BMW 1-Series

It was always going to be '1' to watch - and now BMW's 1-Series has finally arrived on British shores, it looks set to put the frighteners up the Volkswagen Golf and Audi A3.

BMW's first entry into the small family hatchback sector is a convincing effort, with great driving dynamics and a unique character. Aside from that, though, all the 1-Series brings to the class is a new badge - and its premium pricing may deter private buyers who can find what they're looking for much cheaper elsewhere...

It was always going to be '1' to watch - and now BMW's 1-Series has finally arrived on British shores, it looks set to put the frighteners up the Volkswagen Golf and Audi A3.

Much has already been made of the baby Beemer's styling - but love it or loathe it, there's no denying the newcomer has a unique character. And in the metal, it doesn't seem as controversial as it does in pictures, with less emphasis on the unusual swooping sills when the car is viewed from eye level.

Inside, things get close to looking conventional, with a dash layout that resembles a scaled-down version of that in the 5-Series. This is no bad thing, though, as it means sensibly located dials and an excellent driving position, as well as a quality feel. Our only gripes concern the small glovebox and lack of useful storage areas up front.

Surprisingly, the 1-Series is no class leader in terms of packaging - rear legroom is limited and the load space lacks the usability of some rivals'. But to most buyers, these practicalities will be trivial. Where the BMW really scores is in its driver appeal, as the car is targeted at young professionals who aspire to own a model with the blue propeller badge.

We drove the 118d, which is tipped to be the UK's biggest seller in the new line-up, offering better performance than the 116i petrol variant and nearly double its torque. And while the 3-Series-sourced engine isn't as refined as some more modern oil-burners - such as those co-developed by PSA Peugeot Citroen and Ford - it provides smooth power delivery and instant responses. This diesel unit is very strong and powerful, yet returns superb fuel economy and has low CO2 emissions.

The 1-Series is also very rewarding to drive. The gearbox is excellent, with a smooth, unruffled shift and a light yet positive clutch. But the model's trump card has to be its handling and wonderfully communicative chassis.

This is thanks in part to the rear-wheel-drive configuration, but also to the steering. The set-up has a brilliantly crisp and accurate feel, with a sharp turn-in, a progressive action and enough weighting to stop it seeming vague.

The BMW's grip and chassis poise through fast bends is even more remarkable. It feels lithe and directional, with the kind of stability usually reserved for much bigger cars. So it's a great drive - and that's what we've come to expect from the maker over the years.

But is this enough for the 1-Series to top the class? In many respects, yes, for here is a model with the premium image associated with BMW, yet competing against more mainstream rivals.

However, there's a serious chink in the newcomer's armour. The German firm optimistically believes it can tempt would-be buyers out of such models as the Vauxhall Astra and Renault M�gane - yet at £19,290, the machine we drove simply isn't good enough value to fight a convincing battle. Make no mistake, the 1-Series is an excellent car. But it's one that you'll have to pay quite steeply for the privilege of owning.

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