The BMW 1 Series was crowned Best Compact Family Car at our New Car Awards, and confirmed its position as one of the finest all-round cars on sale with a narrow victory over the Volvo V40. But does that mean it can hold off the rejuvenated Audi A3?
On paper, these two fierce rivals are closely matched and there’s little to separate them when it comes to visual appeal.
Both look plain and conservative when parked alongside the striking V40. Just like the A3, the latest 1 Series owes most of its styling cues to long-established company design trends. Oversized triangular headlights flank the silver kidney grilles at the front, while at the rear, wide, body-coloured bumpers give the car a road-hugging stance.
This EfficientDynamics model looks identical to the more powerful 116d and 118d versions, as it features the same smart 16-inch alloy wheels and chrome exhaust.
A three-door version of the ED has recently hit showrooms. It benefits from a sleeker roofline and slightly lower price, but access to the cabin is more tricky than in the five-door, particularly for rear passengers.
Once you’re inside, there’s none of the wow factor you get in the Audi, There’s a lot of black plastic covering the dash and the layout is functional rather than stylish.
However, the fixed 6.5-inch colour display is bigger and clearer than the pop-up screen in the A3, while the iDrive controller is almost as easy to use on the move as the Audi’s MMI sytem. The wraparound dashboard is also logically laid out, while the switchgear operates with well engineered precision.
Like most premium models, the 1 Series doesn’t come as generously equipped as the V40. Key features like cruise control, sat-nav and leather are only available in expensive option packages. Still, essentials like air-con, Bluetooth and a USB music connection are all included as standard – as is a keyless starter button.
The low driving position is close to perfect, and there’s plenty of adjustment for the wheel and seat, so getting comfortable is a breeze. However, rear passengers might not find it quite so easy. The BMW has more headroom than the V40, but legroom is a little tight, despite the fact that its wheelbase is the longest of the three cars here. The high transmission tunnel also means those sitting in the middle seat get less room for their feet. Still, the five-door layout provides more straightforward access to the rear bench than in the three-door A3.
That extra length has been put to good use in the boot, as the BMW is capable of carrying 100 litres more than the A3 with the rear bench folded flat – at 1,200 litres – while practical touches like the bottle-sized door pockets give it an edge over the Audi.
That slender advantage is extended out on the road, where the modestly powered 116d ED proves that a big horsepower figure is not always essential for an engaging drive. The well judged ride and quick steering rack make the BMW feel wonderfully agile and provide plenty of feedback. There’s also lots of grip, while the brakes are smooth and progressive.
It was over a second slower than the A3 in our in-gear tests at the track, but it rarely wanted for straight-line performance on the road. In fact, the six-speed manual gearbox’s well chosen ratios and a decent dose of torque mean the 1 Series feels almost as responsive as the faster Audi.
It trails the Audi and Volvo on refinement, especially when the engine is idling. However, the BMW is still a relaxing long-distance choice, with its comfortable ride and seats.
The modest power output also translates to affordable running costs. Standard stop-start technology and a host of EfficientDynamics tweaks helped the 116d return an impressive 48.6mpg, while CO2 emissions of 99g/km mean it qualifies for a free tax disc.
This class-leading efficiency also makes the BMW the cheapest choice for company users. On top of that, there’s great-value fixed-price servicing, strong residual values and a lower list price. Combine this with decent practicality, an upmarket image and sharp driving dynamics, and the 1 Series continues to make a strong case for itself at the top of the class.