It's sporty on paper and can be had from just £4k, but does it deliver? We consider the 1 Series as a used buy...

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Despite having a smaller, less practical cabin than its conventional rivals, the old BMW 1 Series (F20/F21) for many years featured regularly in the UK’s top-sellers list.

That’s why BMW gave its last rear-wheel-drive hatchback the full works come mid-life update time in 2015 – a fresh look, some new engines and more equipment – rather than just a lazy lick of paint.

What do you get, then? A range of powerful and efficient engines, for one thing. The big news in 2015 was the arrival of the 116d Efficient Dynamics Plus, with its 1.5-litre three-cylinder diesel engine offering 114bhp and 68mpg. However, more buyers were attracted to the 118d (with a 147bhp 2.0-litre four) and its lustier cousins, the 187bhp 120d and 221bhp 125d.

They are all great engines (and compliant with Euro 6 emissions standards), but the petrols were more popular still. The 134bhp 1.5-litre triple in the 118i is willing and characterful, but the 181bhp 2.0-litre four in the 120i, the 221bhp 2.0-litre four in the 125i and the 322bhp 3.0-litre straight six in the sporting M135i make greater use of the RWD chassis. In 2016, the M135i was replaced by the M140i, which boosted output to 335bhp yet was also more frugal.

In 2018, the 120i and M140i got the latest eight-speed Steptronic Sport automatic gearbox as standard, while the regular eight-speed auto, which is an excellent alternative to the notchy six-speed manual, continued on most models. A part-time four-wheel drive system, badged xDrive, was available on the 120d only. To these eyes, the facelift made the 1 Series better looking: the body creases flatter the shape, while the rear benefits from L-shaped LED lights and the front from restyled headlights, a more assertive grille and wider air ducts.

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The dashboard was slightly cluttered compared with rivals’ cleaner designs, but to some it will look pleasingly busy and sporty. It was improved in 2017. Material and build quality are excellent and the facelift brought some new finishes, too.

Regarding trims, SE is notable for its deeper tyres and softer suspension, while Sport brings larger but less forgiving run-flat tyres and sports seats. M Sport adds sports suspension and M Sport Plus features uprated brakes and a posher sound system. All have climate control and BMW’s excellent dial-controlled iDrive infotainment system, which was also uprated in 2017.

The front of the cabin is roomy enough for most, but the rear is short on head room and any central passenger will hate the transmission tunnel. The five-door version is more practical than the three-door, of course, even if the rear door apertures are narrow.

The boot is smaller than rivals’ but still a decent 360 litres. The back seats do fold down, but note that a 40/20/40 split was only an option.

This 1 Series was indeed flawed, then, but with the brutish M135i and M140i, efficient 120d and playful 120i in the mix (even the lowly 118i offers fun on a budget), it’s easy to forgive. Save worries about practicality for another day...


Engine: All engines have timing chains: so far, the newer ones appear to be free of the tensioner problems that plagued pre-facelift ones, in particular the diesels. For peace of mind, only buy a car with a full service history and verifiable oil and filter changes.

Gearbox: Premature clutch failure has been reported on some models. Even healthy manual gearboxes have a springy and notchy change action, but anything worse is best avoided.

Steering, suspension and brakes: Check for knocking sounds when you turn the steering wheel, a problem likely to be caused by uneven wear of the rack teeth. Water ingress, a problem recorded on some cars, can short-circuit the steering system or cause a warning light to show. Listen for rear suspension noises possibly caused by faulty dampers or mounting bushes. Check the brake fluid has been changed regularly and that discs and pads have reasonable life remaining, because genuine replacements are expensive.

Interior: Make sure the iDrive system is free of glitches and the USB connections work. Rattling door trim is a common problem and difficult to resolve.

Body and wheels: Leaf debris in the bulkhead drains can block them, causing rain to soak the electrics. Larger wheels are prone to kerbing and expensive to repair.

Recalls: There have been a number of recalls relating to issues ranging from a faulty driver’s backrest and failure of the propshaft universal joint to power steering failure and a clutch problem resulting in loss of drive.


BMW 1 Series rear Road

This revised generation of 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 was the adoption of L-shaped LED tail-light clusters.

The premium car firm also claimed 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.

Up front, new headlights were fitted, with larger chrome-set kidney grilles and larger air intakes in the lower valance. It was 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, received 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 also became better sealed against air ingress, contributing to an impressively low drag coefficient of 0.29.

Under the bonnet, the 116d moved from four longitudinally arranged cylinders to three. BMW’s 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 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, the car we tested, was 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 gained 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 of the period 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 always presented a huge packaging hurdle for the 1 Series, simply because they left 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 this 1 Series exists.

And so the 1 Series is 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 many rivals 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 were among the changes made to the 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 both meaningfully improve the ambience and technical appeal of less generously equipped cars. 

On top of all of that, three trim levels could be chosen from: SE, Sport and M Sport. SE trim got 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 received 17in alloys shod in runflat tyres, four driving modes and sport seats, while the range-topping M Sport trim saw the addition of an aggressive body kit, LED head and foglights, interior ambient lighting and sports suspension.

If you find these 1 Series a bit pedestrian, than fear not: BMW has you covered with the M140i, which got 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 A-Class. The fascia looks and feels 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 continued 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. Come 2015, this was no longer the case.

As previously mentioned, the 116d Efficient Dynamics got 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 got an output of 114bhp, the 118d was upped to 147bhp and the 120d pumps out 187bhp. The diesel flagship 125d (still in 2.0-litre form) develops a considerable 221bhp.

Buyers seeking a petrol 1 Series got 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 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 not much 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 the 1 Series is never as agile as you’d want a compact BMW to be - somehow it handles like a car tuned to protect you from its undesirable dynamic tendencies, rather than to benefit from the inherent advantages as you’re expecting.

And, for keen drivers, that is the 1 Series’ chief disappointment. If you wanted a competent, balanced driving experience, you’d buy the then Audi A3 or, better still, 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

Our sources suggest that the 1 Series will 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.

The better news is that, no matter whch 1 Series you choose, you always get generous levels of 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 came as standard.

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

Even to this day, the F20/F21 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, nor was it the dynamic junior BMW that the company needed at the time.

But Munich 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.

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 First drives