BMW's 1 Series: Small and Sporty

BMW is bringing its tiny 1 Series to the U.S., where it should appeal to younger, fuel-conscious drivers

Is there really room for the 1er -- or for its riders?

The grass, they say, is always greener on the other side. I'm sure every car manufacturer would like to be in the same position as Mercedes, Porsche, and BMW, building cars that really don't cost that much more to design and engineer than basic fodder, but which can be sold at a premium price… and to a seemingly endless line of willing buyers.

It's so lucrative, in fact, that Mercedes was able to "merge" with Chrysler, Porsche is currently "merging" with VW and BMW remains the only totally autonomous carmaker in the world, even if it has started using Peugeot/Citroë n engines to power the MINI.

You'd think they'd be happy with their lot, but no, these companies are constantly expanding into new segments. Porsche, for example, will soon be making more sedans and SUVs than sports cars. Mercedes, meanwhile, is downsizing, with not one but two models smaller than the C-Class in Europe (excluding smart). Audi has scaled down to the A3 (though it canned the slow-selling A2).

BMW, not content with the MINI, also decided to offer the 1-Series to prestige-hungry Europeans. The reason they do this, of course, is not to increase volume or bolster their coffers -- if anything, they're running the risk of diluting the brand and hurting the bottom line with these lower-margin cars. Instead, these compact and sub-compact premium cars are designed to lure buyers into the showroom at a younger age, allowing the carmakers to woo them early and instill in them a strong loyalty to the brand, thereby ensuring a lifetime of valuable repeat business.

Surprise hit

2009 BMW 1-SeriesThe A3 has been a surprise hit both in Europe and in America now, too, and its success worried rivals so much they've had to build premium compacts of their own to compete. In Audi's case, engineering the A3 was as simple as re-skinning the Golf, but for BMW, with no partner from which to 'borrow' a platform, they've had to take the 3-Series and shrink it. Fortunately the 1-Series is more than just a 3-Series with the backside hacked off (ah, who can forget the tail-less lizard that was the 3-Series Compact?) -- it's a unique and proper piece of design in its own right.

It starts off well, with its huge headlamp clusters and rather "friendly" expression (compared to the snarling aggression of the rest of the BMW range) and only gets better along the deeply sculpted flanks, bulging wheel wells, and dipping roofline. The recently unveiled three-door hatchback looks even better than the five-door model.

But once you get around to the back of any 1-Series the whole design comes asunder, it seems. The dreary, misshapen rear lamps and drab tailgate are disappointingly bland given how dramatic the rest of the car looks, and I've also observed that the 1-Series is extraordinarily wheel and color sensitive, too. Buy a silver 1-Series on 18-inch alloys and you'll stop traffic. Opt for a dark gray model on 16-inch wheels and you'll constantly lose it in mall parking lots.

Swing open a door and you'll notice the bulk of the dashboard, center console, front seats, most of the door trims, and the whole driving environment come straight from the 3-Series, so they look beautiful and work wonderfully well. From the driver's seat, you're aware that it's a smaller car than the 3-Series (it's almost a foot shorter and two-and-a-half inches narrower), but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It somehow feels cozier and more cosseting than the 3.

Disaster in back

When you get around to the back seats, however, disaster strikes. The multi-link rear suspension, bulky differential, and four-inch wheelbase deficit over the (already cramped) 3-Series mean the 1-Series is a packaging calamity, with miserable rear legroom and extremely limited rear headroom, too. That probably won't worry many of the younger buyers the 1-Series will be aimed at in the States, but in Europe (where people of all life stages buy small cars) it's a serious detraction.

The upshot of the poor packaging becomes apparent when you hit the open road. Unlike the Audi A3, which feels like a stiff-riding VW Golf, and a Mercedes A-Class, which doesn't feel like anything, the 1-Series drives like a proper BMW. The rear-drive chassis is just as balanced and composed as its bigger brothers', while the steering is just as sharp and the gearbox and brakes are every bit as slick as you'd expect. As with most BMWs these days, there's not much in the way of steering feel, however, and on big wheels the ride quality does suffer, but overall it's difficult not to enjoy driving the socks off the baby Bimmer. Fun levels depend heavily on engine choice, of course, which is why we expect most American 1-Series owners will be smiling broadly.

There's no market for the gutless four-cylinder engines in the U.S. so the entry-level 1-Series will probably be the 128i, powered by a 230-hp 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine that's more than up to the task of propelling the hefty 3200-pound 1-Series along. Expect a 0-60 time of around six seconds and a limited top speed of 155 mph.

Enthusiasts will be more taken with the 135i, which will be powered by a 300-hp, 300 lb-ft 3.0-liter, twin-turbo six-banger. Just 40 hp or so down on the old M3, the 135i will be blisteringly fast, capable of hitting 60 in five seconds, reined in at 155 mph. Six-speed manuals and six-speed automatics will be available but those hoping for an M-powered 1-Series will be disappointed -- it's not planned. A ragtop convertible is in the pipeline, however, and will be clogging up the high-school parking lots of well-to-do neighborhoods by 2010.

Rear styling and packaging aside, the appeal of the 1-Series to younger buyers is obvious -- it's aggressive, fast, sporty, and has one of the best badges in the business. However, its success will hinge as much on its price as it does on its image. BMW are hoping that the currency exchange rates will swing in their favor by the time the 1-Series goes on sale in 2008 allowing them to make a little money on the car. Its margins on the 1 are tighter than Audi's are on the A3 so BMW has to tread carefully to avoid ending up with dealer lots full of cars priced too closely to the ubiquitous 3-Series.

The expression might go: "The grass is always greener on the other side," but in the case of the American subcompact market, there might be surprisingly little green for the taking by the time BMW eventually gets there.

2009 BMW 1-Series

Base price: $28,000 (estimated)

Engines: 230-hp, 3.0-liter six-cylinder; 300-hp, 3.0-liter twin-turbo six-cylinder

Performance: (est) 128i: 0-60 mph 6.0 sec., 155 mph; 135i 0-60 mph 5.0 sec., 155 mph

Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed auto, rear-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 166.4 x 68.9 x 56.2 in

Wheelbase: 104.7 in

Curb weight: 3196 lb

Fuel economy (city/hwy, est): 128i manual 21/30 mpg; 135i manual 20/30 mpg

Safety equipment: Front, side, curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes, stability control, adaptive brake lamps

Major standard equipment: CD/MP3 player; climate control; power windows/locks/mirrors, 16-inch alloys, leather steering wheel

Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles