BMW has come out swinging with a better value, better-driving update to its smallest, most affordable model, the 1 Series.
WHAT IS IT?
An update to BMW’s five-door hatchback, the 1-Series. The current shape went on sale in 2011 and this is the biggest facelift before a next generation front-drive model.
WHY WE’RE TESTING IT
It’s a big seller for BMW (accounting for 10 percent of sales) and has undergone a decent transformation, so we hopped along to the media launch to check it out.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
Still a great car to drive, now with a much more convincing value equation. Shame about the back seats.
PLUS: Rear-drive dynamics; willing engines; intuitive and sharp-shifting eight-speed
MINUS: Tight back seat; 118i performance only adequate; 125i doesn’t look special enough
THE WHEELS REVIEW
IT'S a case of look twice – even three times – to distinguish the updated 2015 BMW 1 Series from the model it replaces. Doors, roof and glasshouse are unchanged, leaving the visual grunt work to the new bumpers and heavily revised tail lights that create a more mature-looking rump.
It’s more in the positioning and model range that the 1 has undergone a more revolutionary change. The base 116i has been dropped, replaced by the identically priced ($36,900) 118i that uses a more powerful version of the same 1.6-litre turbo four. It’s to be a short-lived engine in the 118i, with the 1.5-litre three-cylinder from the 2015 Mini Cooper with identical 100kW/220Nm outputs to replace it around September 2016.
That same 1.6 four-pot does work in the $41,900 120i, mustering 130kW and 250Nm. Wheel size also grows from 16s to 17s, while fake leather and dual-zone climate control ramp up the appeal.
From there it’s 2.0-litre engines, with the sole diesel in the 118d ($40,300, matching the 118i’s gear) a familiar 110kW/320Nm unit.
But it’s the high performance models that BMW is pinning much of its sales hopes on. The 125i (pictured here) ups the performance ante to 160kW/310Nm courtesy of a 2.0-litre turbo. And with an M Sport pack, with bigger brakes, and a sticker of $48,900 it’s got its gunnels aimed squarely at the VW Golf GTI.
Topping the range is the rorty M135i, with its 3.0-litre twin turbo six good for 240kW/450Nm. Genuine leather and extras such as digital radio add to the appeal, as does the sharper pricing, down almost three grand to $62,900.
All 1s now come with a reversing camera and satellite-navigation, among other goodies, while the Sport Line pack is standard fare on lower models.
It’s all part of fighting harder against German rivals. While the 1 set a local sales record of 2300 in 2014, it was outsold two-to-one by its biggest competitors, the Mercedes A-Class and Audi A3.
Inside, the 1’s largely unchanged presentation is showing its age; the white panelling of the optional Urban Line lacks the elegance of the red-highlighted black in the Sport. The 125i’s hexagonal partial Alcantara trim stands out, as do the patterned silver finishes.
Further aft the 1 packaging is unchanged and remains an issue; there’s marginal rear legroom, so adults front and rear will require compromises or limber limbs. There are no air vents and the transmission tunnel makes life tight for those planning to squeeze a third across the back. Thankfully head room is respectable.
It’s on the road where the BMW asserts itself as an accomplished and enjoyable hatch. It’s the only compact rear-driver going (at least until it switches to front-drive for the next gen); the 118i and 120i will rarely fluster its planted tail, while the 50/50 front-rear distribution ensure beautiful balance. Steering, too, blends accuracy with zero kickback and linear, predictable responses through its arc.
While it’s not about to light up the rears the 1.6-litre engine is lusciously free revving, and while there’s respectable torque down low it lacks the muscle to make for effortless hill climbing. Fortunately the eight-speed auto is a sweetie and cleanly downshifts to keep things progressing.
The 130kW tune in the 120i doesn’t feel markedly quicker in relaxed driving but gives more oomph at higher revs thanks its loftier kilowatt peak.
Those wanting hot hatch flair will be well catered for in the 125i, with its chunky M steering wheel and shift paddles for added control of the self-shifter. Its 2.0-litre sings harder, up to almost 6900rpm, while the extra cubes ensure less need to go there. It’s the first in the 1 range where the rear-drive benefits are most obvious, able to be tweaked on the throttle powering out of bends.
Brakes on the basic car don’t feel up to the ultimate driver’s car pitch; they faded during a persistent, twisting, steep downhill run, but on the open Queensland plains we sampled the 1 Series on they were more reassuring. The bigger brakes of the 125i deliver a meatier pedal feel and more assertive stopping power.
A brief blast around Lakeside raceway reaffirmed our love of the M135i, with near previous gen M3 levels of performance for a comparative bargain.
It’s a fantastically fun thing, too, with the hearty inline six zinging to its redline. Brakes bite hard and the excellent 1 Series balance makes itself known through fast, sweeping corners.
So chuck the 1 on your shopping list if you want to enjoy the drive. Just don’t expect the full carload to enjoy it with you.
Model: BMW 120i
Engine: 1598cc four-cylinder turbo
Max power: 130kW @ 4800-6450rpm
Max torque: 250Nm @ 1500-4500rpm
Transmission: 8-speed auto
Kerb weight: 1305kg
Fuel economy: 5.6L/100km
On sale: Now