An injection of the X-factor has made a world of difference to the BMW 1 Series. It looks smooth, is nice and tight to drive, and finally sits comfortably as the starter car for the Bavarian marque.
At the end of a very big year for BMW and its legion of fans, the 135i xDrive is a car to happily recommend to friends. Even considering the giant gains made through 2019 with a born-again 3 Series that is my personal Car of the Year and an X3 that now leads its class, it is a significant step.
The ‘X-factor’ in question is a connection to BMW’s family of compact SUVs that puts a fresh spin on its smallest hatch. It now sits in the same group as the baby X1 and X2, and even the Mini Countryman crossover, opening access to a mechanical package with broader capabilities and considerably more refinement and class than the outgoing car.
For context, it’s worth mentioning that the basic BMW 118i now sports front-wheel drive and a three-cylinder turbo engine - a giant change for a core passenger car from a company that made its name with crisp handling from old-school rear-wheel drives.
But it’s peripheral to this tale, because the headliner for the new 1 Series range - the 135i xDrive - picks up all-wheel drive for stability, grip and driving enjoyment.
The price of the 135i is up a little, to $63,990 (plus on-road costs), but BMW Australia points to a wider range of standard equipment and more technology for entertainment and safety.
Even though the car is the same size as the outgoing 1 Series, there is measurable improvement in cabin space and particularly to comfort in the back seat. Even the boot is wider.
Like every new BMW, there are bigger display screens with a digital instrument display.
Standard equipment includes a head-up display, lane-changing warning and one piece of particularly clever new technology. ‘Reversing assistant’ remembers the final 50 metres to home, allowing the car to reverse automatically out of a garage or tight parking spot.
Our 135i looks right at home as it rolls out of a grungy lane in central Melbourne, thanks to its bold blue paint and a nose adorned with BMW’s signature kidney grille that – like every new model – has become bigger and bolder as the LED lamps have gotten smaller and sleeker.
Driver visibility is good, the car is quiet, and the four-cylinder turbo engine allows the car to step away smartly from stoplights. It’s no fireball, but the shove is a good match to the rest of the 135i package.
Moving into the countryside on a one-day Yarra Valley wine tour, the newest 1 – a car that has always driven in the shadow of the 3 Series – is well suited to the conditions.
It is swift without becoming raucous, significantly quieter and more refined that I remember the previous car, and is clearly sipping fuel at a satisfyingly low level.
Brisk and enjoyable
Turning onto some challenging roads, the 135i comes alive as I take manual control of the shifting and switch the car to Sport mode. It’s not as flat-out fast as a Mercedes-AMG A-Class, but it’s brisk and enjoyable and there are no negative signs of its front-drive roots.
The way BMW has tuned the all-wheel drive package, only engaging the back wheels when necessary, provides a seamless hook-up and the cornering grip and balance is very good. It also flows over lumps and bumps, and the brakes are up to the job.
Sports seats in the front are comfy, the head-up display is so good it should be in every new car – not only BMWs – and extras such as wireless phone charging make the car seem a little more special.
But it’s the basics that make the difference, moving the 135i xDrive well beyond the dull-but-worthy space of the previous 1 Series and powering to a new, happy place.