REVIEW DATE: 12 Sep 2007
The 1 Series had a shaky start but BMW has devoted its corporate know-how to turning it into a winner. Jonathan Crouch reports
If you want a compact hatchback with a premium feel and rear wheel drive, there's the choice of a BMW 1 Series and.. well that's about it. That unique drive layout allied to a range of powerful engines gives it a unique selling point for enthusiasts but for the many others who just don't care and like the unique styling, there are plenty of other attractions. Primarily, it's the most efficient and affordable to run of all its rivals and whether you go for three or five-door hatch or Coupe or Convertible, it's a car with figures that stack up beautifully.
BMW is a company that has always done things differently, a refreshing trait in a sea of automotive sameness. The Munich maker's reputation as the purveyor of 'The Ultimate Driving Machine' was built around rear wheel drive and that famed perfect 50/50 weight distribution, cornerstones that were put to the test early this century when the time came at last to develop a compact hatch to slot in below their all-conquering 3 Series.
Compact hatches are packaged so tightly that they can only really be front driven - or at least that's what everybody thought until BMW brought out the 1 Series in 2004. They're also fairly conventionally styled, a concept this car again turned on its head with its unique, unconventional looks that offered a real alternative to cars like Audi's A3, Volvo's C30 and Mercedes' A-Class. An initial range of five-door hatches was quickly expanded, first with this smarter three-door version and then in 2008 with Coupe and Convertible models. All got BMW's EfficientDynamics engine technology for class-leading running costs.
Unless you count the MINI, all BMWs are built around rear wheel drive platforms. Why, the Munich maker asks, would you ever want your front wheels to simultaneously try and perform the tasks of steering and deploying power? Or to put it another way, how many Formula One cars are front wheel drive? Exactly. If you're an enthusiast, you'll notice the difference immediately you throw the car into a corner and enjoy the way that the back end pushes you through the apex. In the wet, if you're brave enough, you can even turn off the DTC (traction control) and DSC (stability control) electronic nannies and let the back slide out.
"The BMW 1 Series is unique - and how many practical modernday cars can you say that about?"
And if you're not a would-be racer? Well, you don't need to be a Grand Prix driver to appreciate slick body control, perfect cornering balance and supremely judged damping. Sum it up how you will, maybe just as a rather vague feeling of responsiveness that you can't quite put your finger on but that is very pleasing nonetheless. Part of it is that this car really feels sporty even before you actually go anywhere. You sit relatively low, cocooned by a broad facia and central transmission tunnel. The wheel and gearstick fall to hand beautifully and feel great to use. And there's one of those stop/start dash buttons you get on sportscars to fire everything into life.
All the engines are more powerful than you would expect, with even the 141bhp unit in the 118d diesel variant strong enough to push the car to sixty in under nine seconds on the way to 130mph. The top 204bhp 123d diesel reduces these figures to seven seconds and around 150mph, only a whisker slower than the 258bhp 3.0-litre 130i petrol flagship.
Designer Chris Chapman was trying to give this compact hatch the look and feel of a BMW Z4 sportscar. It's not everybody's cup of tea but viewed in that light, you can see what he was trying to do. The car has a strong shoulder line, a ridge surmounting a concave-then-convex flank, plus a long, shallow side-window line that offers those sitting in the rear seats a glass area that extends far enough back to give a decent view out.
One legacy of rear wheel drive is the presence of a transmission tunnel that renders it virtually impossible to seat three across the back seat, but then for most customers, that would be irrelevant anyway - it's not what the 1 Series is all about. If you want a practical car, go and buy a mini-MPV. For the record, there's 330 litres of boot space with the rear seats in place, a figures which extends to 1150 litres with the bench folded in the hatchback models, extra capability you might miss if you opt for a Coupe or a Convertble. One positive about the rear driven layout is the way that it frees up space in the front passenger footwells.
Prices sit significantly above ordinary family hatchback models from mainstream makers of course, though you'll not be paying much more than you would be for, say, a decently specified Volkswagen Golf. Three and five-door hatches mainly retail in the £17,000 to £27,000 bracket, with the Coupes in the £22,000 to £30,000 bracket and Convertibles in the £23,000 to £33,000 sector. The different bodystyles have different engine options but where direct comparisons can be made, you're looking at paying a premium of around £1,000 over the three-door if you want a Coupe but around £3,500 more if you want a Convertible.
So to engines, always a BMW strongpoint. First diesels. The same 2.0-litre four cylinder unit is used across the range, developing, depending on how it's tuned, either 116bhp in the 116d, 141bhp in the 118d, 177bhp in the 120d or 204bhp in the 123d. The power steps are similar in the petrol range where there's a choice of the 116i with 116bhp, the 118i with 143bhp, the 120i with 170bhp and the six cylinder 130i with 265bhp. That covers three and five-door hatchback hardware. The Coupe and Convertible variants pick and choose between the nicest of these engines and also add a 306bhp twin turbocharged 135i petrol variant at the top of the range.
Equipment levels include most of what you'd expect, with the SE and Sport models that most people choose featuring climate control, 16-inch alloy wheels and front fog lamps. Bear in mind that sporty models with their stiffened suspension (or indeed simply a 17-inch alloy wheel upgrade) might not be the best idea for day-in, day-out motoring on bumpy British B-roads.
The 1 Series has a reputation as a premium product and if you're looking at models like the 120d and the 130i, they're certainly not cheap. What's less well known is that the 118i or this 118d can be yours for less than the price of a half-decent Volkswagen Golf and they feel a whole lot more special than any mainstream hatch. Plus of course, they cling on to their value better, a 116i five-door retaining a hefty 51% of its value after three years and managing a 37.6 pence per mile three-year running cost.
BMW's EfficientDynamics programme has done an outstanding job in reducing emissions and improving fuel economy thanks to tweaks like the stop/start technology that feels a little odd the first time you drive the car and stop at the lights. You'll appreciate the returns though - over 60mpg in the 118d in a regular basis, twice that of the thirstiest petrol unit. Emissions range between 118 and 138g/km of CO2 for the diesels and between 139 and 198g/km of CO2 for the petrols. Insurance for the hatchback variants ranges between groups 10 and 16.
The BMW 1 Series is unique - and how many practical modernday cars can you say that about? In throwing convention out of the window in both the way that it drives and the way that it looks, it's the definitive Marmite car, a model that will please and possibly alienate people in equal measure.
Those looks sit more easily on the eye these days, especially in the more recently introduced bodystyles and the engine range is second to none when it comes to both power and efficiency, not to mention choice. Bottom line? Well on paper and on road, it stacks up brilliantly. It's a car that premium hatchback buyers can't ignore.
The results below show the top 1 SERIES deals on buyacar
|BMW 1 Series 118d ES 2dr diesel coupe|
|Price £20,155||Save £2,445|
|BMW 1 Series 118i ES 2dr convertible|
|Price £22,147||Save £2,783|
|BMW 1 Series 116i Sport 5dr hatchback|
|Price £19,164||Save £2,116|
|BMW 1 Series 118d Sport 5dr diesel hatchback|
|Price £20,808||Save £2,432|
|BMW 1 Series 120d xDrive M Sport 5dr diesel hatchback|
|Price £24,537||Save £3,098|
|VIEW MORE DISCOUNT 1 SERIES DEALS|
|For 1 SERIES RANGE|
|OVERALL||7.1 OUT OF 10|
|Space / Versatility||5|
Let our car quote assistant help you configure your ideal new 1 Series - it's 100% free and easy to use...
Click below for more information: