Rover 45

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.