Once upon a time, the world was a less complicated place for BMW – rear-wheel drive or nothing, and let’s not bother with ze cupholders. Change has never ever come easy for any large corporation steeped in history, but change is a must if any carmaker is to remain relevant. You could say BMW is in the midst of one as they welcome their next 100 years in existence.
So what’s this got to do with the 118i, you may ask. Just about everything in the case of the 1-Series. While nothing is cast in stone, it’s safe to speculate that the next iteration of the 1-Series hatchback will very likely see its drive axle shifted to the front, given that the 2-Series Tourers (bar the coupe) are already FWD, along with the X1 and the rumoured 2-Series sedan based on the Concept Compact Sedan.
You won’t need a second mortgage
But this isn’t a story reminiscing of the past or lamenting what the future may hold, or even an argument as to which drive axle is superior. Sorry, if you’re a keen driver, it’s always going to be RWD, or at the very least, rear-wheel bias in an AWD set up. Superior traction off the line, 50:50 weight distribution, uncorrupted steering aren’t merely subjective opinions but proven physics. Have you ever seen a front-wheel driven Formula 1 car win a race?
At RM173,888, the 118i is the least expensive BMW in this country. But here’s the interesting bit; it’s also a piece of kit that embodies all the driver-oriented values that BMW once wore so exclusively on its sleeves, powered by an engine (sans the electrification) that propels the super car of tomorrow, the i8 plug-in hybrid. Unlike many instances where the best representation of a brand is nestled at the top of the product range, the 118i is ‘affordable’ in that you can own one without selling any of your organs.
A BMW to drive, not to flaunt
To be fair, the 118i does come with four cup holders (drink bottles fit the door pockets too), sufficient legroom for two adult occupants at the back, along with a decently sized boot. But if these factors rank high on your checklist, shopping elsewhere could make you happier. You buy a 118i because you spot a chicane where others see a kerb, where corners and bends are opportunities to sample the 118i’s incisive turn-in, neutral mid-corner balance and unflappable traction on exit. You are beyond frivolous schoolboy fixations with power output, tyre grip and body roll (lack of), but fully appreciate the inherent talents and composure baked into every BMW RWD chassis. Simply put, the 118i buyer has nothing to prove and knows what he/she is buying into.
Half a six, but sounds like one
While 136hp/220Nm doesn’t sound much, notable mention has to be apportioned to what is yet another powertrain (along with that superb 8-speed ZF auto) that BMW has hit out of the park. For sure, the new B48 2.0-litre four-cylinder has a more flexible delivery, but it never could sound as fruity as an inline six (simulated piped-in exhaust notes do not count, please). Yet the 118i’s B38 three-pot makes a surprisingly good fist of it, sonically-speaking, akin to finding an audible easter egg as you open up the throttle. The harmonics add character, and it makes you want to hang on to the revs just a bit longer to catch that familiar racy thrum. In any which case, you’ll still need crankshaft revolutions to overcome the 118i’s slight lethargy on take offs.
So why is it a best kept secret?
In a land where sedans reign and do-it-all SUVs are the rage, the 1-Series is a throwback to the days when a car didn’t need to be everything to everyone. And if something as subjective as styling can be objectively quantified by consensus, the 118i would probably only fare ever so modestly, that too after undergoing a much-needed makeover last year. To these eyes, it’s a matter of proportions; a RWD configuration with its lengthy bonnet and greenhouse that only rises well past the front axle will almost always look unconventional, even slightly odd next to the well-accepted silhouette of say…a Volkswagen Golf.
The irony that is likely to unfold is that the next 1-Series will probably look more stylish (in the conventional sense), has an even more practical cabin, with a set of very different USPs compared to today’s 1-Series. We have no arguments against business decisions that serve a wider audience, the 1-Series is after all an entry level model, it needs to sell in numbers.
But until the inevitable happens, the F20 1-Series, in particular this reasonably-priced 118i decked in Sport trim – seemingly unloved for its looks and under-appreciated for its abilities – looks ever more tempting. Unless you’re willing to pay more for a Toyota 86 or a Mazda MX-5 and tossing everyday usability and comfort out of the window, the 118i is your best bet yet in attaining the elusive RWD driving dynamics which BMW wrote the book on. And you might even be picking up a collector’s item in the making.
Price: RM173,888 (OTR w/o insurance)
Engine: 1.5-litre, inline-three, turbo petrol, RWD
Output: 136hp@4,400rpm, 220Nm@1,250rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Performance: 0-100km/h 8.7 seconds, top speed 210km/h
Fuel efficiency: 19.6 km/l
Wheels/tyres: 17in alloys, 225/45 R17
Safety: 6-airbags, Electronic Stability Control
Warranty: 5-years/unlimited mileage