BMW must be cursing whoever thought of that ad campaign. You’ll probably know the one I mean - it featured a series of animals - a rabbit, a frog and a horse - all Photoshopped to swap their hind legs with their forelegs, with the caption “that’s why we don’t do front-wheel drives [sic].”
The adverts inevitably resurfaced when the rather niche 2-series Active Tourer was revealed a few years ago, and many are smugly sharing them on Twitter and the like once more, now that the 1-series has gone front-wheel drive. But if anything, it’s surprising the car made it this long with its incongruous drive layout, stubbornly sending its power rearwards while all other rivals did the opposite.
Yes, I know the M140i is a lovely thing, but - unlike the healthy demand for the M240i within the 2-series range - it’s only ever made a tiny percentage of the mix. 1-series buyers go for the bread-and-butter inline-four diesel and petrols. And it’s not that they know which wheels are driven but don’t care - according to BMW’s research, the vast majority of 1er customers don’t even know they have something rear-drive.
Such a layout in a compact car is a packaging nightmare. A longitudinal engine pushes back the dashboard, giving a tighter cabin and a smaller boot, while the transmission tunnel eats into the interior space even more. Why compromise on the stuff a C-segment hatch buyer cares about for driving dynamics they don’t even understand? Isn’t that just being dogmatic for the sake of it?
Sure enough, BMW caved. The new FWD 1er is shorter (by 5mm) yet roomier than before, and lighter to boot. For the handful of enthusiasts tempted by the outgoing M140i and for the petrolheads eying up depreciation-hit rear-drive bargains of the future it’s still a shame of course, but as a day at Bedford Autodrome proved, BMW still has plenty going on in that regard.
I was there for the Masters of Performance BMW Driving Experience, something any punter can do for a few hundred quid. The whole thing hinges around driving either rear-wheel drive or rear-biased all-wheel drive stuff from Munich: the M2 Competition, M4, M5 Competition, Z4 M40i and M850i were all in the expensive toy box.
The sheer variety of fast cars BMWs has right now that offer a sense of rightness, pushing from the rear when you’re approaching the limits of traction, is bewildering. Switching between the M2 and M5 during the ducks and drakes track drive was particularly eye-opening - they’re both very quick but in such different ways, with the M5 making up for the weight and size difference with a preposterous power figure and a trick all-wheel drive system that’ll still let you go full RWD if you fancy.
The semi-fast track drive in the M850i and Z4 M40i wasn’t hugely interesting, and the autocross slalom wasn’t really my bag either - although in my case, that wasn’t helped by having driven both cars before. And by being bitter after ruining two of my slalom run times by overshooting the braking box at the end. Oops. But that didn’t matter, as the best was saved until last - the M4 Master programme.
Here, you’re installed in a roll-caged BMW M4 and given an instructor who will push you to drive faster and with more commitment than you ever thought possible. Right from the off. These M4s have dual control brakes, so whoever’s next to you doesn’t have to spend a few laps figuring out if you can be trusted to get the entry speed to Bedford South Circuit’s scarier corners right.
The M4 may have been kicking around for five years now, and it’s far from perfect, especially in non-Competition form. There’s the boosty engine that easily overwhelms the traction control system (which we had to leave on), the nasty, fake piped-in noise, the horribly heavy Sport Plus steering and its generally spiky attitude to consider. And yet, the M car is still a terrific, engaging thing to drive on track. Take an all-wheel drive RS5 out here and you won’t have anything like the same kind of fun.
It’s possible to do the M4 Master segment on its own at other circuits, and it’ll only cost you about the same as some places charge you to bimble around an airfield for four laps in a knackered old Lamborghini Gallardo you’re forbidden from revving beyond 5000rpm. It’s pretty clear which is better value.
Fast forward a few years, and Bedford’s fleet of M4s may well be replaced by a fleet of shiny new ones. And yes, they’ll still probably be rear-drive - going by the current set of rumours, it looks like the M3/M4 siblings will be all-wheel drive only if you option them thusly.
And the M2, which proved so enjoyable earlier in the day? The future’s looking good for that too. While it’s thought there will be - confusingly - an AWD M2 Gran Coupe based on the same UKL platform as the 1-series hatch, the base 2-series will almost certainly be RWD. It’s set to use a cut-down version of the Cluster Architecture BMW uses for much of its range (it forms the basis of the Z4/Supra’s ultra-short wheelbase platform, so it’s clearly flexible), and it’s been christened internally with the name ‘drift machine’.
Whatever I say, some will still be sad about the new direction the 1-series has taken. I get that - we can’t help but love it when manufacturers do something different, even if it doesn’t make much sense.
But drive some of BMW’s current stuff, and you may not mind so much, particularly given the knowledge that there’s plenty more to come. And perhaps that four-wheel M135i xDrive will end up surprising us all. I can’t wait to find out.