By launching the 3 Series Compact in 1993, BMW arguably created the premium small hatch. But the company wasn’t really a force in this class until the arrival of the original 1 Series in 2004. While the baby BMW was controversially styled, any doubts about its abilities were dispelled as soon as it was driven. Now the earliest first-generation 1 Series hatchbacks are almost a decade old, and they’re becoming more and more affordable second-hand, with prices from only £3,000.
The five-door 1 Series hatch went on sale in May 2004, in 116i, 118i, 120i, 118d and 120d formats. The 265bhp six-cylinder 130i followed in September 2005. In March 2007, a three-door hatch arrived, along with a 2.0-litre diesel (the 123d). All models got reprofiled bumpers and lights as part of a range-wide facelift, which also brought improved steering, standard stop-start on manual cars (apart from the 130i) and brake regeneration technology. The 3.0 six-cylinder 125i arrived in March 2008, with the 116d following in January 2009. In September of the same year, the 116i got an engine upgrade from 1,596cc to 1,995cc.
Audi’s second-generation A3, launched in 2003, is still a cracker. It’s a strong choice, and features some great engines, with front or four-wheel drive, while the cabin is difficult to fault. The MkV and MkVI versions of the VW Golf (from 2004-2008 and 2009-2013 respectively) are better value than the A3, but they’re not always as reliable as their reputation makes out. Finally, the second-generation Mercedes A-Class, introduced in 2004, is worth a look for its build quality, practicality and comfort. Verdict IF you want a compact premium car that’ll turn every drive into an occasion, the 1 Series could well be the perfect choice. Not only does it have excellent dynamics, it also offers fine cabin ergonomics, plus BMW’s usual build quality. This is a car with a real depth and breadth of talent. The downside is the limited rear space, but view the 1 Series as a two-seater with hatchback practicality, and it’s a great car. Entry-level models are best avoided. Go for an ES or SE, and you’ll have an entertaining, well equipped and frugal small hatch.