Yes, it's that man again. BMW design chief Chris Bangle's latest creation is the daring 1-Series. Jason Barlow looks at a fascinating experiment

BMW's new 1-Series is a challenge, and in more ways than one. Depending on who you ask, it's also the car that was never meant to be.

A BMW, that is. When the world's best-known, highly focused Bavarians decided, in an act of magnificent corporate hubris, to buy Rover in 1994, the intention was to turn it into a BMW feeder brand, creator of its own classy, yet distinctive, small-to- medium cars. A BMW-lite, if you like.

But it wasn't long before the Germans had dubbed their acquisition "the English patient", and rumours began to surface about knockwurst on the menu in the Longbridge canteen and shenanigans on the shopfloor. BMW is a legendarily fastidious company. Rover, for one reason or another, struggled with Munich's famously rigorous processes (although it's worth pointing out that there's plenty of Rover in the astonishingly successful New Mini). A painful and costly divorce soon followed.

Which is where the 1-Series comes in. Four years since BMW announced its intention to jettison Rover, here's the car it probably thought it would never build. BMW has already annexed Ford and Vauxhall's traditional fleet car territory with the 3-Series. Now it's stretching its carefully cultivated premium ethos even further.

If BMW is a rather bourgeois brand, then this is as close as it's going to get to a car for the masses. The natural order reassembled in the class above, now it's time to hunt major volume players like the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and, in particular, the Volkswagen Golf. These are big ambitions.If it is a risk -- and it really is -- then it's a calculated one. This year sees the 25th anniversary of BMW's celebrated partnership with advertising agency WCRS, the author of the "ultimate driving machine" tagline, arguably the most memorably enduring in an industry which changes these things as often as it changes its socks. BMW's image is the envy of the entire business. It's not about to chuck all that away.

Which is why the 1-Series goes against all the family hatchback received wisdom. It's rear-wheel rather than front-wheel drive. It has near-perfect weight distribution. Its rear suspension is pretty sophisticated. If this isn't a hugely effective car to drive, something will have gone badly wrong.

BMW can relax on that one. The range of engines -- two sweet petrol units (114bhp, 148bhp), two punchy diesels (121bhp, 161bhp) -- is class-leading. Where it might have its work cut out, though, is to persuade the world that its design direction isn't some elaborate joke. The jury is still out on design director Chris Bangle's approach to drawing cars. In the old days, a beautiful car was a beautiful car. Now you need a degree in industrial design and a PhD in post-modernism to work out what the hell is going on.

Bangle's detractors will delight in the fact that, with the 1-Series, the man's theories have reached their apotheosis. This isn't a pretty car. But it is a fascinating one. By now we should have a handle on BMW's efforts to blend concave and convex panels, and understand that the surfaces are supposed to look and feel organic. Try telling that to the man on the street. Recently, in fact, I did just that, while driving the new 6-Series. "It's got a fat arse," he replied.

Bangle, of course, continues on his merry way. In his youth he trained to be a Methodist minister, and at a recent lecture at London's Design Museum there was hint of evangelism, in his approach and in the congregation's response. I've never seen a car designer signing autographs before.

I can't help but love the guy's work. He's even outlined something called Gina, the latest BMW design philosophy. Gina results in things like a satellite-navigation display which deforms the dash-top as it slides into view. Or the under-bonnet filler cap which is hidden under a zip. Lateral thinking.

Gina, though, might get her P45 if the 1-Series fails to match expectations. And all the designer-speak can' t disguise the fact that the car's beefy transmission tunnel takes a big bite out of its rear accommodation. Anyone with a yen for the Ford C-Max or Renault Scenic will be unimpressed.

The rest of us should welcome the arrival of a serious new player. BMW is a truly modern car manufacturer, and the 1-Series is set to take the message to a wider audience. There are roomier cars out there, and more conventionally pretty ones too. But few are as intriguing, and fewer still as satisfying to drive. With prices starting at about £15,600, perhaps the 1-Series isn't that much of a challenge after all.

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