BMW has responded to powerful new rivals with updates for the M5 and M6 - including a racy new 575hp Competition Package option
BMW 1 Series review (2011 onwards)
Summary: Second-generation BMW 1 Series has courted controversy with its looks, but the rest of it is less divisive. BMW has answered complaints and enhanced the good bits: it's still not quite the complete 'please everyone' package, but is now a very able all-rounder. It even looks better than feared, too...
We like: Transformed ride quality, precise handling, rear-wheel drive balance, swift and responsive high-tech engines, economy, sophisticated interior options, looks far better in real life than in images
We don't like: Interior space no match for a Golf, wind noise, still has compromised practicality, inevitable debates over how it looks
First of all, good news: the new BMW 1 Series is better looking in real life. The launch images caused general dismay, but the reality is not the dumpy, droopy, wide-eyed, flat-nosed horror some had feared. When it goes on sale this September, it won't have people fleeing for the hills.
This second-generation 1 Series is even, would you believe, a pretty appealing car from some angles. The rear is particularly smart, with all the visual focus around the wider-track rear wheels. And the much-feared front? The benefit of three dimensions brings out its depth and draws interest from its sculpting.
OK, it's not the car's strongest aspect, but at least it's not unashamedly ugly. Good job: BMW has, as with all its cars, high hopes for this longer, wider new 1 Series, which is already a top-10 best seller in the UK. It's a key car that's important to get right.
BMW's approach has therefore been to pinpoint and improve on the aspects so criticised in the original 1 Series. This 2004 car always smacked slightly of something developed on a budget, in a rush. None of that this time: BMW's thrown everything at the new 1 Series - giving it, in doing so, the quality and technical clout of a 5 Series.
The firm's intent is to offer the most technologically advanced car in the premium hatchback sector, along with the most competitive emissions and economy figures, all bolstered by the sector-unique offer of upmarket-style rear-wheel drive, to draw in all those luxury buyers who are downsizing.
BMW has even created a new range of trim 'lines', to help it stand out in a market increasingly demanding personalisation: the new Urban trim line offers 6,500 options (including the questionable white wheels and trim accents in the images). Overall, it's a very ambitious programme for a new car, whose validity rests on one thing: is it any good?
Tech-laden TwinPower Turbo petrol engines provide the technical interest at launch. Both 116i and 118i motors are turbocharged, the latter producing 170hp despite also averaging 47.9mpg. It's an intriguing engine with strong performance, a whine at low revs and a bark at high ones.
It's particularly impressive when running at really low revs, something turbo petrols don't normally do well. This does, pulling from below 2,000rpm and allowing high gears to be selected early, improving economy and noise levels. It has a high-tech feel and is now a realistic alternative to the all-conquering diesels.
The trio of 116d, 118d and 120d diesels are carried over from today's models, albeit tweaked. The 120d test car (7hp and 22 lb ft of torque more than before) proved smooth, swift and sophisticated, although it was also vocal during acceleration. Indeed, neither engine is class-leading for refinement (wind whistle does mask this at speed...).
The 6-speed manual gearbox is satisfyingly snappy and direct. The alternative 8-speed automatic is even better. Only when pulling away in first gear is it anything other than brilliantly smooth and intuitive. It ALWAYS has the right gear ready and, as it uses no more fuel than the manual, is highly recommended.
Ride and handling
The current 1 Series handles great but rides poorly. Fixing this was one of the project's top priorities. BMW's succeeded too, with merit. The new car is far more absorbent and smooth-riding than the original, with cushioning and absorption over roads that would aggressively jostle those in the old car. There's a taut edge, still, but not a harsh one.
But what about the handling? Well, no, it's not as raw as before. Enthusiasts will moan, particularly as it trades traditional hydraulic for modern electric power steering. OK, this isn't as packed with sensations, but it's still extremely accurate and satisfyingly weighted, with no rough-road or engine power corruption. It's also much lighter than today's car when parking.
The new BMW drives with more sophistication too. Building on its unique rear-drive status in the class, the 1 Series is well balanced and pure, with an alert precision that's much tidier and grown-up. It's more agile than before which, combined with the better-matched spring and damper rates, makes it more fluid on twisting roads.
If the standard car is too soft (a criticism that could never be labelled at the current 1 Series), BMW offers a lower, stiffer sport suspension pack. If that's too stiff, there's a new option that combines both - Adaptive M Suspension, whose electronic dampers offer the choice of Comfort and Sport settings. It's effective, adding both control and comfort: it does what BMW promises.
The 1 Series has always had a disappointing interior and existing customers will find the new one a huge contrast. Better design means it is considerably more welcoming, and attention to detail is much improved. Again, the layered, '3D' design adds interest, and details like the oversized door handles and black panel dials are neat. The Urban pack's Apple-style white plastic accents are appealing.
It is packed with technology. BMW wants to offer the most advanced car in the premium compact sector, so has filled it with 5 Series options: auto-brake cruise control, high beam assist and a speed limit sign reader are available - as is in-car internet with bespoke BMW apps for safely using Facebook and Twitter on the move.
The interior is intuitive and the central colour display (whose monitor looks like a mini flat screen TV) is a standout treat. The tangible advantage over rivals comes from such sophisticated technology, though: finish itself is premium-level, but not a match for the detail in a VW Golf or Audi A3. At least stowage space is far better, even if the thin plastic door bins do clatter when you throw stuff in.
Packaging constraints remain. Rear-wheel drive means the boot is shallow and a bit short, although it's bigger than a Golf overall. More importantly, rear space still isn't great. With 21mm more knee room, it's passable once occupants are in (although the flat bench is hard): more troublesome is actually getting in, with narrow openings making it awkward, particularly for those with big feet.
Economy and safety
Another BMW economy win. Every diesel averages 62.8mpg and emits sub-120g/km CO2 - although choose the 120d auto and this improves to 64.2mpg and 116g/km. Next year, a 116d EfficientDynamics cracks the 70mpg barrier and drops beneath the 100g/km CO2 barrier.
The powerful petrols have the biggest economy improvements, of up to 10% over the current car. The 116i averages nearly 50mpg and only just fails to hit the 130g/km CO2 mark. All engines and all gearboxes offer standard stop-start and an in-depth ECO PRO mode teaches even more economical driving - showing how many miles extra it gave you each time you fill the tank.
The MSN Cars verdict
With the second-generation 1 Series, BMW has cured (most of) the compromises of the original and enhanced the good bits: it's thus greener, more comfortable and refined, is easier to use, offers better quality and gives buyers the potential to laden it with tech from a 5 Series.
The big 'but' was the styling, but while seeing it in the metal is not definitive, it does indicate you should reserve judgement. It is better in real life than the images had us fear. Yes, really - and the rest of it is at last the shrunken 5 Series the original could never claim to be. Decide for yourself in September if it's worth a look.
|Need to know||Petrol||Diesel|
|Engines, petrol||116i, 118i||116d, 118d, 120d|
|Torque, lb ft||162-184||191-280|
|0-62 mph, secs||7.4-8.5||7.12-10.3|
|Top speed, mph||130-139||124-141|
|CO2, tax||129-137g/km, 15-17%||114-122g/km, 13-18%|
|Ride & handling||****|
|MSN Cars verdict||****|
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