BMW 1 Series (2012-2019) review - Engines, performance and drive

The full gamut of efficiency and performance is covered, from an 80mpg-plus diesel to a rapid six-cylinder turbo hot hatch

An enjoyable driving experience is one of the biggest selling points of the BMW 1 Series, with every version providing the sort of rear-wheel drive balance that the competition cannot match. However, it's no one-trick pony.

The 1 Series doesn’t come cheap, but the good news is that sharp responses and composed cornering are a given, all the way through the range, from the 116d to the M140i.  All 1 Series models corner without much body roll and show impressive agility, while if you spec the optional adaptive dampers the ride is more comfortable than the equivalent Audi A3 and Mercedes A-Class.

As usual with a BMW, comfort deteriorates the further up the range you go, with an SE car on smaller wheels and with thicker tyre sidewalls providing a noticeably smoother ride than an M Sport car. That’s because M Sport brings with it firmer, lowered suspension, bigger wheels and lower profile tyres as standard.

For the same reason the seats make a difference too, with an SE’s flatter chairs offering less lateral support but generally being more comfortable over long distances than the tighter sports seats of a Sport or M Sport model.

A six-speed manual gearbox is standard, although all models can be specified with an eight-speed automatic. The 120d is available with xDrive four-wheel drive for added traction, but this increases the weight.

The manual gearbox feels solid, if a little notchy through the gate, while the automatic is brilliant – smooth and quick shifting. The eight ratios of the auto mean it stays in the engine’s sweet spot more of the time.

All 1 Series models are quick, with even the cheapest 118i petrol dishing up the sort of 0-62mph sprint that’s firmly in the warm hatch league, and while the 116d might look comparatively sluggish on paper, its strong low end torque makes it feel flexible in real life.

The 1 Series’ dynamic ability means it’s better suited to its petrol engines generally, the high-revving character of these units adding to the driving enjoyment. That said, the very popular 118d and 120d models are positively rapid around town, owing to masses of low rev torque, while the 125d is a true high-performance diesel. This range-topping diesel option gives a fantastic blend of real-world pace and 60mpg-plus economy. It’s expensive to buy, though.

Moving up to the flagship M140i, it boasts one of the great six-cylinder engines, with a clever two-stage turbocharger meaning its peak torque comes in at a ridiculously low 1,300rpm. It also differs from the range by having a 7-speed auto as standard.

Engines

The petrol range begins with the 118i, which uses a 134bhp 1.5-litre petrol turbo three-cylinder engine. The 120i and 125i both get a 2.0-litre unit and the M140i uses a twin-turbo 3.0-litre straight six to generate 335bhp. The 116i was dropped with the 2015 facelift, and the M135i became the M140i in 2016.

The update saw BMW also add a three-cylinder diesel to the 1 Series range – namely the 115bhp 1.5-litre engine also found the MINI Cooper D and badged 116d here. The 118d, 120d and 125d models stick with a larger four-cylinder 2.0-litre diesel engine, tuned for different power outputs.

Even the 118i will do 0-62mph in 8.5 seconds and hit a top speed of 130mph, while the 120i does the sprint in 7.4 seconds, the 125i in 6.4s and the M140i in 4.6s. These are all quick cars, and although the M140i is the best sounding on account of its six-cylinders, the remaining four-cylinder engines have a smooth thrum all the way to the redline. None of them ever feels breathless if you’re in the right gear.

Around town, the higher-end four-cylinder diesel models – 120d and 125d – feel quick and eager. That’s because they boast 400Nm and 450Nm torque respectively – the latter only a little less than the M140i, and available as an automatic only. 

Arguably the most impressive engine overall, however, is the aforementioned three-cylinder diesel unit found in the 116d. With only three cylinders it manages to haul the 1 Series along nicely, and although it’s not the most eager to rev, with 270Nm it has 50Nm more torque than the 118i, so it’s a flexible motor.

It sounds pleasant enough too, with BMW having muted most of the diesel clatter. Given that it’s a three-cylinder diesel it’s remarkably smooth, both at idle and full tilt. 

Next Steps

Which Is Best

Cheapest

  • Name
    118i SE 5dr
  • Gearbox type
    Manual
  • Price
    £23,885

Most Economical

  • Name
    118i SE 5dr
  • Gearbox type
    Manual
  • Price
    £23,885

Fastest

  • Name
    M135i xDrive 5dr Step Auto [Plus Pack]
  • Gearbox type
    Semi-auto
  • Price
    £37,195

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