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.