It's official: premium hatchback buyers don't, in general, care which end of the car power is sent to. Enthusiasts just have to get over the fact that the third-generation BMW 1 Series is now based on a front-wheel-drive architecture. That brings benefits in terms of space and weight, making this new 118d diesel variant a decent all-rounder for those that spend a lot of time behind the wheel.
In the Metal:
You'll never mistake the new 1 Series for anything other than a BMW, thanks to its (too?) large kidney grilles up front, LED lights all-round and oh-so-BMW surfacing to break up the expanses of bodywork. I'm not convinced about the huge upswept lights, while the overall silhouette is quite generic now that the bonnet is shorter than before and the glasshouse bigger. Still, the rear end is suitably sporting, thanks to L-shaped LED lights, a roof spoiler on all versions and an exhaust outlet on each side of the back bumper. The car pictured is in Sport guise sitting on 17-inch alloys.
The new proportions have been made possible by the move to transversely mounted engines driving the front wheels (or four wheels in some models). This frees up a considerable amount of space inside, front and back, though its rear passengers will notice the improvement more thanks to enlarged door openings, a lower raised section in the middle of the floor and a few extra centimetres here and there to stretch out in. Like the Mercedes A-Class, while there's now acceptable space in the back for average-height adults, the shape of the windows means it can be a little dark back there. For the record, the boot holds 20 litres more luggage than before and its minimum width is 67mm wider, too. Oh, and you could waste your money on the new electrically opening hatch if you felt the need.
There are plenty of other tempting options to tantalise buyers, most notably the full-size digital instrumentation that was fitted to our test cars. This is more or less the same as already seen in the new BMW 3 Series and other new models in the range. As standard, the 1 Series gets stylised analogue instruments behind a chunky leather-trimmed steering wheel, though the slick-looking (and operating) touchscreen in the middle is standard-fit, as is backlit trim in the dashboard and door cards. It's a fresh-looking and high-tech cabin that also feels of high quality, leading the class (along with the A-Class) in that regard.
BMW decided quite early on in the 1 Series development program to fit all cars with multi-link rear suspension where several of its rivals use a cheaper torsion-beam design on their less-powerful models. Obviously, with the move from rear-drive to front-drive, it wanted to maintain as much chassis competence as possible. That shines through, even in this modest 118d variant, though it never feels exciting or engaging to drive, as such. Just competent.
The electric power steering is worthy of a mention as it manages to convey information from the front tyres to the driver's hands in a relatively clear way while responding crisply to input even from straight ahead. There's no slack in the system, yet it never feels nervous at speed on the motorway. Indeed, on the German Autobahn we managed to reach this car's top speed and it felt utterly stable and unruffled.
What's more, the 118d's engine is impressively refined under such conditions, even strung out beyond 4,000rpm. Not that you often need to do that with the chunky torque delivery at low speeds. It's the new twin-turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder unit that made its debut in the BMW 320d, calibrated to 150hp and 350Nm of torque. Don't expect fireworks (despite the 8.4-second 0-100km/h time) though, as this engine has clearly been developed for economy and low-stress performance rather than chasing the rev limiter.
For that reason alone, it's best-suited to a life on the motorway and probably, in honesty, fitted with the standard damping system. Our test car featured the optional two-stage adaptive damping with distinct Comfort and Sport settings. This works well, but is somewhat wasted on this car. For the record, so-equipped, it manages to be comfortable without isolating the driver from the road completely in Comfort mode, while the extra firmness offered by the Sport mode gives you confidence to lean on it more during quicker cornering. Even so, the overriding impression here is one of stability and safety rather than outright agility and engagement. To be fair, that's probably all that most buyers of diesel hatchbacks want.
What you get for your Money:
Irish pricing for the new BMW 1 Series starts at €32,330, which is for the 118i SE version, or €33,100 for the 116d SE. M Sport and M Sport Plus specifications are also offered. Other diesels are the 118d tested here and the 120d xDrive with four-wheel drive. The only other petrol option at launch is the range-topping M135i. High purchase prices are offset by a good level of standard equipment and predicted high residual values - which should keep monthly PCP or hire purchase payments low. Hence our four-star rating in this section.
The BMW 1 Series may have lost its unique and sporty rear-drive nature in the transformation to the third generation, but it has gained practicality and the 118d is an especially frugal version that also has plenty of go. The new 1 Series is also packed with technology, while strong residual values should make it a tempting car finance choice for many considering an upmarket diesel hatchback.