What Car? says...
Like many sports cars, previous incarnations of the BMW 1 Series used a rear-wheel drive layout to help them maximise their handling prowess, and change direction in a more satisfying way. Somewhat ironically, though, BMW has now decided to change direction with the 1 Series.
You see, with the latest, third-generation car, the firm’s rear-drive ideals have been ditched in favour of the same front-wheel drive layout used by other family hatchbacks (although BMW does upgrade it to four-wheel drive on pricier variants). This has caused predictable uproar with enthusiasts across the land, but for the rest of us, does it really matter?
Hardly, because despite the hype, previous versions of the 1 Series weren’t actually as good to drive as many of their rivals. So, with the new mechanicals, lifted largely from the BMW X1 and X2 SUVs, not to mention a whole bunch of Minis, can the latest model put that right, along with fixing the space and practicality issues that the rear-wheel drive gubbins caused by eating into interior space?
In short, is the 1 Series now a match for impressive rivals such as the Audi A3 and Mercedes A-Class? Or better, for that matter? That’s what we’ll be looking at in this review. And if you do decide the 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.
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, which can get you from 0-62mph in 8.5sec. Here it’s helped by the fact it’s keen to rev out, but it also pulls strongly from down in the rev range, making it an easy and relaxing companion in everyday driving.
The only other petrol option is the M135i hot hatch, which uses a 302bhp 2.0-litre, four-cylinder unit. Performance is suitably brisk, with it pulling really strongly all the way through to the red line. And in outright terms, its acceleration is nearly identical to that of the Mercedes-AMG A35, if no match for more manic (and pricier) rivals, such as the A45 and Audi RS3.
The diesel range is made up of the three-cylinder 1.5-litre 116d and a four-cylinder 2.0-litre unit with two different power outputs in the 118d and 120d. The 118d is the biggest seller, and we can see why. Okay, an A200d is quicker, but not by much and the 118d feels punchy and eager in town or on motorways. The 120d is available only with BMW’s four-wheel drive system (xDrive) and an automatic gearbox, but it can hit 62mph in 7.0sec.
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 road surface imperfections quite as smoothly as a Mercedes A-Class, but it’s still impressively cosseting and, as an added bonus, it doesn’t feel the least bit floaty over undulating roads – great news for anyone with travel-sickness-prone kids.
Next up is the stiffer setup that's fitted to 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.
Finally, you can opt for adaptive dampers on the 118d, 120d and M135i. However, these don't represent enough of an improvement to justify their price.
If you enjoy a sporty drive, you’ll find the front-wheel drive 1 Series a big improvement over the previous rear-wheel drive models; and a sharper drive than the Mercedes A-Class, too. For a start, the 1 Series has quicker steering as you begin turns, which makes it feel livelier than the A-Class, and because it controls its vertical body movements better, on lumpier surfaces it's that bit more stable.
We'd suggest going for the M Sport trim to maximise its virtues, though. It's even tighter, and with less body lean it feels even more agile switching from left to right at speed, giving you even more confidence. That said, because it's so lively, there is an argument that the Audi A3 feels better balanced and less demanding to drive, and it's ultimately just as quick on a twisty country road.
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.
Noise and vibration
The 1 Series keeps life pretty civilised at higher speeds. Yes, you hear some road noise (more so with the bigger-wheeled versions) and a bit of wind noise, but it's easier to hold a conversation than it is in in an A-Class, which has a lot more suspension noise.
At low speeds there’s a bit of diesel grumble in the 118d, but the fuel-saving stop-start system automatically cuts the engine in and out very slickly in traffic. Meanwhile, the 118i petrol thrums away pleasantly, but its stop-start is far less cultured. The automatic gearbox is also quite jerky with the petrol engine, but is another thing that feels much better with the diesel.
M Sport and M135i models have beefier brakes for shedding speed. These also happen to be more precise to use in town.