BMW's much-anticipated new entry-level model, the 1-series, has just made its debut in Europe. The two- and four-door hatchbacks, powered by breathless four-cylinder engines, in all likelihood would not sell well in the United States. That's why America will have to wait until 2006 for the 1-series, when a striking two-door notchback coupe will be launched. Its proportions will mimic those of the beloved 2002, but instead of the stale four-cylinder, the U.S. offering will get a state-of-the-art, high-revving in-line six, most likely a 2.5-liter unit good for 218 horsepower. Next will come a four-seat convertible reminiscent of the CS1 concept car. Also in the cards are a sporty wagon, a compact Z1 roadster, and a brawny 300-horsepower M version.
Although the Euro-spec 1-series differs in performance and appearance from the upcoming export efforts, the space utilization, body structure, cabin layout, and chassis setup are indicative of what America's BMW enthusiasts can expect in 2006. Let's begin our tour of the baby Bimmer in the rear-seat compartment, which is disappointingly short, narrow, and low. To add insult to injury, access is awkward, the foot-well is cramped, and the packaging borders on the claustrophobic. The driver and the front-seat passenger, however, have little reason to complain. Quite the contrary: the trendy materials are of high quality, the seats are supportive, the visibility is good, and the controls fail to confuse (unless you specify the nav system and, with it, iDrive). The controls are perfectly positioned and well weighted. The clutch is velvety smooth on the way to the grocery store, but it can be sharp-fanged at the lights; the brake pedal translates your intentions promptly and progressively; the throttle action lights a small fire inside that gutless engine; and the shift lever glides easily around the gate.
Sporting the longest wheelbase in its class and 50/50 weight distribution, the rear-wheel-drive 1-series comes well prepared for corners of all shapes and sizes. Shod with seventeen-inch run-flat tires and equipped with a talented independent rear suspension, BMW's latest creation musters a high level of grip and traction. But what it desperately needs is a more inspiring drivetrain. Although the 163-horsepower diesel fitted to the most powerful Euro model is OK for torque and fuel mileage, it fails to make the adrenaline flow. The ridiculously overgeared six-speed gearbox shares part of the blame.
As you might expect, with the front wheels free of propulsion duties, the steering is a gem. It puts the road into your hands in a transparent, three-dimensional manner no front-wheel-drive contender can match. Like the bigger BMWs, the 1-series manages to be both sure-footed and compliant, agile and stable, entertaining and docile. But to find out how good the chassis really is, we'll need a more potent engine capable of fulfilling the promise of rear-wheel drive.
In the meantime, prospective customers should start piling up their pennies, because the 125i we eagerly await is not going to be cheap. Its price point compared with the bigger and bolder next-generation 3-series will be similar to the X3/X5 equation, so don't expect much change back from $25,000 for a reasonably well-appointed specimen. And before you put your money down, check out the new Volkswagen Golf GTI and the Audi A3 Sport-back for reference.