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A final facelift for the rear-wheel drive BMW 1 Series, as it aims to take class honours from the formidable Audi A3 and the Mercedes-Benz A-Class

There’s a revolution in compact car design going on at BMW at the moment. Whether by bad luck or bad judgement, though, that revolution won’t impact upon the firm’s biggest-selling compact car for another two years, and that is a source of annoyance unlikely to be lost on many in Munich.

Having already brought us the 2 Series Active Tourer and Grand Tourer premium MPVs, the new BMW X1 and the latest Mini hatchbacks, Mini Countryman and Mini Clubman, BMW’s front-wheel drive UKL1 platform will be pressed it into service under an all-new BMW 1 Series at some point in 2019, but not before making its appearance in the X2 SUV first.

BMW has gone to a lot of trouble updating the car’s engines, suspension, styling, cabin and equipment level in order to give the 1 Series a decent send-off

At which time, BMW may finally concede that engineering the original 1 Series as a rear-drive compact premium hatch cost a lot and delivered relatively little for a clientele who – according to the firm’s own research – didn’t even know which wheels propelled the car.

For those who did, and for anyone else minded to bag an example of the rear-drive hatch before it’s too late, enter the final facelifted version of the 1 Series. To its credit, and in spite of its plan for an overhaul, BMW has gone to a lot of trouble updating the car’s engines, suspension, styling, cabin and equipment level in order to give the 1 Series a decent send-off.

And it needed to. Since the F20 1 Series originally went before the road test desk’s gaze in 2011, it has been supplanted on our ‘compact premium’ class podium by the sophisticated and constantly improving Audi A3 and the better-looking Mercedes-Benz A-Class. But improved fuel economy and CO2 emissions seem like the right place for BMW to begin the fightback, in the shape of three and four cylinder petrol and diesel engines.

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Starting at the bottom is the triple-pot 116d and 118i, while the vast majority of the range is supplied with a four-cylinder motor powering the 118d, 120d, 125d, 120i and 125i. Topping the range is the majestic M Performance M140i with a 3.0-litre straight six in its nose. 

But it’s to the 116d EfficientDynamics Plus in particular that our attention turns, as this low-emissions special promises better performance and economy than its predecessor -making it one of the most frugal combustion-engined cars that money can buy. But does it now – finally – command the attention of business car users in the manner of its bigger siblings?


BMW 1 Series rear Road

BMW’s revised 1 Series is easier to spot from the back than it is at the front, by dint of a facelift whose biggest single styling change is the adoption of L-shaped LED tail-light clusters.

The premium car firm also claims a fairly extensive redesign to the surrounding sheet metal at the rear, with some sharper horizontal creases to emphasise width and new reflectors mounted in the bumper that are intended to do the same.

This facelifted BMW 1 Series gets new headlights, larger chrome-set kidney grilles and larger air intakes in the lower valance

Up front, there are new headlights, larger chrome-set kidney grilles and larger air intakes in the lower valance. It’s a fairly subtle facelift design-wise, but from a premium brand out to protect residual values, this is understandable. More importantly, most of our testers marked it as a worthwhile improvement.

The EfficientDynamics version, meanwhile, gets active aerodynamic flaps behind those kidney grilles in order to speed engine warm-up, while specially shaped vertical grille bars prevent excessive air pressure from building inside the engine bay, where it would otherwise add unnecessarily to the car’s drag. The front of the 1 Series is also better sealed against air ingress, contributing to an impressively low drag coefficient of 0.29.

Under the bonnet, the 116d moves from four longitudinally arranged cylinders to three. BMW’s new-generation B37 1.5-litre turbodiesel triple moves in where its outgoing 1.6-litre four-pot used to be, producing an identical 114bhp of peak power but an extra 7lb ft of torque, with NEDC-certified carbon dioxide emissions of just 89g/km.

The engine shares its cylinder bore spacing and individual cylinder capacity with BMW’s new B47 2.0-litre diesel, as well as features such as its forged steel crankshaft and conrods, integrated balancer shaft, bearing-guided turbo shaft and intelligent oil pump. The EfficientDynamics version of the 116d engine, as tested here, is also fitted with an on-demand water pump and a specific combustion chamber pressure control system.

The car’s all-independent suspension is carried over for the most part, but it has new mountings, revised damping and slightly altered wheel kinematics – the aims of all three being better steering feedback and a quieter and more settled ride. Like its predecessor, the 116d EfficientDynamics Plus rides 10mm lower than a typical 1 Series for a more aerodynamic profile.

The other diesels are made up of different versions of BMW's 2.0-litre four-cylinder oilburner in 118d, 120d and 125d guises. There are also four twin-turbocharged petrol engine options for buyers to peruse too, including a the three-cylinder 118i, the four-cylinder 120i and 125i, and the range is headed by the electric six-cylinder M140i - replacing the previous incumbant - the M135i.

BMW 1 Series interior

Longitudinal engines have always presented a huge packaging hurdle for the BMW 1 Series, simply because they leave less room for passengers than a transverse motor would.

In a perfect world, a shorter three-cylinder engine might have redressed that equation at least a little. But, as evidenced in all sorts of ways which we’ll come to, a perfect world is not where the 1 Series exists.

It's short on elbow and knee room, but the driving position is good for taller drivers. I'm 6ft 4in and don't struggle for leg or head room, but the driver's seat feels confined

And so the 1 Series remains a tight fit when you slide in behind the wheel. For longer-legged drivers, with the steering column at full telescopic range and the seat slid all the way back, it can be an awkward squeeze just to slip in between the B-pillar and the steering wheel.

Once you’re in, the cabin feels snug around your extremities – more so, in fact, than the interiors of most superminis do. If you don’t like that close-fitting impression from a compact car, chances are it’ll just feel restrictive.

In the rear cabin, the entry and exit routine is even more awkward, and there’s limited head and foot room in particular – so limited, in fact, that there’s space for teenagers and smaller adults only. The boot is a more reasonable size, being smallish but within about 10 percent of family hatchback norms on loading length, overall width and under-shelf height.

New seat upholsteries are among the changes made to BMW’s interior but, fitted with optional Dakota leather, our test car couldn’t show them off.

The standard leather steering wheel (complete with audio remote controls) and standard-fit iDrive system with 6.5in multimedia set-up will both meaningfully improve the ambience and technical appeal of less generously equipped cars. There are also new trims on the upper centre stack and around the audio and climate control consoles.

On top of all of that, there are three trim levels to choose from: SE, Sport and M Sport. The entry-level SE trim comes with a decent amount of equipment, including climate control, automatic wipers and lights, keyless start, DAB tuner and front foglights.

Upgrade to the mid-level Sport models and you will find 17in alloys shod in runflat tyres, four driving modes and sport seats, while the range-topping M Sport trim sees the addition of an aggressive body kit, LED head and foglights, interior ambient lighting and sports suspension. Part with a further £1295 and the M Sport Plus pack will adorn your 1 Series with a Harman and Kardon stereo and M Sport braking system.

If you find these 1 Series a bit pedestrian, than fear not: BMW has you covered with its M140i, which gets a full on M bodykit, dual-zone climate control, a chrome dual-exhaust system, a sporty steering set-up and BMW's superb 3.0-litre six-cylinder petrol engine pumping out 335bhp and 368lb ft of torque.

But even so enriched, the 1 Series’ cabin still doesn’t present much of a threat to the decluttered class of an Audi A3’s interior, or the smart-looking insides of a Mercedes-Benz Mercedes-Benz A-Class. The fascia continues to look and feel a bit plain and dull in places, and while many of the materials and switches feel worthy of a premium price tag in isolation, they somehow labour to create that impression when collectively judged.

BMW 1 Series turbodiesel cornering

The 116d Efficient Dynamics continues BMW's trend of confusing petrolheads with its badge designation and engine capacities. Up until this facelift, all diesel 1 Series variants were powered by 2.0-litre motors, including the 116d. This is no longer the case.

As previously mentioned, the 116d Efficient Dynamics is now powered by a 1.5-litre turbocharged three-pot diesel engine, with the rest of the diesel range staying loyal to the 2.0-litre capacity. The base 116d now develops 114bhp, the 118d has been upped to 147bhp and the 120d now pumps out 187bhp. The diesel flagship 125d (still in 2.0-litre form) develops a considerable 221bhp.

BMW’s six-speed manual gearbox is certainly an acquired taste, but it’s the only transmission on offer if you want the 89g/km of the Efficient Dynamics Plus model

Buyers seeking a petrol 1 Series have the choice of the 1.6-litre, three-cylinder, 134bhp 118i and 174bhp 120i - the 2.0-litre 125i with 214bhp and of course, the ballistic M140i with its 335bhp 3.0-litre twin turbocharged straight six engine.

Just by being a diesel BMW, the 116d Efficient Dynamics comes into this section with a heavy weight of expectation hung, albatross-like, around its neck, but with only three cylinders to call its own, it might not initially inspire the utmost confidence.

The new 1.5-litre triple, however, proves to be a credit to both the car and the BMW brand, delivering admirably peppy and flexible power combined with strong real-world economy and an industrious brand of likeability.

BMW’s six-speed manual gearbox is certainly an acquired taste, though, and it’s the only transmission on offer if you want the 89g/km of the EfficientDynamics Plus model.

The springy, notchy, occasionally fussy shift feel will be instantly familiar to long-time BMW owners, but the EfficientDynamics model’s low-resistance gearbox oil only serves to exacerbate the unit’s stubbornness – particularly when starting from cold.

Once you get used to the deliberate force required to change gears with any confidence, there’s the gearing to get on terms with. With a taller final drive than that of the regular 116d, the EfficientDynamics model feels extremely long-legged.

Around town, you’ll seldom get out of third gear, while sixth is too tall for even moderate motorway acceleration. As such, regular cog-swapping is necessary if you want to combine good economy with equally good ground-covering pace.

That the car manages to pull off those long ratios has everything to do with the operating range of its engine. The three-pot diesel is predictably spikey at low revs, firing some vibration through the pedals and seat. But its inherent advantage comes with engine speed, because as the tacho needle climbs, so the coarseness and wheeziness you expect of a diesel engine declines to materialise.

Although the engine produces its 114bhp peak power at 4000rpm, it revs to 5000rpm and beyond quite freely and responds smartly throughout the rev range with a pleasing, consistent spread of urge.

Real-world fuel economy is likewise impressive, and while it’s not the most civilised engine in its class, the 1.5-litre triple conforms to BMW’s modern turbodiesel mould. In other words, it’s ready to over-deliver on performance, efficiency and tractability above all else.

At the other end of the spectrum, the 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel lump of the 125d is remarkably linear in its delivery, with a broad power band that's almost free from lag and one that constantly wants to chase the redline beyond its peak power output at 4400rpm. Its hefty 331lb ft of torque from 1500-3000rpm makes the 125d unquestionably swift in real-world driving, too.

BMW 1 Series

To point out that nothing much has changed in this department may well do an injustice to the efforts of BMW’s chassis engineers – but it’s undeniably true. And it speaks volumes about Munich’s attitude to this 1 Series, which has always been simplistic. “It’s the only rear-driver in the class,” goes their rationale. “So what more do we need to do?”

“Plenty,” is the answer we’ve been giving for a decade – but to little avail. With its lowered suspension and low-resistance tyres, the 116d Efficient Dynamics Plus probably doesn’t represent the 1 Series at the height of its powers, granted. But it’s got the 1 Series is never as agile as you’d want a compact BMW to be. Somehow it continues to handle like a car tuned to protect you from its undesirable dynamic tendencies, rather than to benefit from the inherent advantages as you’re expecting.

The 1 Series still fails to deliver truly commendable, rewarding handling

And, for keen drivers, that remains the 1 Series’ chief disappointment. If you wanted a competent, balanced driving experience, you’d buy an Audi A3 or, better still, a Volkswagen Golf. You’re interested in a 1 Series because you’re willing to exchange any number of things for entertaining handling. And yet you don’t get it.

BMW 1 Series review hero front

The 116d EfficientDynamics Plus doesn’t look like the best-value option among its peers at list price, but that matters little.

Our sources suggest that it’ll retain value as well as a like-for-like Mercedes-Benz A-Class and be as cheap on contract hire as any of its immediate competition. The breadth of the lowest emissions band for company car tax means that BMW’s three-cylinder engine actually buys the car little advantage where you might expect it to – but simply being competitive on that front is good enough.

A concertedly economical driving style can see the trip computer heading up to 70mpg and beyond

The better news is that you need to add much less to the 1 Series by way of options than once was the case in order to bring it up to a competitive standard on equipment.

Automatic air conditioning, automatic headlights and wipers, keyless ignition, heated door mirrors, tyre pressure monitors, rear parking sensors, cruise control, a BMW Professional-spec radio with DAB and an iDrive multimedia system with 6.5in control display and sat-nav all come as standard.

The EfficientDynamics factor limits your options a bit. Avoid the optional wheels if you want to keep your tax bill down, while BMW's 'dakota' leather (£1150) and the Professional Media pack (£1295) are worth the money for private buyers.

We'd forgo a few options and pay an extra couple of grand - and two percent extra tax - for an eight-speed automatic 116d. On top, it'll probably be just as frugal as the EfficientDynamics, but easier to drive the rest of the time.

Those who pay for their own diesel should approve of the car’s fuel economy, which bettered 55mpg for our True MPG testers as an average real-world return. The BMW’s long gearing also lends plenty of potential to eke out your last few litres of fuel when you need to. A concertedly economical driving style can see the trip computer heading up to 70mpg and beyond.

3.5 star BMW 1 Series

More than a decade into its life, the 1 Series remains an enigma – for BMW, you suspect, every bit as much as for the car-buying public.

The idea of a compact, rear-drive alternative to the hatchback mainstream is as appealing now as it was in 2004, but BMW’s execution retains its original flaws: a shortage of space, a deficit of truly premium cabin ambience and a dynamic repertoire that falls frustratingly between two stalls.

The 116d is neither as rounded nor as refined as its most polished rivals

The 116d is neither as rounded nor as refined as its most polished rivals, nor is it the dynamic junior BMW that the company deserves.

You can appreciate why Munich is reaching for the reset button, but it has done well to put the 116d on such a sound footing on paper. This car’s new engine, and the performance, fuel economy and emissions it grants are credit-worthy, as is the monstrous BMW M140i, but the rest of car simply isn’t.

The next 1 Series will need to leave much more than its propshaft behind if it’s going to be much better.


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.

BMW 1 Series 2015-2019 First drives