What are you driving?
It's the new BMW 1 Series, about which you can trot out about as many clichés as you like. You could, for example, call it a posh Golf, as it's a German-made five-door hatchback, but one with a price tag starting well and truly on the wrong side of €30,000. You could call it something of a traitor (if you wanted to get all social-media-rage about it) because it's the first mainstream BMW to switch from rear-wheel drive to front-wheel drive. It's also something of an ugly duckling (the 1 Series has almost always been thusly accused), but as we shall see, it has some swan-like tendencies...
Compared to its old 3 Series-based predecessor, the new 1 Series is shorter by 5mm, wider by 34mm and taller by 13mm. Despite the wheelbase being 20mm shorter than before, space inside is improved on what went before. The rear legroom figure has gone up by 19mm despite the wheelbase chop. That, above all, demonstrates the packaging advantages of sticking the engine out ahead of the front wheels.
Mind you, that engine is a pretty compact thing. Peer beneath its plastic covers, and the 1.5-litre three-cylinder (shared with the MINI Cooper hatch and Countryman) appears to be more or less the size of a small briefcase. Instead of yesterday's files and papers, though, it contains a rather more exciting 140hp and 220Nm of torque. Not a lot of the latter, perhaps, but it chimes in from an impressively low 1,480rpm.
In other matters practical, the 1 Series has a wider boot than before, which measures a reasonably useful 380 litres with the back seats up, and for the first time you can spec it with an electrically opening rear hatch.
To keep the weight down (and this 118i weighs an impressively trim 1,290kg at the kerb), much of the 1's structure is now made of aluminium (the bonnet and boot lid, for example) and high-strength steel. It's also much stiffer than before, a level of engineering integrity that belies accusations of BMW simply chucking a 1 Series body on top of a MINI chassis.
You can also, optionally, have adaptive suspension dampers, while this M Sport spec version came with a (standard) 10mm suspension drop, plus an optional M Sport Plus package that includes 18-inch alloys, an uprated braking system, sportier steering, a rear spoiler and some extra M Sport styling bits and bobs. Good value for €42k as tested? Perhaps...
Name its best bits
If I say to you that this compact, front-wheel-drive, three-cylinder, bottom-rung BMW feels more like a proper, true, Munich-pale-blue BMW than most other cars in the German manufacturer's range, would you believe me? Or think that I've well and truly left my rocker behind on a distant horizon? Well, it's true. Or at least, it's true to me. I'll be honest, I wasn't expecting much from this 1 Series. I loved the old one, with its sweet rear-drive chassis responses and delightful steering, and good though the MINI's front-drive chassis is, I just kind of assumed that switching the power to the front would make this 118i the inferior being.
It didn't help that the looks are hardly what you'd call pretty. Although the M Sport styling add-ons and the 'Storm Bay Metallic' paint do their utmost to improve the aesthetics, this is - visually - a 1 Series whose looks you'll live with, rather than adore.
Still, it's much better on the inside. Whereas you could have accused previous versions of having cabins that were too cheap and too plain, there's no basis for such comment here. The combination of the big, bright, 10.25-inch iDrive 7.0 touchscreen, and some palpably excellent quality levels really lift the 1 Series' cabin into contention with the very best. Mercedes arguably still has the edge with is innovative 'digital plank' MBUX layout in the rival A-Class, but it's a narrower margin, now. Comfort levels are also good, with excellent seats (although the driving position is a little too offset to the left). Space isn't bad (also not great, but y'know, still not bad) and refinement is surprisingly good.
From there, it all starts to go very, very well indeed. For a kick-off, this is the first BMW I've driven with a manual gearbox since the launch of the M2 Coupe. As ever with a BMW palm-shifter, the throw of the lever is slightly longer than you expect, and it's a tiny bit notchy, but it feels wonderfully mechanical and so much more intimately involving than letting the optional eight-speed auto do the work for you.
As soon as you have that gearbox in first, and you're pulling away, the steering starts to come on song. Now, it's not quite as sharp and communicative as that in the current BMW 3 Series, but blimey Charlie, the 1 has a talkative helm. It's beautifully weighted and direct, too, and proved to be a steadfast and engaging companion when tackling a tight, twisty and dark country road (necessary after I'd missed an exit off the M7, so engrossed was I in an audio book. Ahem).
The 1.5 three-cylinder engine is also an engaging little thing. You need to work it hard, thanks to that relatively paltry torque figure, but it revs sweetly, sounds good and the combination of its willingness to rev and that lovely gearshift action means that finding the right part of the rev range is never a chore.
The chassis' overall balance backs all that up rather beautifully. Despite the lower suspension and the 18-inch wheels, the ride quality is excellent - firm enough that everything feels nicely controlled, but smooth enough that rough surfaces don't intrude either through impact or noise. It's tempting to call it a perfect car to drive.
Anything that bugs you?
OK, so it's not the most practical thing around. The rear seat accommodation feels a little tighter than what you get in an A-Class. Also, while it's superb to drive, there's still the slight nagging sensation that it would have been better still with drive to the rear wheels. And the price tag is hardly what you'd call affordable. That's about it, though.
And why have you given it this rating?
Seriously, the 118i is the best BMW I've driven since the current 3 Series, and easily slots in at the top of the premium hatchback tree. It's far, far sweeter to drive than the slightly dull Mercedes A-Class, and so much more modern than Audi's ageing A3. The most BMW-ish BMW of the moment? Somewhat surprisingly, yes.
What do the rest of the team think?
From certain angles, the design of the BMW 1 Series makes it seem entirely generic. Getting inside reaffirms its BMWness where the layout and design should satisfy most buyers. As Neil mentioned, the three-cylinder engine suits the car, providing a decent mix of performance and fuel efficiency.
Dave Humphreys - Road Test Editor