The BMW 3 Series has been a staple of the German brand’s model range since the mid 1970s. That means the company has had plenty of time to refine its offering, and it’s done a rather good job of it - the 3 Series has won our Executive Car of the Year Award for the last eight years.
The BMW 1 Series has been around for nearly a decade, and the most recent model is available as a three- or five-door hatchback. It shares engines with the 3 Series range, and offers similar equipment at each of its equivalent trim levels.
A five-door 1 Series will cost around £4000 less than a comparable 3 Series saloon. Both of these cars are among the top 10 best-selling cars in the UK, but which is the better buy - the family hatch or the executive favourite?
What are the BMW 1 Series and 3 Series like to drive?
The performance and handling of both of these cars are perhaps their biggest strengths, especially when compared with rivals from other brands.
The 1 Series is the only small family car with rear-wheel drive, which gives the car predictable, neutral and rewarding handling, even at higher speeds. The steering is quick, but can sometimes feel too light.
In comparison, the 3 Series offers similarly precise, poised handling, but its extra heft means the steering feels more comfortably weighted. However, being a heavier car also means the Three's body control isn’t as good as its smaller sibling's. In fact, we recommend adding the £750 adaptive suspension. It’s not cheap, but it transforms the 3 Series into the best car to drive in its class.
The 1 Series’ standard suspension does a great job, feeling settled and smooth even over patchy surfaces. M Sport models get stiffer suspension by default, but you can spec most of them without it as a no-cost option. The exception is the 315bhp M135i, but here, the firmer ride is perfectly acceptable given the performance on offer.
The 3 Series gets a similar range-topping petrol in the rapid and exhilarating 335i, but there’s a range of smooth, powerful engines beneath that, too. However, we rate the diesels more highly than the petrols thanks to their blend of efficiency and pace. The six-cylinder diesel 330d and 335d are outstanding driver’s cars, with proper sports car pace on offer despite offering decent economy and running costs, although this comes with a high list price. The vast majority of buyers will opt for the four-cylinder 320d, which sounds gruff at low revs, but still offers strong performance and low emissions.
We’ve not yet driven the entry-level 1 Series petrol, but all the other engines in the 1 Series offer strong and flexible performance. Like in the Three, the diesels are noisier than in its rivals, but they manage excellent economy. The 116d Efficient Dynamics in particular promises 74.3mpg and CO2 emissions of 99g/km.
Neither of these cars are the last word in refinement compared with the best in class. In the 1 Series, it’s the suspension noise that frustrates; its system may iron out bumps well, but it thumps noisily as it does so. The 3 Series isn’t bad in this regard - especially with the adaptive suspension - but it doesn’t suppress wind noise or diesel engine clatter as well as some rivals.
Can I get an automatic gearbox for the BMW 1 Series or 3 Series?
Not only are both these cars available with an automatic, but the gearbox in question is one of the best in the business.
BMW’s eight-speed ‘box shifts so quickly and smoothly that it puts the automatic transmissions in some supercars to shame, let alone other premium rivals. It’s an option for any 1 Series, with the exceptions of the manual-only 114i, 114d and Efficient Dynamics models. Any 3 Series can have it, and in fact it’s standard kit on 330d, 335d and Active Hybrid models.
We often advise against adding an automatic gearbox to a car, because it pushes up the price too high. However, BMW’s six-speed manual ‘box is nothing special, so we think the £1550 it asks for the brilliant eight-speed auto is well worth considering.
What are the BMW 1 Series and 3 Series like inside?
Unless you buy a model with electrically adjustable seats, or spend at least £650 to add them as an option, both of these cars suffer from awkward manual controls. To raise the height of the seat, you actually need to lift yourself up before pulling on a lever. Of course, if you’re the only one who drives the car, you won’t need to encounter this inconvenience too often.
Once you’ve got the seat at the right height, you’ll notice that both of these cars have offset pedals (particularly in manual models), which means the driving position is never quite as comfortable as it should be. That said, there is at least plenty of adjustment in the steering wheel and seat.
The transmission tunnel between driver and passenger is fairly high in both cars. This is also where you’ll find the controls for BMW’s iDrive system, which is intuitive to use, and easy to interact with on the move.
Neither of these cars is the most practical in its class, but both offer enough room for six-footers in the back as well as the front. The 1 Series is the less generous in this area; clambering into the rear seats can be awkward, and passengers won’t be flooded with light or space.
The 1 Series’ boot is a touch smaller than you’ll find in an Audi A3 or VW Golf, and the load space isn’t the most useful shape, but a standard split-folding rear bench does boost practicality. You’ll need to spend another £345 if you want folding rear seats in the 3 Series, which is especially annoying given that the saloon body style already limits the car’s versatility.
The 3 Series is the better-equipped of these two BMWs. Even entry-level cars get single-zone climate control, alloy wheels and Bluetooth. Efficient Dynamics or SE trim would be our choice; both get dual-zone climate control, rear parking sensors and automatic lights and wipers. The 1 Series only gets Bluetooth in SE spec, although air-con and all-round electric windows are at least standard.
Which one should I buy?
Choosing between these two BMWs is a tough call, because they’re both great to drive, desirable, and can be remarkably cheap to run.
The 1 Series is one of the best small family cars you can buy, but comparable versions of the Audi A3 Sportback are just as good or better for most buyers.
If you’re set on BMW’s family hatch, then we think the petrol 116i SE is the best bet for private buyers. It keeps the purchase price reasonable, and comes with all the equipment you’re likely to want. For company car buyers, it doesn’t get any better than the 99g/km CO2 116d Efficient Dynamics. You’ll have to put up with the notchy manual gearbox, but it’s forgivable given how little you’ll pay in tax.
If you rarely need to transport other people or lots of luggage, then the 1 Series is the better buy. Without spending your way through the options list, it’s the more comfortable of the two cars, and will be cheaper to buy and run.
However, the BMW 3 Series is the better car overall, especially for growing families. It adds more space and equipment, and if you can afford to add on the suspension and gearbox options we recommend, it’s one of the sweetest-driving cars of any class.
Business users will be best served by the 320d Efficient Dynamics that emits just 109g/km of CO2. Private buyers should also stick with a diesel; the 320d SE offers fantastic value for money, and showcases the 3 Series as the great all-rounder it can be.
By Ed Callow