The new BMW 1-series: Still a Marmite car?

BMW sold 1.2-million 1-series’s, which is a lot. But this is bizarre when almost every single person you quiz on the matter will say they don’t like the car. This must mean there are closet “Marmite car” lovers out there. But I do suspect that its success had a lot to do with the 1-series being the cheapest BMW you could buy. So, what about the new one?

Most notably, the new 1-series has been given an extensive restyling job. This is a good thing because if you look carefully at the picture you’ll see almost every issue that bugged people about the original 1-series has been fixed. The original had a low, stooped line that ran the length of the wheelbase, making it look like a sagging sofa. But the new line that has replaced it jumps upwards at the rear wheel arch, and is paired with a bulging line that runs along the door handles. The rear three-quarter roof line has also been fixed and now sports a more conventional hatchback shape. The back end detailing shows more flare too, particularly around the tail.

The front is a bit more contentious perhaps; the four little headlamps of old design have been replaced by two pronounced, triangular headlights that look swollen, like they’ve just been stung by a bee, with a sort of smeared mascara line along the top. I don’t think “pretty” is the first word that’ll come to mind when looking at it, but I do believe it to be an improvement over the old one.

The 1-series is now also equipped with a whole fleet of efficient dynamic settings to make you a more economical driver and optional connectivity packages to bring social media and satellite radio straight to your car, but only if you have an iPhone of course.

Another interesting departure for BMW is the option of two different model lines in the 1-series. The Urban and slightly more expensive Sport lines differentiate the 1-series with white or colour-coded trim and wheels in the former, and black or chrome with an altogether sportier livery in the latter.

How about improved practicality? This has always been an Achilles heel in the old 1-series hatchback. Well, BMW are proud to announce that the new car does offer an overall longer length, longer wheelbase, increased rear legroom and bigger boot capacity. Would you like to hazard a guess at these figures? Get this: 8cm longer overall, 3cm longer wheelbase, 2cm more rear legroom, and 30 litres more boot space.

Pah-lease! with the exception, maybe, of Jacques Kallis and his brand new hair, 2cm of anything is hardly worth shouting about, never mind rear legroom in a quarter-of-a-million-rand-plus hatchback. Notwithstanding that, the front accommodation of the 1-series still isn’t exactly vast.

Perhaps the 1-series will return the favour with some crisp sportiness in exchange for that lack of space? Unfortunately, here too lies a problem for the 1-series. You see, the 1-series is good to drive for a small hatchback, really good in fact. It is a rear-wheel drive of course, so the steering is balanced at the front end without having to multitask between that and dealing out the power, which is sent to the back. But the 1.6-litre turbo motors we sampled in the 116i and 118i just aren’t that brilliant. The 120d (with 135kW and 380Nm) is available to order but still hasn’t arrived in the country, and that should sway my argument when we get to drive it.

The 116i makes 100kW and 220Nm and returns a claimed consumption figure of 5.7 litres per 100km. But it’s just too slow for a BMW. The motor doesn’t rev and the balance rear wheel drive offers is neither here nor there with such a little amount of power travelling down the prop shaft. The 118i gets a power boost to 125kW and 250Nm, which means it’ll get to 100kph in 7.5seconds and top out at 225kph, while still only using 6.0 litres per 100km.

But even in this iteration, the 118i still doesn’t deliver that hit of BMW driving adrenaline you may have been hoping for. The steering is spot on, as always on a BMW. Both the auto and manual gearboxes are very slick and the ride is manageable but there is just no soundtrack. I also found myself constantly having to coax it along as I drove, with constant inputs from behind the steering wheel. Dare I say it, but it feels a bit jittery on road, even with the optional bigger wheels and lower profile tyres.

Which returns us to the Marmite car issue. Although I believe the new 1-series is enough of a positive adaptation to easily shake that tag, it still doesn’t quite float my boat as a driving tool. If I’m strictly honest, I believe a BMW should have a kidney grille in the front, a six cylinder engine under the bonnet, and rear wheel drive at the back. And that’s the end of it. So, in the case of the new 1-series, you won’t look like a tool driving it anymore, but it isn’t exactly BMW’s best driving tool either.

BMW 1-series pricing:

  • 116i Urban (6-speed manual)—R282700

  • 116i Urban (8-speed automatic)—R300700

  • 116i Sport (6-speed manual)—R286000

  • 116i Sport (8-speed automatic)—R304000

  • 118i Urban (6-speed manual)—R301700

  • 118i Urban (8-speed automatic)—R319700

  • 118i Sport (6-speed manual)—R305000

  • 118i Sport (8-speed automatic)—R323000

  • 120d Urban (6-speed manual)—R339200

  • 120d Urban (8-speed automatic)—R357200

  • 120d Sport (6-speed manual)—R342500

  • 120d Sport (8-speed automatic)—R360500


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