There is a story behind the story about BMW's foray into compact front-wheel-drive territory. It has to do with Mini, but also with the Bavarian brand's own future portfolio. This change, though, is not imminent. First, the 1-series will be replaced next year by another rear-wheel-drive product (F20) loosely twinned with the next 3-series (F30) out in 2012. The rear-wheel drive 1s will again be a three- and five-door hatch (in Europe), a coupe (complete with 340-hp M version), and a convertible.
Starting in 2013, however, BMW will add two more 1-series variants, this time with a choice of front- or all-wheel drive, thereby following a recipe chosen by Audi for the A3 and by Mercedes for the next A-/B-class. To generate enough volume, BMW will link its FWD/AWD newcomers to the third-edition Mini, which happens to debut almost simultaneously. For enhanced synergy effects, even the body styles offered by the two brands are closely related. There's a high-roof 1-series model, for instance, that relates to the upcoming MiniVan, and a fastback BMW that shares its vehicle structure with next Mini Clubman.
The latter new addition is likely to bear the 1-series GT moniker when it goes on sale in early 2014. Its fastback body follows the tone set by the 5-series Gran Turismo and upcoming 3-series GT due in 2013. Insiders expect the small GT to sit on a slightly stretched wheelbase, which would compensate for the lower roofline and the packaging constraints that go with it. Yes, the GT is more of a four-door coupe than a tall and boxy space miracle.
That more pragmatic role will be played by the - relatively - higher-roofed Compact Activity Tourer (CAT). Although CAT is in fact a broad-shouldered low-slung mid-size minivan not unlike the new Opel Meriva, nobody inside BMW calls it that. Instead, SportsCruiser is a possible designation; Family Activity Vehicle (FAV) is another. Like the MiniVan, CAT has four conventionally hinged doors, a flexible seating arrangement, and an extended rear overhang for extra luggage space.
The entire project is masterminded by BMW, not Mini, and at this point there is no external partner involved. The modular matrix is sure to use an independent suspension front and rear, variable-ratio electro-hydraulic steering, a low-friction lightweight version of xDrive (not the Countryman AWD hardware) and a mix of three- and four-cylinder engines.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of BMW's future small car strategy concerns the precise demarcation line between FWD and RWD. Although research has told the Bavarians that most 1-series customers don't even know that they own a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, engineering and marketing reckon that not all 1-series variants should simultaneously perform a potentially dangerous philosophical handbrake turn. It's still early in this long-term game plan, but there is a possibility that BMW will split its 1-series portfolio. In this still to be confirmed scenario, the coupe, the convertible, the M1 (or whatever it will be called) and a still tentative Z2 roadster would stay with rear-wheel drive, with four-cylinder engines (of 1.6- and 2.0 liters, with 136 to 218 hp).
The 1-series GT and CAT would be part of the FWD/AWD components set, as would the future three- and five-door hatchbacks. They - and their Mini cousins - are likely to introduce a new family of three-cylinder engines. The threes are, naturally, lighter and more compact than four-cylinders, and use about 10 percent less fuel. The gasoline version, dubbed N30, comes in displacements of 1.2 and 1.5 liters with power output of ranging from 70 to 184 hp. The diesel variant, labeled N37, at 1.5 liters is good for 110 to 125 hp.
Maybe at that point it would be a good idea to pull the 2-series badge out of the bag for the two-door vehicles...