Yet before the second-generation 1 Series appeared in showrooms, the VW Golf MkVI was the undisputed champ. So can the BMW hold on to its crown in the face of an all-new Golf that’s bigger and better than ever?
Neither car makes a big impression from the outside. As with the Golf, the slightly ungainly 1 Series is staunchly conservative to look at. Even our M Sport test model, with its mean bumpers and 18-inch twin-spoke alloys, offers little in the way of visual inspiration.
Still, settle into the driver-focused cabin and the BMW does feel sportier than the Golf. The thick-rimmed M Sport steering wheel and heavily bolstered seats – plus classy details like the Estoril Blue line running across the dash – add a sense of theatre to an interior that’s far more logically designed than in the fussy Ford Focus. Build quality is strong, too, although the 1 Series doesn’t quite ooze class like the Volkswagen.
To match the sporty Golf GT on price, we tested the 116d rather than the more powerful 118d, but even this model has a similar level of kit to its rivals. The only glaring omissions are a DAB radio and parking sensors, while sat-nav can only be specified as part of the expensive £1,550 media option pack, and not on its own.
Still, this car has moved on in one area that always held the 1 Series back in the past. Even though it’s shorter than the Golf overall, it has a longer wheelbase, and that means space in the back is much improved – although it still feels a little cramped after the Ford and VW.
Normally, you’d expect a BMW to show its class at the track, but here the car was outgunned by the Golf, which delivers 34bhp more power and 80Nm more torque, at 148bhp and 320Nm. The 116d has identical power (114bhp) and torque (260Nm) outputs to the 116d ED we used to complete our performance assessments; the ED was well over a second slower than the VW in all our in-gear tests, although it easily matched the more powerful Ford for outright pace. Yet any performance deficit is forgotten when you drive down a winding B-road, where the 1 Series’ brilliant chassis gets a chance to shine.
The controls are well weighted and accurate, and by using the Drive Performance Control button on the dash you can alter the set-up to suit your mood – from EcoPro to Sport+. The BMW’s diesel engine isn’t as refined as the VW’s, though, and on longer trips the firm M Sport suspension is more wearing, too.
It’s nip and tuck between the 1 Series and Golf here – even in financial terms. Strong residuals and low-cost fixed-price servicing keep the BMW in contention. So can it really retain its place at the top of the family car tree?