Used BMW 1 Series vs Lexus CT200h vs Volkswagen Golf vs Volvo V40

Fancy a used car thatโ€™s practical enough to fulfil family duties, yet smart enough to feel special on the school run? These four should fit the bill

Words By What Car? team

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Premium hatchbacks used test collage

The Contenders

BMW 116d Efficient Dynamics

List price when new ยฃ20,885

Price today ยฃ9000

Available from 2011-present

The 1 Series has always been fun to drive, and this version is extremely economical, too

Lexus CT200h SE-I

List price when new ยฃ23,786

Price today ยฃ10,000

Available from 2011-present

The petrol hybrid CT200h could be a compelling alternative if diesel falls from favour

Volkswagen Golf 1.6 TDI Bluemotion 5dr

List price when new ยฃ20,015

Price today ยฃ7500

Available from 2008-2013

The Golf is a great family car, but is it upmarket enough to stand up in this company?

Volvo V40 1.6 D2 ES

List price when new ยฃ19,745

Price today ยฃ7000

Available from 2012-present

At these prices, the V40โ€™s stylish lines make it a very appealing proposition.

Price today is based on a model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing

Buying a used family car doesnโ€™t have to mean succumbing to a bland hatchback that places practicality above all else. In fact, thanks to the rise of the premium family hatchback in the last decade, the used market is now rife with examples of this breed โ€“ cars that purport to combine the usability of a regular family car with the class and quality of an executive saloon.

The BMW 1 Series is a prime mover and shaker in this neck of the market. With that all-important blue-and-white badge on its nose, itโ€™s one of the most upmarket hatchbacks around โ€“ and with rear-wheel drive and BMWโ€™s famed handling prowess behind it, it should be great to drive, too.

The Lexus CT200h is an alternative take on the upmarket hatchback, but as with all Lexus models, it promises high technology, left-field styling, and unimpeachable reliability. However, the most notable thing which sets it apart is its powertrain โ€“ itโ€™s a petrol-electric hybrid, and in this regard, it benefits from parent company Toyotaโ€™s lengthy experience in the field.

Weโ€™ve also included the Volkswagen Golf. While to many it might fit the exact description of the average family car, itโ€™s still one of the classiest of the breed, and its slick interior and impressive blend of all-round talents make it worthy of inclusion in this test. Whatโ€™s more, in this Bluemotion form, its sporty styling makes this particular Golf a little more extrovert than the rest.

Finally, thereโ€™s the Volvo V40. Itโ€™s doubtless a handsome beast, with suave lines that echo Volvoโ€™s sweet little 480 coupe, from days gone by. It gets an efficient engine, too, and yet itโ€™s sometimes a bit forgotten by premium hatchback buyers chasing cars with more obviously upmarket badges. Deservedly so? Thatโ€™s what weโ€™re here to find out.

Despite the fact that the fuel is fast going out of fashion on cars of this size, weโ€™re testing all of our contenders in diesel form, simply because the diesel versions are the most widely available and, therefore, the easiest to buy. The notable exception is the Lexus, which is, as weโ€™ve already mentioned, only available as a petrol hybrid.

What are they like to drive?

The BMW is ultimately the fastest car here from 0-60mph and has the highest top speed, but a combination of tall gearing and an engine that doesnโ€™t deliver its best until itโ€™s revving fairly highly means it has that performance advantage only when you really thrash it. Not ideal in an economy-focused diesel hatchback.

Thatโ€™s why itโ€™s a good thing that the Volvo sacrifices outright pace for better in-gear flexibility. It can pull its higher gears from low revs quite happily, so in most driving situations itโ€™s the best performer here. The only real let-down is the spongy clutch pedal.

The VW has only five gears (the BMW and Volvo both have six), so thereโ€™s a relatively big jump between some of the ratios. Luckily, the Golfโ€™s engine is fairly flexible, pulling strongly from just 1500rpm. Ultimately, though, the VW is neither as flexible as the Volvo nor as fast as the BMW.

The Lexus is the slowest. The initial pick-up is almost instantaneous because the electric motor delivers its maximum torque the moment you hit the accelerator pedal. However, after that thereโ€™s a lengthy pause before the 1.8-litre petrol engine kicks in, the revs soar and you feel that extra surge driving you forward.

These diesel hatchbacks are as likely to be used for slogging up and down the motorway as for pottering into town for the weekly shop, so they need to be able to handle any type of driving on any type of road.

Thatโ€™s why itโ€™s surprising that the V40 has such a taut suspension set-up. This helps keep the car upright through tight turns, but it makes the ride unsettled, especially below 60mph. The Volvoโ€™s steering isnโ€™t ideal, either. Itโ€™s light enough for effortless low-speed manoeuvres and weights up well enough as you turn into a bend, but it is very vague.

The BMWโ€™s quicker steering makes it feel altogether sportier than the other three cars as it darts eagerly into bends. Such aggressive steering makes the 1 Series feel nervous on the motorway, though; you really have to concentrate to stay in the centre of your lane.

On the plus side, the BMWโ€™s rear-drive layout gives it more a neutral handling balance than the other cars here, and the 1 Series soaks up bumps and potholes surprisingly well. The low-rolling-resistance tyres donโ€™t provide a great deal of grip, though.

We normally heap praise on the Golf for its near-perfect blend of comfort and control. However, this Bluemotion version isnโ€™t quite so brilliantly judged. Its lower-than-normal ride height makes for a firm low-speed ride. That said, the VW rides more smoothly than the Volvo at higher speeds, thereโ€™s plenty of cornering grip and the steering weights up nicely as you turn into a bend. Donโ€™t expect hot hatch thrills, but the Golf is entertaining enough for most drivers.

The Lexus is utterly embarrassed here. Its firm suspension means you feel every little blemish through your backside; big bumps are downright jarring, and even small ripples in the road cause the CT200h to fidget nervously.

The steering is also very light โ€“ useful when parking, but disconcerting elsewhere, particularly on a twisty country road. Only the CT200hโ€™s relatively tight turning circle impresses.

The bad news for the Lexus doesnโ€™t end there, because while it can run on battery power alone at low speeds, when itโ€™s whisper-quiet, thatโ€™s the only time the CT200h is even remotely hushed. Once its petrol engine kicks in, it becomes downright noisy inside. If you need a burst of acceleration, the revs soar and stay there until youโ€™re up to speed, but even maintaining a steady pace on the motorway causes the petrol engine to drone away loudly. Factor in the near-deafening amount of tyre roar and the Lexus is the loudest cruiser here, by a mile.

The V40 is something of a mixed bag in terms of quietness. Volvo has done a great job of insulating the interior from engine noise and vibration; things are hushed even when you put your foot down fully. But the Volvo disappoints elsewhere. Thereโ€™s too much tyre noise at motorway speeds โ€“ particularly over coarse surfaces โ€“ and you hear the wind whistling along the flanks of the car.

Get up to motorway speeds and the 1 Series kicks up less tyre noise than the Lexus or the Volvo, and its long gearing means the engine is spinning slower than the other three carsโ€™ at motorway speeds, which helps to reduce the din. However, thereโ€™s a bit of wind noise around the door mirrors. The BMWโ€™s power delivery is silky smooth, though, and its occupants are fairly well isolated from engine noise, if not quite as well as in the other diesel cars here.

The Golfโ€™s diesel engine isnโ€™t quite as hushed as the V40โ€™s, but it is quieter than the BMWโ€™s and stays impressively cultured even when worked hard. The Golf also generates less road and wind noise than the other cars here.

Next: What are they like inside? >

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