All-new 1 Series may be mostly front-wheel drive, but there’s apparently a lot to like about it

Something needs to be said before even attempting to tackle the problem of figuring out whether the all-new BMW 1 Series is a peach or a dud: in making it front-wheel drive, BMW has made it less of an enthusiast’s car because in sending power to the front wheels, some of the handling purity has been lost. Also lost is the perfect 50/50 weight distribution that ensured the E87 and F20 were poised, predictable and fun to chuck around.

The 1 Series was the enthusiast’s choice and this was not because it had a good interior, was the most comfortable car in its class or it had the best equipment - it was always because of the way it drove, how engaging and fun it felt regardless of engine choice or spec. This new F52 model was drawn on a blank sheet of paper, albeit traced around the same UKL2 front-wheel drive underpinnings BMW uses for some of its MINI-branded models, but I’m pretty sure the base models are no longer as big a hoot to drive as before.

With that being said, if you’ve had the chance to drive a new MINI, you’ll know that by front-wheel drive car standards, they are at the top of the fun-to-drive pyramid.

And some of this inherent sharpness and the MINI’s famed go kart handling has made it through into the new 1 Series, even though it is being pitched as a larger and more expensive car than even the four-door MINI.

Now that reviewers have taken the car out and experienced it on the road, we have the very first actual impressions about how it actually drives. And it’s apparently really good for something with a transverse-mounted engine. The steering is sharp, body is well controlled and overall it’s an enjoyable, confidence-inspiring drive.

Granted, we’ve only seen videos of the range topping M135i, which comes with adaptive dampers, a mechanical limited-slip differential up front and some extra body rigidity courtesy of strut braces, as well as some excellent sports seats and plenty of nice M trinkets too. That particular model does live up to the M badges that adorn many parts of its interior and exterior, but we’re still curious about models closer to the bottom of the 1 Series range.

Driving dynamics aside, the new 1 Series actually has a lot going for it. Firstly, it’s actually not bad to look at (I had a chance to see one in the metal earlier this month and I was pleasantly surprised by its design) - despite the fact that it no longer has the phallic front end that was needed to accommodate a longitudinally-mounted six-cylinder, it’s actually (strangely) even sportier to look at than its predecessor. The front has more slanted headlight clusters that actually go well with the oversized grille, while in the rear, the new full LED light clusters really look good; BMW is on a roll with the design of its rear light clusters.

The interior has also been significantly improved.

The previous 1 Series’ interior was a bit dull and dated, whereas the new one looks contemporary and more youthful.

Materials are mostly excellent, as is the driving position and, at least at the wheel of a higher spec model, you won’t really feel a major difference between a 1 Series and the larger 3 Series (whereas before there was a more notable step up in ambiance and quality from 1 Series to 3 Series).

We’ll hold our judgment on just how good the 1 Series is inside until we’ve actually had a chance to experience lesser trim levels, examples which won’t have the fully digital gauge cluster or the large infotainment screen - these usually significantly boost the feeling of exclusivity inside a car and in BMW’s case, its latest gauge cluster and infotainment screen combo is actually very good.

Another point that needs to be made about the 1 Series is that you can now pretty much get it with all the pieces of tech BMW offers on its larger models. There’s less differentiation in this sense - that does, obviously, mean that you can more than double the price of a 1 Series, but at the same time it does grant flexibility to create some rather fancy 1 Series examples, jam-packed with tech and luxury features.

Basically, the BMW 1 Series has gone mainstream.

It is front-wheel drive, like all its rivals, and all-wheel drive in its more potent versions. It shifts its focus slightly from handling purity and more towards just being a very capable and tech-laden compact hatchback. It drives well enough in M135i guise, according to the first set of reviews, and it actually looks better than you might expect in the metal. Its interior is miles better than before and it not only feels more modern and upmarket, but there’s also extra space and practicality too courtesy of the better packaging that’s possible with a front-wheel drive car.

2020 BMW 1 Series - gasoline lineup
BMW 118i BMW M135i xDrive
Engine In-line/3/4 In-line/4/4
Effective capacity cc 1499 1998
Stroke/bore mm 94.6/82.0 94.6/82.0
Compression ratio :1 11.0 9.5
Horsepower 140 HP @ 4,200-6,500 RPM 306 HP @ 4,500–6,250 RPM
Torque 162 LB-FT @ 1,480–4,600 RPM 331 LB-FT @ 1,750–5,000 RPM
0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) 8.5 seconds 4.8 seconds
Top Speed 213 km/h (132 mph) 250 km/h (155 mph)

The 1 Series will definitely no longer be on the radar of enthusiasts looking for a fun, small, rear-wheel drive commuter car, but, in fairness, few of the people who bought the car were part of that category of buyers. It’s actually a model bought because it’s cheaper than other BMWs by people who really couldn’t care less about which axle delivers power to the road and for those people, the new car’s dynamics are good enough, plus they will enjoy the extra tech, luxury, style and space that it has to offer.

We expect the 1 Series to become available for press road tests within the next few months, so stay tuned for our own full written and video review. Until then, scroll down through the slew of reviews put out by outlets that attended the car’s global launch event in Germany.

Further reading

2020 BMW 1 Series
- image 841367

Read our full review on the 2020 BMW 1 Series.

2016 - 2018 BMW 1 Series High Resolution Exterior
- image 611693

Read our full review on the 2019 BMW 1 Series.

2021 BMW M2 CS/CSL
- image 840463

Read our full speculative review on the 2020 BMW M2 CS.

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