Before front-wheel drive cars take over the world, savour BMW’s hatch and remember what fun it can be
BMW’s 1 Series is the last small hatch on the market with rearwheel drive. Does this matter? As far as most new car buyers are concerned, not at all.
Car companies like frontwheel drives because they’re cheaper to make, simpler, lighter and more space-efficient than rear-drivers. That’s why they’re taking over. Even the 2018 Commodore will put its power down via the pointy end.
The next 1 Series, due in 2018, will reportedly be a frontwheel driver, based on the Mini chassis, with all-wheel drive hero variants. We asked BMW Australia to confirm this, but “Official communications have not yet begun” was all we could get out of them.
A well-sorted rear-wheel drive is still a beautiful thing on the road, though, and the current BMW 125i, updated for 2017, is among the best.
Priced at $48,900, the 125i is the Goldilocks model in the 1 Series range. Sales were up 125 per cent in 2016.
Its 2.0-litre turbo engine now produces 165kW of power — 5kW more than the 2016 model — with torque still peaking at 310Nm from 1400rpm-5000rpm, a torque flat rather than a torque curve.
The 125i can hit 100km/h from rest in a pretty handy 6.1 seconds.
An eight-speed automatic is standard; a six-speed manual is a no-cost option.
Sports seats, wrapped in cloth and Alcantara, are firm, snug and supportive. A chunky, leather-wrapped M steering wheel is also part of the standard M Sport interior package that includes cool aluminium trim with blue highlighting.
Rear passengers endure tight access and limited legroom, dictated by rear-drive hardware (prop shaft, differential and axles) under the floor.
Boot space is adequate rather than generous for the same reason, even without packing a spare.
The drivetrain is smooth, punchy, quiet and frugal. An emphatic surge of acceleration is never more than a gentle squeeze of the go pedal away.
In Eco and Comfort modes, our 125i easily returned single figure fuel economy in Sydney traffic. On the highway, it used 5L-6L/100km — that’s almost diesel thrift.
If you want proof that a remote control-operated infotainment set-up, backed up by voice control that speaks your language, is safer and easier to use than a touchscreen, BMW’s iDrive is it.
The 125i, though, gets the poverty pack small screen and limited smartphone integration. Instruments are decidedly olde-worlde and the wands feel cheap and flimsy.
You also miss out on gear that’s useful in guerilla traffic conditions and should be there at the price, notably blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert and rear camera guidelines.
Around town, the ride is firm and fussy, typical of low-profile, run-flat tyres. The stiffened M Sport suspension, standard on the 125i, also lowers the car by 10mm for flatter cornering, which does the ride no favours either.
Adaptive M suspension ($1092), with adjustable dampers, is an option worth ticking on any BMW because it gives you the best of both worlds.
ON THE ROAD
So what’s the big deal with rearwheel drive? None, really, unless you enjoy driving. In the daily bump and grind, a frontdriver will do the job just as well.
However when you point a rear-wheel drive at a few tight corners, there’s a big difference. It’s usually less nose-heavy and better balanced because its weight is more evenly distributed.
The steering is more accurate, consistent and communicative, because precision and feedback are not corrupted by the engine’s torque, which produces a tugging sensation at the wheel that can in extreme cases compromise directional stability, even in a straight line.
Under power, the car will point into the corner, rather than wanting to run wide, and it will squat a little at the rear, maximising grip.
All of this, the BMW does to grin-inducing effect in Sport and Sport+ modes, which activate the full fat drivetrain and sharpen up the variable ratio sport steering. Sport+ also extends the threshold of traction control intervention.
Ride comfort improves at speed, the M Sport brakes are powerful and progressive and with lots of rubber at the rear for a small car — 245/35 Bridgestone Potenzas — there’s no shortage of grip, either. So you can tap every kilowatt you’ve paid for.
And what a pleasure that is. The 2.0-litre is a responsive, willing engine, with minimal lag and a much more enthusiastic, free-spinning top end than many turbos.
You get crisp, smooth, timely shifts in Sport mode, plus manual mode and paddleshifters if you prefer to change gears yourself.
If driving is no more exciting or joyful than cleaning your teeth, you’re wasting your money on the 125i. Buy a more spacious, comfortable Subaru Impreza or Mazda3 instead and pocket $20,000 change.
However if you think such vehicles are a bit boring, and you’d rather walk than get around in one of Mr Google’s “Waymo” self-driving rubbish bins that will soon take over the world, then you should take a 125i for a drive. Enjoy it while it lasts. One day, we will remember how much fun cars like this once were.