BMW 1 Series

14 Jul, 2011 12:13am Sam Hardy

We drive BMW's new compact executive. Has it got what it takes to beat the upcoming new Audi A3 and Mercedes A-Class?


With over 1.2million models sold worldwide since its launch in 2004, the 1 Series is one of BMW’s most important cars. And while this new model might not tear up the rule book, it does improve on the old car in (virtually) every way. It now boasts more 'big car' features than ever, but has a healthy amount of personalisation to it too. Factor in a wide range of incredibly efficient engines, the excellent fuel-saving ECO PRO mode and a driving experience that's precise and sporty and yet still comfortable, and you've got a very desirable entry point to the BMW range.

It's only just been launched, but already the BMW 1 Series is under pressure. Unlike its predecessor, this new version of BMW’s entry-level hatchback is facing competition from every angle.  

If you are lucky enough to have a minimum of £20,000 to spend on a small premium-badged family car, you’re not short of choice. As well as the 1 Series, you can also choose from an all-new Audi A3 from next year, while Mercedes is laying the old A-Class to rest with a new hatchback version in 2012 too.

Video: watch CarBuyer's video review of the BMW 1 Series

And that’s not it either – the MINI Countryman offers buyers a raised seating position, extra flexibility and, most importantly of all, off-the-scale desirability all for the same price. So how is a conventional hatchback going to compete with all that?

Well, while the 1 Series may mark the gateway to BMW ownership, but the German firm hasn’t cut any corners. Not only is it slightly bigger than before, but it’s cheaper to run and comes packed with gadgets. It’s also still the only rear-wheel drive car in its class so it should be fun too.

Prices start from £19,375 for a 116i in ES trim. Five-door versions will go on sale in September, and you can expect three-door to follow in 2012 with a Coupe and Convertible a year or so after. 

Love it or hate it, the 1 Series has always stood out – and the firm has applied an evolutionary approach to the new model. Gone is the edgy ‘flame surfacing’ design language, replaced by an altogether smoother look influenced by the latest 5 and 6 Series. 

There are still large kidney grilles at the front, and they’re joined by curvier headlights. At the rear there are softer LED tail-lamps but the wider stance and flared wheelarches make it seem lower and sportier. 

Step inside and the cabin certainly ticks the quality box. All the controls are chunky, the dashboard is trimmed in soft-touch plastics and there’s a generous amount of leather. 

There’s plenty of equipment too. Even entry-level ES models come with aircon and stop-start, while SE versions get a 6.5-inch flatscreen monitor and a Bluetooth hands-free with USB connectivity.

BMW’s Drive Performance Control is standard on all models, which gives the driver four ‘modes’ to choose from. These include Comfort – the standard setting – and Sport – which sharpens steering, throttle and suspension, while Sport + allows more rear wheel slip.  

But the most useful is ECO PRO, which helps drivers save fuel, by adjusting throttle response to encourage more eco-minded driving and limiting the use of the air-conditioning, heated mirrors and seats. The increases in fuel economy are displayed on the dashboard, showing how far extra the car can travel as a result. It’s a really clever and easy to use system, which has you driving more economically without even realising it.

There are plenty of ‘big car’ options too, including lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control and Internet access. Another welcome new feature is the amount of personalisation on offer. In addition to ES, SE and M Sport trims, buyers can now select Urban or Sport. 

What’s the difference? Well, Urban gets a host of interior and exterior visual ‘highlights’, including unique 17-inch white alloys, white wing mirrors and a white slats for the kidney grilles. 

Sport gets unique 17-inch alloy wheel,  plus a high-gloss black kidney grille, central air intake trim, side intake surrounds and rear bumper trim as well as M Sports suspension.

It’s by far the more successful of the two; the white bits on the Urban car are less than subtle. 

Bosses reckon that UK buyers will agree, with most 1 Series being ordered in Sport or M Sport guise, the latter adding a bodykit and a host of M goodies such as alloy wheels, suspension tweaks and an M steering wheel.

With a wheelbase 30mm longer than the previous car’s, you might hope there’s a lot more space in the back, but the 1 Series is still disappointingly cramped. Even the smallest of adults will find legroom tight. By comparison, a VW Golf is far more spacious. That said, boot space has increased from 330 to 360 litres, with maximum capacity now 1,200 litres with the seats folded. 

Under the bonnet is a new 1.6-litre TwinPower turbocharged petrol engine, which comes with direct injection, variable valve timing and a clever twin-scroll turbo, which makes more efficient use of the engine’s exhaust gases. 

The 116i gets a 136bhp version and we tested the 170bhp 118i.

It’s a great unit, with a wide spread of torque and a smooth note. It’s fast too – 0-62mph takes 7.4 seconds and there’s plenty of shove for overtaking. Factor in a six-speed manual gearbox with long-legged top ratio and you’ve got a car that’s just as effective on a B-road as it is at cruising quietly on the motorway. 

Thanks to Efficient Dynamics – standard across the line-up and including start-stop and brake energy recovery – the 118i is capable of returning around 48mpg and emitting 137g/km of CO2, which is very impressive given its performance.

Diesel choices all come in the shape of a 2.0-litre turbocharged unit with 143bhp for the 118d and 184bhp for the 120d. The 114bhp 116d is the most efficient from launch, though, returning 66mpg and emitting 114g/km. However, a 1.6-litre 116d EfficientDynamics arrives next year, boasting 74mpg and 99g/km. Exempt from road tax and the London congestion charge, it should be a hit with company car drivers and private buyers who are keen to cut their bills.

But is the new 1 Series fun to drive? Undoubtedly. With a rear-wheel drive chassis, wider front and rear tracks plus 50:50 weight distribution, it’s an agile and involving machine. What’s more BMW’s engineers have learnt how to tune an electric steering system to give the driver real feedback – no car in the class tells you as much about what the front wheels are doing.

And engineers have also been paying attention to UK roads too. Like the current 5 Series and 6 Series, the 1 Series has been tested on British tarmac. It certainly shows, because the ride is greatly improved. Thanks to new front damper mountings with increased compliance, the 1 Series soaks up bumps more confidently and even stiffer Sport versions are much more comfortable. Make no mistake, it’s still firm, but it’s a vast improvement over the old car.

Is the rest of the car such a leap forward? Not quite. It’s not a revolution, but the incremental improvements in efficiency, gadgetry and driver appeal add up to a really impressive small car. As ever, though, it’s not cheap to buy and rear seat space could be better. But in every other respect, the new 1 Series is going to take some beating.

Disqus - noscript

This car looks worse tha the old Russian Lada, and yet costs thousands more.

"And you quote". But in every other respect, the new 1 series is going to take some beating.

Yor really cant be "SERIOS MAN".

Excuse the above spelling mistakes, I was just stunned to think this car will take some beating.

..from the inside. From the outside though, dare I say this reminds me of the Ford Scorpio ?

Not a Frog...

A Tadpole...

Sub frog like looks...

Dire, Dire, Dire

If it must be a 5dr German hatch... Golf!

Nice car overall, not sure about those headlights and grille, it will take some getting used to! might even grow on you!

They are just making a point, it doesnt matter how ugly bmw design their cars, people will buy them by the thousand...epic fail

love the new front and looks more grown up, should still sell loads

When this fell out of the ugly tree it hit every branch!

I for one was a big fan of the styling of the original 1 series, it was distinctive and could never be mistaken for anything else, and that's a good thing. Even though this appears to be a slightly watered-down version of the original design, it will remain one of the most distinctive cars in it's class.

I hold my head up and have to say, given the choice, this (ok, and the Guiletta) is the only premium hatchback I would want, A3 is too dull, A Class is too Brent-cross housewife, Countryman is too Notting Hill school run.

Never been a big BMW fan, but am really keen on this offering, yes, it isn't handsome in the traditional sense, but it looks totally fit for purpose, little bit mean; and I bet it is a great drive

but .. it is well down my wish list if i was looking for a small car... Not at all the ultimate driving machine ..

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
New nose grafted on the existing car? Certainly looks like it.
Colour me underwhelmed.

I reckon BMW bosses are seeing how ugly they can make their cars before the sheep stop buying them. I can imagine the conversations: "Hey, Hans! Look at this - I've stuck the kidney grill on my Bavarian huge hairy backside - let's see if we can sell it too!"

I've recently sold my old 1 series. The suspension (Sport model on 17" alloys) was so hard that it was a danger to my teeth, and the interior so cramped that I had real trouble getting in and out. Fantastic car in all other respects. Looks like this new car might address those weaknesses whilst retaining all the fantastic stuff.

Funny thing is, though, I never cared what it looked like from outside. I always sat INSIDE the car when driving. There are dozens of things to take into account when choosing a car; prettiness is down at the bottom of most people's priorities. Unlike many of the posters above!

Looks like the mutant lovechild of a rampant Alfa Romeo hatch and a Mk x golf! (Not that that's bad...)

Hide the badges and you'd be hard pressed to pick it out first and foremost as a BMW...

This car has been seriously beaten with the "ugly stick".
Bangle seems to have taken any semblance of style out of his designers since his stint as BMW.
Even Kia and Hyundai seem to be producing cars with more street cred!

What has happened to BMW? Every new model they bring out these days look bland and boring, yet their predessors looked sharp. I m sure being a BMW it will be good to drive and everything but in terms of looks their going backwards - I say, bring back Mr Bangle.....

the car looks great

AE really bugs me when they right total rubbish. How can they get excited about the offer of Bluetooth and extra kit in a car costing over £20k. BMW is a total rip-off and does not present good value for money. Its total badge snobbery.
The car will be a total success just like the present one due to company car drivers. Fleet managers are swapping the 3 Series for the 1 Series as it is cheaper and they can package a 'premium' company car to the perks. I rather have the cash thank you.

Blimey! Reading these comments you would wonder if anyone will buy this car. Fortunately for BMW the sort of people likely to buy a 1 series and write nice things about it wont be the sort of saddos likely to bother reading or posting a reply on this website.

From a stlying point of view the original BMW Compact mainly needed better more convenitional headlights. I've never been a fan of the rear of the existing 1 Series and now I'm not a fan of the new one. I'll stick with my old 318i thanks.

I know that it's in vogue to bash B.M.W. for it's styling and price and penchant for rear wheel drive, and to be honest I have tended to agree with the critics. But having drive just about every front wheel, conventional styled car on the market. I decided 3 months ago to try a B.M.W. 5 door 1 series 116i M sport . This decision after having had a boat load of trouble with a new Toyota Avensis 2.0 litre deisel. To get to the conclusion, the B.M.W. is the best handling car I have ever driven it drives like no front wheel drive car on the market , and I've driven both the new and old focus and golf. Great cars in their own way but destroyed by a rear wheel drive (plus a great rear suspension set up) car. It feels so much safer when cornering and braking that I would never drive a front wheel car again.As for space judge how much you need and then buy accordingly.Style wise it is different I'll grant that but it grows on you. To sum up if you can afford one and you like the way it drives buy one, if you find you can't live with it sell it and try another make.As I've discovered there is no one make that suits every body.And so I rest my case.

I love how most of these comments talk about 'this is worse' this is better', I hate to mention it but you spend most of your time in the car driving it and would love to know how many of you Arm Chair Crittics have driven it.

it's Ugly as sin and overpriced ... OK if you don't mind paying an extra 5K or so for very slightly better plastic it's a good deal..plenty of cars about though that can match it or beat it for ride and handeling... and hey you get real leather not plastic trying to look like leather...and well for nearly 22K the engine looks pathetic -1.6-litre turbocharged 4cyl petrol @ 170bhp..

I currently drive a 2008 BMW 118d, and yes I do like driving the car, despite the fact that a couple of weeks of the year I have to leave it at home in favour of my wife's Punto because of the slightest risk of snow. I once had to abandon it miles from my house and walk the rest of the way while front wheel drive cars sped past me with no probs.
I have to say the new BMW 1 series is the ugliest car I've seen in recent years, with the exception of the Nissan Juke which is hideous. I'm not saying the old 1 series was pretty, I got used to the looks, but the new 1 series is repulsive, it looks like a rabbit that has been smacked in the face with a cricket bat. I just couldn't bear to come out of the house and look at it every morning... it would be like waking up next to an ugly wife.
I don't think the A3 is much of an improvement either, the styling hasn't changed in 10 years, it's much more expensive to run than the BMW.
And it's woefully short of extras, for these reasons I have just ordered a Volvo V40 D2 ES, which for the same price I've added full leather, upgraded to larger wheels and added loads of technical extras like the driver information system with illuminated gear stick, on paper it's also more economical and only 94g/km CO2.

Key specs

* Price: £21,985
* Engine: 1.6-litre turbocharged 4cyl petrol, 170bhp
* Gearbox: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
* Top speed: 140mph
* 0-62mph: 7.4 seconds
* Econ: 47.9mpg
* CO2: 137g/km
* Equipment: Start-stop, Drive Performance Control with ECO PRO mode, aircon, leather steering wheel, 17-inch alloy wheels
* On sale: September