Re-focus for the BMW 1-Series
Along with the Mini, the BMW 1-Series sister product has a vital role to play as the entry-level to the rest of the German company’s range and, suggests Iain Robertson, the latest round of improvements are more than skin deep.
Park an early-2015 example of the BMW 1-Series alongside its latest iteration and an essential ‘double-take’ occurs. The changes are subtle but effective, as I have always felt that, style-wise, the baby Bimmer was slightly out-of-step with the rest of the premium range, a factor shared by company car users, who would try to avoid eye contact with any 3-Series drivers.
The ‘poor person’s BMW’ has nevertheless been popular, notably around the corporate scene, where particularly attractive lease deals created an irrefutable draw to money-misers. Yet, we have been here before with BMW. It introduces a model, a case in point being the X1, which is effectively the SUV variant in the 1-Series’ line-up, which was bought mainly because it carried the BMW badge, although everyone from motoring scribes to blue-rinsers criticised its stance, the questionable plastics and poor trim detailing. The Mark Two version was tidied up and the situation improved somewhat.
BMW repeats this exercise time after time, apparently without detriment to its image. Yet, I cannot help but think that a company renowned for charging customers over the odds for its products, premium stance, or not, ought to get it right, straight out of the box, without excuses. Mind you, in the case of the X1, it has clearly been so much of a success that BMW has determined to drop it from its range with immediate effect. Fortunately, the rest of the 1-Series line-up remains core to the brand, although, if you want a coupe, or convertible, you need to move up to the 2-Series.
The irony is that I have always harboured a fondness for this range. The individual model-naming has been tidied up, although any hopes of working out which engine is which via the badge is now a part of BMW’s past. It starts with the 118iSE, which is actually powered by the firm’s 4-cylinder 1.6-litre petrol unit, priced at £20,245, rising to £31,200 for the 322bhp M135i, which is M3 quick in a more compact package. The diesels commence with the 116ED Plus at £22,030 (although the SE variant is just £21,180), which features the same 1.5-litre, 3-cylinder unit used in the Mini, while the balance of the diesels from 118dSE to 125d M Sport use versions of the same 2.0-litre diesel, ranging in power from 150 to 224bhp (from £22,325 to £29,800).
It is interesting to note that the 4WD xDrive transmission is now an option in 5-door 190bhp diesel form (Sport and M Sport trim levels only), since BMW realised that it could eat into Audi’s safety focused share of the market. You see, this car is a lot more than just an opportunity for potential customers to buy into the Blue and Black Roundel. BMW has a deadly fight on its hands with its arch-rival Audi, therefore, to match it model-for-model across its range has become a preoccupation, about which I feel particularly sad. My belief is that BMW should stick to its guns, producing cars for people, who appreciate higher engineering quality, drive-train integrity and faithful driver responses. After all, they are the qualities that warrant a higher price tag, whereas selling out to market rivalry is a bit like the pointless, centrist political debacle that we have witnessed in the run-up to this year’s General Election.
Of course, the 1-Series has been tidied-up on the trim level front too, with SE, Sport and M Sport forming the main spine, all of them featuring the new twin headlights and neater, of enlarged, more BMW-like tail-lamp treatments. As I know the bulk of the new models from past experiences, my primary attraction was to the new and very focused 116ED Plus, which develops a more than satisfactory 116bhp to enable 0-60mph acceleration in 10.1 seconds but an Official Combined fuel economy figure of a remarkable 83.1mpg, while emitting a mere 89g/km of CO2 into the atmosphere.
It is inevitable that both company and private drivers will be drawn to this model, not least because of its outstanding frugality, a factor that I intend to confirm, with a longer test drive session in the not too distant future. As it happens, the on-board computer of the initial appraisal example had been zeroed by several other drivers and its fuel tank was not full but I still managed to show around 63mpg on a circular route in the countryside south of Bath.
The 3-cylinder unit can be quite vocal at start-up and lower speeds, although there is no lack of turbocharged punch in the mid-range. Having driven this unit in a Mini, I think that BMW should improve the sound-deadening on the 1-Series, as its audible warble and physical vibrations through the floor and gearlever proved slightly distracting during the drive exercise. However, few eventual owners will complain about the zero VED rate and the low benefit-in-kind on the taxation front.
In typical BMW form, the front seats adjust through a decent range, as does the steering column, which means that even tall occupants can get comfortable, even though space in the rear can be best described as ‘tight’. The next generation 1-Series is likely to feature front-wheel-drive, which will improve the packaging immeasurably, even though the company will not be able to boast of its ‘ultimate driving machine’ status, as it is just about able to do so now. The 116ED handles most satisfactorily, although the damping responses can be a touch heavy-handed on rough road surfaces.
On the other hand, the M135i is a veritable hooligan of a car. My appraisal example was equipped with an 8-speed automatic transmission (developed by ZF), complete with paddles located behind the steering wheel cross-spokes. Thus equipped, it is around 0.2 seconds faster from 0-60mph than the 6-speed manual, a speed it attains in a phenomenal 4.6 seconds. Immense fun to drive, because the 6-cylinder engine delivers such an unrelenting and creamy flow of power from idle to maximum revs, as long as you steer clear of the never-ending options/accessories list, it almost equals the latest VW Golf R for unbeatable performance-per-Pound value.
It is possible to obtain well over 30mpg from this model, as long as you do not tap into its reserves of potency too frequently, although its 175g/km CO2 figure does equate to an annual VED rate of £295 in year one of ownership (dropping to £205 in year two onwards). Just as the 116ED is geared towards frugality, the M135i is at the other end of the performance spectrum and every element of the car is enhanced accordingly. If anything, I prefer the bolder stance of the punchiest 1-Series, as such I forgive its beefier suspension and its tail-wagging tendencies, which are enhanced by switching off the traction control (well, I simply could not resist the opportunity) and flicking the paddles up and down the ratios (the changes are swift and match the performance expectations).
However, the biggest news from a company that once used to charge extra for a simple radio head unit, is that BMW connectivity is now standard on every model. Digital stereo, adjustable engine dynamics, keyless start, ‘stop and go’ technology and air-con are all standard. Sat-nav will follow suit very soon and the latest version of it will work co-operatively with the driver. It is the most advanced system of its type and works reactively according to inputted route directions.
Conclusion: The new 1-Series is an highly competent and well-built hatchback in either three, or five-door guises. Offering the ultimate in performance, from either an economical and low-cost aspect, all the way to a startlingly accelerative crowd-pleaser, at last it appears to have found its feet. It lacks the practicality of many of its rivals, although there is abundant space for two people, with plenty of cubby-holes, bins and trays, and its boot can be extended by dropping the rear seats. Now that it looks more like a BMW family member, its future sales are assured.