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2020 BMW 1 Series goes front-wheel drive, high-tech

by Ronan Glon

The people have spoken.

BMW has introduced the third-generation 1 Series in Europe. As rumored and expected, the model ditches rear-wheel drive, and it now rides on a modular front-wheel drive architecture shared with several other nameplates.

The outgoing 1 Series was the only rear-wheel drive model in its segment, and the configuration made it handle better than any of its rivals, so why move away from that? Aside from the obvious cost savings made possible by switching to a modular platform, BMW explained its research revealed customers want a more spacious interior, not a more dynamic car. And, of course, we can't forget the 2010 story in which then-CEO Norbert Reithofer admitted that four out of five 1 Series owners believed their car was front-wheel drive. The people have spoken.

Front-wheel drive it is, then. The platform under the sheet metal is shared with every Mini, as well as the X1 and the 2 Series Active Tourer sold in Europe. Its proportions have changed accordingly, and its design is about what you'd expect after taking a look at recent additions to the BMW line-up, like the X7 and the updated 7 Series. At least it has its own character; it's not a Xerox copy of the 3.

The interior also follows BMW's design ethos, and it's packed with a long list of standard and available tech features. Buyers can pay extra for a digital instrument cluster, a head-up display, gesture recognition technology, and a power-operated hatch. The 1 Series is compatible with BMW's over-the-air software updating system, and owners can use their phone as a key.

At launch, the line-up will include five models named 116d, 118d, 120d, 118i, and M135i, respectively. The 116d uses a 1.5-liter, three-cylinder turbodiesel rated at 116 horsepower, while the 118d gets a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder diesel with 150 horsepower on tap, and the 120d receives a 190-horse evolution of the four. Switching to the gas side, the 118i uses the same turbocharged, 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine found in many members of the Mini family. It delivers 140 horsepower.

The 116d, 118d, and 118i models come with a six-speed manual transmission, though an automatic is offered at an extra cost. The 120d is automatic-only.

Switching to front-wheel drive means the engines are mounted transversally, so it's no longer possible to offer the 1 with a straight-six. The range-topping M135i bows to downsizing with a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder that makes 306 horsepower. It's bolted to an eight-speed automatic transmission, and it spins the four wheels.

BMW will show the 1 Series to the public over the summer, and sales will begin on September 28. There's no indication the 1 will be sold in the United States, but there are strong indications that it will spawn a sedan which will make its way across the Atlantic to compete against the Audi A3 and the Mercedes-Benz A-Class.

What's next?

The big question is, where does this leave the 2 Series? In the past, the 1 and the 2 have shared a platform. While 1 Series buyers weren't bothered to look under their car and see where the power is going, we don't think the same holds true for motorists with a 2 Series in their garage, so making the model front-wheel drive would be a more difficult sell. BMW could shrink the modular rear-wheel drive platform found under the 3, or it could stop making the model altogether -- like rival Audi has done with the TT. We expect to learn more details in the coming months.

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