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 hearts over the Mercedes A-Class and Audi A3, 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 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 a brisk 8.5sec. That’s slightly slower than the Audi A3 35 TFSI, but a tad faster than the Mercedes A180. More pertinently, you’ll find it’s keen to rev out but also flexible, pulling strongly 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 is 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 road 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 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 M Sport versions of 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 is a big improvement over the previous rear-wheel drive models, and a sharper drive than the A-Class and A3. 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.
We'd suggest going for the M Sport trim to maximise its virtues, though. Its even tighter control leads to less body lean so it feels even more agile when switching from left to right at speed. That said, because it's so alert, some people may find that the more relaxed nature of the Audi A3’s handling makes it 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. 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. 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 an A-Class, which has a lot more wind and suspension noise.
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 jerky compared with the 118d.
You get beefier brakes as standard on the M135i that can be added as an option on M Sport trims. These also happen to be more porgressive, so it’s easier to come to a halt smoothly.
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