New car review: BMW 118i

BMW takes a new direction with its new, entry-level FWD hatch

A BMW Australia executive, speaking off the record, told me a couple of years ago that it was time journalists and others stopped framing the Bavarian luxury car maker’s products through the lens of its ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ marketing tagline. BMW had moved on and was increasingly focused on selling SUVs that didn’t necessarily meet that criteria, he explained.
 
Fast forward to September 2019 and the local launch of the new BMW 1-Series, the third generation of the brand’s compact hatch, which cements this shift away from performance-focused rear-drive machines by adopting a front-wheel drive layout for the first time.
 
BMW has long been known for its rear-wheel drive sports sedans and coupes but, with its three-cylinder turbo petrol engine, modest outputs and front-wheel drive layout, the 118i clearly signals a new direction for the car maker.
While demonstrably not a performance car, the 118i is, however, a pragmatic step towards broadening the appeal of the BMW roundel.
 
Front wheel-drive cars are fundamentally easier to build, so theoretically less expensive, and enable greater packaging efficiencies because there are no driveshafts or rear differentials eating into cabin space.
 
The 118i benefits from this approach, with a noticeably roomier rear seat than that of its cramped predecessors. There’s still a hump in the floor to accommodate the sporty M135i’s all-wheel drive system, but it’s less intrusive than before and the boot is now 20 litres bigger at a class-competitive 380L.

BMW 118i interior

 
At $43,000, the 118i is around $4000 more expensive than its predecessor but remains the least expensive way into the BMW brand experience. It’s competitively priced against rivals such as the Audi A3 35TSI ($39,900) and Mercedes-Benz A180 hatch ($42,900), but not when compared with similar-sized packages from mainstream brands.
 
What you do get with the 118i, aside from badge prestige, is impressive German build quality – the car feels bank-vault tight, with beautifully direct and firmly weighted steering, plus the sort of disciplined body control and tenacious grip that is a brand hallmark. It’s also comprehensively equipped with standard features like head-up display, digital instrument cluster, lane keep assist, LED headlights, DAB+ radio, Apple CarPlay, wireless phone charging, front and rear parking sensors, rear camera and automatic assisted parking, to name a few.
 
The dash design mimics that found in the larger 3 Series, with a 10.25-inch central screen surrounded by a suitably premium mix of materials. The sporty and heavily bolstered front seats are clad in a stylish fabric and leather combination, while the chunky multifunction steering wheel bears the coveted ‘M’ performance logo. 
 
Beneath the aluminium bonnet is a twin-scroll turbocharged, three-cylinder 1.5-litre petrol engine that produces a modest 103kW/220Nm and drives via a seven-speed double clutch transmission. The engine is smooth and decently torquey from low revs to the mid-range but runs out of punch in the upper register. The benchmark 0-100km/h sprint is despatched in a leisurely 8.5 seconds, half a second slower than a base Hyundai i30. 
 
Naturally, there are plenty of options available, including several bundled options packs which together can quickly push the 118i’s price beyond $50K.

Key stats

  • MLP: $42,990 (plus on-road costs) 
  • ENGINE: 1.5-litre twin-scroll turbo petrol three-cylinder
  • ANCAP SAFETY RATING: Five Star
  • TAILPIPE CO2 (g/km): 135g/km

For: 

Styling, roomier cabin, steering precision, disciplined handling. 

Against: 

Average performance, expensive options.

By Ged Bulmer

BMW 118i interior