Euro Hatchling Gets Worked Over But Still Won't Come Over

2012 BMW 1 Series Five-Door

It has been brought to our attention that there are many Americans besides just us who wish they could more easily get their hands on the sort of two- and four-door hatchbacks that Europeans buy by the truckload. Not only that, but we also dream of having access to the full range of clever four-cylinder gas and diesel engines our Old Country brethren take for granted.

In yet another example of such forbidden fruit, we traveled to Berlin, Germany this month to drive the latest "F20" four-door version of the car considered by many to be the first hatchback to take the premium European compact genre big-time. Admittedly, that judgment call is a bit of a toss-up between the 1 Series and the Mini Cooper and Audi A3, but the 1 Series has done BMW proud selling nearly 1.3 million units worldwide in a single generation since late 2004. This success story is not unlike that of the X3 compact crossover that is just now entering its more sophisticated second generation.

For this drive, we had a matte corral red 118i with 1.6-liter TwinPower Turbo inline four-cylinder at our disposal. The N13 engine's 168 horsepower were ably complemented by 184 pound-feet of torque available between 1,500 and 4,500 rpm. This powerplant is actually a heavily adapted and retuned longitudinal version of the transverse N18 1.6-liter found in the Mini Cooper S. To go with this single twin-scroll turbocharged unit, buyers will need to choose between an optional eight-speed Steptronic automatic or the happy little car seen here with the same six-speed ZF manual found in the fantabulous 1 M Coupe.


Having escaped Berlin, we hit the surrounding area's semi-deserted, heavily forested farm country in our 118i Sport Line trimmed model with 18-inch alloys. The taller 3.077 final drive ratio really hooks into the six main gears to give us the power to toss the 1 Series wherever we like with abandon. BMW says this 2,855-pound hatch should hit 60 mph in 7.3 seconds, but after a day's worth of driving, we think they're full of it – the 118i should be able to easily crack that speed in seven seconds dead or our family name ain't Blog.

Compared to the previous 118i with its somewhat anemic naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four, this new dog does better tricks. We're talking about 18 percent more power and 19 percent greater torque from a lighter engine, and as the drivetrain is also equipped with BMW's Valvetronic system to help minimize throttle losses, the whole setup takes on a greater urgency. Add the Sport Package and you've got a roomy car that drives like a slightly larger Mini Cooper S in most circumstances.

2012 BMW 1 Series Five-Door side view2012 BMW 1 Series Five-Door front view2012 BMW 1 Series Five-Door rear view

Confession time: When we first saw early press photos of this F20 four-door, we were taken aback. The front-end look didn't please us at all – it looked pudgy and slapped on, with oversized headlamps that did the design no favors. Now that we've seen the car in person in actual daylight, we're feeling much better about the whole package. The profile looks proportionate and has lost the saggy flame surfacing treatment of its predecessor, and we've even got a bit of love for those taillights that appear to have been swiped from a Volkswagen Polo.

Just how roomy? The new 118i five-door is a healthy 3.5 inches longer than before, with 1.2 inches more wheelbase and .70 inches more width (height is unchanged). As you might expect, the goal of giving the new 1 Series a bolder stance has been achieved quite handily and there's more cabin space as well. There's just over eight-tenths of an inch more rear legroom and the rear cargo room has been nudged by over a foot to 12.7 cubic feet – 42.4 cubic feet if you fold the seatbacks. That's really good room in this class, and it's all very usable here thanks also to the new optional 40/20/40 split rear seats whose backs flop down easily to lie perfectly flat.

2012 BMW 1 Series Five-Door interior2012 BMW 1 Series Five-Door rear seats2012 BMW 1 Series Five-Door rear cargo area

With this first version of the new 1 Series, BMW is also introducing a significantly freshened options list. Chief among the changes are the addition of Sport Line and Urban Line trims. These are completely cosmetic dress-ups, but they offer some legitimately cool touches. Okay, the Urban Line's 17-inch chalk white painted wheels probably go a Euro step too far for our more sensible American tastes, but our 118i with its red-accented Sport Line trim went hand-in-glove with the exterior paint.

When you opt for the Sport Line, you can also specify a variable sport version of BMW's optional Servotronic steering. There's a console-mounted "driving experience switch" (yes, that's really what they call it) with Comfort, Eco Pro, Sport and Sport+ modes. As expected, it's that last program you'll want to select for maximum driving entertainment. This mood-mode switch governs steering weight, engine mapping, Dynamic Stability Control thresholds and shift schedule if you have the eight-speed automatic. Eco Pro mode, as we first experienced on the new 6 Series coupe, exists to pump up the car's green credentials, lowering both fuel consumption and C02 emissions by up to 22 percent. Even when you try flooring it in this mode, the throttle response is slothfully tranquil.

2012 BMW 1 Series Five-Door engine2012 BMW 1 Series Five-Door Sport and Eco Pro toggle2012 BMW 1 Series Five-Door speedometer

In any other mode, the additional power and torque go a long way toward maximizing this new car's more rigid chassis. In Sport+, Dynamic Stability Control is switched completely off, but you need to still press the DSC Off button on the console for a few seconds to take out Dynamic Traction Control. Set up thusly, the crisper power delivery and throttle play make for a car that feels more like a Sport Trim 120i rather than this humble sounding 118i. The 18-inch cast alloys (7.5-inch wide front, 8.5-inch wide rear) and aggressive Pirelli P Zero tires (225/40 front and 245/35 rear) proved their worth as able companions over a day of harshly surfaced East German roads.

We definitely chose the right 1 Series specification for our tastes. An eight-speed Tiptronic automatic done up in the glossy Urban Line would clearly bring home better fuel efficiency numbers, but it wouldn't have been as fun, and this trim just looks forced in its design details versus the Sport Line. The special 18-inch wheels and Pirellis were great gear all day long and the lonely little tail pipe, while not much to write home about, did its best to sing us a little song. The special leather wrapping our Sport Line's performance seats and steering wheel looked and felt spot-on, too.

2012 BMW 1 Series Five-Door rear 3/4 view2012 BMW 1 Series Five-Door grille2012 BMW 1 Series Five-Door wheel detail2012 BMW 1 Series Five-Door roof spoiler

While we remain dubious of how the outgoing hatchback might have sold in North America, we think bringing over this premium four-door toting compact would be a smart choice on BMW USA's part – especially since this generation will continue to offer rear-wheel drive. The next all-new 1 Series probably won't arrive for six or seven years, and when it does, it will likely ride atop BMW's new UKL platform, an architecture that favors front-wheel drive. Of course, if we're to receive the 118i in the U.S., it would probably start at close to $25,000. To get it in the proper setup we'd like best, figure on closer to $30,000.

But what are we pipe-dreaming about? BMW won't dare bring this over. If you want the two-box utility of the 118i and demand a Bimmer badge, you'll probably have to settle for an X3, though the experience won't be quite the same. It's heavier and just too tall for top-notch corner carving, and besides, they'd never put this gifted four-banger under that hood. Shame.