Does front-wheel drive hamper One?
Since it’s been a thing, the BMW 1 Series’ biggest selling point was quite simply that it was rear-wheel driven.
You’d have sworn it was a life and death calamity, but the new One is now mainly front-wheel driven. Yes, some of this 118i’s bigger brothers get AWD, but is that switch to front drive at this level really that big a deal? Is the new One worse to drive? Does FWD make a massive difference? And quite honestly, does anyone care?
Well, most 1-series drivers would never know the difference between font, rear, all or even space-wheel drive in the first place, but if you’re a car fan, it matters and if you are reading this, then you are probably leaning toward being one and BMW still punts it as a sporty hatchback anyway. So let’s take a look...
One aspect that may take a little getting used to, is the three-cylinder thrum this 118i puts out — its a bit odd for a BMW to be honest, but it becomes normal soon enough. That said the little turbo 1.5 triple works very well, it's refined and willing and well matched to its seven-speed DC box. It became all the more impressive when we strapped our VBox to the car and sent it down our test strip, as the data below well attests.
For the rest, to be blatantly honest, unless you are up to trying a Scandinavian flick or something like that, you’d be pretty hard challenged to really notice the difference between this new front wheel drive One versus the old rear propelled car. This One handles well, feels solid, sturdy and safe on the road, has a particularly pleasant, if a tad stiff ride and its quiet too. But there's a compromise…
BMW tells us that the steering is pointy and sharp. We however found the tiller to be the biggest drawback over the finely weighted old RWD One’s feel. It’s both overly sharp and also possesses a but of a wooden feel, which deteriorates further, the quicker you go. I’m being fussy here because your aunty would never notice that, but maybe you will.
However, never let anyone tell you that rear drive is an advantage over front in this neck of the woods — just think of Golf GTI, never mind the old Kadett Superboss — a 2-litre front wheel drive monster that made life hell enough for the 2.8-litre rear-drive BMWs for them to go build a really special one to stay with the Opels in those heady days of Group N racing.
Maybe it mattered once in a fire-breathing M5 or something like that, but down here it’s fifty-fifty and any advantage either way is just all a fallacy after all. And probably of less consequence than what grain of wood is on the dash trim or the breed of cow the chair leather came from...
We think the new One looks a bit bulbous and SUV-like. And that grille... well it’s not as bad as some other BMW gongs doing the rounds right now and it does look better in the flesh than the pictures, truth be told. Let’s rather concentrate on a few One series plus points then...
Like the tech in that quality cabin so cheekily trimmed in red and loaded with optional iDrive 7.0 version in our sampler. It may not be quite as glitzy or as versatile as Merc’s MBUX kit, but the BMW system works most impressively hand in glove with a BMW’s clear and functional BMW Live Cockpit Plus digital dash and navigation, media, phone and driving data heads-up display.
We may detest touchscreens, but the BMW system can also be controlled by the chunky multifunction steering wheel and a rotary dial, not to mention gesture and voice recognition, along with a quite alarming population of buttons on the centre console. Physical switches are always far better for crucial controls, never mind that this car's various methods of working are all most effective in their own particular way.
Despite a 20mm shorter wheelbase, which is more to do with the FWD car's front axle naturally needing to shift back and bring with it a shorter bonnet and longer front overhang, the cabin has grown. There’s ample room for tall people up front, while those in the back have extra knee room over the old car, too.
It's not exactly spacious in the back, there’s still an albeit slighter transmission tunnel in there and rear headroom remains tight, but the rear seats are more comfortable than before. The handy 380 litre boot meanwhile grows to 1200 litres with the rear seat backrest folded down to match the A-Class and run Golf close.
So, while there's been a hell of a song and dance about the BMW One Series drive swapping ends, is it really such a big deal?
To be honest, besides the semantics, there is no real compromise at all. Most customers will remain blissfully unaware of the crucial change in architecture, and while there are one or two drawbacks they will likely never even know about, they will certainly be drawn to the new One’s significantly improved practicality and to the most impressive the level of tech on offer.
To be honest, this baby BMW makes a most compelling alternative to its biggest rival in the A-Class, but with Golf 8 and the new A3 just around the corner, it has a few more prospective rivals to keep an eye on. For now, however, and seemingly against all odds, the new front wheel drive BMW 1 series may just be the pick of the bunch… Michele Lupini
Images - Marcella Lupini
ROAD TESTED: BMW 118i M Sport
Engine: 103kW 220Nm 1.5-litre turbo petrol I3
Drive: 7-speed double-clutch automatic FWD
0-60km/h: 3.44 sec
0-100km/h: 7.93 sec
0-160km/h: 22.11 sec
400m: 15.8 sec @ 139km/h
80-120km/h: 5.97 sec
120-160km/h: 10.71 sec
Fuel: 5.9 l/100km
CO2: 139 g/km
Warranty/Service: 2y unl/5y 100Kkm
LIST PRICE: R562K