The simultaneous launch of both right- and left-hand drive versions of the 1 series hatchback in major European markets on 18 September underlines the importance of the new range with which BMW is targeting premium rivals such as the Audi A3, Alfa Romeo 147, Mercedes-Benz A-class and, of course, the Volkswagen Golf.

BMW GB is predicting that, at launch, 70% of purchasers will be newcomers to its brand, mostly from those rivals, but also expects owners of the likes of the Ford Focus and Renault Megane to trade up.

“We haven’t developed this new model to entice Mini or 3 series owners: we are attacking a new segment and we expect to attract a very high proportion of customers who are new to BMW,” said, BMW GB managing director Jim O’Donnell.

“Conquesting is the name of the game and our target competitors are a broad church.”

The BMW number crunchers reckon the average UK owner will be aged between 20 to 40 years old, without children or with a very young family. The sales split between corporate and private buyers is predicted to be 45:55, with BMW expecting to tempt more women to the brand.

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Being rather a late arrival to the five-door hatchback class, BMW needs a unique selling point and its pitch is that, while rivals are front wheel drive (with the odd 4WD option), it is offering a front-engine, rear-wheel drive car with that combines the practical benefits of a compact hatchback with sporty handling and ride and near 50:50 weight distribution.

The claim is best in class driving dynamics and a car that will attract a whole new group of buyers to the BMW brand.

BMW GB expects to sell 5,000 1-series by the end of 2004 and claims most of its allocation is already pre-sold; it is hoping for 17,000 sales in 2005.

UK prices range from £15,690.00 for the base 116i and rise to £20,800 for a 120d SE. 

The price includes a three-year unlimited mileage manufacturer’s warranty, 12-year anti-corrosion and six-year paint warranty and the car will also be offered with an optional £500 service pack covering all major maintenance and repairs for five years or 60,000 miles. This has already proven popular on larger BMWs and the Mini and is something used vehicle buyers look for.

The 1 series has already attracted some criticism for its looks, cramped rear accommodation and the lacklustre performance of the smaller petrol engine.

As always, judgement of the appearance is subjective; if you like the style of recent controversial BMWs such as the 7, Z4 and 5, you’ll probably like the 1 whose curves and ridges set it apart from its lookalike rivals. It has a long bonnet, long wheelbase (2,600mm) and short front (737mm) and rear (830mm) overhangs and, from some angles, is reminiscent of the Z3 coupe BMW offered a while ago.

What else will go under that long bonnet is a key question as yet unanswered. Officials say the rearward placement of the current 115bhp 1.6-litre and 150bhp two-litre petrol fours and the two-litre 122 and 163bhp turbodiesels allows that ideal 50/50 front-rear weight balance but you don’t leave room for two more pots unless you plan to shoehorn in some sixes later. We also wonder if a V8 would fit, for the ultimate sporty model.

While some reports have said the 1-series will be launched in the US when six cylinder versions become available, design project manager Kevin Rice said there are no current plans for US sales as premium hatches simply are not popular Stateside.

While the 1-series’ driving position is comfortable and the handling superb, we’d question the rather pointless separate engine stop/start button and ‘key’ slot, electric window switches set too far back in the driver’s door and the need to pay extra for air conditioning (in the base models), cup holders and even seat storage pockets. Putting items like satellite navigation on the vast options list makes sense but being charged extra for minor convenience items will surprise converts from rival makes who had them as standard on their trade-ins.

While front seat accommodation and cabin material quality are fine, the rear seat area is cramped for anyone over about 5’ 6” and access is awkward as the door opening is narrow at the bottom and there is a ‘step’ to catch unwary feet.

The base 1.6-litre petrol engine, the only one not to get a six-speed manual gearbox (it has five ratios), feels pretty lethargic at low speeds and needs plenty of revs in the right gear to make decent progress. The two-litre is much meatier but, as is often the case with new Europeans these days, the diesels are the ones to go for – there is tremendous low-end pulling power from the 166bhp unit but the 122bhp alternative is smoother.

If the 1-series has an Achilles heel, it is ride quality. It’s the first in the class to specify run-flat tyres as standard across the range. This necessitates much stiffer tyre sidewalls and we found the ride jiggly, bouncy and at times just plain uncomfortable on French roads not much different from those in the UK. Although the removal of the spare wheel saves weight, a Michelin executive this week was quoted as saying that the run-flat tyre/wheel combination is up to 25% heavier, and this increase in unsprung weight may well explain the 1-series’ jiggles.

Perhaps mindful of this, BMW has made much of the front suspension and subframe of aluminium along with the axle, suspension struts and pivot bearings. At the rear, the double wishbone arrangement traditional on smaller BMWs has been replaced with a version of the five-link set-up from the 5 and 6 series; this new suspension is expected to migrate to next year’s redesigned 3 series as well.

The 1 series can also be specified with sports suspension that lowers the car by 15mm.

BMW is predicting a new ‘premium executive’ sector will develop around the 1 series and expand by over 80% over the next decade.

It says that the market has changed dramatically in the last decade as cars that were formerly the biggest sellers have lost ground to manufacturers of premium brands.

This started in the executive sector, a market the mass brands have all but vacated. More recently the same trend has been evident in the compact executive sector in which the mass manufacturers have lost significant ground to the premium cars and is now beginning in the ‘C-segment’ or UKL2 class.

“Our core unique selling proposition of best-in-class driving dynamics is something [rivals] simply cannot hope to match. I predict that there will be a time when some of these makers will have to go the whole hog and build a proper rear-wheel drive car too,” O’Donnell said.

Graeme Roberts