Test Drives

2019 BMW 118i review: 1 For The Money

A major change in philosophy sees BMW’s newest 1 Series go from rear to front-wheel drive. But is this move sacrilege or a sensible one?


BMW may be one of the most beloved car brands around, but recent company decisions have certainly been testing on the faithfulness of its many fans. Highly, um, creative interpretations of the brand’s iconic kidney grilles may be the latest controversy, but in the past few years the increasing proliferation of front-wheel drive (FWD) drivetrains among the company’s smaller models have been a point of contention as well.

Thing is though, is the switch to so-called “wrong-wheel drive” really as tragic as enthusiasts make it out to be? After all, BMW themselves once pooh-poohed that very notion in their advertising campaigns. That’s what we’re here to find out, with the new 118i M Sport.

The 1 Series draws perhaps more flak for its drivetrain switch compared to its other platform mates, the X1 (just facelifted), X2, and 2 Series Tourers, mainly because of the latter three’s lack of antecedents, as well as the brilliance of the outgoing M140i range-topper. But truthfully, most 1 Series buyers previously never cared whether the wheels were pulling or pushing their car. In a 2010 study, BMW found that 80 percent of 1 Series owners thought their cars were FWD anyway, so clearly the benefits of rear-wheel drive (RWD) were lost among the vast majority of owners.

What wasn’t lost on them though, were the disadvantages of RWD: interior room. Previous 1ers were distinctly more cramped than its main rivals, the Mercedes-Benz A-Class and Audi A3, and this was the chief impetus for the new car’s layout change.

READ MORE: What’s a BMW without a high-performance variant? Check out the hottest 1 Series, the all-wheel drive M135i

Going FWD means the engine and gearbox are installed transversely instead of longitudinally, requiring less length. Simply put, this means the engine bay eats less into the passenger compartment.

So despite having a 20mm shorter wheelbase, the new 1 Series actually has 33mm more knee room for passengers. It’s also 34mm wider, and because there’s no longer a driveshaft running to the rear axle, the central tunnel is much lower and narrower than before.

All this means that the 1 Series handily achieves its goal of being more spacious than ever. Two six-footers can easily sit in tandem with space to spare, and there’s a lot more foot room too.

The boot meanwhile, is 20-litres more capacious at 380-litres, though crucially it’s 67mm wider at its narrowest point, making for a more evenly-shaped cargo area. For reference, that’s 10-litres larger than the A-Class’s, and on par with the VW Golf’s.

Aside from packaging, the other area that’s been significantly affected by the move to FWD is dynamics, and honestly, only a small percentage of drivers will be able to tell the difference. Being RWD, the old car had a poise through corners that no other small hatchback could replicate, with a wonderfully neutral balance and rotating around an axis that felt mere millimeters away from your buttocks.

Fundamental physics of course ensures that the new car can never feel exactly like that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s lousy to steer. It’s quite evident that the 1 Series is closely related to its British-themed corporate cousins, with darty steering that makes it eager to change direction. It also has a trick traction control system borrowed from the BMW i3s, and a brake-based simulated limited-slip differential that is designed to reduce power understeer.

That said, the new car doesn’t have the same playfuness as a Mini, nor the same satisfactory rightness of its predecessor. Excessive or ham fisted inputs results in nothing more than safe, predictable understeer, although the limits are remarkably high. Ultimately, it’s a more effective ground coverer than any current rival, but it just lacks that bit of sparkle that made driving the previous car truly memorable.

It’s a similar case for the engine, the familiar 1.5-litre turbo’d triple that’s used in Mini’s Cooper variants and BMW’s 18i cars. It’s adequately punchy, with an interesting soundtrack, and the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission has excellent low speed characteristics, but it’s otherwise unspectacular. Fuel economy is a bit disappointing too – we averaged 9.0L/100km over 530km of mixed driving, far short of the claimed 5.9L/100km figure.

Putting the effects of the drivetrain aside, the 1 Series feels every bit the modern BMW. Its cabin architecture is commendably identical to higher end models like the X7 and Z4. Having the same logical climate controls, switchgear, steering wheel, touchscreen, digital instrument display, and intuitive infotainment system (much less confusing than the A-Class’s) really bridges the gap and reinforces the 1er’s relation to more expensive BMWs.

If there’s one gripe we have of the new 1 Series, it’s the way it cruises, at least in this M Sport guise. The ride isn’t as bone-shaking as in the 3 Series M Sport we tested in May, but the M Sport suspension is still constantly jiggly. Another bugbear is the tyre roar, which is loud enough at speed that you’re consciously forced to turn up the radio volume to compensate.

We suspect the Luxury model, with its softer setup and smaller wheels, would be the better choice, which is a bit of a shame as the M Sport’s part-fabric upholstery looks ace, and the sports seats with adjustable side bolsters are particularly supportive.

It’s a small shame that the switch to FWD has made the 1 Series become more anonymous; badge aside there’s not much to differentiate it from every other posh compact car out there. That said, overall it’s impossible to objectively rate the new 1 Series as anything but a better car in every respect than the old one. It’s more spacious, easier to live with, and its tech is bang up to date. It even undercuts the Merc A-Class on price (by about S$10k). Car enthusiasts everywhere will undoubtedly mourn the passing of the last compact, practical RWD machine, but for the other 90 percent of car buyers, the new 1 Series is a win in every area that matters.

BMW 118i M Sport


1,499cc, inline 3, turbocharged


140hp at 4600rpm


220Nm at 1480rpm


7-speed dual-clutch


8.5 seconds

Top Speed


Fuel Efficiency

5.9 L/100km

VES Band / CO2 B / 135g/km


Performance Motors Limited


$152,888 with COE




about the author

Jon Lim
CarBuyer's staff writer was its fourth historical Jonathan. Old-fashioned in all but body, he thinks car design peaked in the '90s and is enthusiastic about vintage cars and old machinery.