What Car? says...
Previous incarnations of the BMW 1 Series had something unique to offer the family car class. Something that was more typical of your average sports car, actually: a rear-wheel drive layout, which, it was claimed, maximised its handling prowess to delight all you keen drivers out there. So you might be surprised to learn that BMW ditched that philosophy when it switched to this third-generation model.
Yes, the current BMW 1 Series has the same front-wheel-drive layout that’s used by every other family hatchback, although four-wheel drive is also available with some of its pricier variants, including the M135i, which you can read about separately by clicking the link. On paper, then, the 1 Series has lost its USP in the fight to win your heart over the Audi A3 and Mercedes A-Class, causing a bit of an uproar among enthusiasts across the land.
But does it really matter? Hardly, because previous versions of the 1 Series weren’t actually as good to drive as the hype suggested. So, with mechanicals lifted largely from the BMW X1 and X2 SUVs, not to mention a whole bunch of Minis, can the latest 1 Series finally lay claim to being the best-handling family car? And does it fix the space and practicality issues that, if you’ve owned one of the previous models, you’ll be acutely aware it suffered from?
That’s what you're about to discover if you keep reading through this review, where we’ll tell you all about how the BMW 1 series fairs against its key rivals, and which engine and trim makes the most sense.
And if you do decide the BMW 1 Series is the car for you, make sure you head over to our New Car Buying pages to see how much we could save you off the list price, without any haggling involved.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
Of the petrol engines – and of the entire range, in fact – we'd recommend going for the 118i. It's a 1.5-litre, three-cylinder with 138bhp that’ll get you from 0-62mph in 8.5sec. Yes, that’s slightly slower than the Audi A3 35 TFSI and a lot slower than the Mercedes A200, but, if you're not bothered about being the quickest away from the lights, it's brisk enough. More pertinently, you’ll find it’s keen to rev out and flexible, pulling well from down in the rev range, making it an easy and relaxing companion for everyday driving.
The 116d is the entry point into the diesel engine range, but the 118d is the biggest seller and we can see why. It feels punchier and more eager in town or on motorways, and makes a fine all-rounder. That said, all its shove is concentrated in a narrower band of revs than the A200d’s, which means the 118d’s performance isn’t quite as accessible. The more powerful 187bhp 120d is quicker still, and comes with an automatic gearbox; a combination that means it can hit 62mph from a standstill in 7.3sec. That drops to 7.0sec dead if you opt for BMW’s four-wheel-drive system (xDrive).
Suspension and ride comfort
Go for SE or Sport trim and you get the softest suspension available in the 1 Series. It doesn’t absorb surface imperfections quite as smoothly as a comparable Mercedes A-Class, but it’s still impressively cosseting and, as an added bonus, it doesn’t feel as floaty over undulating roads – great news for anyone with travel-sickness-prone kids.
Next up is the stiffer setup that's fitted to popular M Sport versions. Granted, this does exaggerate any initial jolts, but it's never crashy and manages to stay on the right side of comfortable, but the equivalent Audi A3 S line is marginally less jarring.
Finally, you can opt for adaptive dampers on the M Sport versions of the 118d, 120d and M135i. However, they don't represent enough of an improvement to justify the extra cost.
If you enjoy a sporty drive, you’ll find the front-wheel-drive 1 Series is a big improvement over the previous rear-wheel-drive models, and a sharper drive than the A-Class. For starters, the 1 Series’ quicker steering gives it a livelier feel, and, because it controls its vertical body movements better on lumpier surfaces, it's that bit more stable, too.
We'd suggest going for the stiffer M Sport trim to maximise those virtues, though. Even tighter control leads to less body lean, making it feel even more agile when switching from left to right at speed. That said, some people may find the 1 Series a bit too lively, and when we tested it against the Audi A3, we felt that offered more confidence-inspiring steering, a nicer handling balance and more front-end grip.
The M135i has its own bespoke steering and suspension to help it keep flatter in corners, and, with its limited-slip differential and four-wheel drive, it has amazing traction on greasy, winding roads. Read about that in greater detail by clicking the link.
Noise and vibration
The 1 Series keeps life pretty civilised at higher speeds, just like the Audi A3. Wind noise is kept abated and the suspension is jolly quiet, even over lumpy Tarmac. The A-Class is quieter overall on motorways, though, because the 1 Series does suffer from a fair amount of road noise – especially with bigger wheels fitted.
At low speeds there’s a bit of diesel rumble in the 118d, but the fuel-saving stop-start system cuts the engine in and out very slickly in traffic. Meanwhile, the 118i petrol thrums away more pleasantly, but its stop-start is far less cultured; when combined with the automatic gearbox, the whole set-up becomes quite clunky compared with its premium petrol rivals.
You get beefier brakes as standard on the M135i that can be added as an option on M Sport trims. They are more progressive then the abrupt standard brakes, so it’s easier to come to a halt smoothly.
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