Measures up on comfort and space, but the BMW 1 Series is still boring to drive

Find Used BMW 1 Series 2011-2015 review deals
Offers from our trusted partners on this car and its predecessors...
Used car deals
From £1,489
Sell your car
In partnership with
Powered by

You could set your watch by BMW’s model renewal cycle. The second-generation BMW 1 Series turned up to its Autocar road test almost seven years to the day after the first. We liked the original car enough to award it a four-star rating and were impressed by its excellent performance, mechanical refinement and desirability. But it also disappointed in several key areas.

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.

Drive with too much urgency in Eco Pro mode and it tells you to "moderate your acceleration". Wouldn't it be smarter if the mode disengaged with more than 75 per cent throttle?

The baby BMW brought a unique selling point to the premium C-segment – driven rear wheels – but not without compromise. Finding room for a longitudinal engine up front and a transmission tunnel made the car cramped in the rear. In a few areas, it fell short of BMW’s usual standards on cabin quality. Most frustrating of all, it didn’t have the balanced, involving drive we expected from a ‘standard drive’ BMW.

Into which context enters the second-generation 1 Series. After a complete redesign and restyle and a through engineering overhaul, can the new 1 Series stamp greater authority on what has become Europe’s most important market segment for premium brand players? And does the car now have the compelling dynamics of a class-leading BMW?

Back to top



BMW 1 Series rear

The BMW 1 Series is a car that looks as if it has been steered, albeit carefully, in the right direction. BMW 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 1 Series by 85mm, the current car has a wheelbase that has 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 gnat's over 40mm at the front axle and over 60mm at the rear.

The BMW 1 Series is BMW's first model to feature an instructive driving mode that's dedicated to saving fuel

Although it has grown, the new car is 30kg lighter than the old one. It 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 percent 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 and 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 has had the carpet pulled out from under its paws.

Developed in tandem with the new BMW 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 is sold exclusively with turbocharged engines, including big-selling 1.6-litre petrol and 2.0-litre common-rail diesel units.

Recent additions to the range include the 125i, 125d diesel and M135i, a flagship that forms part of BMW's new M Performance range. Every 1 Series model can now be had with M Sport trim, offering welcome styling upgrades but with lowered suspension that does nothing for ride quality.


BMW 1 Series interior

It’s no exaggeration to say that certain 2+2 coupés accommodate rear seat passengers better than the original BMW 1 Series hatchback did. But thanks in no small part to longer rear doors, the current car is one that you could justly describe as big enough – provided adults in the back aren’t particularly long of leg. We measured the car’s maximum rear legroom at 860mm, which is within 40mm of an Alfa Romeo Giulietta’s. The BMW is still not what you’d call a practical car, then, but it’s usable enough.

In the front, there’s plenty of headroom, shoulder space and legroom, and the pedal and steering wheel positioning is good. An abundance of telescopic adjustment on the steering wheel was combined with a generous adjustment for squab height and angle of the comfortable seats.

Leather steering wheel is now standard so it's a not-so-fond farewell to the horrible old plastic rim

The fascia design apes that of the BMW 6 Series coupé, with a centre stack canted towards the driver and a swathe of high-gloss plastic dividing the driver and front passenger zones. It’s an attractive interior that seems well judged for an entry-level BMW, if a little short on pizzazz.

And is the quality there? The material quality of BMW’s fixtures and fittings certainly seems good. From the satin-silvered audio and ventilation knobs to the glossy black air vent surrounds, the car’s lesser cabin appointments are genuinely appealing. It’s just a shame that BMW hasn’t matched them with more tactile door cards and a glovebox and dashboard roll-top that speak of the same richness and quality.



BMW 1 Series

All three diesel engines available in the BMW 1 Series hatchback use the same 2.0-litre common-rail unit found in other BMWs. The base 116d has 115bhp, the mid-range 118d has 143bhp and the range-topping 120d 181bhp.

Confusingly, the 125d also features a 2.0-litre powerplant, but of a newer design and shared with the X1. It produces 215bhp, 332lb ft and, when equipped with the eight-speed auto, a remarkable 126g/km of CO2 and 58.9mpg.

Even the 120d offers more than adequate performance; with 280lb ft of torque from 1750rpm, 60mph comes up in around seven seconds.

The engine's generous mid-range torque allows it to accelerate out of corners with the urgency of a middle-order hot hatch

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 ancillaries as standard, the car emits less than 120g/km of CO2. This vehicle is capable of bettering both 140mph and 60mpg; not at the same time, of course, but remarkable from the same car.

The 143bhp 118d takes 8.9sec to cover 0-62mph whereas the 120d manages it in 7.2sec. Perhaps most impressive of all is the fact that the most powerful version of the engine emits only 2g/km more than the 118d’s 118g/km and is quoted as having the same 62.8mpg combined fuel consumption as the lower-powered car.

The choice between the 118d and its more powerful brother is going to come down to money because, in the real world, the difference in performance is not wide enough to count.

Three petrol versions of the five-door are also offered: the 218bhp 125i is now offered alongside the 167bhp 118i and the entry-level 134bhp 116i. The latter two are powered by a 1.6-litre engine that, BMW says, is its first petrol four-pot to feature twin-scroll turbocharging, direct injection, Valvetronic variable valve timing and double-Vanos variable valve lift. Even in base 116i form, it’s an impressive motor on paper, producing 162lb ft of torque from 1350rpm and an almost diesel-rivalling 177lb ft on overboost.

The twin-scroll 2.0-litre turbocharged engine in the 125i develops 228lb ft of torque to accompany the 218bhp produced, and enables the 125i to hit 60mph from rest in 6.5 seconds and record a top speed of 151mph.

The BMW M135i sits at the top of the 1 Series range. Despite being a half-way house M Performance model, it delivers performance that matches that of the fully-fledged 1 Series M Coupe. When specced with the automatic gearbox, the M135i can sprint from 0-60mph in under five seconds and reach a limited top speed of 155mph. Lag is minimal from the turbocharged three-litre straight-six, and stunnng performance is available throughout the rev range.


BMW 1 Series cornering

When asked during early market research how they would change the ride and handling of their car, the majority of BMW 1 Series owners wanted better rolling refinement. So says BMW, which is why it focused squarely on providing the second-generation car with a more stable and compliant primary ride.

The 1 Series is considerably more pleasant and relaxing to drive in everyday use on typical British roads than the car it replaced. Gone is a great deal of that annoying tendency to fidget and pitch along an uneven country road, for example. The softer-sprung but effectively damped suspension set-up does a very respectable job of smoothing out an undulating road surface at normal speeds, and it keeps good control of the car’s body when travelling faster. The standard chassis compromise is still more sporting than that of a typical five-door, but earlier test experience suggests that if you pay extra for BMW’s adaptive dampers, it can be made even more absorptive.

The BMW 1 Series set its fastest wet lap with the DSC in Sport mode. We were 1.5sec slower with the DSC off

The 1 Series’ electro-mechanical power steering is a big improvement over the old car’s heavy hydraulic system. Dial up Comfort mode on the standard Drive Performance Control and, assuming you’ve specified Servotronic power steering, you’re rewarded with easy, fluent control over the front wheels.

But the car’s main failing – one that BMW might have been alerted to if it had thrown the net of its market research a little wider – is that it still doesn’t have the finely tuned chassis and doesn’t offer the driver involvement and interactivity that anyone familiar with the firm’s larger saloons would expect. Drive the 1 Series hard through a corner, or with much speed at all in the wet, and a disappointing amount of understeer is evident. Try to adjust its attitude mid-corner with power or with the brakes and the car hardly responds.

Fortunately, the more overtly sporting models in the 1 Series range reward more readily. The 125i possesses strong grip, nice pedal weights and direct steering. The option to firm-up the dampers through the Sport and Sport Plus modes results in a jarring ride, however.

The flagship M135i is one of BMW's best driver's cars of recent years. It's grippy but balanced and offers noticeably more steering feel than any other 1 Series. The dynamic performance is capped by a scintillating engine and powerful brakes.


BMW 1 Series

If there’s one thing that the BMW 1 Series really scores on is headline economy and CO2 for the performance. Engine for engine, the BMW out-powers and out-torques an equivalent rival from the likes of Audi and Alfa Romeo but still manages to match or better them on CO2 emissions and mpg.

All the diesels, bar the 120d in range-topping Sport or Urban trim, sit below the 120g/km threshold, while the more powerful 125d emits 126g/km. And the CO2 rating of the 116i petrol is a more than respectable 132g/km, as is the 118i petrol’s 137g/km. Of course, the extra performance potential of the 125i inevitably has an efficiency cost, but BMW can claim 154g/km and 42.8mpg.

Such impressive economy figures come courtesy of BMW’s extensive roll-out of its Efficient Dynamics technology, including automatic stop-start, low-resistance tyres, brake-energy recuperation, automatically disconnecting ancillary components and, on manual versions, an optimal gearshift indicator.

A 116i may well offer more in terms of outright performance than its nearest rivals, but it is certainly not without a premium. A bottom-rung 116i ES will cost you about £2000 more than an equivalent Volkswagen Golf, £1500 more than an entry-level Alfa Romeo Giulietta and £500 more than the closest Audi A3 Sportback. ES spec doesn’t include iDrive, Bluetooth, a USB connector or a 6.5in flat menu screen.

And if you want the desirable Sport spec, including the 17in alloy wheels, sports seats and extra interior and exterior trim of our test car, you’ll need to spend north of £21k. That would otherwise buy you an excellent 168bhp Giulietta MultiAir.

Impressive though they look in isolation, the 116i’s economy and CO2 figures are broadly comparable with those of its rivals. However, for private buyers, a 116i will retain a good six percent more of its original value than the Audi or the Alfa over three years and 36,000 miles.

It is also worth mentioning the M135i at this point, as it represents something of a bargain within the 1 Series range. If all options are ignored (meaning no automatic garbox or adaptive dampers), this 316bhp car can be bought for £29,995. That's £10,000 less than the BMW 1M Coupé with only fractionally more power, and cheaper also than a VW Scirocco R with much less power.



3.5 star BMW 1 Series

With this second-gen 1 Series, BMW has addressed three of the four main criticisms levelled at its predecessor. Without setting any class standard, this car is spacious enough to meet most reasonable expectations. It’s sufficiently well mannered to make for perfectly comfortable everyday use. And although the materials still leave something to be desired in places, the cabin quality now does its maker credit.

The base 116i outperforms its nearest rivals against the clock and, in the real world, probably at the pump. However, original criticism number four still stands. When you’re out for amusement, the new 1 Series, like the old one, handles like BMW’s black sheep.

BMW 1 Series is much improved in every way but the one that matters

Three out of four problems solved ain’t bad, of course. But for the car that represents the entry point to all things BMW, three out of four also seems like a significant opportunity missed.

BMW says that 70 percent 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.

It just doesn’t distinguish itself from other cars in the class by providing 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.


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 2011-2015 First drives