BMW 1-series

BMW has made the 1-Series a bit worse – by making it a lot better

WHAT you’re looking at here – well, at least it would be, in some weird parallel universe where BMW had done things a bit differently – is the latest Rover 45.

The reason I mention BMW’s ill-fated six-year ownership of the West Midlands’ biggest carmaker is because that was originally going to be Munich’s way into mass market cars, with the 75 topping off a range of hatchbacks and saloons that would’ve taken the fight to Ford, Vauxhall, and so on. But it wasn’t, Rover is long gone, and instead it’s the 1-Series that picked up that baton instead.

This week BMW’s started taking orders for the all-new, third-generation model, which hits the company’s UK showrooms in September. It could be a pivotal moment in BMW’s gradual quest for world domination (which, bizarrely, also includes teaming up with direct rivals Mercedes to develop electric models), because it’s having to drop something that’s at the heart of everything BMW stands for in order to make it a better car.

Rear-wheel-drive. BMW used to bang on in its adverts about how sending all the oomph to the back wheels made their cars better balanced and that little bit more satisfying to drive than their front-hauled rivals – and if all the ones I’ve driven over the years are anything to go by, from 320Ds to M5s, I’d have to agree. But BMW’s insistence on fitting its smallest offering with it too meant it was offering the first rear-drive hatchback since the Vauxhall Chevette went out of production – and they were compromised cars for much the same reasons.

In a big, powerful saloon it makes sense to send all that horsepower to the back, but in a smaller hatchback the propshaft robs space from the interior, which is why the outgoing 1-Series always had a chunky transmission tunnel between the driver and passenger and felt oddly cramped in the back. The new, front-wheel-drive 1-Series is a lot roomier than the outgoing car, which for the families who actually live with them day-to-day are really going to appreciate.

The bit that BMW are going to have be spot on with, though, is their claim that it’s more agile and fun to drive than the old 1-Series – which was a right laugh on a quiet country road – was. Get it right, and make it feel like a properly sorted BMW should, and it’ll have a generation of faithful customers who value that sort of thing hooked for years. It’ll particularly matter when it eventually brings out a go-faster 1M model – a lot of people who own these take them on track days and want to drift delicately around corners, and it’s going to be tricky to pull that off in a front-wheel-drive hatchback.

Get it wrong and BMW will be accused of selling out by going front-wheel-drive. In which case it might as well have stuck with the Rover 45.

Milton Keynes is the venue to win motoring hearts and minds

Ford has developed technology that can sense empty parking spaces
A LONG time ago the blistering heat of the California desert or a fortnight spent in the bitter cold of the Arctic circle were what counted when it came to developing your new car. But it turns out that the latest battleground for motoring supremacy is… Milton Keynes.

Ford dispatched a fleet of Mondeos fitted with some very clever experimental equipment there and – in the best traditions of Tomorrow’s World – a man with a beard and a tweed jacket to attempt to explain their cunning new plan. Essentially, they’ve sent a team of drivers out into this glorious 1960s vision of a New Town and asked them simply to park somewhere. Which, if you’ve ever been to Milton Keynes on a busy Monday morning, can be easier said than done.

If all goes to plan, the Fiesta or Focus you buy in a few years’ time will be able to scan the car park quicker you can, letting you know exactly where that elusive empty space is before the irritating birk in the BMW 1-Series swoops in and steals it at the last second. It’s important stuff; apparently most of us motoring types lose a day a year looking for parking spaces.

Naturally, Volkswagen wasn’t going to let Ford take all the credit for solving our parking problems forever, and just a few days later put out a press release pointing out that it’s been honing its Park Assist system for more than 20 years across three generations of tech, and is now working on an app that’ll talk to your Golf and let you know where all the empty – and better still, cheap – spaces are.

The fact that the combined brainpower of at least two motoring giants is finally being applied to making parking less irritating is wonderful, but what I’m really looking forward to is seeing the Fiestas and Polos of a decade’s time solving the really annoying problems of car parks. Wouldn’t it be great, for instance, if they could fire lasers at all those off-roaders parked diagonally across three spaces? Or have anyone who clips your bodywork with a carelessly-opened door automatically arrested on the spot and sentenced to four years’ hard labour for automotive neglect? I’d go out and buy a new Golf tomorrow if it knew what to do when the ticket reader at a multi-storey stops working, leaving you trapped with six impatient shoppers stuck behind you.

What I’d suggest to Ford is that carries on its important research in the interests of helping the British public by moving its crack team of Mondeo-driving scientists a bit further north than Milton Keynes.

If they – or Volkswagen’s researchers, for that matter – can solve the stresses of parking in Southport town centre or the Skelmersdale Concourse for good, then their millions will have been worthwhile.

BMW make a great 1-series – it just isn’t this one

BMW has made the 1-series brilliant on B-roads, but not so great everywhere else

BARBECUE envy is a bad thing to suffer from at this time of year.

Essentially it involves dragging your rusty old bit of al fresco cooking equipment – inevitably bought at a supermarket for about £30 five years ago – in preparation for a lovely evening with your friends and family. It’s only then you find you’ve been upstaged by an irritating mate/relative/colleague with three grand’s worth of Napoleon Prestige in their garden. You can’t help but marvel at all the polished stainless steel, backlit controls and ceramic plating – but it’s all a bit over-engineered for burning burgers on Britain’s ten hot days each year.

It’s not unlike the BMW 1-series I’ve just spent a weekend with, because it manages to be just a tiny bit too brilliant for its own good. Can a car be too, er, good for its own good? If the 116D is anything to go by, the answer’s an emphatic yes.

If you’ve never driven a 1-series then you won’t appreciate that for all its slightly awkward hatchback proportions it is a proper BMW of the old school, focusing on engineering above all else. So it has a delightfully smooth engine (even for a diesel) up front, all the power heading to the back, and perfect weight distribution in the middle. As a result it’s a real joy to drive, with beautifully balanced steering, a low driving position and a slick gearchange. No bad thing if you’re up in North Yorkshire, where I was working over the weekend.

But once you peel off the B-roads and back into the real world it’s not so impressive. The reason why the rest of the world stopped making rear-drive hatchbacks once the Vauxhall Chevette disappeared is because you have to send all the power down a propshaft to the back wheels, which in a low-slung car like the 1-series robs space. As a result the footwell is cramped, there isn’t much rear legroom and the boot isn’t exactly commodious.

The sharp suspension that proves such a joy on country lanes translates into a firm ride once you’re on the motorway, and I now understand why 1-series drivers never indicate. The flickers seem incapable of self-cancelling, so why bother using them?

This is normally the point where I’d recommend buying a cheaper, roomier Golf that’s very nearly as fun, but I can’t because I know deep down that the 1-series is a truly capable bit of kit that just needs more BMWness to work. It deserves to be ordered in full fat M140i form rather than the apologetic fully skimmed offering you get with the 116D.

I can fully approve of a car where going for the turbocharged one with 335bhp represents the sensible option. Let’s face it, you were only going to spend three grand on a barbecue anyway.