Back to front: does front-wheel drive ruin the new BMW 1 Series?
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Price and performance headline BMW’s newest iteration of its entry level 1 Series, with a new surprise underneath.
Launched in 2004, the third-generation, 15th-birthday edition of the baby BMW is punctuated by three models in New Zealand: the performance hero M135i xDrive, the price leading 118i Sport Line Edition, and its visually enhanced version, the 118i M Sport.
The entry point for the Sport Line Edition helps keep the headline price for the new 1 Series under $50k. The big news with the 118i is its move from the traditional rear-wheel drive, to front-wheel drive.
To deal with the obvious question, does it make a difference to the driving? In short, no. With all the electronic safety nets on new cars, we drove the new 118i on dry roads north of Melbourne, wet roundabouts and mossy sweeping curves, and thanks to a tight chassis guarded by an alphabet of safety acronyms such as ESP, ABS and AEB, It’s almost impossible to tell, and we tried! So, front-drive isn’t the party pooper some would think.
It’s well equipped, with speed sign display, parking and reversing assistant, wireless phone charging, rear camera, kick-to-open electric tailgate (M135i only), and BMW’s Live Cockpit Professional: CarPlay/Android is offered for one year, but BMW suggests its own proprietary systems are not just superior, but also are free and offer more depth.
Other technology stores the steering movements for any section the car has just traversed at no more than 36 km/h; then the Reversing Assistant can automatically reverse, tracing the exact same path for up to 50 metres.
Cruise control is offered, but active/radar control is only an option for the M135i, as part of a $2500 pack that includes stop-go and a panoramic sunroof amongst others. The other issue is the firm ride, despite the 17in tyres. Maybe it was the road we drove the 118i, but we found the M135i to offer a more compliant ride through its 19in wheels; more on that model in a moment.
The middle-spec 118i M Sport comes at a $4000 premium, and includes cloth sports seats, leather steering wheel, Anthracite headliner, 18in alloys, Head-Up Display and M Sport Suspension.
It’s for those who want the sporty looks but are happy with the performance of the 1.5-litre three-cylinder TwinPower Turbo engine. While 103kW/220Nm might sound modest, it’s capably quick with 0-100km/h in 8.5sec, and a slight warble to offer a little audible character. It’ll also likely be the most popular model, says BMW.
But of course the main act, that we all came to see, is the new M135i. Gone is the twin-turbo six-cylinder and rear-wheel drive, and in its place a 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder and all-wheel drive – or xDrive in BMW-speak, another first for the 1 Series in NZ.
The full monty $83,500 price tag brings the most powerful four-cylinder made by BMW, with 225kW and 450Nm, good for 0-100km/h in 4.8sec. Oddly it doesn’t feel that fast, often the case with AWD turbos and automatic gearboxes.
It launches, just gets on with it, without wheelspin, squirming or oversteer; and piles on the speed through an eight-speed auto. If it takes away some of the fun, then we understand. The new M135i is more about efficiency of performance and expanding abilities, with a little less hooliganism. It’s an on-demand all-wheel drive system, predominantly front-drive and only summoning up to 50:50 drive split when the driving gets more enthusiastic.
For those not wearing a tinfoil hat, skip this next paragraph: the grip is also thanks in part to “actuator contiguous wheel slip limitation”, or (ARB) technology. Used on the EV i3, the system is standard on all models of 1 Series and has the effect of significantly improving traction. ARB limits slip via the engine, rather than the wheel speed sensors, for slip control around 10 times faster.
We tried a full-throttle launch, in the wet, slightly uphill, and the M135i bolted like it was in the dry with a hint of wheelspin. ARB also reduces understeer in the front-drive models — again tested, again true. Got it? Good, let’s move on.
There’s the grip and speed and even more grip to out-pace any corner, and it’s one of those cars where driver bravery proves the ultimate limit. It isn’t just about turbo and traction either, as it’s a true BMW M car with M Sport brakes (spot the blue calipers), M Sport steering, one-piece electric memory M Sport Seats, M rear spoiler and 19in M alloy wheels. Mmm ...
Comfort? In the front it’s great: well equipped and with just enough space and storage dotted around the cabin.
In the rear, BMW says there’s 33mm more knee room, 19mm more headroom and 67mm width in the boot than the previous model. Is it spacious? Not really, but this is a 1 Series, so if rear seat comfort is a priority, look elsewhere in the range.
Along with its LED headlights, adaptive in the M135i, BMW also offers the range-topping model with a digital key, a “card” that can be driver-configured and carried in wallets/pockets. It works alongside the keyfob, if required, and offers another level of convenience and compactness.
It’s an aggressive little beast in person, with functional vents and scoops and strakes, and in its striking red, white and blue palette that BMW chose for its launch, bold and muscular, with little obvious differentiation between the M Sport-kitted and the true M135i xDrive.
Is the new 1 Series better? If oversteer and powerslides are your only priority then no, but for every other reason, the new 1 is a better one in almost every way.
BMW 118I/M135I XDRIVE
ENGINE: 1.5L turbo three-cyl/2.0L turbo four
POWER: 103kW/220Nm, 225kW/450Nm
GEARBOX: Seven-speed DCT (FWD), eight-speed auto (AWD)
ECONOMY: 5.9l/100km, 7.5l/100km
PRICE: $49,990, $83,500
PROS: Aggressive look, power and dynamics
CONS: Tight seat rear (still), firm ride