In 2017, the automotive world said goodbye to the last affordable rear-wheel drive V8 sedan, the Holden Commodore SS. This hairy-chested muscle car could hold its own with the best from Europe but cost little more than $50,000. It was a big loss for fans of affordable, powerful cars that send power to the wheels god intended – but I’m afraid there’s another blow coming too soon: the rear-drive hatchback is on the way out, too.
Five-doors with rear-wheel-drive were commonplace forty years ago, but nearly all their modern equivalents are front-wheel-drive, with all-paw power on some sportier models. The BMW 1 Series is the only rear-drive hatchback (aside from BMW’s own i3 electric car) – but the next generation will sit on the MINI’s UKL2 front-wheel-drive platform. We like the MINI, but undoubtedly, a darty front-driver conveys an entirely different feel to a compact rear-drive vehicle like the 1 Series.
So, to see what all the fuss is about – and to determine whether it’s worth picking up a current-form 1 Series before these changes roll through – we borrowed the version at the top of the tree: the recently-updated 2018 BMW M140i, which packs a turbocharged, 250kW six-cylinder punch up front. First, however, let’s brush up on how the 1 Series is positioned in the market. The current form of the 1 Series – the F20 – was released in 2011 as a follow-up to the popular first-generation car designed to compete with the Audi A3 and to offer an alternative to downsizing BMW drivers.
Driver-focussed rear-drive underpinnings were the 1 Series’ unique selling point from the start – and even when the current Mercedes-Benz A-Class arrived in 2012 (replacing the dowdy old tall-hatch A-Class), it did so on a front-wheel-drive platform. While the A-Class is available in bonkers 285kW AMG A45 form, even that car’s all-wheel-drive setup can feel a little clinical in everyday driving. There’s no hiding a front-driven start in life.
RWD isn’t the 1 Series’ only point of uniqueness in this class, however. It’s got engine displacement up its sleeve, too. Where AMG’s A-Class runs a four-cylinder boosted to extreme pressures, the quickest 1 Series is motivated by a classic BMW straight-six: in this case, it’s the smooth three-litre B58 petrol making 250kW of power and a stout 500Nm of torque. The last hatch to bear a six-cylinder was the rorty Volkswagen Golf R32 that disappeared in 2008. Thankfully, whispers suggest that a six will remain on the next form of the 1 Series, albeit with all-wheel-drive.
Before the engine is started, the theory here looks pretty promising. 250kW six, rear-drive – and, thanks to a recent refresh, there’s also some pretty stellar value for money on offer. The 1 Series range starts at a reasonable $39,990 (all figures plus on-road costs) for an entertaining, three-pot 118i – but if you love driving, you’ll want to find an extra twenty grand for the $59,990 M140i we had on test. For the performance and dynamic ability on offer here, that price is a bargain. At this price, the BMW’s competitors can only give you a two-litre turbo four. The inline six here eclipses them all, motivating a 0-100km/h time of 4.6 seconds on the way to a limited top speed of 250km/h.
Consider this: to get comparable performance in any other hatchback, you’d need to spend almost $4,000 more on Audi’s S3 – but the Audi is still slower than the BMW. To out-accelerate the M140i, you’d actually be buying the $80,611 Audi RS3. The crackling five-pot in the RS3 shaves 10 per cent – or half a second – from the BMW’s 0-100 sprint but it costs 34 per cent more – you do the maths.
The six-cylinder isn’t just for show: on paper and behind the wheel, the M140i is simply a very fast car. The full 500Nm punch of torque arrives at just 1,520rpm and pushes you into the back of the seat until 4,500rpm, meaning around town, the BMW shoots into every gap in traffic. Stretch the B58 engine further, and above 5,500rpm the full 250kW of power kicks in – and by then you’re at licence-endangering speeds.
A key arrow in the M140i’s quiver is its eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox. Short ratios mean you’re always kept in the power band – but at highway speeds, the tall eighth gear means you trundle along at a quiet 1,500rpm. In manual mode, driven by either the paddle shifters of the gearkob, the auto is quick to respond to driver input and will rev all the way to the 7,000rpm redline without forcing an upshift. We feel this torque converter offers all the quickness of a dual-clutch ‘box, without the lurchiness and low-speed hesitancy those gearboxes are known for.
The way the M140i corners impresses, too – in part because of how analogue it is. Fast all-wheel-drive hatches are point-and-shoot cars that are generally easy to drive swiftly. However, in the M140i, the driver does the hard work, and the car provides the reward: no car for the money offers the same level of point-to-point engagement. The M140i’s rear-wheel drive chassis offers communication, involvement and dynamic ability like no other premium hatch
The ride quality, whilst firm, is well managed through standard M adaptive dampers. The steering is pin sharp and offers acceptable levels of feel and both the ride and steering, as well as other parameters, can be altered using the car’s drive modes. In Eco Pro mode, the throttle is soft and the car uses regenerative braking to maximise energy efficiency. The ride is also set to its softest setting, but even here it remains firm – it is liveable, however. Change into Sport mode and the ride gets even firmer, the throttle sharper and the transmission always keeps a gear lower. Change it into maximum attack mode, Sport with the ESP off, and you’d better be on the track because the M140i is very tail happy.
This vehicle is a tenacious corner-carver, with high levels of grip from the fitted Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres that measure 225/40 R18 at the front, and a wider 245/35 R18 at the rear. Strong grip, coupled to quick steering and the very supportive driver’s seat make twisting the M140i down a country road an absolute pleasure. The car’s impressive handling is all the more impressive given the brute force from the three-litre turbo six, which sounds fantastic, goes hard and is so tractable. Around town it’s quiet and provides ample torque no matter where the revs are, yet when pushing it, it’s sonorous and exactly what you want it to be. Stopping the M140i is an easy process: the M Performance brakes bite down hard.
A six-speed manual is offered as an alternative to the eight-speed automatic we drove on test, with no reduction in price: both are $59,990. BMW claims 7.1L/100km on the combined cycle for the auto, and emissions of 163g/km of CO2. Actual results fall some way short of this: we recorded 11.3L/100km on the urban cycle, and 7.2L/100km on the highway – though it’s notable that in our testing, the six-cylinder M140i is more frugal than the four-cylinder Volkswagen Golf R. The main problem in the BMW is range – with a small 52 litre tank, urban driving will see you filling up at least every 450 kilometres. However, if economy is the concern, BMW will gladly sell you a 118d, which is rated at just 3.9L/100km combined.
The M140i’s equipment list is fairly generous. Adaptive LED headlights crown the front end, while keyless entry and start is also standard fit. Inside, iDrive 6 adds touch capability to the 8.8-inch screen that also powers a 360-watt, 12-speaker Harmon Kardon stereo. Sports seats are trimmed in leather and have electric seat adjustment – although our tester was tastefully fitted with the optional alcantara-fabric combination seats that we prefer.
On the safety front, the 1 Series platform remains patchy. Autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection is standard, as is lane departure warning and speed limit recognition. However, active cruise control, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are all conspicuous omissions that the M140i’s competitors offer.
Refreshingly, the options list on this BMW is limited. We’d primarily be ticking the mechanical limited-slip differential ($5,490) if you intend to regularly drive the M140i in anger, particularly on track. Diff aside, our recommendations include tyre pressure monitoring ($423 and heated front seats ($500). Most people will want two further options – cheekily, Apple CarPlay ($479) is consigned to the options list, although it is wireless; the folding rear armrest with ski pass-through ($577) is useful but should be standard.
Like any cabin, the M140i’s interior is one of the elements most exposed to the ageing process. While the clean design has stood the test of six years well, the BMW’s interior lacks the elegance of the Audi S3. Material quality is good, however, with soft surfaces to be found on most touchpoints – the soft, thick-rimmed M steering wheel was a highlight. Perceived quality inside remains well ahead of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, too. A word of warning: you’ll want to specify the cabin carefully, though, to avoid it becoming a sea of black. In our tester, the textured aluminium trim strips were the brightest element of the cabin. Choosing the cognac leather seats would be one way to lift the interest level in here.
An updated technology proposition in iDrive 6 was a highlight of this year’s “LCI-2” upgrade of the 1 Series. BMW’s iDrive has long been an industry standard, but the sixth iteration makes another considerable leap forward. Two screen sizes persist, but the M140i (and the lower 125i) stock the larger 8.8-inch widescreen, called ‘Professional’. This screen can now be touched, though the rotary dial between the seats remains, and we prefer this analogue input. The software is among the best in the industry. It’s intuitive and simple, no matter what function is being accessed. It also includes DAB+ digital radio, as well as an excellent navigation system that includes ability to ask for permission to divert to a quicker route once a route has been decided upon. By linking into live traffic, we found the diversion feature very useful.
Practicality is not a key strength of the 1 Series: a Golf R does this better. Interior storage is limited to some door bins that lack felt-lining, a reasonable glovebox, two cupholders in the centre console and a shallow centre bin under the sliding armrest. The armrest hides the car’s only USB input. Rear seat room is limited no matter what your height; space behind a six-foot driver is very limited. If you’ve got taller children, you will definitely want to take a test drive with the family before committing. There’s also no rear storage either – no door pockets, seat-back pockets or cupholders. Thankfully, rear air vents are standard, and an armrest with cupholders and a ski pass through is available as an option.
The BMW does reclaim some points for liveability in the boot. At 360 litres, the M140i bests the 343-litre cargo capacity of a Volkswagen Golf R, and the Audi S3’s 340 litres. Two shopping bag hooks and a storage area sit on either side, and the back seats fold flat. There is no under-floor storage thanks to the inclusion of the car’s battery in the rear floor. The boot opening is fairly small, with a high load height and the boot floor also oddly slopes down towards the rear.
Ownership looks to be a fairly simple proposition. The warranty is an average three-year, unlimited kilometre programme with three years of roadside assistance. Servicing is condition-based; the car announces when it needs a service based on mileage and oil condition, but annually or every 15,000 kilometre is the general guide. BMW doesn’t offer capped price servicing, but it does offer service inclusive packages that can be purchased within the first year of ownership. For five years/80,000km of servicing, the basic package costs $1,340, whilst choosing the $3,550 ‘Plus’ package adds replacement of front and rear disc brakes and pads, as well as wiper blades and a new clutch. Depreciation isn’t bad either, with Glass’ Guide claiming that the M140i will be worth 64.7 percent of its original value, or approximately $38,400 after three years/45,000km of motoring.
As an overall package, the M140i works very well. Since the demise of Holden’s SS Commodore, true performance bargains are becoming pretty few and far between – but the BMW M140i, with a new sub-$60,000 pricepoint, is one of the remainder. Indeed, BMW’s hot hatch costs much more overseas and should probably cost more here, given the depth of engineering on offer. The ride and handling balance is sublime, and the performance from the 3.0-litre twin turbo six is impressive – but this car is never highly-strung. It’s liveable and useful as a daily driver. That BMW saw fit to cut almost $5,000 from the price of a truly unique hatchback is just the cherry on top of the cake. This is a car that evokes the rare feeling that you’ve bought something really special – so if this is your kind of car, we recommend snapping up an M140i before this recipe disappears.
Key specs (as tested)
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Indicative quote based on assumptions including postcode , 40 year old male with no offences, licence suspensions or claims in the last 5 years, a NCD Rating 1 and no younger drivers listed. White car, driven up to 10,000kms a year, unfinanced, with no modifications, factory options and/or non-standard accessories, private use only and garaged at night.
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