Even if you're the sort of person who thinks that budget airline seats are 'wonderfully commodious', you won't find the rear of BMW's new 1 Series anything less than a tight squeeze. The average European supermini has more legroom and the rear door opening is so narrow that Auntie Mabel will need to be crow-barred inside. The boot is also tiny and the fuel tank is small enough to make trips to the filling station a daily treat. As Yoda might say, "practical, this hatchback isn't."
For many European buyers, these flaws will be sufficient to make them shuffle past the BMW dealership in favor of something more sensible, such as a VW Golf. And they'll feel doubly vindicated when they learn that the cheapest 1 Series, the humble 116i, is priced at #15,690 ($28,572) and is supplied without air-conditioning, alloy wheels or a leather steering wheel. The more desirable 2.0-litre SE and Sport models, which feature these 'essential' luxuries, cost the wrong side of $36,000. By contrast, the more powerful Golf 1.6 costs ($25,868) in the UK.
Traditional hatchback customers might also be put off by the looks. It seems impossible to test a new BMW these days without agonizing over its appearance. The 1 Series is typical of the current BMW-breed with a hundred different angles and curves all competing against one another. It's an unlikely mishmash but it does have presence and like its big brother, the 7-series, it looks much better in the metal than it does on celluloid.
More importantly, it also looks like a BMW and for many buyers, the mere presence of the kidney grille will make the 1 Series a must-have hatchback. And it's for these customers that BMW has built the car. The company's top brass reasoned--sensibly--that in a global market worth 12M vehicles a year, there must be around 150,000 hatchback buyers who are willing to pay extra and sacrifice some practicality for a car boasting BMW's fabled driving dynamics.
That's why the 1 Series is rear-wheel drive and why it boasts BMW's trademark 50:50 weight-distribution, even though a longitudinal engine mounted in line with the front axle is responsible for the appalling packaging. BMW's hard-core owners wouldn't have it any other way and the driving experience tops the class.
By relieving the front wheels of the need to steer, BMW's chassis boffins have been able to create a car with an unrivalled level of grace and finesse. Not even Audi's overtly sporting A3 can match the BMW when the road starts to twist, and the taut, controlled 1 Series also rides better than its compatriot. Auntie Mabel might be cramped in the back, but she's sure to notice the smile on your face.
Four different four cylinder engines are available, although six-cylinder options will follow later, together with a 2 Series coupe, an M2 and a convertible. The entry level units are a 115-bhp 1.6-liter petrol and an 122-bhp 1.8-liter turbodiesel. Both are slothful--the 116i takes a yawn-inducing 10.8 sec. to reach 60 mph from rest--and so, predictably, BMW didn't let us drive them at the car's launch. Instead, we were tossed the keys to the 150-bhp 120i and the flagship (for now) 163-bhp 120d.
Both these models boast six-speed gearboxes and performance more befitting of the propeller badge. The 120i still isn't a hot hatchback--0 to 60 mph takes 8.7 sec.--but it's suitably nippy and its free revving engine encourages the enthusiastic. But good though the petrol model is, it's the diesel that's the star of the show.
The 120d costs just #530 more than the equivalent 120i but offers vastly more torque--251 lb-ft versus 147 lb-ft. It's quicker to 60 mph (7.9 sec.) but more, significantly, it's dramatically faster in the mid-range and therefore a much more effective overtaking tool. That it's also more frugal--49.6 versus 38.2 mpg--is really the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake.
From the driver's seat, it's hard not to fall for the 1 Series. The driving position is faultless and the fascia's mercifully simple to use--BMW's infuriating and unnecessary iDrive system is only an option. The quality's also top notch--despite its understated styling, the 1 Series feels a cut above the Golf and a match for the A3.
The 1 Series is therefore a strange mix of the sublime and the ridiculous. Judged by traditional hatchback criteria--namely space and versatility--the 1 Series is a hopeless failure and a Golf or an Audi A3 represents a far better choice. But there is an intangible quality to this car that's impossible to ignore.
Whereas the "premium" A3 feels like a tarted up Golf, the 1 Series asserts its own identity and feels every inch a BMW. And this sense of integrity, coupled with the sublime dynamics, help it to justify its inflated price tag. This BMW is a flawed diamond, but a diamond all the same.