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

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.

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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.

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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

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

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kamlottis 9 June 2013

what's not to like......

This vehicle looks while most marques are falling over themselves to thrust into the market nothing more than "superficial eye-catching" designs, BMW are keen to offer the market non-conformist designs that grows on you gradually......even as you're swept off your feet by the technological prowess of these full-passion delectable people carriers from Munich that the less sophisticated clientele amongst us still refer to simply as "cars"! So no need to wonder why it occupies the perch at the top of the pile as a brand......BMW disrupts the populist flow of thought with the their engineering innovation in this industry.....and the others only fathom the gist of the art 5yrs down the line......usually in a scramble! What's not to like.......

Mario B 21 December 2011

Re: BMW 120d

Englbert, how on earth can you say the ride is ok? Do you have a mattress on your bed, or sleep on planks?

drivenfromthere... 21 December 2011

Re: BMW 120d

Perhaps they'll do it over the holiday, in the style of the 12 days of Christmas.......