Test Driving the New BMW 1-Series in Munich

In terms of companies dedicated to making cars for drivers, and not just those who drive (if that sounds confusing, you’re probably the latter), BMW has long been one of the most traditional and set in its ways in terms of driver experience. So much so that, when in 2004 it launched the first iteration of its 1 Series, it kept one of the mainstays of its entire range, despite nearly all of its competitors doing the opposite.

Now, 15 years after the first 1 Series rolled off the production line, we’re getting one that breaks the rules BMW set for themselves some time ago. For the first time, the new 1 Series will be sending power to the front wheels, instead of the back.

Purists may decry this move from the German auto giant, but the company remains adamant that the new 1 Series is every bit a motoring enthusiast’s vehicle as its predecessors, even though in the minds of some it may be creeping into hot-hatch territory (this is especially true for the M135i). We took this new version for a spin during a recent trip to Munich to see if the new drivetrain was up to muster.

The first thing that should be noted is that this isn’t strictly front-wheel-drive 100 per cent of the time. The drivetrain, in fact, is a hugely complex system that can send up to 50 per cent of the power to the rear wheels when required (BMW’s engineers at the event even claim that you can drift one of these bad boys). What this gives the new 1 Series its winning edge though isn’t so much what the newfangled drivetrain does to the wheels, but what it does to the design of the car that counts.

Where passengers in the rear seat once had to share with a bulky driveshaft, the new layout means a very spacious backseat and an even bigger boot, despite the whole package coming in a hair’s breadth shorter than its predecessor. If you think it looks bigger, though, you can be forgiven, the new 1-Series is a tad wider and taller.

BMW has gone to enormous lengths to tap into the minds of the 1 Series purchaser in recent years, and has ensured that several elements of this vehicle are exactly in line with market trends and demands. For one, the simplicity of getting in and starting the car is sheer brilliance–it’s all controlled via your phone (which doesn’t need to be on, in case you get a dead battery). This means you can send a code to a friend who can then jump in and use the vehicle if needed–a nifty touch.

Then there’s BMW’s smart assistant. Essentially, she’s a lot like Siri or Alexa, but is handy if you’re into that sort of thing. She’ll blast your face with cold air and play some bad, loud music if you tell her you’re tired, activate setting in the car on command and suggest you give Sports Mode a try if you’re feeling bored, but other than that, it’s not dissimilar to any other smart assistant.

Connectivity is cited by BMW as a major focus for their customers, and the user interface genuinely reflects a huge amount of effort that’s been invested to make this a cut above the rest in terms of entertainment and usability. The dual screens in the dash look great, and the HUD is one of the best we’ve seen.

The rest of the interior, too, looks great, especially the lights which line the door panels–this is just one of many little touches that are superficial, but make this feel like a properly premium vehicle that has taken both driver and passenger into consideration at every level of the design process.

The outside looks great, too–the new grille is much more imposing and the lines of the car are less “classy European” (as was the case with the last model) and more “put your foot flat and see what happens.”

Only two iterations are coming to Australia, a 1.5 litre, and the 2.0 litre 4-cylinder that’ll be under the hood of the M135i X-Drive. Purists will maintain that the flat-six of the M140i is going to be hard to beat, and numbers don’t lie: the M135i is a tenth of a second slower to get to 100km/h than its older brother, but this feels irrelevant for a far more efficient engine that has somehow kept most of the grumble a performance-erring BMW should boast.

As for how it drives, the M135i is a very nimble little machine. Subtle differences separate it from past models on the outside, but inside, and under the hood, it feels like a car that has had a lot of thought put into it. The engine is puny in comparison with other European hot-hatches on the market, it’s true, but there’s a certain point where a consumer should probably ask themselves just how much raw power they really need in a car designed to get around city corners with tact and aplomb.

The heated steering wheel feels like it’s supposed to be flicked through windy roads, the way the car puts the power down feels effortless and, maybe most importantly for a car of this size, it felt very comfortable at high speeds on the autobahn.

Overall, this is a car that has been perfectly designed for its enormous European market, but with rising fuel prices and a lack of local competition, it may just be the city car that Australians with a little extra coin to spend on something with a bit of zip and personality will embrace when it lands later this year.