When BMW launched the first 1-Series in 2004, the hatchback didn't just bring a wave of controversy like other Bavarian models had, but also raised questions about the company's mental health. Over the years, BMW proved that buyers were the ones who were crazy enough to buy its 1er despite its shortcomings such as the microscopic space in the back.
Taking a closer look, with or without the 2007 facelift glasses on, we'll notice that the 1-Series actually had enough assets to convince a certain category of the public.
We are talking about the mainstream models here, as the cabrio and coupe are totally different animals, which have a lot more to offer.
Now, the second generation is here, with the word "evolution" being on everybody's lips. To say that the 1er is now mature would be a cliche, but is the car really worthy of this status?
Our answer comes after a test drive with the 118i. It's using the "Sport" trim and it's dressed in red so let's jump inside, hit the road, and see what this car is all about.
Before we go, you should know that our test car packed quite a few goodies in its optional extra backpack before arriving at our office, so expect a good amount of spoiling, as well as a pain in the wallet.
The appearance of the first 1-Series generated waves of controversy, but this has become an usual feature of modern BMWs. With the second generation, the Germans took things even further. Now the car needs to shave every morning - it's become a man.
And, just like a man, the 1-Series doesn' necessarily need to be good looking, it has other ways of impressing. However, you do get originality up front, even though the rear isn't necessarily that much of an attention-grabber.
A man must also have willpower as strong as steel and the new 1er knows this: the car uses a new type of steel which allows it to be around 5 percent lighter than its predecessor, despite growing in size.
From the distance, you'll certainly be able to tell that this is a 1-Series and, as you get a bit closer, you'll notice it's more masculine appearance. Again, just like a real man, our test car felt extra-secure in a (Crimson) Red shirt.
This type of design has another advantage to try and compensate for its lack of sheer beauty: it won't fade away into the mainstream so quickly, which means that this car will look fresh throughout its entire life cycle - BMW is known for its visually subtle facelifts, so we couldn't have expected a revamp to save the day if things had been different.
This is the place where the 1-Series has changed the most and yet is still feels the same. Climbing aboard is like marrying your ex after a divorce and finding out that he really does have the power to change and this congratulating yourself for the decision. Of course, just like in the aforementioned situation, you'll discover that some of the old habits die hard. But let's see what this is all about.
Thanks to the increase in size, the cabin is now larger and the rear passenger no longer feel like they're traveling in child seats. The rear space tribute to using rear-wheel-drive has been payed for long enough (seven years), so it was about time this changed.
However, the sport seats fitted on the Sport version of the 118i we tested, have the same issue as the ones on the previous generation. The tight, excessive, lateral support makes you feel constrained after you travel more than 30 minutes.
You do get used to the sensation and notice it less, but it's still unpleasant and it can turn the whole driving experience into a disaster if you are the owner of a larger body.
Some materials in the cabin aren't exactly what you'd expect, but our test car did manage to distract our attention from this through the use of a multitude of optional extras, such as a leather-wrapped sport steering wheel, electric control for the front seats, an integrated iPod support with BMW Apps and special trimming.
This is where the 1-Series really belongs. Sure, it can also be an open-road partner, but this car is best at telling urban stories. The 118i version we tested seems to have just the right amount of power (170 hp) to allow you to do everything you want inside the city's borders.
Now you can even go shopping, but there's much more to the evolution of the 1-Series than more space behind the B-pillars.
The downsized 1.6-liter turbocharged engine, a new development, really works for city cruising. It's got a multi-purpose character not tuned like for a hot hatch, so it allows you to cater for all type of urban transportation needs, from A to B traffic jam transportation to short burst that might be interpreted as street racing. The six speed manual on the other hand doesn't bring anything special.
The suspension offers a rare compromise that allows you to spare the money for the optional adaptive one and inside the city you won't be so bothered by those intrusive sport seats.
The vehicle's design does require parking sensors to be able to keep both bumpers in shape and the rear view camera of our test car also proved extremely useful.
You find the car's setting fit for both leisure evening drive on the boulevard and shopping trips in a rush, as well as for the daily travel. The engine has power and torque reserves that can bring a smile on your face and the car feels nimble through the traffic. One of the best parts about it is the new optional Servotronic steering, which switches between "ratios" as if it predicts your every move, while also being communicative.
BMW has addressed many of the issues of the first 1-Series, but it seems to have run out of gas when it came to doing something about the fact that the 1-Series doesn't offer too much driver involvement. While this is almost invisible in the city, here on the open road, the car leaves certain things to be desired when you start throwing it at corners.
It much safer to drive that many would think. but the problem is that this comes at the expense of driving pleasure. At the limit the car is biased towards understeer and it's extremely difficult to get the tail out. We're talking about maneuvers withing the limits of the DSC
here, things that normal enthusiastic drivers would do.
In a straight line, the turbocharged 1.6-liter engine manages to be muscular enough to allow you to choose the car for longer trips, with another argument being the strong brakes.
It's now time to move up and backward into the cabin, where, with the exception of the front sport seats, the car is able to cater for long-distance transportation needs. The sound proofing, the suspension, the toys, everything is good enough to allow you to relax on longer journeys.
But then you see the BMW badge again, and you want to enjoy putting the hammer down inside a corner and you can't. To become a "ultimate driving machine: the 1er needs to be taken on surfaces such as gravel, where, after you send the DSC to sleep, the car starts to show its tail happy orientation. Once you get sideways, the car proves to be extremely predictable and obedient, but you probably won't buy a 118i if you're into this kind of stuff, you'll go for something that can also do this in more normal conditions.
The new optional Servotronic steering is like connecting the steering wheel to a sheep while traveling at low speeds and to a wolf while on the move and all this without having to trade feedback in, it's pretty impressive.