while roughly the same size as before, the new 1 Series has 30mm more knee room in the rear and an extra 20 litres of boot space, according to BMW.

For the majority of potential 1 Series buyers for whom such things matter, BMW believes that could count for more than rear-wheel-drive handling. Of course, plenty of 1 Series owners likely do care about driving dynamics, and we’d suspect Autocar readers make up a disproportionate number of that group. Said group might also be concerned by the fact that the FAAR platform has transverse rather than longitudinal engine mountings.

This means that the bonnet is shorter but also that the six-cylinder engine used on today’s range-topping 335bhp M140i won’t fit. Instead, the top model at launch will be a 306bhp M135i xDrive, using a new 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine. As with other higher-level models, the M135i xDrive uses BMW’s all-wheel-drive system, which works the front axle as standard but can send up to half the power to the rear axle.

We’ll get back to that model later. But there is cause for concern if chasing a bigger boot has come at the expense of performance. However, Langen would like to reassure you that the new 1 Series still handles like, well, a 1 Series. Only better.

“We have technical possibilities more than we had 15 years ago [when the first 1 Series launched] to make a front-wheel-drive car that really is a better BMW,” he says.

The firm has spent five years developing systems and hardware to ensure a front-drive 1 Series can match the demands of Langen’s team, particularly working on suspension, differentials and new software.

There’s a wider wheel track and an emphasis on increasing body stiffness, including a ‘boomerang’ strut on the rear axle, and mounting bespoke to each of the different F40 models, to ensure they all handle the same.

There’s a new mechanical Torsen limited-slip differential and a key area of focus has been on a new traction control system called ARB, which was first seen on the i3S. The system features a controller positioned directly on the engine, reducing signal delay when it detects traction loss. BMW estimates this system can work 10 times faster than a traditional one and, as a result, can more accurately adjust the power delivery as needed. That system also works with BMW’s Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) and yaw control systems, which can apply marginal braking on each wheel to stabilise traction and lateral balance.

What's it like?

BMW says the combination of DSC and ARB results in a significant reduction in the understeer typically produced by a front-wheel-drive car. Which is BMW’s acronym-filled way of saying Langen’s target – that the new 1 Series should handle like a 1 Series, only better – will be hit.

To find out, we were given the chance to sample a variety of 1 Series models, heavily disguised and with most of the interior switchgear covered, on test tracks at BMW’s Miramas facility in France and on public roads in the surrounding countryside. The models included the entry-level 118i, powered by a 140bhp 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine, and the 120d xDrive, with a 190bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel. We also drove the M135i xDrive on a test track.

The 118i we drove on public roads was fitted with standard suspension and felt nicely balanced, riding bumps well and maintaining composure on both fast and twisting roads. The steering – another area of focus for BMW – was pleasingly direct and reassuring. Sure, carry enough speed into corners and it’s possible to detect a hint of understeer, but it still felt much like you’d expect from a BMW and enough to suggest the F40 1 Series will be a contender among the more dynamic offerings in the family hatch category.

The 1.5 three-cylinder engine, driving through a seven-speed automatic, didn’t necessarily feel as responsive as some rivals’ and won’t offer much in the way of thrills, but it still offered brisk and responsive progress when up to speed.

To fully showcase the new systems in the 1 Series, BMW also provided us with access to its wet handling course and a 118i fitted with sport suspension, along with an F20-generation 118i. Contrary to what you might expect, it was the newer, front-drive car that was more neutral and pliable in reduced-grip conditions. The new DSC system reacted to steering inputs. Entering a corner too fast, at the point where you’d expect a front-wheel-drive car to understeer wide, turning the wheel harder set the system to work, adjusting the power and finding grip.

With more power, the 120d xDrive offered better acceleration, aided by an eight-speed Steptronic gearbox. The xDrive system also felt natural, and it was difficult to detect the car shifting the power away from the front axle, no matter how hard you tried to trick it with the throttle.

The addition of a drivetrain that powered the rear wheels didn’t alter the fundamental dynamics of the car compared with the 118i, suggesting a solid base – and a promising sign, given that final development work is still being done.

So what of that M135i xDrive performance version then? Well, while it has lost two cylinders and around 30bhp from the old, F20-generation M140i, it has gained two extra driven wheels, and BMW says it will offer the same top speed and acceleration, with more usable power. 

The M135i is also 20kg lighter than its nearest predecessor, with a brand-new four-cylinder engine that will also be seen in the forthcoming M235i Gran Coupé. It features a unique suspension among F40-generation models, with increased local stiffness at key points. And, unlike the F20 M140i, it will be offered with all-wheel drive as standard. 

On a test track, it doesn’t want for performance, with strong response and confidence-inspiring handling. The engine delivery is smooth and it sounds the part, too. BMW’s belief is that less can be more, and the M135i certainly feels like it has the performance credentials to trouble the Ford Focus ST and Mercedes-AMG A35

Should I buy one?

We’ll have to wait until final development and calibration work is complete before drawing a definitive verdict on the new 1 Series. But the indications are that it will be a contender in the premium hatch division, and a car capable of holding its own against some tough rivals, especially with the promised increase in interior space and comfort.

The switch to front-wheel drive remains the talking point, but the future discussion is likely to centre around this: despite such a major shift, the new 1 Series still handles like, well, a 1 Series. Phew.

BMW 1 Series 118i prototype specification

Where France Price £23,000 (estimated) On sale Late 2019 Engine 1500cc, 3-cylinder, turbocharged petrol Power 140bhp Torque tbc Gearbox seven-speed automatic Kerb weight tbc Top speed tbc 0-62mph tbc Fuel economy tbc CO2 tbc Rivals Mercedes-Benz A-Class, Audi A3

Join the debate


26 March 2019
It's going to have the new, bigger, vulgar grille.

27 March 2019

The arguments for switching from RWD to FWD were just as valid in 2004 as there are now. Its simply cheaper to use the comically named underclass (unterklass) platform to spin off the new car. Carefully built, as only the Gemans know, to be profitable at the standard 10% discount over the equivalent A-Class. A transmission tunnel and placeholder space for the 4WD gubbins is fail on enlarging the boot then. Not even worth mentioning the rear suspension set-up on the FWD models the masses will buy? Is it A-Class mean?

27 March 2019

Three ENTIRE centimeters of extra leg room? WOW! Potential buyers will just go gaga over it now that its legroom went from mediocre to average. :l


Pretending that the move to FWD was motivated by anything other than money is kinda of taking the p!ss out of your readers.

27 March 2019

Heaven preserve us from cars developed for 'enthusiast' drivers. Why is the 1 series finally adopting the one drive train recognised as the only solution for small cars in around 1980 even a discussion point?

Our MK2 116i was ditched for a Merc because my wife was tired of having to fit winter tyres and the kids were tired of sitting in a bleak tiny rear cabin. It's not even as if rwd 1 / 2 series are seen as vastly better than the opposition on the road.

If BMW switched their entire range to FWD (not that I'm suggesting that they do) the customers wouldn't notice. Sure a few headlines would be made and internet forums would melt down but at the end of the day the press and forums are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

27 March 2019
SamVimes1972 wrote:

Heaven preserve us from cars developed for 'enthusiast' drivers.

It won't matter soon when cars have their speed limited by law (a good thing). Car makers will have to make cars comfortable again.

27 March 2019

 so, he doesn’t care what customers want, he says some just want a premium car and don’t know or care which wheels are driven?, kind of comes over as only interested in profit....?

27 March 2019
Peter Cavellini wrote:

 so, he doesn’t care what customers want, he says some just want a premium car and don’t know or care which wheels are driven?, kind of comes over as only interested in profit....?

Today, maybe just today, you're clearly not the brightest bulb in the room, Mr Cavellini. BMW has done research and 

1. The M Performance models, read M135i, M140i etc, accounted for only 1% of total 1-Series sales. This has been almost the total opposite of 2-Series hence the new 2-Series will revert to RWD.

2. Their research also revealed that the vast majority of 1-Series buyers, going into mainly cheaper models, did not know or care which wheels were driven.

3. Having read all the above would you then still deprive said buyers of additional cabin and boot space because they're not worthy of the 'ultimate driving machine'????

4. My wife owns a first gen 1 Series - she bought it knew. She loves it, yet come business travel time she's equally happy in any Korean rental car. And I own a first gen petrol X1 - rear wheel drive. In the eight years of ownership, from new too, I too still can't decide if is really advantageous, because as with my wife we our engines don't possess an excess of power.

5. BMW are charging high prices for the new cars. The new 3 is very expensive - you have to plump for the M-Sport if you want digital instruments! And they've realised most buyers of the previous gen did not spec adaptive dampers, hence the standard new hydraulic stop ones to improve handling. And by the reviews they've nailed it, so...

6. I'm willing to give BMW the benefit of the doubt on the new 1 Series, and by the 3 reviews I've read so far BMW have nailed it again.

7. If you still want to lament the loss of a Golf sized rwd car with compromised space, may I suggest a good therapist.

27 March 2019

 While I agree that I wasn’t switched on earlier today, interview in the article came over as we sell cars and people will buy a BMW, any premium car infact purely on the adverts, the magazine tests and so on, the ultimate driving machine?, well, no, of course a BMW isn’t,and like you no doubt have driven front/rear wheel drive and there is little to chose from either,no, what makes a Car is the chassis setup, as for price, we’ll, a 320i in 2018 cost about £30,000, it had all you would need, I stuck with old fashioned dials although for a few hundred pounds more I could hav e gone digital, but I thought they were a gimmick, same goes for mood lighting inside, and, touch Wood, I had four and they’ve been reliable.

27 March 2019

Wonder how much extra rear passenger room is freed up by making a car capable of AWD compared to RWD.

27 March 2019

I agree with others, most customers won't notice. I disagree that 'cost' is the factor behind this - many people put off the 1 series (me included) because of limited space.

One of these days people might begin to realise just how much marketing hype manufacturers use for their cars. As part of the Ultimate Driving Machine, BMW consistantly told you front wheels were for steering only. They also said the focus was on the driver when the dashboard was curved towards the driver (which was then dropped when dashboards were not curved). Oh yes, and that all important 50/50 weight distribution which they didn't mention when producing cars that weren't 50/50. And of course there will be no mention from rwd afficiados that they're less likely to see a fwd 1 series stuck in 1cm of snow.

I'd suggest fwd will attract more customers to BMW. And if increased sales mean they do invest in Swindon (see other story) then bring it on.



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