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In-depth reviews

BMW 1 Series review - Engines, performance and drive

The switch to front-wheel drive hasn’t dulled the BMW 1 Series’ dynamic appeal – in fact, it’s better to drive than before

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.5 out of 5

Engines, performance and drive Rating

4.5 out of 5

Price
£31,045 to £47,675
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The 1 Series has traditionally been one of the best-driving hatchbacks around – a reputation that BMW is keen to retain for this, the third-generation model. The latest 1 Series uses the UKL2 platform that until recently served as the underpinnings for the BMW X1, X2 and 2 Series Active Tourer – all good cars to drive in their own right. The 1 Series is now lighter and has a lower centre of gravity, with its chassis geared towards driver involvement. BMW itself describes the 1 Series as a 'Sports Hatch' and this doesn’t feel too far off the mark.

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Generally, all the hallmarks of modern BMW products are present and correct. The 1 Series boasts accurate, well weighted steering, powerful brakes and an inherent balance to its chassis that inspires confidence while providing a comfortable – if slightly firm in M Sport models – ride. There’s loads of mechanical grip too, both in front and four-wheel-drive models. At normal to high road speeds, most drivers won’t even notice that the 1 Series isn’t rear-wheel drive.

When we tested the entry-level, petrol-powered 118i in M Sport trim against a similarly specced Volkswagen Golf and Mercedes A-Class, it lost out a little on performance to the pair, but it was the most agile and rewarding from behind the wheel. As you’d expect for a BMW, the driving position is great, plus overall refinement in the 1 Series is excellent.

It was a similar story with the diesel 120d we drove in 2021. In contrast to a VW Golf GTD, which feels quite composed and sure-footed, the 1 Series is more nimble and willing to change direction, plus we found the BMW’s steering was far more direct. It was also the more refined of the two, with the eight-speed automatic transmission you get in the 120d smoother than the VW’s with its changes, and its extra gear makes motorway journeys that little bit more relaxing.

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There are two hot 1 Series variants in the line-up. The exclusively front-wheel drive 128ti adopts more of a back-to-basics approach, which means it’s not the fastest or most refined 1 Series, but it’s easily the most fun to drive. When we pitted it against the Volkswagen Golf GTI, the 128ti possessed a clarity of purpose that’s diluted in the VW. The flipside is that the VW delivers a much more comfortable ride on poor road surfaces.

Meanwhile the high-performance M135i – BMW’s answer to the Volkswagen Golf R and Mercedes-AMG A 45 – is impressively fast and delivers its performance effortlessly, but it’s not quite as characterful as rivals like the Honda Civic Type R; a flat engine note belies the car’s punch. It’s more than a match for the aforementioned German rivals, however – buckets of mid-range torque work well with the clever four-wheel drive system to make short work of twisty tarmac. However, it’s worth noting that, like the majority of four-wheel-drive hot hatches, most of the time the M135i is front-wheel drive to save fuel and reduce emissions, and only sends power to the rear wheels when necessary.

There’s no manual gearbox available in the M135i, but the eight-speed automatic feels a good fit, providing fast gearchanges, with upshifts accompanied by exhaust ‘pops’. When we tested this particular version against the Porsche Macan T, we found there was very little body roll regardless of how our test car’s optional adaptive dampers were configured. So if you go for this set-up, we’d recommend leaving them in the softer mode. Otherwise, the ride can become quite uncomfortable.

0-62mph acceleration and top speed

There are essentially two petrol and two diesel engines to choose from; either a 1.5-litre three-cylinder or 2.0-litre four-cylinder. Only the entry-level models get the choice of a six-speed manual gearbox, with the more powerful variants paired exclusively with an eight-speed automatic transmission.

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The 118i kicks off the range, powered by a 138bhp version of the 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine. Performance is peppy, with 0-62mph taking 8.5 seconds regardless of the gearbox, while the top speed stands at 132mph. For now, this is the only non-performance petrol offering in the range.

The 116d is the cheapest, least powerful but also most efficient diesel 1 Series. It produces 114bhp from its 1.5-litre three-pot and 0-62mph takes 10.3 seconds with the manual gearbox or 10.1 with an automatic. The step up is now the 120d, producing 187bhp from its 2.0-litre four-cylinder; it’s front-wheel drive and auto only, but the extra power allows for 0-62mph in 7.3 seconds. Top speeds are 124mph for the 116d and 143mph in the 120d.

The 118d is no longer part of the 1 Series line-up, but if you hunt down a used example, you get the 2.0-litre four-pot with a useful 138bhp; 0-62mph takes 8.5 seconds with the manual or 8.4 with the automatic.

The B-road-blasting 128ti produces 261bhp and 400Nm of torque from its 2.0-litre four-pot, and will allow you to hit 62mph from a standstill in 6.1 seconds. 

The fastest 1 Series in the range is the M135i xDrive; its 302bhp 2.0-litre engine and standard four-wheel drive are enough for a 0-62mph sprint of just 4.8 seconds – plenty to give the Volkswagen Golf R a run for its money. Like the 128ti, the M135i has an official top speed of 155mph.

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Which Is Best

Cheapest

  • Name
    120 Sport 5dr Step Auto
  • Gearbox type
    Semi-auto
  • Price
    £31,045

Most Economical

  • Name
    120 Sport 5dr Step Auto
  • Gearbox type
    Semi-auto
  • Price
    £31,045

Fastest

  • Name
    M135 xDrive 5dr Step Auto
  • Gearbox type
    Semi-auto
  • Price
    £42,850
News reporter

As our news reporter, Ellis is responsible for covering everything new and exciting in the motoring world, from quirky quadricycles to luxury MPVs. He was previously the content editor for DrivingElectric and won the Newspress Automotive Journalist Rising Star award in 2022.

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