JOHANNESBURG - The sheer look of exasperation on the BMW representative's face, when I told him I thought the new 118i's body had been put on backwards because the front wheels were spinning instead of the rear, was priceless; almost worth the VIP ticket price to the 2019 BMW M Festival which took place in Johannesburg last month.
M Festival? Yes, you've probably seen the buzz on social media and on IOL Motoring these past few few weeks, which all culminated over a weekend at the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit in Midrand. I arrived at the track bright and early on the Thursday, two days before the show opened to the public, to experience the new 1 Series hatchback.
Excited, but also unsure of what to expect, as I had not driven a front-wheel drive BMW since the disastrous 2 Series Active Tourer, I decided to keep an open mind about the new 118i and M135i.
At first glance, I thought I was looking at some sort of facelifted BMW X2, as the new 1 looks much taller and narrower in the metal than it does in pictures. Those engorged kidneys do it no favours either and combined with the rather large headlamps, it has this kind of 'surprised' looking front end. It won't be to everyone's taste, and don't get me wrong it's certainly premium-looking, but it's jut not as sleek as a Mercedes A-Class or even the dated Audi A3, which will be replaced next year.
In profile and from the rear, it's more MPV in stance than hatchback, reminding me of the short-lived VW Golf SV and the aforementioned 2 Active Tourer.
Nevertheless, almost 2.5 million examples of the BMW 1 Series have been produced in its first two generations, the car proving especially popular in Europe.
This third-generation model offers more space than its predecessor with little change to its exterior footprint, thanks to the shift to front-wheel-drive architecture.
Like the new VW Golf 8, the BMW 1 is available as a five-door model only. It is 5mm shorter than its predecessor, at 4319mm, but has grown wider by 34mm, while its height has increased by 13mm overall. At 2670mm, the wheelbase is 20mm shorter than that of the second-generation model.
All these dimensional changes really give it a new look as far as the 1 Series goes.
I really tried, but I could not find a standard 1 Series at the M Festival. BMW wanted to showcase how customers stand to personalise their vehicles with all sorts of options and trim kits, which is fine, but it does make it challenging to assess what you'll get when you order a bone stock one.
The 118i that I drove was luxuriously appointed in red leather, with the M Sport package and knurled finishers for some of the trim pieces. You can obviously expect it to come with electric windows and mirrors and dynamic stability control with some drive modes, but if you want to drive a really nice one like the ones we experienced, you're gonna have to bring a sharp pencil to tick away at the options list.
A large number of innovative driver assistance systems fitted to the BMW 1 Series have been taken from models higher up the BMW range. Standard is the Lane Departure Warning system with active lane return, which is operational from 70 to 210km/h while some optional systems include Active Cruise Control, usable up to 160 km/h – on cars with automatic transmission and Stop & Go function – plus the Driving Assistant, which comprises the Lane Change Warning system, rear collision warning and crossing traffic warning.
Let's take a drive
I would like to think that we love, appreciate and buy BMWs for how they drive, but the world is changing and these days, with traffic, there's hardly any space to drive, it can be argued. So, why bother with an M135i when you can buy a 118i and save huge reams of cash? Well, the M135i is all-wheel drive, but not as fancy as the all-wheel drive systems fitted to the M cars. Power is sent 50:50 when needed, but most of the time you're trundling along via the front wheels in the hot model anyway.
I drove the 118i first and it just felt odd, as the front wheels scrabbled for grip under heavy throttle and the torque steer tugged left and right in a very MINI-esque way.
The M135i felt a bit strange too. It was as though I was sitting in a Mini Countryman All4, that shuffles power here then there then back to here again, but in a very squirmy fashion.
Don't get me wrong, both models are fast and dynamic for front-wheelers (and all-wheelers), but there are better front-drive cars out there.
OK, so the nitty gritty stuff. In the 118i you get the Mini-sourced 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine that we have learned to appreciate over time. It's not the most engaging engine out there, nor is it the lightest on fuel, but when driven in Eco Pro mode with a light accelerator foot you can extract fantastic gas mileage. Dial it into Sport mode and it sharpens up a little and holds boost and torque a little longer, but overall you're going to have a hard time trying to show your mate in his G7 1.4 TSI a clean pair of heels.
Power in the 118i is rated at 103kW and torque peaks at 220Nm. The eight speed autobox gives it nice overtaking ability and while it won't set your pants on fire, it's decent enough to chase corners in once you get used to the front-tug instead of rear-push.
The M135i proved fast, characterful and engaging in Sport mode through the twisty sections and with 225kW and 450Nm on tap there's no doubt that you'll be giving those pesky Golf GTIs a run for their money. The real question, though, is whether the M135i is as good as a similarly priced Golf R.
Having put the latest Golf 7 R through its paces several times this year, the M135i just falls short of the Golf for punch and the seat-of-the-pants engagement factor that these sort of cars promise.
Consumption wise, the M135i I drove sat in the 14s per 100km, but there's no doubt that it can be frugal in eight gear with Eco Pro mode selected.
Should you buy it?
Look, if you really really want to buy a new premium car and it has to have a propeller badge, then this is where you have to shop. The 118i is perfectly fine and well balanced enough for the daily, but as the feel has changed, it's not as sought after in my books.
The M135i has an allure to it too, but it has to contend with the Mercedes-AMG A35 and the much cheaper 2.0-litre Audi A1 (which is smaller, but not by much).
You get that wonderful five year Motorplan when you buy the 1 Series for half a decade of peace of mind motoring.