BMW's Most Controversial New Car - The New 1 Series

Brennan Downes

The new BMW 1-Series, a controversial car to say the least.

Ever since its introduction in 2004, the 1-Series has been the only rear-wheel drive hatchback available in its class, so when BMW released the fully revised model in May this year, it sparked international hate from car enthusiasts, including myself. The internet was flooded with, ‘BMW is dead’, ‘Ruined a great car’, ‘Over-priced Mini’, ‘Look at those grills’ and so on… It’s safe to say the switch from rear-wheel drive and removal of the straight 6 for M performance models made people very unhappy.

The previous (F20/F21) generation of 1-Series was produced between 2011-2019 employing longitudinally mounted engines, rear-wheel drive (or optional X-Drive four wheel drive) and a choice between 3 and 5 door body styles. The most desirable variants of the F20/F21 generation were the M135i and M140i, in the UK these were rear wheel drive only, available with a manual or an 8-speed auto gearbox and housed a mighty 3.0L turbocharged straight 6 (the B58) producing 335hp and a noise no 4 cylinder can ever match. The newly released 1-Series, codenamed the F40, is dramatically different to its predecessor and puts the 1-Series much more in-line with the competition, the headline factor being that the 1-Series is no longer rear-wheel drive. This is also seen in the proportions of the new car. The F20/F21 generation had a long bonnet and a relatively low roofline, giving the impression of power going to the rear whereas with the new model, the bonnet is much shorter and body lines are clearly angled down towards the front, giving a more front biased silhouette. Including the fact that the F40 1-Series is now 5-door only.

At launch there are 5 engines (all of which are shared with Mini) and 3 gearboxes available. The new range topping model is the M135i now offering, a 2.0L turbocharged 4 cylinder (shared with the new Mini JCW GP) producing 302hp, four wheel drive and exclusively available with an 8 speed automatic gearbox. This is enough to propel the new M135i from 0-62mph in 4.8s and on to an electronically limited 155mph. In comparison, the F20/F21 generation M140i can achieve a 0-62 time of 4.6s (in automatic form) and a limited top speed of 155mph.

When the new model was released, like others, I was disappointed with the M135i in both the looks (excluding the rear), powertrain and drivetrain of the car. I felt that the USP of the 1-Series being the only rear-wheel drive hatchback and being one of the only hot hatchbacks (in M140i form) that was not a turbocharged 4 cylinder was well and truly lost. I couldn’t see why anyone would choose to upgrade from an F20/F21 1-Series or even pick one over its competition like the Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz A-Class. At the time, I had no desire to own one.

My first sighting of the new 1-Series (specifically the M135i) was at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in July this year and as usual with seeing a car in the flesh, I came around to the larger kidney grills and as in the pictures I saw online, I also liked the rear in person. The first time I stepped into the car, I was met with the dramatically improved dashboard and technology over the previous generation but I was unimpressed with some of the plastics in the lower areas, especially the glovebox. I put this down to the car potentially being pre-production and some areas being incomplete. Overall, I felt slightly better after my first meeting with the car but I still wasn’t lusting after the car and I was curious about some interior materials.

A few months later, once cars started to arrive in dealerships, I went to investigate further. The car my local BMW dealership had in question was a manual, Storm Grey, 118i M Sport with the optional M Sport Plus Package which includes Y-spoke alloys, tinted rear windows, rear boot lip spoiler and M sport brakes. A package I personally don’t think is worth specifying on a 118i (an extra £1,800) but it is nice to have. Once again when I first saw the car, I liked it more than I did previously, but once again I wasn’t totally convinced by the front end. After sitting inside, (this car being specced with black leather) I felt that the materials were much better than I remembered with the M135i in the summer and even though the interior design may not be as stylish as an A-Class, the fit and finish of the BMW is superior.

Whilst at the dealership, I also had a test drive in the car. After spending a significant amount of time in an F20 118i, I was expecting the car to feel relatively similar in terms of ride, comfort and refinement, considering both the new and previous 118i share the same 1.5L 3 cylinder engine. After very little driving, I noticed how much more refined the new car is. In comparison to the previous generation, the new car felt like a class above. The seats were much more comfortable, the noise level in the cabin was dramatically lower, the suspension felt much more compliant (despite having M sport suspension) and the semi-digital and backlight instrument cluster was a definite improvement. Although the car didn’t feel especially quick being a 118i, the manual gearbox still provided some engagement and at normal speeds you’d be hard-pushed to tell that the new car is front wheel drive.

After arriving back from the test drive, my opinion of the car was almost completely changed. In terms of the non-performance-oriented models, the F40 1-Series is a significantly better car for most people. When BMW did market research, most 1-Series owners didn’t even realise their car was rear wheel drive. Therefore, the move to a front-wheel drive architecture has allowed for a great deal of improvements for packaging and cost, making the new 1-Series a better everyday car than ever. Not only that, the new car offers everything most people would want as standard including heated front seats, folding mirrors, LED lights, front and rear parking sensors and so on, although it does annoy me that BMW charges a subscription fee to Apple CarPlay. BMW also offer a range of interior colours as a no-cost option which is great as I feel the black leather is a bit dull. The magma red leather completely changes this.

Now on the other end of the spectrum, we have the M135i. Although I did sit in this variant of the new car, I cannot comment on its driving characteristics, but I can safely say that it would never come close to the emotion of its predecessor. After more reflection, I have concluded that the new M135i cannot be compared to the previous generation. The new car fits better into the world of  Golf Rs and A35 AMGs. Once the car is placed in this category, to me at least, it seems to make more sense. Here all cars are four-wheel drive, all produce around 300hp, all achieve 0-60mph in mid to high 4 seconds and once each car has been generously optioned, each cost around £40,000.


If you would have told me to choose between all three cars when the F40 M135i was first released, I would have picked the A35 immediately but now that the dust has settled this is no longer the case, I’d have the BMW. I’m finding myself spending more and more time on the configurator and on AutoTrader looking at the M135i. At this point in time, I have completely come around to the looks and I now think it’s a very good looking car, providing its in a good spec. The interior also looks much more special that the competition, especially in Magma red and judging by the initial reviews of the car it doesn’t drive badly either. I’m sure many petrolheads will disagree with me but I can confidently say I like the F40 M135i.

Despite this, unless conditions are poor, I would pick a manual, Valencia Orange M140i over an F40 M135i any day of the week…