The BMW 1 Series, being the first number unless they start including fractions in their nomenclature, is the smallest model the German automaker produces. It’s a premium hatchback that, unlike its contemporaries such as the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, Audi A3, and the Volvo V40, in true Bimmer fashion is driven by the rear wheels.
This singular characteristic, coupled with the manufacturer’s handling know-how, endows it with a dynamism on the road that its front-driven rivals just can’t equal, even if it does suffer slightly with regards to interior space as a consequence. Despite being technically the lowest denomination in the BMW stable, it proudly carries that premium badge and the price tag to match.
To justify this, BMW’s second-generation 1 Series hatch does come with a nicely appointed interior and a wide range of engines to suit most needs for power, economy, and price - from the fuel-sipping 118d to the M140i’s 3.0-litre straight-six for proper performance credentials.
“Sydney’s own Calvin Luk, now a member of BMW’s exterior design studio in Munich, was responsible for the key cosmetic changes;” - WhichCar
The second-generation 1 Series you’ll see in BMW showrooms throughout 2017 certainly looks more complete than how it initially debuted in 2011. The facelift (or Life Cycle Impulse in Bimmer-speak) in 2015 went a long way to eschew the more polarising design elements and add some polish to its look.
It now has a level of design cohesion with other BMWs like the 3 Series and 5 Series that it previously did not, particularly up front with the new headlights and larger kidney grilles. Another common impression is that it tends to look larger than it actually is thanks to that relatively long and horizontal bonnet where most other cars of this size have one that's more steeply raked.
There are no shortage of cars that occupy a similar footprint on the road but the strong shoulders and more understated clues such as the subtle creases do give it a unique presence, and the updated fascia makes it instantly identifiable as a BMW.
The design still does divide opinion but compared to the rather conservative Audi A3 and ageing Volvo V40, the 1 Series stands out as the more aggressive entrant, especially with the M Sport Pack treatment applied - something BMW no doubt wanted to achieve.
Engine and Drivetrains
“The eight-speed auto….remains preternaturally adept at choosing the right ratio, and shows no hesitancy in daily urban driving.” - CarAdvice
The improvements BMW made to the 1 Series’ styling were indeed welcome, if a little subtle. What was a more substantial improvement was the engine line-up resulting in some of the best powerplants in its class.
It kicks off with the 118i which uses a 1.5-litre 3-cylinder petrol engine to kick out 100kW and 240Nm. It’s an engine we’re already familiar with from the base 3 Series and it performs even better in the 5-door hatch, dispatching the century sprint in 8.7 seconds while capable of sipping as little as 4.8-litres/100km.
But if fuel economy is a paramount concern, there’s the 118d with a claimed 3.8-litres/100km. Displacement differs from the petrol 118i with the turbodiesel being a 2.0-litre with 4-cylinders, good for 103kW and 320Nm. It's a very smooth performer and offers ample acceleration while overtaking while taking 8 seconds to reach 100km/h from rest.
Next up, the 120i with its 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder is typically the sweet spot with buyers looking at the 1 Series. It offers comparable real world efficiency to the smaller engines while the 135kW/270Nm power figure and zingy personality suits the car nicely.
The 2.0-litre petrol engine in the 125i, however, offers more performance and is similar to the unit powering the MINI Cooper S, producing 160kW and 310Nm. This is the version to get if you want to make owners of hot hatches like the Golf GTI a little insecure.
Finally we have the M140i which is the cherry atop the 1 Series sundae. Here BMW chose to shoehorn the 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-six that generates 250kW and 500Nm.
While not cheap at close to $65,000, that’s still a staggering amount of performance for the money, and does come standard with the Adaptive M Suspension to help harness all that thrust. Although not technically a full-fledged member of BMW’s M line-up, the M140i can handily trade blows with the Mercedes-AMG A45 and Audi RS3 or even some purpose built sports cars like the Porsche 718 Cayman.
Every 1 Series, no matter the engine choice, can be specified with a six-speed manual transmission or an 8-speed automatic transmission developed by ZF.
“…the driver and front-seat passenger are treated like royalty with a pair of manual-adjusted sport seats that provide almost-indulgent degrees of comfort and support,” - Motoring
When it first came to market, the original F20 1 Series’ interior wasn’t met with the warmest of responses. However with the 2015 update, BMW has brought it up a few good notches to have it on par with their more established offerings.
The build quality is top notch and the materials chosen are well integrated and premium-feeling. It’s only when you reach far below where you shouldn’t be poking and prodding that the harder plastics can be felt.
Specify it with some of the sportier or more luxurious trim and accent options and the 1 Series can look and feel truly upmarket, just about on par for sheer quality as the Audi A3 but probably not for interior flair. That is, if you are willing to stretch your budget that far.
It’s a very functional interior, one that scores well on being intuitive and ergonomic, while retaining a sporty edge that’s appreciable the more you drive - an attribute common in BMWs. Front passengers will be well taken care of as the seats are comfortable and supportive with plenty of scope for adjustment to find just the right position. Rear occupants, though, may have a tougher time.
Due to the 1 Series being rear-wheel driven, the transmission tunnel has to run the length of the car and can impede leg placement for a third rear passenger. A middle hump isn’t out of the ordinary but here rear legroom is less than its main rivals.
Open up the boot, however, and the 1 Series reveals itself to be a rather practical car with 360-litres of cargo space before the rear seats are folded to expand that to a decently cavernous 1,200-litres. There’s hardly any annoying lip to the boot and the aperture itself is wide and relatively close to the ground.
Behind The Wheel
“It corners and steers with greater precision than the original 1 Series did, and it has better lateral body control and better-balanced grip levels.” - Autocar UK
As BMW has bragged about since the first-generation 1 Series (E87) back in 2004, this is the only rear-wheel drive car in its class. We’ve touched on some of the practicality compromises that this causes, but where it pays off is in pure handling.
Sure, front-wheel drive cars these days are getting very good at sticking to corners with minimal understeer but the amount of fun that can be easily extracted from such a drive layout is limited compared to rear-driven cars like most BMWs.
‘Most’, because the current 1 Series is something of a unicorn - the last of its kind. Its successor will be front-wheel drive, at least in standard guise, with the possibility of four driven wheels via the BMW's xDrive system. It is to be based on the UKL1 platform that was used for the most recent batch of MINIs before being ported to the BMW badge with their 2 Series Active Tourer.
Sure, BMW’s extensive knowledge on how to make a car handle will surely enable them to make a front-drive car a blast through the bends - the MINI Cooper S being a prime example. For most buyers, perhaps, that’s enough to make them not care about where the power is sent.
As it stands, the 1 Series of today is lauded for its responsive but sophisticated dynamics, though isn’t as revelatory as some other BMWs. Still, steering is accurate and chassis behaviour is playful but predictable. Suspension is on the firm side but can handle bumps and dips well enough on the standard springs but the adaptive suspension is worth splurging on for a better ride.
Safety and Technology
“…generous amount of standard safety equipment, including a clever five-stage traction control system, four airbags, and a raft of safety accessory options like lane departure warning and low speed automatic braking.” - AutoExpress
The 1 Series was originally tested in 2011 by Euro NCAP where it was given a 5-star safety rating and comes standard with dual front, side, and curtain airbags for front and rear passengers. This score was also corroborated by ANCAP.
BMW equips all 1 Series with cruise control, reversing camera, rain sensing wipers, parking distance control sensors, and automatic headlights. And of course there’s the class leading iDrive infotainment system that uses a control wheel to manipulate settings. Honestly, we can’t figure out why most automakers aren’t adopting this input method.
And while Bluetooth connectivity and satellite navigation is standard as well, an upgraded higher-resolution 8.8-inch display only comes with the optional Innovations Pack which includes support for Apple CarPlay and a more advanced navigation suite.
Additionally, every version of the 1 Series receives access to BMW’s ConnectedDrive that can provide real-time traffic information in addition to some other intelligence features and assistance services.
Among the broader spectrum similarly sized cars, there’s really nothing glaringly lacking from the 1 Series. It certainly is a premium car, and when compared to its rivals it still stands as quite a compellingly complete package.
It has always led the pack in terms of being the best premium hatch to drive, and on that front it’s better than ever, but now BMW has done what it can to plug the second-generation's shortcomings. Its engine line-up is now very strong indeed, ranging from high efficiency to high performance, has a better appointed and more comfortable interior, and the build quality has been improved significantly.
As an all-rounder, the 1 Series can definitely handle everything one might expect from a premium family hatch. Sure, many other cars can easily do the basics just as well, and often for a cheaper price. However, the breadth of talent and posh badge means that anyone in the market for a prestige upgrade over a Ford Focus or Volkswagen Golf should definitely give BMW’s hatch a long look.
AutoExpress - 4/5 - “An entertaining drive, high quality and with a range of engines that goes from extremely economical to extremely quick, the BMW 1 Series has it all – on paper, at least.”
CarAdvice - 8/10 - “The 2015 BMW 1 Series offers a lot of compelling reasons to be the pick of the bunch for entry-model luxury cars. Be it the rear-wheel drive architecture, expanded feature list, performance credentials or just its sheer practicality.”
Motoring - 79/100 - “Compromised in terms of packaging by its rear wheel drive configuration, BMW’s 1 Series hatch relies on its supposed dynamic benefits over the front-drive competition to draw customers.”
WhichCar - BMW admits to being in third position in this part of the market, behind its traditional Deutsch rivals Audi and Merc, and has added some much-need premium-ness to the 1 Series line-up, plus extra equipment, and even sharper pricing.
EVO Magazine - 4/5 - “Obviously many buyers will choose it because it has a BMW badge on the bonnet and they will be particularly pleased to see the facelifted model that arrived in 2015, as it looks far more attractive. On top of all that the 1-series remains one of the most efficient cars in the segment.”