The best cars evolve to filter out their weak points, and that’s exactly what the new 1 Series has done.
BMW has accepted that the previous model’s boot was too small and its rear seats cramped, so the new car is longer and wider, with an extra 30mm slotted into the wheelbase.
But the larger dimensions are disguised by familiar styling that stays true to the original car’s look, while still giving the baby BMW a more grown-up appearance. It’s dominated at the front by large, slightly ungainly headlights and the signature double kidney grille. In profile, the sharp waistline flows back to a slightly bulbous rear end.
New trims with unique detailing are another added feature, and the identically priced Urban and Sport models give you a choice of looks. But whichever one you go for, you’ll immediately be aware that the cabin is more spacious than the previous car’s.
There’s more room around the driver, and with a large range of wheel and seat adjustment, it’s easy to get comfortable. But there are niggles: at its highest setting, the wheel obscures the trip screen, and it’s easy to bang your elbow on the centre bin. These are small issues, though. Overall, BMW’s entry-level car has taken a big step upmarket.
Interior quality is top-notch and the switchgear is chunky and solid. The dash design is conventional, but the textured materials are similar to those found in the Golf, while the slender switch panels for the audio and climate systems recall those in the 5 Series.
All models from SE upwards get an iDrive controller and an attractive 6.5-inch flatscreen display, while the Sport’s leather steering wheel and gloss black trim add to the premium feel.
In the back, the stretched wheelbase means legroom is better than in the old car, but it’s still tighter than in rivals, while the large transmission tunnel – due to the rear-wheel-drive layout – limits the BMW to four seats for all but short journeys.
The 30-litre increase in boot space, to 360 litres with the seats in place, is better news. It means the 1 Series has the biggest boot here, beating the Golf by 10 litres.
There’s been a serious upgrade under the bonnet, too. The entry-level petrol 1 Series used to come with a breathless normally aspirated engine, but the new 116i is powered by a 134bhp 1.6-litre turbo. This engine produces 132g/km of CO2, making the BMW the cleanest car here.
Helped by its twin-scroll turbocharger, it has linear power delivery, a wide spread of torque and positive throttle response – that means the 116i feels quick despite its modest output.
Better still, the engine is the smoothest and most refined on test, while the precise six-speed manual gearbox is a joy to use. But with relatively long ratios, plus the least torque and power of the trio, it’s no surprise that the BMW recorded the slowest acceleration figures at the test track. However, its keen nature means it doesn’t feel outclassed on the open road.
As you’d expect, the 1 Series’ chassis shines through. The wider track at the front and rear, 50:50 weight distribution and rear-wheel-drive layout still deliver a driving experience you won’t get from front-drive rivals.
The electronic power-steering is light, accurate and responsive. When combined with the perfect front-to-rear balance and near-unbreakable traction, it makes the 116i a joy to drive.
There’s more body roll than in the old car, but still less than in the Ford or the VW, while the 116i is impressively free of dive under braking and recorded excellent stopping distances.
The best news is that this handling no longer comes at the expense of comfort. The harshness over rough surfaces that characterised the old car has gone. Aside from a slightly firm edge at low speed, the newcomer is more compliant.Added to a well insulated cabin, this makes the hatch as accomplished on the motorway as bigger BMWs.
The 1 Series has grown up, but kept its fun factor, and that could be a winning combination.
It’s no surprise that the top three cars in our mega hatch shoot-out are incredibly strong contenders.
Ford’s latest Focus is a cheaper company car choice, and more engaging to drive than the Golf, but it finishes a close third here. The fussy dash design and extremely cramped boot are disappointments, and while the EcoBoost engine is real gem, it’s thirsty.
The Golf is still a wonderfully rounded and accomplished choice, but isn’t at its best in top-of-the-range GT trim. Big wheels and sports suspension upset the ride, and although the TSI engine is powerful, it has the highest CO2 emissions here. In fact, this is probably the Golf at its worst – lesser models are better to drive and represent much greater value for money.
But the BMW scoops overall honours in this encounter – albeit by a narrow margin. With a bigger boot and more passenger space than before, plus a much improved ride, the 1 Series is better than ever, while buyers opting for BMW’s entry-level engine will no longer feel short-changed, because the 1.6-litre turbo is excellent.
Adding to the appeal are its strong refinement, upmarket cabin and great driving dynamics. The agile rear-wheel-drive chassis and communicative controls make it one of the most engaging family cars on the market.
So it’s a hard-fought win for the BMW. This is only the first round for the new 1 Series, as we’ve yet to bring the diesel models face-to-face with their rivals. But on this showing, they look sure to pose a serious threat the Golf’s dominance of the compact family car market.
Chart position: 1
WHY: New 1 Series promises to mix old car’s driving fun with more room, a better ride and improved quality.