- Published 27 March 2020
- 7 minute read
- By Gavin Braithwaite-Smith
If you find the likes of the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus a tad too predictable, then the latest BMW 1 Series could be just the ticket: it's a small hatchback with an even posher badge - and is the first rung up the desirable BMW ladder.
The 1 Series has been around for a while now and packs a lot of what people like about the brand into a more compact package, with prices that are surprisingly affordable if you look to lease one rather than buy outright. That premium badge means it'll hold onto its value better than more mainstream hatchbacks, bringing down the all-important monthly payment.
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There's only one bodystyle to choose from, but a decent spead of engines and trim levels, so there's somthing for everyone, whether you want a simple town car or a red-hot hot hatch, an eco warrior or a company car that'll stand out in the car park.
The range is refreshingly simple, and with list prices starting from £24,500, the new 1 Series isn’t that much more expensive than its more mainstream rivals. Imagine the look on the faces of your car-obsessed colleagues when you coast into the office in your new BMW. #Winning!
Looks, tech and design
Let’s address the elephant in the room: that colossal front grille on the front of the car. There’s no doubt that the 1 Series' snout is a little on the large side, but – and you’re going to have to trust me on this – it doesn’t look so bad in the metal. Besides, it’s flanked by a pair of clever-clogs LED headlights, which are standard across the range. They're really reassuring when you're driving at nighttime, lighting up the way ahead with piercing ease.
Other standard features include automatic air-conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels (and bigger rims the further up the range you go), keyless ignition so you can keep your fob in your pocket or handbag, front and rear parking sensors, Apple CarPlay connectivity and cruise control. In the case of the 1 Series, the massive grille isn’t overcompensating for inadequacies elsewhere.
If you have the funds to upgrading from entry-level SE to Sport trim, you'll pay an extra £1,000 and get bigger 17-inch alloys in return, plus dual-zone air-conditioning, sport seats and a host of largely cosmetic interior and exterior upgrades. The M Sport trim is £2,800 more expensive than the SE, but boasts 18-inch rims, heated seats and styling tweaks designed to give it the look of a BMW M car from the firm's high-performance division.
Don't forget, if you lease your BMW 1 Series, the step up from different trim levels and engines is likely to be only a few quid more a month. It's another advantage of leasing, rather than buying, your next car.
There’s more room in the new car's cabin, despite it being 5mm shorter than the old 1 Series. That’s because it’s based on the same oily bits as the BMW X1 and X2 SUVs, so it's no longer rear-wheel drive with a long transmission tunnel bisecting the cabin. Boot space is up 20 litres, so you can take more water bottles to work, saving you those tedious trips to the watercooler. Please remember to use a reusable bottle.
The design of the interior has a striking resemblance to the 3 Series, which in turn is similar to the cabin you’ll find in the flagship 8 Series. When you consider the 8 Series costs upwards of £70,000, this makes the 1 Series seem a bit of a bargain. It's a highly digitised cabin, with electronic dials and more features geared towards the hyper-connected generation.
This is especially true if you opt for the pair of tech packs, both of which cost £1,500 when you buy. The first adds enhanced Bluetooth, wireless charging, a head-up display, parking assistance and adaptive LED headlights. The second boasts two 10.25-inch displays and a Harman Kardon surround sound system that'll blow your ears off. I suspect these will be two of the most popular packs in the UK.
I haven’t mentioned the high-performance M135i xDrive, which, for now at least, is the closest you can get to a full-fat 1 Series M car. It costs £35,000, but features many of the tasty upgrades that are optional on the other trim levels. It’s powered by BMW’s most powerful four-cylinder petrol engine, which is something to tell your car-loving mates.
With 306hp on tap, the twin-turbocharged M135i will hit 62mph in 4.8 seconds, with xDrive four-wheel drive on hand to ensure you’re kept on the straight and narrow. At the other end of the scale, may we recommend the humble 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol and choice of four-cylinder diesels? We suspect most people will opt for the 118d for its blend of performance and economy.
Spoiler alert: the BMW 1 Series is really good to drive! The petrolhead anoraks complaining about the switch from rear- to front-wheel drive appear to be forgetting that the likes of the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Mini Cooper and Ford Focus ST are driven through the front wheels. The last time I checked, those cars aren’t lacking in the fun department.
Every 1 Series has sophisticated multi-link rear suspension, which delivers crisp handling and a composed ride, even on cars with larger wheels. For the first time, the 1 Series offers the option of 19-inch rims, which can be fitted without fear of damaging your spine whenever you encounter a crack in the road. We'd stick with smaller wheels if possible, though - they make for a comfier ride and will be far cheaper when you have to replace a tyre.
The ride is not cushion-soft, even if you select Comfort mode on the optional adaptive suspension, but there’s a sense of connection with the road that will please BMW purists.
Predictably, the M135i offers the best driving experience, but the gap between the ultimate and entry-level models isn’t as wide as you might think. This is partly because BMW’s engineers have spent an awful lot of time perfecting the driving characteristics of the more affordable cars, but also because the M135i lacks drama and excitement. While it’s certainly rapid, it can also feel a tad sterile – a bit too grown-up and mature. A 118i M Sport offers nearly as much fun in a similar-looking package – and will save you around £7,500 in the process.
Cost and economy
Monthly leasing deals for a 118i SE, which is cheaper than a rival Mercedes-Benz A-Class. It’s only £25 a month more than a Ford Focus, so I can see why you’d want to upgrade to the German car. Who wouldn't be tempted by the famous blue-and-white propeller on the bonnet?
The diesel engines offer some truly remarkable fuel economy figures, with the 116d SE managing as much as 62.8mpg. The popular 118d returns a claimed 60.1mpg, so 50mpg should be achievable on your daily commute. This is very frugal motoring for these carbon-crunched times.
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Opting for the 120d will put a sizable dent in your wallet, not least because the engine is paired with four-wheel drive, to boost traction in slippery conditions (ideal if you live in the countryside or somewhere with plentiful snow each winter). I’d expect you would achieve 10mpg less, but this might be worth it for the superior all-weather capability.
As for the 1.5-litre petrol, the official figures are between 42.8mpg and 46.3mpg, so if you budget for the high 30s you’ll be close enough. It’s worth remembering that you’ll also save 5p per litre at the pumps versus a diesel.
With figures of 35.3mpg to 36.2mpg, you have to ask yourself if the M135i xDrive is worth the additional expense.
Forget the naysayers and the armchair critics, because the latest BMW 1 Series remains the best car to drive in the premium hatchback segment. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a keen driver, you’ll appreciate the direct steering, the composed ride and the sprightly turn of pace. It's great fun to drive.
It’s a bit cramped in the back – which is more a problem for your friends than you – and some of the options are quite expensive. But given the high level of equipment offered by the lowly SE model, you needn’t spend a fortune to get a 1 Series that’s right for you.
I’d argue that the new 1 Series is more rounded than the old model - it's a car with more universal appeal, even if some fans have fallen by the wayside.
Stick that in your watercooler and drink it.
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