BMW 1 Series review

Our Rating: 
4
4.0/5.0
2012 model
By Auto Express Test TeamComments

The BMW 1 Series has a great range of engines, is enjoyable to drive and comes with plenty of kit

For: 
Good to drive, efficient engines, interior quality
Against: 
High price, not as spacious as a Golf, awkward styling

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An entertaining drive, high quality and with a range of engines that goes from extremely economical to extremely quick, the BMW 1 Series has it all – on paper, at least. Unfortunately its rear-wheel drive set-up – unique in the family hatchback segment – means it loses a little space compared to rivals like the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus.

Because it’s a premium car the BMW 1 Series looks relatively pricey, though it’s very well equipped across the range and its residual values are excellent, meaning it’s not as expensive as it may seem. All engines are strong performers, with the diesels offering good low-rev flexibility and the range-topping M135i a truly rapid hot hatchback. 

Our Choice: 
BMW 1 Series 116d SE 5dr

The BMW 1 Series is a compact family hatchback designed to rival cars like the Audi A3 and Mercedes A-Class. However, it might surprise you to hear that thanks to the generous kit list, it doesn’t actually work out much more expensive than cars like the SEAT Leon and Ford Focus, spec-for-spec.

Best hatchbacks to buy

Now in its second generation, this 2011 model replaced the original 2004 1 Series and gave it a more rounded, more conventional look; the first 1 Series was subject to the controversial ‘flame surfacing’ styling created by ex-design boss Chris Bangle and it wasn’t to everyone’s tastes. Arguably, though, that car has aged better than most of the alternatives from its era.

Back to the 2011 1 Series model and, aside from softening the styling (though it’s still unmistakably a BMW), this latest car addressed other criticisms of its predecessor including the harsh ride and relative lack of cabin space. It retains a rear-wheel drive layout and is therefore not as spacious as front-wheel drive rivals like the Volkswagen Golf, but it’s much improved. 

Updated in 2015 with revised styling, the facelifted 1 Series features a wider range of interior trim choices and more efficient engines. These were useful but relatively minor improvements, which is indicative of BMW’s desire not to mess too much with a winning formula – the 1 Series has been a huge success for the brand, now making up around 20 per cent of all BMW’s UK sales.

A wide range of economical engines powers the 1 Series, one of the 2015 update highlights being a new three-cylinder diesel engine in the 116d, also found in the MINI and offering staggering 80mpg-plus efficiency.

A range of four-cylinder petrols and diesels, each boasting a good blend of efficiency and pace, makes up the rest of the range – until you get to the M135i, that is. One of the great hot hatches currently on sale, the M135i boasts a twin-turbo six-cylinder engine of astonishing pace.

Trim levels go from SE through to Sport and M Sport, while the most economical version, powered by the aforementioned three-cylinder diesel, is badged ‘EfficientDynamics Plus’. The 1 Series is available with manual or automatic gearboxes and in in 3- or 5-door body styles. 

Engines, performance and drive

4.5
The full gamut of efficiency and performance is covered, from an 80mpg-plus diesel to a rapid six-cylinder turbo hot hatch

An enjoyable driving experience is one of the 1 Series' biggest selling points, with every version providing the sort of rear-wheel drive balance that the competition cannot match.

It doesn’t come cheap, but the good news is that sharp responses and composed cornering are a given, from the 116d to the M135i.  All 1 Series models corner without much body roll and show impressive agility, while if you spec the optional adaptive dampers the ride is more comfortable than the equivalent Audi A3 and Mercedes A-Class – particularly the latter.

As usual with a BMW, comfort deteriorates the further up the range you go, with an SE car on smaller wheels and with thicker tyre sidewalls providing a noticeably smoother ride than an M Sport car. That’s because M Sport brings with it firmer suspension, bigger wheels and thinner tyres as standard.

For the same reason the seats make a difference too, with an SE’s flatter chairs offering less lateral support but generally being more comfortable over long distances than the tighter sports seats of a Sport or M Sport model.

A six-speed manual gearbox is standard, though higher-powered models (120d upwards) can be specified with an eight-speed automatic. The 120d is available with xDrive four-wheel drive for added traction but this increases the weight.

The manual gearbox feels solid, if a little notchy through the gate, while the automatic is brilliant – smooth and quick shifting. The eight ratios of the auto mean it stays in the engine’s sweet spot more of the time.

All 1 Series models are quick, with even the cheapest 118i petrol dishing up the sort of 0-62mph sprint that’s firmly in the warm hatch league, and while the 116d might look comparatively sluggish on paper, its strong low end torque makes it feel flexible in real life.

The 1 Series’ dynamic ability means it’s better suited to its petrol engines generally, the high-revving character of these units adding to the driving enjoyment. That said, the very popular 118d and 120d models are positively rapid around town, owing to masses of low rev torque, while the 125d is a true high-performance diesel. This range-topping diesel option gives a fantastic blend of real-world pace and 60mpg-plus economy. It’s expensive to buy, though.

Moving up to the flagship M135i, it boasts one of the great six-cylinder engines, with a clever two-stage turbocharger meaning its peak torque comes in at a ridiculously low 1,300rpm.

Engines

The petrol range begins with the 118i, which uses a 134bhp version of BMW’s 1.6-litre petrol engine. The 120i and 125i both get a 2.0-litre unit and the M135i uses a twin-turbo 3.0-litre straight six to generate 322bhp. The 116i was dropped with the 2015 facelift.

The update saw BMW add a three-cylinder engine to the 1 Series range for the first time – namely the 115bhp 1.5-litre engine also found the MINI Cooper D and badged 116d here. The 118d, 120d and 125d models stick with a larger four-cylinder 2.0-litre diesel engine, tuned for different power outputs.

Even the 118i will do 0-62mph in 8.5 seconds and hit a top speed of 130mph, while the 120i does the sprint in 7.4 seconds, the 125i in 6.4s and the M135i in 5.1s. These are all quick cars, and though the M135i is the best sounding on account of its six-cylinders, the remaining four-cylinder engines have a smooth thrum all the way to the redline. None of them ever feels breathless if you’re in the right gear.

Equipped with the eight-speed automatic gearbox, the M135i will hit 62mph even quicker, in 4.9 seconds, although back in the 1 Series’ heartland the higher-end four-cylinder diesel models – 120d and 125d – feel almost as quick around town. That’s because they boast 400Nm and 450Nm torque respectively – the latter exactly the same as the M135i, and available as an automatic only. 

Arguably the most impressive engine overall, however, is the aforementioned three-cylinder diesel unit found in the 116d and 116d EfficientDynamics Plus. With only three cylinders it manages to haul the 1 Series along nicely, and although it’s not the most eager to rev, with 270Nm it has 50Nm more torque than the 118i, so it’s a flexible motor.

It sounds pleasant enough too, with BMW having muted most of the diesel clatter. Given that it’s a three-cylinder diesel it’s remarkably smooth, both at idle and full tilt. 

MPG, CO2 and running costs

4
BMW has impressively given its diesels small car efficiency despite big engine acceleration, although the petrols can be thirsty

The 1 Series is BMW's entry-level model, so it isn't surprising that it's one of the cheapest cars in the range to run after the headline-grabbing electric i3. The 116d EfficientDynamics Plus model is, as the name suggests, incredibly efficient. It returns 83.1mpg and emits a VED-free 89g/km of CO2.

Stop-start technology is standard across the 1 Series range, but we'd suggest sticking with the diesel models if out-and-out fuel economy is a priority. They offer a great balance of performance and value.

To help keep fuel use down, all 1 Series models get ECO PRO mode that encourages more economical driving by reducing throttle response and the amount of load put on the engine by equipment such as air-con.

If you prefer the character of a petrol engine, or you do especially low mileage, the 118i petrol engine returns a claimed 52.3mpg and emits 125g/km of CO2, which is very impressive given its performance.

Overall, however, the diesels stack up much better in the consumption stakes, with the non-EfficientDynamics three-cylinder diesel returning 78.4mpg (and costing less to buy), while the noticeably quicker 118d returns 70.6mpg.

The 120d and 125d both feel genuinely quick, yet the former returns 65.7mpg with 114g/km CO2 and the automatic-only latter gets 61.4mpg and 121g/km CO2. Just beware of the VED jump, though – a 120d will cost £30 annually, but the 125d £110.

The 120i and 125i models are, as you’d expect, less efficient than the equivalent diesels, but they’re still not too bad given the performance on offer. Both return over 40mpg on paper (48.7mpg and 42.2mpg), meaning late 30s in reality, while the 35.3mpg M135i isn’t a car to choose if efficiency is your priority. Its VED bill is £265 annually for a start.

To help keep long-term running costs down, BMW offers a range of cost-effective fixed-price servicing and competitive finance deals. These should help keep repair costs to a minimum in the first five years of ownership.

Insurance groups

Insurance groups begin at 15 for the 116d, which is very low for something with a BMW badge on the front – and the group 18 118i looks similarly good value given the performance.

Naturally, moving up the range means bigger costs because of the desirability, higher performance and rear-wheel drive chassis, which can prove more troublesome for less experienced drivers in more powerful versions. A 120d sits in group 24 and the M135i is placed way up in group 37 – by comparison, the 296bhp, four-wheel drive Volkswagen Golf R is group 29.

Depreciation

The BMW badge and relative rarity in the segment mean the 1 Series doesn’t depreciate as heavily as most of its family hatchback rivals, but particularly those like the Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra. Generally, a 1 Series will hold onto just over 50% of its value after three years/30,000 miles. The best performing model from a retained value perspective is the popular mid-level 120d M Sport. 

Interior, design and technology

3
The 1 Series has a high quality interior with good levels of standard equipment and some clever safety tech

Whether you love or hate the way it looks, the 1 Series certainly stands out from the crowd. It is characterised by BMW's trademark kidney grille and large headlights, while a wide stance and slightly flared wheel arches make the car appear sportier than the average hatchback.

The recent facelift gave the 1 Series a subtle redesign, although few will be able to tell the difference between a 2011 and a 2015 1 Series from the outside.  The grille was redesigned slightly, and at the rear all cars now get LED taillights and slightly bigger exhaust pipes.

There are four specifications in the 1 Series range: SE, Sport, M Sport and EfficientDynamics Plus. The ES and Urban models were dropped for the 2015 facelift, simplifying the range, which now offers more kit as standard.

All versions get alloy wheels, DAB digital radio, satellite navigation and a leather-trimmed steering wheel, and all boast a well-built interior, with chunky controls, a stylish dashboard with soft-touch trim and, in some cases, contrasting stitching.

Sport models come with bigger wheels, sportier seats, which is to say seats that are more heavily bolstered at the sides, plus high-gloss interior trim and a sports steering wheel. Moving up to M Sport, you get 18-inch alloys, aluminum trim, M Sport branded seats and steering wheel, and a body kit.

These high gloss, metal and leather finishes give the 1 Series an air of class that most rivals can’t match. The exception is the Audi A3, which has a cabin that is high-end simplicity itself.

The driving position is one area where the 1 Series really excels, with a wide range of adjustment for the seat and wheel meaning anyone of any size can get comfortable.

Optional extras include adaptive cruise control, parking sensors, climate control and adaptive headlights.

Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment

The 1 Series uses BMW's iDrive system, which has been improved and developed over the years. The current control setup is one of our favourite to use, thanks to quick performance and an intuitive layout. BMW hasn't followed convention and given the system a touch screen - it's instead controlled by a swivel wheel and a collection of buttons, which are easy to use on the move.

The 1 Series comes with user-programmable buttons that can be set as shortcuts to favourite radio stations or navigation destinations, while the screen - either the standard 6.5-inch one or the upgraded 8.8-inch - is bright and clear. All cars are also equipped with sat-nav as standard, while a 12-speaker Harmon Kardon audio set up is an optional extra.

Practicality, comfort and boot space

4
Not as spacious as many rivals, the 1 Series is still a comfortable family hatchback - more or less so depending on the specification

The original 1 Series was heavily criticised for its lack of practicality and for prioritising style over substance. The latest model, however, boasts increased dimensions - resulting in improved room in the rear of the cabin, better boot space and some useful storage throughout. 

A detail worth mentioning is that many versions of the 1 Series feature dark headlining, which is a blessing and a curse – it makes the interior feel sportier, but also a little more claustrophobic.

It may not be as spacious inside as a Volkswagen Golf or SEAT Leon, but storage places in the cabin include a big compartment beneath the central arm rest, deep door bins and a large glove box.

So BMW has moved to improve the practicality of the 1 Series yet, worryingly, it was still one of the most cited negatives in the 2014 Driver Power owner survey, with the 1 Series placing a lowly 171st overall in the practicality category.

Size

A little longer than the five-door Audi A3 Sportback, though not quite as wide or tall, the BMW 1 Series nonetheless fits the convention for a family hatchback; on the road the 1 Series feels roughly the same size as any rival you care to name – Vauxhall Astra, Ford Focus, Lexus CT. That makes it easy to place, and despite a low-set seating position, all-round visibility is good.

Leg room, head room & passenger space

The main casualty of the 1 Series’ rear-wheel drive setup is rear passenger space, and especially the middle seat. The 1 Series has three three-point seatbelts in the rear, but there’s scant legroom in the middle where the transmission tunnel runs.

Headroom is fine for adults front and back, as is rear knee room, with the 1 Series featuring quite thin front seatbacks. There are Isofix points for child seats on the two outer rear seats, and there’s enough space for a rear-facing child seat fitment without having to push the front chairs too far forward.

Boot

With the back seats in place, boot space has increased by 30-litres on the old version to 360 litres, rising to 1,200 with the rear bench down – both figures are 20-litres down on the Audi A3 Sportback, for example. Frustratingly, BMW consigns a 40:20:40 split-folding rear bench – a very useful feature – to the cost options list for all specifications.

The 1 Series does suffer from a relatively small loading aperture, and the boot floor can’t be lifted flush with the loading lip, which can make unloading awkward. An optional Extended Storage pack adds nets to the boot, usefully keeping smaller items from rolling around.  

Reliability and Safety

4
Very well built, the 1 Series has an excellent safety rating but suffers from patchy reliability reports

The BMW feels solid throughout, as you’d expect, although a feeling of solidity doesn’t guarantee actual mechanical reliability.

Sure enough, while the previous BMW 1 Series finished 82nd in the 2012 Auto Express Driver Power customer satisfaction survey, the latest model climbed to a heady 8th in the 2014 survey.

However, BMW’s bubble burst in 2015, when the 1 Series slipped all the way to 101st – hopefully the late 2015 facelift, which brought more economical engines, will help the family hatchback back to its 2014 level.

The 1 Series has been awarded the maximum five-star rating in the Euro NCAP crash safety tests, ranking it among the best in class for crash protection. Its 91 per cent adult occupant and 83 per cent child occupant ratings are especially reassuring for family buyers.

These were no doubt aided by the generous amount of standard safety equipment, including a clever five-stage traction control system, four airbags, and a raft of safety accessory options like lane departure warning and low speed automatic braking.

Warranty

BMW’s warranty for the 1 Series covers three years/60,000 miles, making it a typical one. The company also offers a couple of types of extended warranty beyond that period, with prices dependent on the model. Available regardless of the age of the car, the basic one, called ‘DriveLine’ covers major components like the engine and transmission, while a more comprehensive Europe-wide emergency service package can be purchased too.

Servicing

The 1 Series service interval is 12 months or 10,000 miles. Although BMW has done a great job in making the 1 Series a cost-effective ownership experience, once the service department starts to get involved things can get very ‘premium’ – expensive, that is. Slightly older cars are known to develop electrical niggles, while high mileage diesel cars can result in high repair bills for parts like turbochargers and exhaust filters.

For new car buyers, BMW offers a Service Inclusive pack that covers the car for five years or 60,000 miles, for a fixed cost. It’s transferrable to the next owner, too. 

Last updated: 14 Jan, 2016