BMW 1 Series Review
A compact hatchback to appeal to enthusiasts, with powerful engines and rear-wheel drive? Not quite. The latest generation of 1 Series has eschewed that sportscar-like setup for utterly traditional front-wheel drive, just like its Audi and Mercedes rivals, as well as every Renault, Ford or Hyundai.
But a BMW has to be far more than just a pseudo sports car. And anyway, can most users tell what wheels are driven without renting themselves an empty race circuit? Let’s be honest here, too; the old 1 Series was never that good.
Does moving power to the front of the car make the BMW a more family-friendly, appealing hatchback, or does it take away the raison d'être for the 1 Series?
Select's rating score* - 3.9 / 5
And then there’s the bonkers M135i that adds four-wheel drive and a 306hp engine, as if to remind people that BMW can make desirable cars as well as sensible ones.
Desirable is, of course, up to the beholder. That grille is… significant.
Get past that and there’s a fine-looking car that’s well proportioned, with elegant lines and well-considered design touches. Everything looks a million dollars, from the LED lights at the rear to the raked and sculpted sides.
Inside it looks just as monied, although it’s conventional rather than outlandishly stylised. Like old money vs new, it sets its marker with the immediately obvious quality that’s everywhere around the cabin rather than allowing some glitzy showmanship catch your gaze.
That said, it’s loaded with technology too. It really could be all the car you need.
A BMW has to offer an engaging drive, and the move from a sporty rear-drive chassis to a generic front-wheel-drive setup could water down the experience. However, as you’ll discover, the switch has emboldened the car, making it a zesty and alert hatchback that encourages playtime.
But it still has to play the role of a family hatchback. Happily, the switch has freed up a lot of room under the car, allowing the designers to improve cabin space and boot size. Finally, the small BMW won’t be a compromise too far.
Technology plays a large part in the car too, with infotainment systems and electronic gadgets that rival anything else this side of a Tesla.
It might sound counterintuitive, but the 118i is the best option for the 1 Series. Yes, it’s a puny 1.5-litre engine but it produces 140hp and will drag the car to 62mph in just 8.5 seconds. You might be left behind at the lights on occasion, but the benefits of strong economy and a lighter front end outweigh the inability to play Fast & Furious on Huntingdon’s ring road.
A strong all-rounder alternative is the 118d, powered by a 150hp diesel engine. Economy of up to 60mpg or so is paired with a 0-62mph dash time of the same 8.5 seconds, but the extra torque makes it feel more flexible. Horses for courses. Find a course, and you’ll find out how the switch from rear- to front-wheel drive has affected the 1 Series. Spoiler: It’s made it so much better.
There’s sharper steering, a livelier chassis and excellent body control. Stability is improved and agility increased, which is both a blessing and a curse. For those that like to be involved, the razor-sharp turn-in will be welcomed but, for others, it’s all a bit aggressive and makes the car feel too lively.
It’s no surprise, as the 1 Series shares much of its underpinnings with the Mini Hatchback and BMW X2, both fine driving models.
Of course, you don’t always want to go everywhere like your hair's on fire so, assuming you’ve not been swayed to order the M Sport models, you can relax into reasonably compliant suspension that absorbs bumps in the road without feeling disconnected from it.
And then, once you’ve arrived, go out again and find some country roads to attack.
Leasing a BMW 1 Series shouldn’t be too alarming a process as rates tend to be pleasingly low - some significant discounts from BMW bring the monthly costs down, while strong residuals help keep them down. Compare the costs to a Mercedes A-Class and you’ll likely find the BMW better value, although the Audi A3 might end up being marginally cheaper.
Each model, even the M135i, is surprisingly frugal. At 35.2mpg, the M135i promises something pretty reasonable, while the 118i can see that rise to a smooch as 47.1mpg. Personal experience suggests that 40mpg is easily achievable, so those cruising around gently could match the official figures.
Long-haul users might want to look at the diesel options, as these can return as much as 62.8mpg. It’s possible, with the 120d, to get hot-hatch levels of performance without sacrificing economy too much, with 57.6mpg being promised in some specs.
BMW back every 1 Series with a three-year, unlimited mileage warranty, ensuring there should be no unexpected costs in the first few years of ownership. Users will also be able to take advantage of fixed-price servicing and even a pay-monthly service plan, allowing for predictable costs.
Most buyers will end up with the 118i, with emissions ranging from 135g/km to 156g/km of CO2, depending on trim level and gearbox choices. Company car drivers will face a BIK burden for those between 30 and 34%. The overtly sporting M135i can reach 187g/km, putting you firmly in the highest 37% category.
The diesel models are all thoroughly sensible, and emit CO2 at the rate of between 119 and 151g/km. The engines are RDE2 compliant, which means you avoid the 3% BIK penalty applied to older diesel engines which, in turn, results in a BIK rate as low as 26%.
All models sit comfortably within the £40,000 vehicle tax uplift, meaning you’ll just pay the regular £150 a year tax after the first year.
BMW has almost mastered the art of integrating the infotainment panel, and the rest of the 1 Series interior flows from that point. There's nothing controversial or unusual, just a relatively simple and elegant dashboard that’s easy to navigate your way around and looks great.
There are analogue instruments ahead, which is unusual when everybody else seemingly has digital panels there instead. BMW will let you have a digital system as an optional extra but, honestly, the traditional dials are far easier on the eye. Those thick rear pillars block quite a lot of the rearward view, but there are parking sensors around the car, even if there’s no camera.
It all sounds rather ordinary, but what the pictures can’t show is the sheer quality of the interior. It feels magnificent, like it’s been chiselled from a solid block of granite, and finessed until it looks magnificent. Those bits that aren’t meant to be rock solid are soft and squishy to just the right degree, while even the fake metal inserts feel almost like the real thing.
You might get more visual drama in a Mercedes, but you won't find quality on this scale this side of, well, anything.
Switching power to the front wheels has paid dividends in terms of interior packaging, as there’s now no reason to try and shoehorn all the mechanical bits underneath the car; they all fit neatly under the bonnet instead.
That means there’s lots of space in the front of the 1 Series, with more headroom, legroom and elbow room than you’ll know what to do with. There’s good legroom in the rear, although less than you’ll find in more mainstream options like the Skoda Octavia, and elbow room is acceptable.
Headroom in the rear is a little tight though, with six-footers being asked to slump a little bit to get comfortable. Opt for the panoramic sunroof (an option on every model) and you’ll find another inch or two removed from the roof, making the back quite cramped for all but children.
The rear seats split 60/40 and fold down to extend the boot, but they don’t slide or tilt for passengers, and don’t fold down particularly flat. The boot measures in at 380 litres, which is a tiny bit larger than the boot in a Ford Focus, but some of that is underneath the false floor so usable space isn’t quite as big as you might expect.
Whatever BMW 1 Series you choose, you’ll find automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and a speed limit assist fitted as standard.
However, blind spot warnings, rear cross-traffic alerts and adaptive cruise control are relegated to the options list, regardless of how much you spend.
The same goes with the head-up display, automatic high-beam control and reversing camera. Despite that, the 1 Series scored a full five-star safety rating in Euro NCAP’s testing. It scored reasonably well for adult passenger protection, although the testing did show up some issues with whiplash protection.
Despite being relatively well equipped, there are plenty of chances to spend more money when speccing up your own 1 Series. Many options are rolled up into packs, offering a little saving and taking some of the hard thinking away, but making it easier to spend that money - adding a few choice options to a 118i Sport added 25% to the purchase price, without feeling like I’d gone over the top.
I got there by adding a Comfort Pack with heated seats and steering wheel, keyless entry and a powered boot lid. A Tech Pack added adaptive LED headlights, an excellent head-up display, a wireless charging pad for my phone, and some headlight and parking assists. Adaptive cruise control and some metallic paint topped off the list.
That took the list price from £26,400 to £32,910, and I hadn’t even looked at the upgraded infotainment systems.
Audi, Mercedes and BMW make cars that almost perfectly mirror each other, and that continues here.
Audi’s A3 has an equally wide range of engine options and models, is practical and drives well, but it’s beginning to feel a little dated and prices can reach eye watering levels.
The Mercedes-Benz A-Class is a strong choice for those covering long distances, but the high-tech interior can be frustrating and there are definite quality compromises on some materials in the cabin.
A Volkswagen Golf could be considered a rival, and the latest model is very good, if not appreciably better than what went before. More high-tech touch panel goodies adorn the cabin, which can irritate, but it’s spacious and capable.
Make no mistake; abandoning rear-wheel drive has done nothing to diminish the appeal of the 1 Series. It might not have the one feature that differentiated it from every one of its rivals, and it’ll make some enthusiasts complain on internet forums but, whisper it, the changes are all for the better.
It’s right up there as one of the finest handling hatchbacks on the road, and practically has been improved that it now makes for a compelling family car. But it’s the sensation of quality, the perception that the 1 Series is going to survive the zombie apocalypse (or 2020 as we’re now calling it) that stands out.
That stunningly good interior will make you entirely forget which wheels are being driven. Assuming you ever knew.
Where to next?
- BMW 1 Series car leasing available from just £217.72 per month
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- New premium hatchback? Read our latest Car Reviews including our Mercedes A Class Review or Volkswagen Golf 2020 Review
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*Score based on Select’s unique meta score analysis, taking into account the UK’s top six leading independent car website reviews of the BMW 1 Series.
**Correct as of 27/10/2020. Based on 9 months initial payment, 5,000 miles over a 48 month lease. Initial payment equivalent to 9 monthly payments or £1,959.44 Ts and Cs apply. Credit is subject to status.