We were left underwhelmed by the M135i. Does the new entry-level 1 Series have what it takes to right the ship? We test the 118i...

As far back as 1993, BMW dabbled with the idea of entering the lucrative premium midsize hatchback market with its ambitious 3 Series Compact. The brand’s more formal introduction to this segment with the E87 1 Series in 2004 still came with provisos.

Masters of its driver-focused trade, the Munich-based firm’s first true hatchback would undoubtedly display Chris Bangle-led family design traits, and happily forego many of the fundamental packaging guidelines associated with this segment in favour of all-important (for BMW) driving dynamics. Styling aside, the first-generation 1 Series was as lauded for its handling prowess as it was criticised for its cramped rear quarters (and tight egress) compared with the likes of the Audi A3 Sportback that arrived a year later.

While the F20 second-generation sought to raise levels of perceived quality and address concerns about packaging, once again BMW would hold firmly to its purist-focused longitudinal-mounted engine/rear-wheel-drive layout and the 50:50-split weight distribution it granted. (Although, there’s growing opinion that most entry-level 1 Series owners didn’t know which of their car’s axles was receiving torque.)

Sharing its UKL2 platform with the current Mini Clubman and BMW X1, the third-generation (F40) 1 Series ditches tradition and features a transversely mounted engine sending torque to all four wheels (M135i) via the brand’s xDrive system, or to the front wheels on less powerful derivatives such as this 118i.

What’s interesting is that, in pursuit of a more commodious cabin, the latest 1 Series features the smallest wheelbase of any of the three generations and is 5 mm shorter than the outgoing model. That said, the new car is both 34 mm wider and 13 mm taller than the F20 generation, and its interior dimensions have grown accordingly.

There remains an xDrive-accommodating transmission tunnel but it’s less obtrusive than before, which means the middle seat is more usable. Improved rear leg- and headroom aside, where the new package makes the biggest impression is by offering easier access to the rear bench with larger doors and a less clumsy lurch over the rear wheelarch.

Munich claims a 20-litre gain in luggage capacity over the previous car. Despite our best efforts, we managed to fit only 216 litres of ISO blocks behind the new model’s 60:40-split rear backrest. Some additional out-of-sight packing space is available below the boot board; however, in our test unit with its optional 19-inch wheels, it already contained a mobility and first-aid kit. Run-flats are specified on any size wheel below 19 inches. By comparison, the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class hatch offers 272 litres.

Ever a strong point of the 1 Series package, front-seat accommodation is generous, offering a wide range of adjustment on both the driver’s seat and steering column. A couple of testers did note a slightly more perched driving position compared with the outgoing model.

Broadly mimicking the clean, well-considered layout of the new 3 Series (especially when kitted with this optional 10,25-inch infotainment screen), perceived build quality and choice of materials match best-in-class levels. BMW’s current voice-activated/touchscreen-infotainment technologies also deliver crisp and easy-to-navigate convenience.

As with most of the high-end German brands, it’s best to pay close attention when speccing your new 1 Series. Some items expected at this price point – like keyless entry and parking sensors – are not included as standard. Other nice-to-have items form part of relatively costly packages.

Joining its high-performance M135i sibling in the local line-up, the new 118i mates a 1,5-litre, three-cylinder turbopetrol engine with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Slightly lumpy at idle, it’s a drivetrain that comes into its own on the move. Aided by one of the most capable transmissions in the business, the 103 kW/220 N.m three-pot delivers admirable performance considering the 118i’s 1 419 kg frame.

Enthusiasts still licking their wounds at the absence of rear-wheel drive would enjoy that the entry-level 1 is quick (0-100 km/h in 8,94 seconds) and they can take heart in the knowledge that BMW has arguably cracked the proverbial code when it comes to a well-balanced, impressively refined downsized-drivetrain package. A fuel-route figure of 6,80 L/100 km should realise a maximum range of around 600 km on the surprisingly small 42-litre tank.

Accelerate hard and the thick-rim steering wheel becomes light. Thankfully, torque steer is minimal and therefore rarely intrusive. Developed and adapted from the i3 project, the 118i gains BMW’s ARB (actuator contiguous wheel-slip limitation) technology aimed at delivering faster, torque-based reactions to potential understeer moments. Standard Performance Control brakes an inside wheel for improved turn-in. Bucking the segment trend towards fitting more affordable (torsion-beam) setups to entry-level derivatives, BMW offers a multi-link rear suspension across the 1 Series range.

Carry too much speed into a corner and, in its new configuration – including a 60:40 front-rear mass distribution – the 118i’s nose will wash wide before quickly settling with a lift of the throttle and correction of the steering wheel. Body roll on its firmer dampers is kept neatly in check throughout. 

Despite the presence of the above-mentioned tech and our M Sport package-equipped test unit’s firmed and lowered (by 10 mm) stance, including those largest-available alloys (16-inchers are standard), the 118i delivers a fluid balancing act between sportiness and all-round comfort, harnessed within a well-insulated cabin. If the otherwise-refined ride quality of our test unit is anything to go by, the standard setup should prove impressively compliant, even if you should opt to increase the wheel size on the options sheet.


Last place for the M135i xDrive in Performance Shootout 2020 – including copping the ire of our resident ex-works BMW track ace, Deon Joubert – didn’t set the bar high for the entry-level 1 Series. Yet, after sampling such an accomplished base model, we have to wonder where the astonishingly talented M division went wrong in turning up the wick on the new 1.

Still as divisive in its styling as ever, where the grown-up new 1 Series package succeeds is in retaining its sporty character despite a shift to a less favourable drivetrain layout. Regardless of this much-debated compromise towards practicality, the 1 Series doesn’t set any new standards in terms of interior comfort or luggage space compared to its rivals … including the scheduled arrival of an all-new A3 Sportback.

Until the latest Audi arrives, though, it’s the 118i – with its quality interior, brilliant drivetrain and dynamics, and newfound levels of class-competitive versatility – that rules the roost in a segment that continues to take market strain under the influence of its respective raised-ride-height cousins.  

Original article from Car