MUNICH, Germany - In 2010, a now regularly cited study revealed 80% of BMW 1 Series owners thought their cars were driven by their front wheels. This may have played a role in BMW deciding to switch from rear- to front-wheel drive for its new entry-level range. The more likely reasons are cost considerations, however, as well as a more space-efficient packaging model. By ditching its defining characteristic in the premium midsize-hatchback market, though, has BMW inadvertently stripped the 1 Series of some character? We travelled to Munich to find out.

What's new?
The platform is shared with the 2 Series Active Tourer (and some Mini models), but has been further refined for its application in the 1 Series package.
The flagship M135i xDrive gains its own set of suspension upgrades in addition to the rear axle coming into play. All 1 Series models, however humble, will feature a more sophisticated multilink rear suspension system, unlike the simpler torsion-beam setups on the entry-level variants in the Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz A-Class ranges.
Under the bonnet of the new M135i beats BMW’s most powerful four-cylinder, turbopetrol production engine to date. The 2,0-lire engine develops 225 kW and 450 N.m, sent to all four wheels via an eight-speed Steptronic torque-converter. The 118i, which will be launched alongside the M135i xDrive next month, will be offered with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. An 120d will be added to the range in 2020.
Putting all that torque down to the tarmac is a Torsen limited-slip differential which offers 39% lock under load and 26% on the overrun.

Latest technology
During the launch, BMW’s representatives were eager to impress on the groups of motoring journalists the advances it’s made over the old model in software and entertainment systems. This is evident with a number of new technologies such as BMW Digital Key which allows you and four others to lock and unlock your car with your phone, and also allowing up to four other drivers to be able to do the same. Intelligent Personal Assistant, meanwhile, allows you to talk to the car and ask questions, book services, and so on.

Climb inside and the cabin was clearly been designed around the driver. The instrument cluster is the same as in the 3 Series, and so is the optional central 10,25-inch screen (the standard unit measures 8,8 inches). The layout is logical and BMW has wisely resisted the urge to move the air-conditioning controls to the iDrive 7.0 system. The sport seats, meanwhile, offer excellent support and are trimmed in an attractive combination of a three-dimensional cloth and Alcatara.

In an era where cars grow in size with every new generation, the new 1 Series is likewise marginally bigger (34 mm wider and 13 mm higher), but the wheelbase is actually 20 mm shorter. You wouldn’t think it sitting in the back, though. Perched behind my ideal driving position (I’m 1,87 metres tall), my hair just touched the roof lining while I had enough legroom without my legs touching the seatback. The 1 Series is clearly a roomier proposition than before and feels larger in the back than an A-Class.

Behind the wheel
During a cold start, there is a welcome burble from the two exhaust pipes (100 mm in diameter) which settle into a softer tone after a few seconds. Should you wish the exhaust note to remain on the fruity side, press the sport button and it immediately changes (sport mode is customisable, by the way).
As we left Munich city centre and headed for the Autobahn, the compliant suspension impressively absorbed road irregularities . Even in the sport setting, the cushioned feel remained. Each corner of our press unit was fitted with 18-inch wheels wrapped in 225/40 section tyres, a combination BMW’s lead engineer on chassis development told me offers the best of both worlds in terms of comfort and sporty handling. Nineteen-inchers will be optional.

When the striped road sign appeared ahead signalling a speed-limitless section of the Autobahn, I squeezed the throttle flat, the M135i dropped a couple of gears and quickly picked up speed. There was clearly some engine sound coming through the speakers, but which performance car these days doesn’t do that? The car quickly passed 200 km/h and, just before we hit 230 km/h, a speed limit forced us to slow. During this run, the engine revved surprisingly eagerly all the way to the rev limiter at 6 700 r/min. But as is often the case with turbocharged engines, you don’t need to chase the redline to experience the best of the powertrain. Even at 2 000 or 3 000 r/min, there’s a surfeit performance.
Minutes later, we reached the twisty country roads of southern Germany and it quickly became clear this car is a very different proposition to its forebear. In the M140i, you had to pay real attention to the car’s manners otherwise the DSC light would constantly flicker as the rear axle tried to put down the power. In the new M135i, you can now use more of the torque more of the time and trust the higher levels of grip. During this test drive, I also couldn’t detect torque steer, adding to my confidence booting the car out of corners as early as possible. In wet conditions, I’d wager an M140i wouldn’t get near this M135i…

BMW and Mercedes-Benz have been battling it out for decades but they’ll soon square off in a new arena. On paper, the first-ever A35 promises to be a fierce rival to the M135i. Then there’s the Audi S3 and Volkswagen Golf R to contend with, too.



FAST FACTS

Model: BMW M135i xDrive Steptronic
Price: R705 451

Engine: 2,0-litre, four-cylinder, turbopetrol
Power: 225 kW between 5 000 - 6 250 r/min
Torque: 450 N.m between 1 750 - 4 500 r/min
0-100 km/h: 4,8 seconds
Top Speed: 250 km/h
Fuel Consumption: 6,8 L/100 km
CO2: 155 g/km
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Maintenance Plan: 5-years/100 000 km