‘Marmite car’ is another way of saying you either loved or hated the old 1 Series. However, despite this, the cheapest BMW money could buy still resonated with consumers. BMW sold more than 1 million of ’em, which is a lot, and bizarre, when pretty much every single person you quiz on the matter says they didn’t like it. This must mean there are a few closet 1 Series fans out there. It’s ok, no judgement here, I have a soft-spot for the diesel variant. Perhaps they’re the same fans that didn’t know, or fully appreciate, that the outgoing one was the only rear-wheel-drive vehicle in its class. Yup, apparently 70% of owners didn’t know that nifty fact.
Nevertheless, it’s too late to worry about it now, because the new one has gone front-wheel drive. Sure, there’s an M Performance Xdrive version with four-wheel drive that’ll take on the Volkswagen Golf R, but we’re driving the run-of-the-mill 118i because we want to get to the bottom of this front-wheel-drive business, and it’s the most affordable which means potentially the one that’ll sell the most units. Most notably, the new one looks pretty different, in line with its rejigged mechanical layout. I don’t mind it. It looks a bit like it’s sniffing in X2 territory, sure, but the whole car is more forward orientated, as if it is embracing its front-wheel-drive architecture instead of trying to hide it, and I can appreciate that.
How about practicality? Always the Achilles heel of the old one, with its propshaft and other rear-drive gubbins soaking up cabin space, but as you might imagine, BMW has gone to great lengths to suggest the new one solves all these problems. Looking at the figures I’m not so sure: 13mm taller, but 5mm shorter nose to tail and the wheelbase is 20mm shorter than before. This translates into a 13mm increase for rear passengers and 20-litre gain in load capacity of 380 litres (1 200 litres with the rear seats folded down). Not exactly a giant leap in number though the cabin does seem more spacious than before. Or perhaps that was the panoramic sunroof optioned in the one I drove.
Perhaps the new one will return the favour with some crisp handling? Unfortunately, here lies its biggest problem. In the old one – even a base-spec model – everything felt superbly balanced. The front wheels steered the vehicle smoothly because they weren’t tasked with dealing out the power which was going to the rear of course. Now it’s a different story. The 1.5-litre turbo petrol motor makes a neat 103 kW and 220 Nm, but the front wheels battle to put it down neatly the ground and steer as well. It’s not torque-steer so much as the front wheels wandering across the road as power is applied. An uneven road and you need to concentrate more on the dips and valleys. One has to constantly coax it along as you go, with constant inputs on steering wheel. Dare I say it, with the optional bigger wheels and low profile tyres it feels pretty jittery on road. You can liken it to someone new to multitasking, there’s a lot going on and it’s not all going smoothly.
Throughout the test drive I was comparing this new 118i to the outgoing 125i, and this says something for the new 1 Series. This base 118i is so well put together that that I’m mentally drawing parallels to a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, in a trim line that came with all the bells and whistles. The interior of the new 118i lacks the plastic fiddly bits that often rattle and seem cheap, its premium parts and materials that you’d expect higher-up the BMW price list.
The three-cylinder engine in the 118i is solid and efficient enough, but when you want to go for it, it just feels too slow for a BMW. The motor revs sedately and it simply doesn’t deliver that hit of driving adrenaline you may have been hoping for from a BMW. This returns us neatly to the marmite-car issue. Regular commuters who’re not interested in what ends drives their vehicle will probably find this a positive adaptation of the BMW 1 Series. If you want the badge, premium cabin and are not to interested in performance driving this is a winner, winner, chicken dinner.
Short and sweet:
Wonky handling at speed on 118i
Engine: 1 498 cc, 3-cylinder, turbo petrol
Power: 103 kW @ 4 600 rpm, 220 Nm @ 1 450 rpm
Performance: 0-100 km/h 8.5 sec (claimed)
Top speed: 213 km/h
Tyres: 225/50 R19
Economy: 5.7 l/100 km (claimed)
Transmission: 7-speed auto
CO2 emissions: 129 g/km
Base price: R480 139