You could hear the eyebrows being raised when BMW revealed the new 1 Series would be front-wheel driven with naysayers quick to dismiss the company claims it would still offer what it terms ‘signature driving pleasure’ – the real truth being the vast majority of drivers would probably not be able to tell where the drive was going anyway.
That is both a sad reflection on the way in which cars are seen and accepted in these modern times where the on-board apps matter more than the engine and drive as well as a compliment to automakers which have, in fact, made the differences between front and rear drive infinitesimal.
Launched locally late last year, the Covid pandemic played havoc with manufacturer road test schedules and the way things worked out instead of progressing upward through the 1 Series, I have rather done it in reverse having gone from the 135i xDrive to the 118i MSport.
So, putting everything I know, liked and even disliked about the flagship 1 Series into a box neatly tied up with a ribbon, we move onto the 118i MSport where the first ‘in-your-face’ fact comes with the price.
The base price of the 118i is R524 100 and it arrived with options fitted to the value of R93 800 bringing the total to R619 797 – meaning a monthly repayment of R8 644 a month over 36 months or R8 251 a month over 55 months with a 10% deposit.
That is a hefty hit on the wallet for a 1,5-litre three-cylinder – albeit turbo-charged.
To give it some perspective, price rivals are the likes of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta 1750TBi Veloce
(R516 776), Audi A1 Sportback 35TFSI S line (R520 500) and Mercedes-Benz A200 hatch Style
(R563 960) – before the addition of any options.
However, BMW remains enough of an aspirational brand for many buyers to forego groceries in order to meet monthly repayments and have the bragging rights that are the only thing to come free with the car that, jokes aside, has much going for it.
The reason BMW elected to move drive to the front on the 1 Series was simply to be able to create more space inside the car without needing to expand the overall dimensions.
Passengers in the rear are the main beneficiaries, while a larger load compartment also results from a car that is actually five millimetres shorter than its predecessor at 4 319 millimetres.
In terms of width (now 1 799 millimetres), it has grown by 34 millimetres while its height (1 434 mm) has increased by 13 millimetres. At 2 670 millimetres, the wheelbase is 20 millimetres shorter than that of the second-generation model.
The interior of the all-new BMW 1 Series is much roomier than its predecessor, especially in the rear compartment. Getting in is easier and knee room for the rear passengers has increased by 33 millimetres. The rear offers a full 19 millimetres of extra headroom if the outward-opening sliding panoramic sunroof is specified.
Rear passengers also enjoy 13 millimetres more elbowroom, while the driver and front passenger can look forward to an extra 42 millimetres in this respect. The load compartment capacity of 380 litres is 20 litres up on the outgoing car’s, and folding down the rear seat bench increases this to 1 200 litres. In addition, the minimum width of the boot has increased by 67 millimetres.
The signature BMW kidney grille is now larger, with far greater presence. For the first time in this model range, the two kidneys now merge in the middle, while the flanks stand out primarily with the familiar – and clearly defined – BMW shark nose, a strong hint of wedge shape and a slim window graphic culminating in the C-pillar with traditional Hofmeister kink.
The wide, two-section rear lights have a modern look with their slender form and pared-back appearance. The optional full-LED rear lights provide a completely new take on the familiar ‘L’ design courtesy of a single, slim light element with a striking sweep to the side.
Grouped control clusters for the heating and climate functions and the various driving functions provide ease of use, while functional stowage options – such as the area in front of the gearshift lever, which can be specified with the Wireless Charging option for smartphones – deliver additional comfort and convenience.
Access to the optional infotainment features of the new BMW Operating System 7.0 – using gestures, if the relevant option is specified – is via a grouping of two displays, each of which have a screen diagonal measuring up to 10,25 inches in the case of the BMW Live Cockpit Professional.
The new display design of this option mimics the newly designed BMW kidney grille in both form and arrangement. The central, touch-compatible Control Display is angled towards the driver in customary BMW style and is optimally positioned in their field of view. Added to which, the full-colour, 9,2-inch BMW Head-Up Display – available as an option for the first time on the BMW 1 Series – allows the driver to view information without taking their eyes off the road.
The 1,5-litre engine produces 103 kW at 4 600 r/min with peak torque of 220 Nm from 1 480 r/min, translating to a 0-100 km/h time of 8,7 seconds, a top speed of 206 km/h and a test average consumption of 6,1 l/100 km.
An important factor here is the ARB (actuator contiguous wheel slip limitation) technology familiar from the electric BMW i3s, which is now making its debut in a combustion-engine vehicle and 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 is positioned directly in the engine control unit rather than in the control unit for the DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) system. Eliminating the long signal paths means information is relayed three times quicker, while the driver perceives wheel slip being brought under control up to 10 times faster. Actuator contiguous wheel slip limitation works in close tandem with the DSC system to bring about a clear reduction in the power understeer normally experienced in front-wheel-drive cars.
The ARB technology is assisted in its task by BMW Performance Control (yaw moment distribution). This feature, also included as standard on the 1 Series, gives it more agile handling by applying the brakes as required at the wheels on the inside of the bend before the slip threshold has been reached. The result is neutral steering behaviour.
Besides the standard suspension – which already has a dynamic set-up and is specially tuned to the different engine variants – and the M Sport suspension with a 10 mm reduction in ride height, the all-new BMW
1 Series can also be specified with the Adaptive suspension with VDC (Variable Damper Control) as an option.
The 118i MSport handles like a go-kart and responds with alacrity to steering input, going precisely where it is pointed and needing some quite violent manoeuvres to get it unsettled. (Do not try this at home). In that, it is a fun car to drive.
The test car came shod with ultra-low profile 19-inch rubber and this is where the enjoyment fell asunder – every tiny little ripple in the road was transmitted directly back into the car through the sport seats, making the drive extremely uncomfortable and tiring.
The seats too, felt as if they had no padding and, try as I might, I could not find the right setup that provided the levels of lower back support to stem the onslaught from the road surface – and this was barely mitigated by switching between Comfort and Sport modes.
As is usual with BMW, there are a plethora of active and passive systems fitted as standard with even more variations depending on the package specified for the car – simply too many to list.
As said, there is much to like but what I did not like would steer me to consider one of the other packages, especially comfort orientated, if I was a buyer.