The new 1-Series makes practicality strides by going front-wheel drive. But does that change the driving experience of BMW’s baby hatch?
On the road
On the road
One change stands out above all others with the new BMW 1-Series, and it’s the one that concerns which wheels actually propel the car.
Generations one and two of the smallest model in BMW’s line-up were rear-wheel drive to maintain the brand’s reputation as the driver’s car of choice in the segment. However, with this third-generation 1-Series, BMW has (and draw your own conclusions as to which reason is more powerful) succumbed to criticisms about the car’s space and practicality and, it claims, improved its proficiency in terms of producing a front-drive platform that maintains the driving characteristics owners expect.
1. It seems odd for the speedo to only have markings in 20mph increments, making it difficult to spot 30mph at a glance. Good job the digital display can show speed.
2. There's enough nice quality soft-touch material across the cabin to make the car feel good, especially the softer feel to the dash-top and interior door handles.
3. It's great that the presets can be used for phone and navigation memory as well as radio.
To be fair to the company, the 1-Series is definitely more practical than the old car, thanks to the new powertrain freeing up cabin and boot space previously taken by having to get power to the rear wheels. And it’s also still excellent to drive; a decent percentage of buyers will have no idea that anything so fundamental has changed.
Other things are less different, with the five-engine line-up being carried over from the previous car, although the efficiency figures are slightly better. There are three diesels in the form of the 116hp 116d, 150hp 118d and 190hp 120d, the last of which comes only in xDrive four-wheel-drive form at this stage.
They are complimented by a pair of petrol engines – the 140hp 118i, which will be the most popular choice overall, and the range-topping M135i which, at 306hp, is the most powerful four-cylinder engine BMW has ever built.
The 118i and 116d have the option of a six-speed auto for an extra £1350, while the 118d can be had with a seven-speed auto for £1600.
The 116d is expected to be almost entirely company car sales, helped immensely by the fact that it is the only diesel in the range that meets the RDE2 standard, so as well as already being one company car Benefit-in-Kind band better than its more powerful 118d sibling due to the 100g/km emissions figure, it also avoids the Government’s punitive four-band penalty for non-RDE2 units. The other diesels gain RDE2 compliance next spring to redress some of that.
Still, the 116d’s 100g/km figure is excellent, and beats those of its Audi A3 Sportback and Mercedes A-Class diesel rivals, and even that of the hybrid Lexus CT200h.
The new 1-Series comes with a choice of three trim levels, kicking off with the SE and running through Sport for a £1000 increase that brings 17-inch alloys, sports seats and dual-zone climate control. M Sport trim is expected to be popular at an additional £1800, adding 18-inch alloys, heated leather seats and folding mirrors, plus the M Sport-specific bodykit and sports suspension.
All cars come with an 8.8-inch touchscreen, front and rear parking sensors, 16-inch alloys and what BMW calls Active Guard Plus, which means front-collision warning with brake assist, lane-departure warning and speed limit assist.
Apart from the increasingly prominent grilles BMW is plunging itself into, the car is a successful development from a styling point of view. There are still plenty of crease lines and details, but it’s a lower, more muscular design that has a more distinctive character than its predecessor but which is also more clearly linked to siblings such as the X1 and X2 crossover models.
The car is 10mm shorter than the one it replaces, but BMW is claiming that the better packaging of the powertrain means the bulkhead can move forward to create extra cabin space, including 33mm of extra legroom in the rear. Although it’s still not the most spacious of places to be, the extra in the back is noticeable. The flat rear bench even makes carrying three small rear passengers a possibility. It’s a shame the downward slope of the roofline means taller passengers will find their eyeline meets roof lining rather than window, but it’s now at least on par with the likes of the A-Class.
Indeed, the BMW also beats the Mercedes for boot space now, with an additional 20 litres boosting the 1-Series to 380 litres, 10 up on the Merc and also matching that of the A3 Sportback.
Cabin quality belies the car’s position as the entry point to BMW’s range, with soft-touch materials especially noticeable across the top of the cabin, and on the door inner panel and handle. There’s not an overwhelming amount of interior stowage, with the wireless charger fitted to our test car as part of the £1500 Technology Pack 1 being a handy place to slot a phone, but leaving just two small cupholders and an average-sized area under the centre armrest. The door pockets have moulded elements to hold a drink bottle as well as a general stashing area, but that’s about it in terms of places to drop wallets, keys, sunglasses and other daily detritus.
Still, the 1-Series, as is true with most BMWs, has always forged a reputation based on how it drives, and the mild concern had been that this strength would be lost in the switch to front-drive form. Admittedly, this was only a mild concern because the Mini hatch has long proven that the company can do front-wheel-drive fun better than pretty much anyone else, and that form carries over impressively enough to the 1-Series.
BMW has produced a car that’s plenty of fun when the opportunity arises. It’s composed, has direct and well-weighted steering and even though the ride is on the hard side, it’s not as thumpy as it was in previous generations of the car, where the cost of that excellent handling was a noticeable drop in comfort. Our 116d Sport was also a significant improvement on the more fidgety 118i M Sport version previously sampled, with the lack of larger wheels or M Sport suspension set-up likely to be behind the preferable levels of comfort.
The 116d’s modest 116hp also proves to be more potent that expected, and the 1.5-litre unit doesn’t need to be worked anything like as hard as might be anticipated. It’s a real triumph, especially given the 100g/km emissions figure, and given it will be the dominant company car choice for drivers moving into a car list that gets them the BMW keyfob rather than one from a less prestigious make, it’s great to note that the lowest engine isn’t a compromised choice.
The manual gearbox is a slightly notchy shift, which will be recognised by anyone that familiar with manual BMWs, and the overall driving experience is distinctly 1-Series, which is a compliment.
The financial case also stacks up well, although the P11D price is a touch higher than those of Audi or Mercedes rivals. But the entry diesel manual of either brand can’t get closer than 10g/km to the new BMW’s emissions figure, which also performs better for SMR cost than either core rival. The A-Class does have a better residual value that gives it a narrow whole-life-cost victory, but the BMW holds a significant advantage in terms of a company car driver’s monthly BiK payments thanks to its RDE2 compliance. For a higher-rate taxpayer, it adds up to £48 per month less than the A-Class, with the A3 Sportback a further £10 per month away. The 1-Series is even cheaper to run and tax than the Lexus CT200h “self-charging” hybrid, a technology that has traditionally been better for CO2 than diesels. But the BMW sits 1g/km and 3.6mpg better.
The new 1-Series has successfully swapped rear-drive for front, which makes a decent difference to packaging and practicality. Crucially, the company has also managed it without losing the car’s core driving appeal. The styling may still be a touch divisive, but there’s less reason than ever before to rule out BMW’s entry point to premium-brand ownership.
The 1-Series became the entry point for the BMW range when the first-generation car (pictured) was launched in 2004, replacing the 3-Series Compact as the smallest car in the company’s line-up.
Unlike its rivals in the segment, it was rear-wheel drive, which also followed through to the second-generation model.
The first car came in four different bodystyles of three-door, five-door, coupe and convertible, codenamed E81/E20/E87/E88 respectively, and ran until 2011 when the car was replaced by the new model codenamed F20/F21. At that point the coupe and drop-top models switched to a 2-Series designation, as was the case with the 3-Series and its 4-Series coupe and convertible siblings.
The second 1-Series also brought four-wheel drive to the range for the first time.
The new model, codenamed F40, shares underpinnings with the X1 and sister brand Mini’s Countryman.
Although BMW admits its smallest model hasn’t the heritage of its iconic 3-Series, the car has a vital role; it draws in a huge number of conquest customers from other brands, as well as accounting for around 20% of the company’s sales.
What they said
What They Said
“The switch to front-wheel drive leads to an improvement in space and functionality. All passengers will now enjoy more space and improved practicality with 60/40 rear seat split and a larger boot with an optional electric tailgate."
“It is packed with the latest technology, including the option of two 10.5-inch display screens, head-up display and much more."
“The best part for Company Car Today readers? It features a range of enhanced combustion engines and gearboxes with reduced CO2 output, meaning lower BiK rates.”
Charles Turner, product operations manager (small cars), BMW UK
Need to know
Three things we like...
A wider boot aperture comes thanks to a new split tail lamp
The optional wireless charging pad holds a phone nicely, but nabs space
The optional interior lighting is a neat touch in a much-improved cabin
...And one we don't
As nice as the squat rear end looks, the narrow window isn’t great for rear visibility
The shift to front-wheel drive hasn’t altered the 1-Series’ position as the driver’s choice in the class.
The new hatch jumps to the head of the pack for emissions, although only the entry diesel is RDE2-compliant for lower BiK bills.
Much-improved packaging means reasonable rear passenger space and a slightly larger boot.
There’s not too big a jump between trim levels, and standard kit is improved over the previous version.
The latest car is a more muscular and less awkward-looking car. But it does succumb to BMW’s moves to ever-larger grilles.
Comfort and refinement 7/10
Ride quality is hard but much better on the Sport spec than M Sport, thanks to the smaller wheels and more compliant suspension. It’s a step forward from the previous car.
Quality is ahead of before and decent materials are present through the cabin. A bit more stowage space wouldn’t hurt.
Media connectivity isn’t the best, although BMW’s latest iDrive system and app technology is packed full of useful features.
Whole life costs 8/10
The higher P11D price reflects that the 1-Series is a newer car than its German rivals, but decent efficiency and running costs make for a model that will keep the finance director on side.
CCT opinion 9/10
Plenty of plus points and few negative ones make for a new 1-Series that should enhance its position as an attainable goal.
The new 1-Series addresses the weaknesses of the previous car, particularly the packaging, and maintains the driving enjoyment despite changing to front drive.