BMW’s five-door babe is better in every objective sense, but still lacks that crucial entertainment factor

Our Verdict

BMW 1 Series
The BMW 1 Series has sold more than two million units globally since it was launched in 2004

Measures up on comfort and space, but it’s still boring to drive

  • First Drive

    BMW 120d xDrive

    Adaptive four-wheel drive adds winter safety and dynamic interest to the BMW 1-series’ solid base at a potentially attractive premium
  • First Drive

    BMW 125i M Sport

    Slip through the six-speed manual gearbox and progress feels swift and incredibly smooth

What is it?

BMW’s second-generation 1-series five-door hatchback. It goes on sale in the UK this September priced from just under £20,000, although a 120d like the one we tested will set you back closer to £25k.

With limited practicality, mediocre material quality, curious styling and a flawed and uninvolving drive, the old BMW One never really earned its stripes in BMW’s habitual class-leading sense. Despite being four grand cheaper than an equivalent 3-series, it was consistently outsold in the UK by the bigger BMW saloon, not to mention most of its key rivals – and that’s in its second largest global market.

So, after a complete redesign and restyle and a through engineering overhaul, can the new 1-series stamp greater authority on what’s become Europe’s most important market segment for premium brand players?

What’s it like?

The new 1-series is a car that looks as if it’s been steered, albeit carefully, in the right direction. The press material talks less about dynamic rear-driven handling, and at reassuring length about enhanced comfort and accommodation, improved efficiency and new-to-the-class technology. Which is a good start.

Longer than the old car by 85mm, the new One has a wheelbase that’s been enlarged by 30mm, with 21mm of that extra inter-axle length gone to additional rear legroom. Both tracks have been widened too, by a natch over 40mm at the front axle, and over 60mm at the rear.

Although it’s grown, the new car is 30kg lighter than the old one: would have been 60kg, but climate control now comes as standard. And a thorough structural redesign means the car’s body-in-white is now more than 30 per cent more torsionally rigid across the front bulkhead. That’s good news for ride and handling, too.

Adrian van Hooydonk’s styling update hasn’t cured the ungainly proportions of BMW’s smallest model, but the net effect is a clear improvement. The new car looks lean, more aggressive than the last. The biggest aesthetic bugbear remains the car’s profile, though. Short, tall and backward leaning, it still looks awkward: like a gangly pup that’s had the carpet pulled out from under its paws.

Developed in tandem with the new 3-series, the new 1-series, like the last, has all-independent suspension: MacPherson struts up front and a five-link rear end. The car will be sold exclusively with turbocharged engines: two flavours of directly injected, twin scroll turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol power will be offered from launch (135bhp for the 116i and 168bhp for the 118i), and three 2.0-litre commonrail diesels (ranging from the 115bhp 116d up to the 181bhp 120d).

With 280lb ft of torque from 1750rpm, performance from the 120d is as strong as you’d hope: 60mph comes up in around seven seconds. The powertrain’s all the more exceptional because, fitted with ZF’s excellent eight speed automatic gearbox as an option and BMW’s Efficient Dynamics fuel-saving ancilliaries as standard, the car emits less than 120g/km of CO2. This is a car capable of bettering both 140mph and 60mpg; not at the same time, of course, but remarkable from the same car.

Open the driver’s door, lift your feet over the raised sill, and one or two signs of sophistication begin to show themselves. Material quality’s that bit more consistent in here than it used to be; the plastics around the door pulls, storage cubbies and steering column look much less cheap. Elsewhere the mix of trim on the fascia is varied and attractive – with one exception. Our ‘Urban’ spec car came with glossy white plastic highlights on the centre console, door handles and dashboard that look like offcuts from Apple’s iMac storage cupboard. Thankfully the same trims are available in gloss black, which would certainly compliment the rest of the interior better.

It’s still no packaging marvel, but the second-gen 1-series has enough head- and kneeroom for average-sized adults to sit line-astern in the two rows. You can be well over six feet tall and sit comfortably in the front. Getting in and out of the back is still something of a contortion routine, but once aboard bigger passengers can find reasonable comfort provided the front seats are sympathetically positioned. In short, a VW Golf is a considerably more practical car, but the 1-series may now be big enough to put up with – just.

Would it matter, though, that this new car was bigger, faster, classier and more efficient, if dynamic-centric BMW hadn’t also made it significantly better to drive? Well, the new 1-series is a notably more accomplished dynamic performer than its predecessor, for sure. But it’s still no class-leader.

Conjure up the memory of the last 1-series - of heavy steering shot through with understeer, and a tame chassis that lacked both balance and poise - and this new BMW seems a big achievement. Even on standard springs and passive dampers, it remains a fairly firmly sprung car. It still feels a little short of wheelbase and relatively tall of body at times; has a tendency to gently pitch fore and aft over larger lumps and bumps in a way that a car with a lower, longer profile wouldn’t. But it’s not without decent bump absorption or compliance, and equipped with BMW’s adaptive dampers set to ‘Comfort’ mode it’s softer still, yet only loses Munich’s trademark feeling of tautness on the worst surfaces.

Even with an electromechanical power-assisted rack the new 1-series steers with less effort and greater fluidity than the old car, and turns into corners more keenly. Those wider tracks have dialled out a lot of body roll along with some understeer. And there are more improvements besides.

So why no overall ringing endorsement? Because – and this is the bit that BMW really needs to heed – even counting the ‘perfect weight distribution’ and ‘standard drive’, we could name a dozen front-driven hatchbacks that each offer a much more involving at-the-wheel experience.

The original 1-series’ mechanical layout added almost nothing to the car’s handling; this new 1-series may feel more precise, more composed and less remote than the last, but it suffers with the same fundamental problem. It’s too tame, too unengaging to properly represent its maker’s perennial universal selling point. Its course through a fast bend isn’t responsive to adjustment via either brake or throttle pedal. Up your pace on a twisting backroad and, while other rear-drivers come alive, this one remains docile and inert.

Should I buy one?

BMW says that 70 per cent of 1-series buyers are new to the brand, and if that’s true, maybe the car’s main failing isn’t so critical. More rounded dynamics, greater refinement and usability, some great powertrains and a more appealing driving environment make this a 1-series that’s much easier to recommend against its peers, after all.

But it’s still not a great-driving BMW; doesn’t distinguish itself from other cars in the class with the entertainment you expect from a car with a blue-and-white propeller on the bonnet. And now you wonder if an ordinary 1-series hatch ever will.

BMW 120d

Price: £23,480; Top speed: 142mph; 0-62mph: 7.2sec; Economy: 62.8mpg; Co2: 119g/km; Kerbweight: 1420kg; Engine type, cc: 4 cyls in line, 1995cc, turbodiesel; Installation: Front, longitudinal, rear-wheel drive; Power: 181bhp at 4000rpm; Torque: 280lb ft at 1750-2750rpm; Gearbox: 6-spd manual

Join the debate

Comments
131

14 July 2011

[quote Autocar]Adrian van Hooydonk’s styling update hasn’t cured the ungainly proportions of BMW’s smallest model, but the net effect is a clear improvement. [/quote]

^^^ Should've gone to Specsavers.

currently a happy owner of a Mitsubishi Shogun Pinin :)

14 July 2011

Wow. This is the ugliest BMW I have ever seen

14 July 2011

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but if anyone looks at this they will go blind. It's like BMW are turning into Burbery, with a car that will get lot's more chav's into BMW's I'm sure. I for one hope brands like Jaguar stay out of this market, because this isn't a special car, it's a me too car.

14 July 2011

oh no. You just wouldn't.

And every recent BMW seems to have the exact same interior -it just gets wider depending on the model. BMW's range is turning into a very sombre samey looking bunch at the moment.

14 July 2011

the engines are unbelievably good , 60 in 7secs while managing 60mpgs and under 120 co2 ,only bmw can do it ,ugly car though

14 July 2011

Welcome to the future of the automobile.

14 July 2011

" Lighter, quicker, cleaner"

But good God is it ugly...

14 July 2011

Poor Autocar editing as well as it appears to have shown pictures of the rear of the Kia C'eed... or is it the Hyundai i30?

For BMW's sake, I only hope that a) the car looks better in reality and b) red is its worst colour. As ever though, great performance/running costs combo.

The comments section needs a makeover... how about a forum??

14 July 2011

Looks like a first gen 1 series shaped bar of soap that's been well used! Hopefully, the M-Sport styling pack redeems it in someway. As a plain-Jane SE it looks terrible.

14 July 2011

It is unacceptable for a car to look that hideous!

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