By Glenn Brooks | 25 April 2013

F20, the current five-door 1 Series

F20, the current five-door 1 Series

Can a BMW be considered a sports model if it’s only got 100 horsepower? Glenn Brooks tries the base version of what was last month the UK's best selling premium brand car.

On paper, this is a proper BMW. TwinPower, rear-wheel drive, engine placed way back against the firewall for near as can be to 50/50 weight balance. But in practice? The 1,598cc four-cylinder engine in the 114i comes with a twin-scroll turbocharger and produces 75kW or 102PS. Doesn’t sound much but once you’re off the mark, it’s more than adequate for motorway cruising. The usual needs-a-firm-push gearchange isn’t to everyone’s taste but then BMW will happily sell you a state of the art eight-speed automatic upgrade to go with a large choice of more powerful engine options.

A friend who only buys BMWs was keen to know if I thought the 114i would be good enough for his partner, who’s looking to trade up out of a Corsa. Yes, it would be. But for enthusiasts, I’m not so sure. The odd thing is, for the entire week I had this car I didn’t want more power, it was torque I was looking for more of. If you’re on a budget, then maybe the 114d would be a better option.

Despite the findings of that infamous survey in which many BMW owners confessed to not knowing which axle was propelling their car, the brand continues to advocate rear-wheel drive for its smallest model. That gives it a big advantage over rivals and adds to the appeal for people such as my friend. He wouldn’t even consider an A3 or B-Class for his other half, for the same reason that he went straight to a Z4, having rejected the TT and SLK out of hand (the current 5 Series Touring will, I suspect, be traded in on an X5). And this isn’t branding power – this guy loves to drive and for him, rear- or rear-axle-biased all-wheel drive is non-negotiable.

I find myself wondering what will happen when the first front-wheel drive BMW car is launched in a few months’ time. We don’t know what the model name for project F45 will be but 1 Series GT seems a fair assumption. A preview, in the form of the Concept Activity Tourer, was revealed at the Paris motor show in September 2012. This B-Class competitor will introduce Untere Fahrzeugklasse (UKL1), an architecture that will also be used for BMW Group’s third generation Mini models.

This company employs some of the most sophisticated branding brains in the automotive business, so no doubt the Marketing masters have a clever strategy up their sleeves. But how to clearly communicate why rear-drive and AWD are right for the existing three- and five-door 1 Series cars, yet FWD and AWD are equally correct for the 1 Series GT? A tricky thing to do, especially when the GT will no doubt be priced at the top of the 1 Series range, just as happens with the Gran Turismo versions of the 3 and 5 Series. I suspect the forthcoming GT will be gently pushed as the model for people who love the brand but need a bit more interior legroom and headroom in a C segment sized package.

If you’re a bit confused by all these possibilities, there’s also the question of the replacements for today’s E82 1 Series coupe and E88 1 Series cabrio. The F20 five-door which I've just driven stepped in for the E81 in late 2011, while the F21 successor to the old E87 three-door was launched in mid-2012. Still we wait for the two-door cars (F22 coupe and F23 cabrio) but we should see both within the next six-nine months wearing a new model designation for BMW: 2 Series.

While the current coupe and convertible are based on the first generation E80 1 Series platform, the newer 1 Series hatchbacks introduced the platform which is also used for the current 3 Series.

If you’re still with me, ponder also how the company intends to replace the 1 Series coupe, which has always been popular in the US (will it become a 2 Series?), plus the possibility of a 1 or 2 Series Touring for European markets. Let’s see what the next Frankfurt and Detroit shows bring.

All those possibilities I mentioned above regarding different platforms and different model names will eventually be ironed out. I would expect all cars in the third generation 1 Series due in 2018 to use the UKL1 platform. BMW’s rear-drive range would from that moment on commence with the 2 Series and 3 Series, which seems like a logical solution.

As the next 1 Series is still five years away, what changes can we expect to see for the current three- and five-door cars before then? I mentioned the eight-speed automatic gearbox, which these models were the first in their segment to offer but we may see some other powertrain news in the form of a three-cylinder petrol engine. That should become available next year, to be followed by a mid-life facelift in 2015.

Might the 1 Series be built in any additional plants? Currently, production is split between Regensburg and Leipzig but there will soon be additional build: BMW India announced back in November that it would begin assembling the 1 Series by late 2013. This will be via kits shipped in from one of the two German plants.

So far, there is no word on any potential manufacturing in China: there, the 1 Series remains a low volume import, with the three-door unavailable, the five-door sold only in high priced 3.0-litre form and the coupe and cabrio making up only a tiny part of the brand’s local sales.

If buyers in the PRC (and the USA) prefer the majority of their BMWs to be 3 and 5 Series sized, that certainly isn’t the case in Europe, where the 1 Series sells very well indeed. Last month, British buyers made this model the most popular premium brand car, with 7,001 units sold, making it the country’s eighth best selling vehicle. For the year to date, it remains outside the top ten and behind the C-Class too, but having outsold the Mercedes in March, who knows what the picture will look like by year-end, especially with the current C in its last year of production.

A 114i is a different experience entirely to its supposed mass-market C segment hatchback rivals – you can easily see how people would be seduced by this car on a test drive. In fact, I’m not convinced that the typical customer thinks too much about the supposed direct competitors. Surely a 1 Series buyer would have researched the Qashqai, and yes, the C-Class too – with its saloon or estate bodystyles, the Benz is hardly a direct rival – not to mention an A3 but why not also a Mini Cooper or a Golf? Bearing that in mind, the base variant - that car you start off with on the configurator before switching to something with more power and standard equipment - appears to be doing its stealthy job of luring new people to the brand very well indeed.