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January 18, 2016

BMW 1 Series stays RWD, but for how long?

BMW not too long ago revealed a preview of a 1 Series sedan, something which could well be the perfect complement to the current hatchback range. A four-door should sell strongly in the US and China but the big question is this: is the company planning to switch its smallest high volume model to a front-wheel drive platform?

BMW not too long ago revealed a preview of a 1 Series sedan, something which could well be the perfect complement to the current hatchback range. A four-door should sell strongly in the US and China but the big question is this: does the company plan to switch its smallest high volume model to a front-wheel drive platform? 

We’re almost five years into the life cycle of the second generation 1 Series, with a facelift having been announced in 2015. That means the current F20 five-door and F21 three-door have about another three years of production remaining.

F21 is built at Regensburg, while the body style with the additional two doors comes down the line at the newer Leipzig plant. The 1er isn’t only built in Germany, though. There is additional assembly/manufacturing in Thailand (Rayong), Chennai (India) and Araquari (Brazil). And even though this model series is a huge seller worldwide, Mexico is the only country in North America where it’s available. From time to time, BMW USA and BMW Canada look at potential demand, but the lack of a sedan body style tends to be the reason why there isn’t much desire to add the 1 as an entry level model.

So is a four-door car on the way? Possibly. The reason I’m being vague is that it would appear that BMW itself doesn’t yet know. Yes we saw a preview last year at the Guangzhou motor show but its name – Concept Compact Sedan – revealed why the company is taking so long to launch a small sedan. Had it been called Vision 1 Series sedan or Vision 2 Series sedan we would have had our answer. Should the production model be cheap, or should it instead be dearer than the F20? That is the question.

As the original body style for the current 1 Series, the five-door hatchback is oh so familiar. And yet its recent styling changes do a convincing job of freshening the car, especially at the front end. You don’t necessarily know what’s changed but at a glance, you can tell it’s the 2016 model.

The version I tried, the 125i, is powered by a 160kW (218hp) 2.0-litre TwinPower engine. Maximum torque is 310Nm. Like the other four-cylinder petrol and diesel units, as well as the three-cylinder ones, these engines were all either new or updated at the time of the facelift which went public at last year’s Geneva motor show. And a reminder that this was not only the first car in the segment to be available with an eight-speed automatic gearbox, most of its rivals still can’t match that.

Branded Steptronic by BMW, ZF’s 8HP45 transmission is even smoother than it had been, and stop-start is nowhere near as intrusive as you’ll find in some larger premium cars. The Infiniti Q50 2.0t with its Mercedes-Benz powertrain comes to mind. A new feature for the Steptronic is its ability to offer navigation data support via the transmission management system.

Back to what’s new for the latest 1 Series hatchbacks. There are larger air intakes in the grille, differently shaped headlights and standard LED daytime driving lights with full-LED specification available as an option. The rear lights now have the L shape of larger BMWs and again, there are LEDs.

Standard equipment extends to automatic air conditioning, a rain sensor and the iDrive operating system. This infotainment system comes with a 6.5-inch display which is located high on the dashboard but not so high that it would block the driver’s line of sight. The iDrive is far more intuitive than previous systems and there are not too many menus or unnecessary features.

The 125i is all about power and torque but at the other end of the scale, the 85kW 116d EfficientDynamics Edition is the eco champion of the range. Its official average fuel consumption is just 3.4 litres/100 kilometres (83.1 mpg imp), while CO2 emissions are rated at 89g/km according to the EU test cycle.

One of the biggest reasons for any keen driver to choose a 1 Series with one of the more powerful engines is the location of the driving wheels and near-perfect distribution of weight between the front and rear axles. Find a favourite series of corners – I found some tight, steep ones in a national park – and the thick rimmed wheel which directs such precise steering commands will have you feeling sorry for Audi A3 and Mercedes A-Class drivers. It really is in a different league, this car, for its balance and overall dynamics. 

The ride can occasionally be too bumpy but that’s mainly down to poorly surfaced roads. Adaptive suspension is an option, as is the firmer M Sport suspension package, and I recommend Variable Sports Steering if your budget will stretch to it. The standard car’s brakes were faultless but if you really want something extra, there’s an M Sport braking system at extra cost. Something safety related which comes as standard is tyre pressure monitoring. The instant a leak or blow out occurs, you’ll get a warning in the instrument panel, and you can also check individual pressures via the iDrive.

The 1 Series offers all sorts of other high-tech gear, with new features including the radar-based Active Cruise Control system with Stop & Go function, and the latest-generation Parking Assistant which can parallel park in tight spaces for you.

As the maker of the only RWD model in an ever more competitive class (Infiniti is the latest to arrive and has big ambitions for the Q30), BMW finds itself in an unusual position. Keeping the 1 Series up to date with the likes of the kit mentioned above is relatively easy compared to working out whether or not a majority of buyers really know and understand, and therefore will pay extra for, the benefits of a RWD/AWD model.

At one time it seemed strange to think of the X1 moving away from the same architecture yet that has now happened and sales of the new FWD/AWD model are soaring. Plus you only need to drive this or any other UKL platform BMW or Mini to see how well it has been set up dynamically. But the downside of RWD in a 1 Series is tight rear legroom due to the intrusion of the transmission tunnel, so if that matters, you’d be better off with a 2 Series Active Tourer. For anyone who values the feeling of an old-school BMW though, where the emphasis is on state of the art dynamics, the 1 Series is still the best car in the segment.

The 2016 model year 125i M Sport Steptronic, as tested in Australia, retails for $48,900.

Setting a sales record / the future F40/F41

Last year was BMW AG’s best yet for passenger vehicle sales, and the same applied to the BMW brand. Deliveries rose by 5.2% to 1,905,234 cars and SUVs. The 1 Series not being built in China and not available in the USA obviously stops it being the brand’s number one model but that is set to change come 2018/2019 when the next generation F40/F41 cars go on sale. For the first time, the Brilliance BMW joint venture will build a 1 Series model, this fact having been announced at April 2015’s Shanghai motor show.

China might not be the only new country to be building the 1 Series come 2019, either: BMW might choose to make the sedan at its forthcoming second manufacturing plant in North America. The company stated in July 2014 that it will have a new factory in the Mexican city of San Luis Potosí up and running at an annual capacity of 150,000 vehicles a year in 2019. The models to be made there have not been named.

The third generation range may switch to the UKL architecture, which, unlike the L7 platform as used by the current 1 Series, is a front- and all-wheel drive architecture. As mentioned earlier the four-door car being developed under the working title ‘NES’ (New Entry-level Sedan) might instead be sold as the 2 Series sedan. There have also been reports claiming that the next 1er will use the 35up rear- and all-wheel drive architecture. BMW did not say which axle drove the wheels of the Concept Compact Sedan so for the moment, its’ still speculative which platform will underpin the F40 et al model series.

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