Test Drives

2019 BMW 1 Series review: Back To Front



The new BMW 1 Series makes the controversial switch to front-wheel-drive, but will it really matter to consumers in Singapore?

Photos: BMW, Daniel Kraus

MUNICH, GERMANY

Here it is then: the all-new BMW 1 Series, which makes the switch to front-wheel-drive (FWD) after two generations, much to the dismay of driving enthusiasts everywhere.

BMW promises that despite the change, the car will be no less fun to drive as previous generation versions. But does it? Or are BMW purists justified with their uproar?

READ MORE: All you need to know about the new 1 Series, including pricing and Singapore on sale date

Why front-wheel-drive?

Simply put, it’s down to popular demand. As much as enthusiasts hark about the benefits of rear-wheel-drive (RWD) and how it makes for a more entertaining driving experience, the vast majority of customers simply have more normal requirements, such as rear legroom and interior space.

A RWD setup is inherently compromised in those practical aspects due to the need for the engine to be installed longitudinally, leaving less space to design the cabin around, especially for a small hatchback like the 1 Series. A RWD car also requires a larger driveshaft (which sends the power from the front engine to the rear wheels) running through the length of the car, resulting in a large tunnel that impinges on rear legroom.

According to BMW’s own research, 1 Series customers rank interior comfort as their second most important priority, behind design. While BMW says that it could plausibly retain RWD and try to increase passenger space, it would have resulted in a much bigger car, and that would have compromised the 1 Series’ agile manoeuvrability and driving dynamics.

In any case, BMW is confident that it can still produce a car that can please both keen drivers and regular folk. After all, BMW does have experience with small FWD cars with the Mini, and nobody denies that those cars are fun to drive.

So, what’s it like then?

The new 1 Series uses the same modular UKL2 front drive architecture as the Mini Countryman (and other recent FWD BMW cars like the X1 and X2), so it is proven technology and not something completely new to the brand at least. Part of the reason for using this platform is also the fact that it can incorporate BMW’s xDrive all-wheel-drive system, something which will feature in a number of 1 Series variants as standard, including the high performance M135i model.

On the international press drive event, aside from the M135i, we only got to drive the 118d diesel, so overall performance won’t be reflective of the cars we’ll get in Singapore (which will be the 118i petrol). Nevertheless, it was still good enough for us to explore the 1 Series’ handling capabilities around the country roads of Munich.

Here’s the thing: if you weren’t told about the car’s driven wheels, and you don’t have an ultra-sensitive race car driver backside (which is like, 99% of us), you honestly couldn’t tell the difference if you’re just driving along regularly like a normal person. Push hard and there is a slight tinge of understeer that gives the game away, but otherwise, the car steers in neatly and with precision, and it honestly is as fun as a FWD car can get. In many ways it feels like a Mini: sharp, precise, light on its feet, and yes, entertaining even.

We’ll get better judgement when the car arrives in Singapore in September and we have more time for an extended test drive, but based on this short experience alone, the majority of customers will have nothing to worry about. For the small number of enthusiasts, there’s the M135i for you.

What about the supposed benefits of improved legroom?

If you’ve sat in the back of the old car, and then stepped into the new one, the difference is obvious. For one, the floor is now flat since there is no longer a need to incorporate the driveshaft tunnel, so the middle passenger gets to sit more naturally now. For an average-sized guy, overall rear legroom and headroom is more than adequate, and sitting in the back is no longer a tight squeeze.

BMW claims that the new 1 Series has 33mm more knee room for rear passengers, despite the fact that wheelbase has been shortened by 20mm over the outgoing version. That’s pretty remarkable packaging magic, and shows how seriously BMW takes customers’ concerns while still trying to retain the essence of a small, fun driving car.

So, they’ve nailed it then?

It’s easy to be cynical about BMW’s switch from RWD to FWD, but the harsh reality is that most buyers simply do not care a jot which wheels are being driven. But more than that, the advances of automotive engineering these days means that it is still possible to offer up sheer driving pleasure regardless of whether a car is FWD or RWD. BMW has to balance real world practicalities with having to please keen drivers, and on the basis of what we’ve seen, we reckon they’ve achieved it.

BMW 118d

Engine 1,995cc, inline 4, turbo diesel
Power 150hp at 2500-4000rpm
Torque 350Nm at 1750-4000rpm
Gearbox 8-speed automatic
0-100km/h 8.4 seconds
Top Speed 216km/h
Fuel Efficiency 4.1L/100km
VES Band / CO2 TBA / 108g/km
Agent Performance Motors Limited
Price S$160,000 with COE (118i, estimated)
Availability September 2019 (118i)

about the author

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Ben Chia
He once belonged here, and then he went out to explore the Great Big World, including a stint working in China (despite his limited Mandarin). Now he's back, ready to foist upon you his takes on everything good and wonderful about the automotive world.