I remember first seeing the 1 Series back in September 2004 – also my first trip to Bavaria. I came with my dad to a BMW dealership in Rosenheim, a city 40 miles away from Munich.
The showroom was rather small, with only 5 or 6 cars on display. While my father was drooling around the X5, I was hoping to see the back then brand new 1 Series. The car was released just in the peak of the “Bangle revolution” – BMW sales were soaring, the press was disgusted by the radical new designs and the loyal fans were writing petitions against good ol’ Chris Bangle.
I was rather disappointed when the salesman said that the 1 Series isn’t available to display yet, but the first examples will be ready for a week or so. Too bad, I thought, I’ll be just 500 miles away then, and I’ll see the car somewhere in January, if lucky.
Angry, I walked to the parking lot where our E46 3 Series was parked, just near the service facilities. I was looking forward to see this car all summer, almost every motoring magazine had called it ugly and too radical, with minimalistic interior and cramped rear seats so I was rather eager too see if they were right.
As I approached our car, I stood in shock for several seconds – behind the service garage, there was a pristine new, silvery-blue 1 Series. Obviously, the car had arrived several hours before, the staff were still cleaning all the protective layers from its wheels.
I instantly knew that I love it – the radical design everyone was talking about looked spectacular in person. And while it had the form of a regular hatchback, it was nothing like one. The wheelbase was incredibly long with short overhangs and the bonnet was flat (unlike many other MPV-looking hatches) and long. The contours of the car were also something I’ve never seen before, with deep side flanks and complex concave-convex shapes.
In short, it was nothing like your typical family hatch.
As I walked around the car, this unusual new shape has made perfect sense: this was a car for individuals, being sporty without even starting it’s engine. The guys who were washing it have recognized my enthusiasm and they were more than welcome to let me check out the interior.
Inside, things were even better: the seating position was perfect, very low and snug, while the cabin felt a bit tight, but undeniably sporty. The dash was indeed minimalistic but in a good way, all buttons and dials were reduced to minimum and the whole center console was angled towards the driver. Panels were also following the exterior theme, with deep flanks in the door panels and concave shapes in the upper console. It had really looked as if the car was designed by a real designer, not a computer program. Almost every detail was unique, yet followed the general design theme of the whole car, starting from silvery door handles to the air inlet up front.
Excited, I left the parking lot thinking when will got the chance to drive one, it was so individual, so modern and so BMW – a perfect mix of traditional BMW values in a entirely new class of cars.
Even the marketing campaign was just like the car – you’d have to look deep to understand it. Several months after, BMW started airing the TV commercials for the 1 Series – starring Kermit the frog. The basic concept was quite simple – Kermit drives the 1 around the desert, stops to avoid the (real) frog and then goes along backed up with the slogan “Fahrfreude in der Kompaktklasse” – Joy of driving in the compact class.
It may seem pretty stale and bland, but it’s actually quite different than that.
When saying that the 1 Series is the joy of driving in the compact class, BMW makes a pretty bold statement there – it means that before the 1 Series, there was absolutely no joy in driving any other car from its class and that the 1 Series is the only car in its class to bring joy to its driver.
In many ways, that is true, specially when you consider that BMWs are always to best to drive in their class, so the smallest should be no exception.
Furthermore, it has everything that a classic BMW has, but no one in the compact class has: rear-wheel drive, perfect 50:50 weight distribution, short front overhang, aluminum front suspension and five-link rear suspension.
The reactions were mixed, the press was impressed with its handling and refinement, but the interior space and design were heavily criticized.
For example, Jeremy Clarkson said that “the 1-series is a ghastly little car with very little interior space, a boot the size of a matchbox and bread-van styling, but to drive it’s lovely.”
After the initial reactions have cooled, it is obvious that the 1 Series is a success – it is BMW’s third best-selling car, just behind the 5 Series and with the introduction of the new 2-door, coupe and convertible variants in 2007, it came second.
More recently, the 118d version was named as the 2008 World Green Car of the Year – with consumption and emissions comparable to Toyota Prius.
But the highest praise the car has ever received came few months ago, when Auto Bild stated that their long-term test 130i had absolutely no failures or defects, making it the most reliable car the magazine has EVER tested in their history.
Even now, my love for the 1 Series is still strong as it was on the day I first saw it. I’ve also got the chance to try one and it was as good as I expected it to be. When compared to its rivals, the 1 Series still looks fresh and the chassis and engines are still unmatched. After all, the competitors come from Audi, the A3, a rebadged VW Golf, and Mercedes A/B Class – practical but quite terrible to drive.
The convertible and coupe versions are even better in eyes of some, with the 135i coupe receiving five stars from Jeremy Clarkson, while the guys from Fifth Gear have tested it against Porsche Cayman (and won).
Too bad it took so long for everybody to realize how good this car is. Compromising comfort and space to make its driver feel good is unusual in this class and this stubbornness makes the 1 Series so special.
The next generation will debut sometimes in 2011 and judging by the first spy shots, it will adopt a more conventional look.
While there is no doubt that technically, it will be the class leader, I’m afraid that its distinctive character will be lost. Or are we in for a surprise….?
Time will tell, but for now, the One is my only one.