New 1 Series adopts the enlarged kidney grille that is finding its way onto ever more BMW snouts. Picture: SUPPLIED
New 1 Series adopts the enlarged kidney grille that is finding its way onto ever more BMW snouts. Picture: SUPPLIED

Do you care more about whether the car is being pushed or pulled by its wheels, or whether it drives well and has decent space?

That’s the question BMW is posing with its new, third-generation 1 Series hatchback range, which goes on sale in SA in November, fresh from its coming-out party at last weekend’s BMW M Festival at Kyalami. It will initially be sold in two models: the front-wheel drive 118i and the all-wheel drive M135i xDrive.

The fact that this is the first non-rear-wheel drive 1 Series may cause a stir in certain BMW purist circles who hold that powered rear wheels (and in the appropriate cases all-wheel drive) are sacrosanct to the Bavarian marque.

The new 1 Series, internally dubbed the F40, is built on the same platform as the Mini Countryman and BMW X1, and the reason for the front-wheel drive layout is that it gives the car a lot more space than its predecessor. So even though the new 1 Series is 5mm shorter than its predecessor and has a shorter wheelbase, it’s much roomier. The width and height have also increased to improve rear passenger room.

The boot capacity of 380l is 20l up on the outgoing car’s, and folding down the rear seat bench increases this to a generous 1,200l. Available as a five-door hatchback model only, the new 1 Series also gains an electric tailgate for the first time.

The new 1 Series is built on the same platform as the Mini Countryman and BMW X1, and is available in front- or all-wheel drive versions. Picture: SUPPLIED
The new 1 Series is built on the same platform as the Mini Countryman and BMW X1, and is available in front- or all-wheel drive versions. Picture: SUPPLIED

Perhaps as controversial as the driven wheels is the styling of the new 1 Series, which adopts the enlarged kidney grille that’s finding its way onto ever more BMW snouts. Now that we’ve had a few months to get used to it on the X7 and the facelifted 7 Series, the gnashing grille on the 1 Series isn’t quite the shocker it might have been, but still stands out enough to make it a topic of conversation.

The large grille perches on a bulbous new “shark” nose with a bonnet line that’s higher than the bottom of the window line, which makes the car look more like an SUV than a hatchback at the front, though the side view has a more classic hatch shape.

For the first time the 1 Series will be available with an electric panoramic roof. The interior has adopted more high-quality materials, and optional backlit trim strips with six switchable colours.

The optional infotainment features of the new BMW Operating System 7.0 are via two digital displays that mimic the BMW kidney grille. Also available is a larger, full-colour, 23cm BMW Head-Up Display — available as an option for the first time on the BMW 1 Series.

The digital instrument panel mimics the BMW kidney grille. Picture: SUPPLIED
The digital instrument panel mimics the BMW kidney grille. Picture: SUPPLIED

Drivers can interact with the car in an array of different ways, including iDrive, a touchscreen, gesture control or voice control through the Intelligent Personal Assistant, which is awoken by uttering “Hey BMW”.

The 1 Series is also available with the option of the BMW Digital Key, which enables users to lock and unlock the vehicle from a smartphone.

Back to that contentious front-wheel drive. The loss of rear-wheel drive doesn’t mess with the brand’s typical driver-pleasing nature, says BMW, claiming that the car has a dynamic sharpness that sets new standards in the premium compact class.

The car’s corner-taming nature is enhanced by ARB (actuator contiguous wheel slip limitation) technology familiar from the electric BMW i3, which allows wheel slip to be controlled much more sensitively and swiftly than before.

A standard feature of the BMW 1 Series, ARB uses a slip controller that works in tandem with the DSC stability control to reduce the power understeer commonly experienced in front-wheel drive cars. Agility is further enhanced by BMW Performance Control (yaw moment distribution), which brakes the inside wheels under hard cornering.

It wasn’t something I could try out at the launch. Though the test drive started and ended at Kyalami, BMW didn’t invite us to drive the car around the track. Instead we were sent out to experience the car on public roads in the Cradle of Humankind area.

The drive revealed that the new 1 Series has a comfortable ride quality and steering with a typically meaty BMW feel (when set to its sportiest setting), but the mostly straight roads didn’t offer much insight into the car’s handling prowess.

On dry tar there was nothing to tell that the 118i was a front- instead of a rear-wheel drive car and there was no torque steer under hard acceleration, not that there would be with the fairly humble outputs of 103kW and 220Nm.

The 118i is moved along by the same 1.5l three-cylinder turbo engine that powers the Mini Cooper, which delivers good refinement and sufficient urban and cruising performance, as its 0-100km/h sprint in 8.5 seconds and 213km/h top speed attest.

The excitement is provided by the other derivative in the line-up, the M135i xDrive, which brings 225kW, 450Nm and all-wheel drive to the party. I didn’t get the chance to drive it but the quoted figures of 0-100km/h in 4.8 seconds and a 250km/h top speed place it squarely into the hot-hatch turf of cars like the Golf R and Civic Type R.

Along with intelligent all-wheel drive, the range-topping M135i xDrive employs a mechanical Torsen limited-slip differential to give the car an even sportier edge by creating a locking effect between the front wheels.

The 118i comes standard with a six-speed manual or optionally a seven-speed dual-clutch Steptronic, while the M135i employs an eight-speed Steptronic Sport transmission.

Prices

BMW M135i xDrive — R699,000

BMW 118i — R479,000