Sometimes I find it hard to remember what I did last week. I’m useless at remembering names (always was). And I regularly get lost when driving at international car launches because I have a deplorable sense of direction and invariably take the wrong turn-off. Yet, I can remember some things from years ago with crystal clarity.
One of them came rushing back to me in the course of driving this week’s review car. I recalled a discussion over dinner in Germany (way back in the last century would you believe?) where a BMW executive insisted his company would never, never, ever make anything other than rear-wheel drive cars. A front-wheel driven BMW? Absolutely not. Unthinkable.
I don’t know where he is now but he should never have said ‘never’. Because I’ve just been driving the front-wheel drive, small-hatch BMW 1-series. And it isn’t even a BMW first (that distinction belongs to the 2-series MPV).
Does it make a difference? What is all this fuss about rear and front-wheel drive anyway? The experts will tell you there is better balance with rear-wheel power, especially with larger cars. Others will tell you that front-wheel drive gives a lot of flexibility and improves traction because the weight of the engines, etc is directly over the driven wheels. And you don’t have a big drive-shaft funnel down the middle of the car, like with rear-drive, which takes up a lot of space.
But would most people notice the driving difference? BMW are betting they will and hoping for other benefits to be recognised, too. Considering the previous 1-series (rear-wheel drive since its 2004 initial launch) was criticised for being cramped, they’ve banked on the switch to the front generating usable extra space. As ever, the figures only give a limited idea of the car in the flesh and the impacts of the changes compared with the old one. It is 4,319mm long (5mm shorter), its 2,670mm wheelbase is down 20mm and the car is just 34mm wider (at 1,799mm). There is a marginal (33mm) extra knee stretch; 19mm more rear headroom and a small increase in boot space (to 380 litres).
They have tried to give it a greater sense of presence by designing, among other things, a bigger grille. It is the only real eye-catcher in what is otherwise a fairly conventionally designed motor. Part of me wanted them to really go for it, to make it stand out even more. Some people don’t like the way BMW are thrusting massive grilles in our faces – the seven-seater X7 is a prime example. I think if you’re going to do something ‘big’, then don’t employ half measures. What an accompaniment it would be alongside the switch to front-wheel drive. Or maybe one giant leap at a time is enough?
Enough with the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ – how did I get on with it? The front-wheel drive created more room than the figures suggest. There is a far greater sense of space. Taller rear-seat passengers were much better cared for. That surely is justification for switching the axles of power, though the downside is the boot is not roomy.
There was definitely a nicer edge to the drive. I know my test car had upgraded suspension but, even allowing for all that, the steering was brisk and direct while the car had greater balance. Do these things matter that much in a small premium hatch? Yes. They are part of how such a motor should be.
In this case, it distinguishes the Beemer from the solid/sport drive of the Audi A3 and the more disappointing handling and ride of the Mercedes A-Class. The Beemer was nimble around town; the steering was nicely weighted. I found myself, while running a warren of side-streets, delighting in the feeling of driving something that was a bit of fun, too.
Contributing to the sense of vibrancy was the 1.5-litre 3cyl petrol (yes three cylinders in a BMW) which some of you will recognise especially if you drive a modern MINI.
It was not a hair-raiser but what a lovely little power-plant with which to drive a small hatch around town.
It was just sweet and smooth and I liked it a lot.
The infotainment interface blended in well and I worked it easily without distraction. I loved the seating: after two solid hours in traffic, you get to know what’s really important.
I came to like the car a lot. I didn’t expect to as I was hardly a fan of the predecessor.
And you’ve guessed it: I could not see myself driving anything except a front-wheel-drive 1-series again (there is 302bhp M135i range topper with all-wheel-drive).
But I won’t say ‘never’. You never know.
BMW 118i M Sport:
5dr hatch, 1,499cc, 3cyl petrol, 138bhp, 5.3l/100km, 121g/km, €270 tax; several driver assist/safety/comfort elements.
Range from €33,253.
M Sport car tested, €42,511, included M Sport Plus package, Harman Kardon sound, parking assist, wireless charging, aerodynamic bodystyling, LED front headlights/fogs, heated front seats, cruise control.