Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
Of the petrol engines – and of the range, in fact – we'd suggest going for the 118i. It's a 1.5-litre, three-cylinder with 138bhp, which is enough to get you from 0-62mph in 8.5sec. It's keen to rev, but also flexible enough from around 1500rpm. The only other petrol is the M135i, which uses a 302bhp 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine. Performance in this hot hatch-rival is suitably brisk, picking up really well from low revs and pulling nicely through to the red line. In outright terms, its acceleration is nearly identical to the Mercedes-AMG A35, but 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. So far we've tried the 118d, which is expected to be the big seller and we can see why. Okay, an A200d is quicker, but not by much and the 118d feels punchy and impressive in town or on motorways. If you fancy a bit more vroom there's the 120d. It’s available only with BMW’s four-wheel drive system (xDrive) and an automatic gearbox, producing a 0-62mph time of 7.0sec.
Suspension and ride comfort
SE and Sport trims come with a softer suspension, which is the most supple option. It feels a little less absorbent of surface imperfections than a Mercedes A-Class, but on the plus side, isn't in the least bit floaty over wavy roads – great for anyone with travel-sickness-prone kids. Next up is the stiffer setup that's fitted to M Sport trim. Being firmer, this exaggerates 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. From our experience so far, 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
Refinement is pretty good at higher speeds. 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 than an A-Class, which has a lot more suspension noise.
At low speeds there’s a bit of diesel grumble in the 118d, but its automatic stop-start cuts in and out very slickly in traffic. Meanwhile, the 118i petrol thrums away pleasantly, but its stop-start is far less refined. The automatic gearbox is also quite jerky with the petrol engine, but is another thing that feels much better integrated on the diesel.
M Sport and M135i models have beefier brakes for shedding speed. These also happen to be more progressive to use in town.