Since making its debut earlier this year, the second-generation entry-level BMW has proven the undisputed hatchback king. Thanks to its blend of driving fun, low running costs, upmarket appeal and surprising practicality, the 1 Series has emerged victorious from every one of its road test encounters. However, the new Mercedes presents the toughest challenge yet to the BMW’s grip on this market.
When it comes to kerb appeal, the 1 Series is second best. With its upright windscreen and heavy-handed rear end, it looks a little frumpy compared to the Mercedes. Our racy M Sport test car benefits from a neat bodykit and distinctive 18-inch alloy wheels, but even these additions aren’t enough to give the 125i an edge on style.
Still, the BMW hits back the moment you climb inside. The slick dash is robust and clearly laid out, plus the well engineered switchgear feels solid and precise. There’s plenty of seat and wheel adjustment, so it’s easy to find a comfortable driving position, while the chunky M Sport steering wheel and stubby gearlever look and feel great.
The 1 Series is also surprisingly spacious, with rear passengers getting a similar amount of room as they’ll find in the Mercedes and Audi. However, passengers in the middle will find the large transmission tunnel eats into space for their feet.
Elsewhere in the cabin, there’s plenty of useful storage, including wide door bins, a large glovebox and useful centre console cubbies. Better still, get past the BMW’s high load lip and you’ll find a well shaped boot that will swallow 360 litres of luggage, which is 19 litres more than the A-Class. Drop the split-fold rear bench flat, and the available capacity grows to a healthy 1,200 litres.
As you’d expect from a BMW, this family friendly practicality doesn’t come at the expense of performance. The 125i’s smooth and refined 218bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre is the most powerful engine here and, in combination with the standard six-speed manual gearbox, it helped the BMW rocket from 0-60mph in only 6.4 seconds, despite the wet track surface. A healthy 310Nm of torque meant the 1 Series was fast in-gear, although it couldn’t quite match its seven-speed automatic rivals here.
Away from the track, the BMW feels eager. Our car had optional adaptive suspension, sports brakes and steering, but even the standard model features four-stage Drive Performance Control. Set it to Sport+ mode, and the 125i’s throttle response is sharpened, allowing you to get on the power with a tiny flex of your right foot. Plus, the precise six-speed gearbox is great to use, although BMW’s excellent eight-speed auto is a £1,490 option.
Better still, this performance is mated to engaging driving dynamics. As with all 1 Series models, the 125i has well weighted and direct steering, beautifully balanced rear-wheel-drive handling and reassuringly strong, progressive brakes. You can also subtly adjust the 1 Series’ line through a corner using nothing more than a combination of throttle and steering.
And while the lowered and stiffened suspension of the M Sport model results in a firm ride on bumpy roads, and the tyres make a fair amount of road noise, the payoff is less roll through corners, tighter body control and stronger grip than either of its rivals.
At £26,070, the 125i also has the Mercedes and Audi beaten on price. Strong residuals and a great-value £300 five-year servicing pack see the BMW extend its financial advantage.
And while its CO2 emissions of 154g/km are higher than the less powerful Audi’s, we returned a respectable 34.9mpg at the pumps.
On the evidence of this showing, the 1 Series is still in pole position to hold on to its place at the top of the podium.