Between 2008 and 2014, BMW offered its entry-level 1 Series in the U.S. Starting at around $30,000. The rear-wheel drive inline six-powered compact coupe was marketed as a successor to BMW’s venerable 2002 of the ’60s and ’70s. It featured the brand’s final naturally-aspirated inline-six, handled like a dream, and filled a valuable niche below the company’s growing 3 Series. And in the hands of the company’s Motorsport division, it became the 2011-only 1M, a 330 horsepower little rocket that has since gone on to become one of the most sought after BMWs built this century.
But the 1 Series was a complete sales flop in America. In 2008, BMW set a high-water mark for the model with a whopping 12,018 cars – or about 10% of what it sold in 3 Series that year. And in Europe, it was worse. The car was available in other trims there, most commonly as a five-door diesel-powered hatchback. In a 2004 column for The Times of London, Jeremy Clarkson declared: “The 1-series will be the ruination of the BMW brand. Of that I have no doubt.”
With the 1 Series now into its second decade on sale in Europe, that hasn’t exactly been the case. After all, the BMW brand has grown into a premium juggernaut since then, largely on the strength of “ruinous” cars like the 1 Series, offering GT models that are anything but grand tourers, and creating a whole host of SUVs – sorry, SAVs as BMW calls them – that nobody thought they wanted until the company started selling tens of thousands of them a year. And now, as the company’s Ultimate Driving Machine credo seemingly needs to be scrutinized on a model-by-model basis, there’s another reason for brand purists to be depressed: a new 1 Series is coming. It won’t have that sweet NA inline-six, it won’t have a greenhouse reminiscent of a 2002, and it won’t ever be able to match the performance of the 1M Coupe. No, instead it’ll be a four door, front-wheel drive (the company’s first ever FWD car), entry-level sedan designed to win over the hearts and Yen of Chinese buyers. And the rest of the world too, of course.
Unveiled last week at Auto Guangzhou, one of China’s larger auto shows, the Compact Concept Sedan is said to be an accurate look at the next-generation 1 Series that’s due to hit showrooms worldwide in 2017. It may be the devil in disguise to the BMW faithful, but it is a handsome little bugger. With its compact dimensions and upright stance, the Concept seems to borrow less from the 2002 and more from the E30 3 Series, dimensions of which are dwarfed by today’s 3’s.
If front-wheel drive is still a cardinal sin for you, the 1 Series is likely to come in an all-wheel drive variant as well, allowing you to save face if you’re an enthusiast who somehow finds yourself behind the wheel of one. We’d be drooling if all four of those wheels got their power from an inline-six, but unfortunately that just ain’t gonna happen. According to Car and Driver, we can only expect turbocharged three-and four cylinder plants under the hood of this little Bimmer.
Still, there’s a silver lining here. Cars like Ford’s ST cars, and the forbidden fruit Renault Megane RS and Honda Civic Type-R have all proven that a front-wheel drive turbocharged inline-four can be one hell of a lot of fun. Sure, it seems to be off-brand now, but we think even the most staid BMW purists would be moved by a Civic Type-R fighter coming out of Bavaria. The prospect of a compact front-wheel drive 1 Series may not be exciting to most, but we’re keeping two of our fingers crossed that the Motorsport division is ready to step in and work its wonders.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.
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