The range kicks off with a 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol, which provides adequate performance. Next up is the 120i, which is flexible and rivals many hot hatches for pace, while the 2.0-litre turbocharged 125i is seriously rapid. Finally, the M140i totes a 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbocharged motor that is a joy to use.
Diesels start with the 116d ED Plus. It revs smoothly and feels relaxing. The standard 116d has the same 1.5-litre diesel engine, only with different gearing, so is equally recommendable if you’re not too worried about economy and emissions.
The 118d gets a detuned version of the 2.0-litre diesel in the 120d. The 125d uses an even more powerful version of the 2.0-litre engine. It’s incredibly flexible through the gears, but we’d say the cheaper 120d is just as satisfying.
BMW 1 Series ride comfort
Unlike some premium hatches, such as the Mercedes A-Class, the 1 Series rides with a degree of sophistication. On smaller alloy wheels it will take bumps, crests and potholes in its stride, especially at low speeds. Just make sure you avoid the lowered M Sport suspension. Motorway drives are also fairly cosseting, and even expansion joints will only send a small thud into the cabin.
Only the VW Golf rides with the same suppleness in this class. It’s good enough that you don’t really need to pay extra for the adaptive dampers - unless you really want the extra benefits they bring to the ride.
BMW 1 Series handling
The 1 Series is the only small family car that sends its power to the rear wheels. It's sharper to drive than many of its peers, with neutral, balanced handling and decent levels of grip. Part of this agility is down to the steering, which is very quick. However, it’s also overly light, which can be a little disconcerting when you’re driving at speed.
Throw the little BMW into a corner and the body control can become a bit loose, with a fair amount of pitch and lean. Adaptive dampers help this, and improve ride comfort slightly, but they’re an expensive extra.
There are also xDrive four-wheel-drive versions with the 2.0-litre diesel engines, which are slightly less sharp than the rear-wheel-drive cars and are only for those worried about getting stuck in wintry weather.
BMW 1 Series refinement
The 1 Series’ petrol engines are some of the more refined in this class. The diesels are all a bit harsh, transmitting vibrations through the pedals and gearknob if you rev them, but they’re potent enough that you rarely need to, and they’re fairly hushed at a steady cruise.
At low speeds you can hear the suspension thudding away as it soaks up bumps, although the cabin is well insulated from road noise as long as you stick to smaller alloys.
As with other models in the BMW range, the six-speed manual gearbox has a springy action, and a heavier clutch than most of its rivals’. The optional eight-speed automatic is impressively smooth and is one of the best auto gearboxes you can buy in this segment.
This turbocharged 1.5-litre engine gives decent performance when revved hard, and driven carefully it’s frugal. It sounds very hushed, but being a three-cylinder engine means you do get a fair amount of vibration through to the cabin.
This flexible 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol is smooth, powerful and more like a warm hatch than a normal everyday family hatch. However it’s not quite as refined or as willing to rev as the 1.8 TFSI you can get in the Audi A3 or Seat Leon.
Although not officially a hot hatch, the 125i certainly looks and feels like it. With a 2.0-litre capacity, a similar power output to the Volkswagen Golf GTI and a 0-62mph time of just 6.4 seconds, it’s very fast, but is expensive, even in three-door guise.
Our pick 116d
In ED Plus guise this 1.6-litre diesel has longer gearing and efficient tyres to boost fuel economy, yet still manages to feel punchy in most situations. It’s also well equipped and great value for private or company car users.
With a larger, 2.0-litre engine and a big hike in power over the 116d (114bhp vs 141bhp) the 118d feels nippy, but is not quite as free-revving or as smooth as some of its diesel rivals, and can also be noisy and strained when accelerating hard.
Another step up in price, the 120d is a more natural rival for cars such as the Mercedes A220 CDI and Audi A3 2.0 TDI. It produces an impressive 181bhp, and is seriously quick in-gear and on the motorway, yet returns well over 60mpg officially. Also available with an effective four-wheel-drive system.
There are no real rivals to the 125d. It is a performance-oriented diesel hatchback in the style of the Golf GTD – but is even more powerful, even faster in a straight line and also prohibitively expensive. We respect its abilities, but it’s hard to recommend.
The pinnacle of the petrol range, in terms of performance at least. The M140i has a fantastic-sounding turbocharged 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine, and produces effortless, sports car-troubling performance. Available with a manual or an automatic ’box, it can reach a top speed of 155mph, yet will return more than 30mpg in real-world, day to day driving. The automatic gearbox is particularly effective, both for quick-fire shifts and easygoing everyday cruising.