The range kicks off with a 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol. This has longer gearing than many of its rivals that blunts acceleration, and the sluggish accelerator response doesn’t help matters, but ultimately it provides perfectly adequate pace, especially if most of your journeys are local. But we’d suggest stepping up to the 120i if you can, because it is much more flexible and rivals many hot hatches for pace, while the 2.0-litre turbocharged 125i is seriously rapid. Finally, the M140i totes a prodigious 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbocharged motor that’s just plain fast.
Diesels start with the 116d with a 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine. Like the 118i, it’s lacklustre but okay if you’re not interested in racing around. Those who are will find equivalents, such as the Audi A3 1.6 TDI and Mercedes-Benz A180d, sprightlier beasts.
Or you could move up to the 148bhp 118d, which is a detuned version of the 187bhp 2.0-litre diesel found in the 120d. Both feel more than capable of moving you around briskly with gusty mid-range surge. Yet, if that’s still not good enough, there’s the even more powerful 125d. It is incredibly flexible through the gears, although for our money it doesn’t justify the added outlay over the cheaper 120d.
There are three suspension types on offer: standard, fitted to SE and Sport trims; firmer M Sport, used on M Sport versions (but you can swap for the standard suspension as a no-cost option); and adaptive M Sport, which is optional on all versions. Whichever version you choose, though, the 1 Series doesn’t ride with any degree of sophistication. Even models fitted with smaller alloy wheels and the softer suspension will jostle you about over potholes and get bouncy over dips and crests. The M Sport suspension takes out a little of that bounce, but makes things firmer elsewhere. We’d suggest going for the adaptive M Sport option if you can stretch to it because it offers the best compromise. However, even this is far from perfect, especially with larger wheels and tyres.
So what’s a better-riding alternative? Well, take your pick from the supple Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf to certain versions of the A-Class; all of which will be smoother in town or on motorways. The A3 can also be firm, but with that comes excellent control over wavy roads that the 1 Series lacks.
Okay, you may well have heard that rear-wheel drive means sporty and fun; after all, that’s what you get with most supercars. This is often the case, but not necessarily for the 1 Series. While it certainly adds to the playfulness of models such as the M140i, the lower-powered versions, such as the 118i and 116d, don’t have enough power to provoke any enthusiastic tail-out antics if that’s what you’re searching for.
And, beyond that, the 1 Series doesn’t feel as controlled or balanced in bends as the best-handling cars in the class – including the A3 and A-Class – and nor does it steer as sweetly; it gets dragged around by cambers in the road and the steering feels vague off centre, then fails to weight-up consistently. It all conspires to make it tricky to place the front wheels accurately.
M Sport versions and cars fitted with optional adaptive dampers are better, but even the mighty-sounding M140i isn’t as peachy to drive as the best hot hatchbacks, such as the Honda Civic Type R.
The 1 Series’ petrol engines are some of the more refined in this class. Meanwhile, the diesels are harsher and more intrusive than many fitted to competitors, transmitting vibrations through the pedals and gearknob as you rev them. They settle down at a steady cruise, though.
At low speeds, you can hear the suspension thudding away as it soaks up bumps. Even models with smaller wheels suffer from more road noise than an A-Class or A3, while wind noise is noticeable, too.
As with other models in the BMW range, the six-speed manual gearbox has a springy action and there’s a heavier clutch than in most rivals. The optional eight-speed automatic is impressively smooth and one of the best auto gearboxes you can buy in this segment.
The driver’s seat is mounted low, so tall drivers will have plenty of head room and the standard seats have a reasonable amount of adjustment.
However, the 1 Series is not the easiest family hatch to get comfortable in. You have to pull a plastic lever to shift the backrest and the clunky movement can make small adjustments quite tricky. More frustrating is the height adjustment, which requires you to pull a lever and either lift your weight off the seat to allow it to rise or put more pressure on it to drop it. The pedals are offset to the right, too, forcing you to sit at an awkward angle. It’s also frustrating that adjustable lumbar costs extra on most models. A Ford Focus and Audi A3 offer a more natural seating position.
Still, the centre console is tilted towards the driver, making the minimal array of buttons easier to reach, and the iDrive controller is next to the gearlever, where your hand naturally rests.
The view out of the front is excellent and, although the bonnet drops away, it’s easy enough to judge where the front wheels are when you’re threading it through traffic.
A small rear window and relatively thick pillars mean that the over-the-shoulder view is a bit restricted, though, particularly when joining the motorway, leaving all-round visibility less impressive than its boxier A3 and Volkswagen Golf rivals. Parking sensors and a reversing camera are both on the options list and are reasonably priced.
LED headlights are standard on SE Business and M Sport trims, as well as the M140i, while adaptive LED headlights are available as an option throughout the range.
Every car in the 1 Series range has a standard 6.5in colour screen, mounted on top of the centre console. It’s controlled via the iDrive system, which is one of the most intuitive and user-friendly interfaces around. There is a large rotary control wheel near the gearstick, with simple shortcut buttons for all the major functions. The graphics are slick and the menus only take a moment to get your head around.
Bluetooth and audio streaming, a single CD player, a DAB digital radio, a multi-function steering wheel and USB connection are all standard. You also get sat-nav with real-time traffic updates on every trim. A larger 8.8in display screen with mobile internet services, plus a 12GB music hard drive, is offered as part of the BMW Professional package, while music lovers should think about the excellent 10-speaker Harman Kardon stereo upgrade; it is one of the better-sounding systems in the class.
Fit and finish in the 1 Series is decent considering this class spans such a varied price spectrum. There’s a nice mixture of brushed metal and gloss black surfaces in higher-spec cars, and the plastics on the upper surfaces in all versions look and feel good.
However, if you’re comparing the 1 Series directly with other premium cars, including the A3 and even the Golf, the appearance of the harder plastics low down the interior and the robustness of some of its trims feel below par; press the heater control panel, for example, and the whole thing bends. And if you want the most spectacular-looking interior in the class to wow your passengers with, the Mercedes-Benz A-Class is the car for you.
The front seats are mounted low to the floor – meaning tall drivers will have plenty of head room – and you’ll struggle to find a car with better leg room in the class.
There is a pair of cupholders ahead of the gearstick, while the door bins will hold water bottles, although they are a little shallow. The glovebox is a decent size and there is a central armrest with a shallow cubby for storing a smallish mobile phone.
Two average-sized passengers will be relatively comfortable, although anyone approaching six feet will struggle – especially if there’s someone tall in the front. They will find their knees touching the front seatbacks and head room on the tight side. A third, central passenger won’t be terribly happy, either, because the high transmission tunnel will obstruct their feet.
For cars offering rather more generous rear accommodation, you should look at the Audi A3, which is great for three adults in the back; the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, which is a better car if you carry just two people regularly; or even the Ford Focus, which offers plenty of leg room.
You can fit child seats to the standard Isofix mounting points in the 1 Series with relative ease, but rear access isn’t the best because the doors on five-door models are quite short, the opening is narrow and the roof isn’t as high as in some rivals. Access in the three-door model is tricky, too, because the wheel arch cuts into the door aperture and leaves a narrow opening to climb through.
The rear bench is split 60/40, so two people can sit in the back when you’re carrying longer luggage. There’s also the option of a ski hatch, which splits the seats 40/20/40. Most of the 1 Series’ rivals are similarly conventional, but there are no clever tricks such as sliding or reclining seats. Still, folding the seats is easy enough and the rear headrests flip automatically to make them lie flat for better rear visibility when you don’t have anyone in the back.
The front seats in the three-door model return to their original position after you’ve tilted them forward to allow access to the back seats. Passenger lumbar adjustment and fully electric seats are both on the options list.
The 1 Series’ boot is okay rather than great for a family hatch. It’s smaller than that in an A3 and A-Class; a point proved by the fact that we fitted six carry-on suitcases in those two rivals and only five in the 1 Series.
There’s a small loading lip to lift luggage over and into the boot, and no option of a height-adjustable boot floor that you get in an A3 or Volkswagen Golf. But if you drop the rear seats, you get a flat, uninterrupted load bay right the way to the front seats.
You pay a premium for the BMW badge and trim levels such as M Sport are not particularly good value, with steep price rises for a few bits of bodykit and larger alloy wheels. Fortunately, you can often haggle good discounts, while SE models are more keenly priced and very competitive when it comes to PCP finance deals.
Leasing rates are pretty attractive, especially on diesel versions, and fixed-price servicing plans can go some way to helping you budget. Crucially, the majority of the engines emit sensible levels of CO2, making them reasonable on company car tax.
Fuel consumption should also be competitive. Okay, models such as the M140i will cost you a pretty penny in petrol, but the 116d, for example, will do an average 65.7mpg in official tests – that's right up there with its rivals.
Entry-level SE models are the best value, with all the infotainment kit you could reasonably want, as well as 16in alloy wheels, air-con, front and rear (on five-door models) electric windows and auto lights and wipers. SE Business on the 116d model is great value because it adds LED headlights, cruise control and rear parking sensors, but you are limited to that entry-level diesel engine.
Sport mostly adds style upgrades, such as 17in alloy wheels and sports seats with more side support, while M Sport and Shadow Editions are yet more image-focused, with part-Alcantara seats and lowered suspension (which can be swapped for the standard set-up at no extra cost). You also get a few more toys, but not enough to justify the extra money.
As a brand, BMW came 17th out of 32 manufacturers in our latest reliability survey, so while it’s not disgraced, neither is it noteworthy.
However, on an individual level, the 1 Series did better; with just 16 faults per 100 vehicles, it finished third in the class.
Should you need to call on the warranty, it's the same three-year cover that most premium brands offer, but at least on BMWs the mileage is unlimited.
Euro NCAP is always making its crash tests more stringent, so even though the 1 Series' score of five stars sounds great, it was back in 2012 so bares no real comparison with a car tested in the past couple of years.
There are six airbags and tyre pressure monitoring on all models, while run-flat tyres are included on many versions. However, the 1 Series doesn’t get automatic emergency braking or lane-keeping assistance as standard; these are part of the relatively inexpensive Driver Assistant Pack. Traffic sign recognition is also an option, but blindspot warning is unavailable.
Security body Thatcham Research rates the 1 Series highly for being difficult to break into or steal from.
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