BMW 1 Series First Drive Review

Whatever side of the rear-wheel drive vs front-wheel drive argument you're on, you'll find that BMW's 1 Series delivers on the sheer driving pleasure promise.

BMW'S all-new 2012 1 Series five-door is the only small hatchback in the world which still uses rear-wheel drive. BMW says this layout produces a better-balanced car with more neutral handling characteristics than its front wheel drive rivals.

However, BMW also makes the front-wheel drive Mini, and is less forthcoming on the advantages of rear wheel drive when spruiking that car. You could easily argue it's a moot point anyway.

The sportiest (for now) model in the new 1 Series range, the 125kW 1.6-litre turbopetrol 118i, costs $42,800. That's about $2000 more (and 30kW less) than a VW Golf GTi.

The major attraction of rear-wheel drive is actually in the way a car steers. The 1 Series points into and out of corners with a responsiveness and precision that eludes its front-wheel drive rivals, where the engine's torque sometimes argues with the steering because both are trying to turn the front wheels. You feel this as a tugging at the wheel, which changes in intensity as revs rise and fall.

In the 1 Series, you get none of this. Its electric power steering is light, accurate and consistent in feel, no matter how the engine is running, because both systems operate at different ends of the car.

The 2012 1 Series range opens with the 100kW version of the 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol, the 116i, which costs $36,900. That's $2100 less than the previous base model 118i, which also produced 100kW. However the 116i also delivers a 24 percent improvement in fuel efficiency, now just 5.7L/100 kilometres in Australian standard tests. A 105kW 2.0-litre turbodiesel is used in the $43,500 118d.

A six-speed manual is standard. The new 1 Series also offers an optional eight-speed automatic, priced at $2693. Both transmissions feature automatic stop/start.

On the 118d I drove, the eight-speed helped deliver fuel consumption of 4.0-4.5L/100 km on the hilly, open road drive route, by keeping the turbo-diesel engine operating in its 1500-3000rpm sweet spot.

The 118d is an exceptionally relaxing car to drive. At 100km/h in eighth gear, the 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel is ticking over at just 1500rpm. It's no rocket from a standing start, but there's a wide, strong spread of torque, so when you need responsive performance for overtaking or climbing a steep hill, it gets up and goes. The eight-speed's shifts are so smooth and timely you hardly notice them.

Inside, the One feels intimate and driver-focussed, like a proper BMW. The dash features a wide, fixed tablet-style screen, with audio, navigation and phone menus accessed via the latest version of the controversial iDrive system, which is now easy and intuitive to use.

Eco-Pro is a fuel-efficient drivetrain management mode, which also displays tips on how to maximise fuel economy. It told me, for example, to slow down if I wished to reduce fuel consumption. It also suggested that if I turned the air-conditioning off, this would have a similar effect. Gosh. Who would have thought that?

Interior fit, finish and materials quality is first class, and although the new One has not yet been crash tested by Euro NCAP, it has all the requisite safety features and heads would roll at BMW if it failed to score five stars. A rear camera should be standard, though, rather than packaged as an option.

The Sport Line option, at $1600, is good value. It includes more supportive, comfortable sports seats and a leather-wrapped sports steering wheel, black interior trim with red highlights, and stylish 17-inch alloy wheels.

There's plenty of space and adjustability in the front; rear seat legroom, though better than before, is still tight. It's always going to be thus in a small rear driver's back stalls, because you've got a driveshaft, differential, axles and other bulky components under the floor. Boot space is reasonable, in part because there's no spare.

Runflat tyres are standard. I drove the One in New Zealand, which has much smoother bitumen than NSW. Ride comfort was fine; on our goat tracks the ride may become harsh, as is often the case with runflats.

BMW uses a light suspension tune on its smaller cars to compensate for the lack of sidewall compliance in runflat tyres. On the One, this occasionally causes the car to bounce a little on undulations. Otherwise, though, the handling is finely-balanced, forgiving and engaging, as you would expect from a rear-wheel drive BMW.

VERDICT: The 1 Series remains at the expensive end of the small car field, but it does offer this unique feature. Whether or not rear-wheel drive is worth the inherent compromises in space and practicality is your call. A back to back test drive with a Golf will answer the question for you.

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