If you want a compact and genuinely sporty hatchback that combines strong performance with agile rear-wheel-drive handling, only one car will figure on your shopping list: the BMW 1 Series. All of its main rivals, which include the Audi A3 and Mercedes A-Class, are front-wheel drive. While still being fun to drive, they feel a little more familiar and predictable than the BMW.
A major facelift in early 2015 brought some useful improvements to the 1 Series. There are still three and five-door versions, but now the model looks sportier and a lot less dumpy than before, while featuring a range of more efficient engines, among them an impressively frugal 1.5-litre three-cylinder diesel borrowed from sister brand MINI.
Powered by this engine, the 116d EfficientDynamics Plus model manages 83.1mpg and costs nothing to tax. However, 0-62mph takes a rather pedestrian 10.6 seconds. For the best mix of performance and economy, we recommend the 118d. It returns 70.6mpg and costs £20 a year to tax.
If you prefer the quieter, smoother and more free-revving nature of a petrol engine. then the basic 118i is reasonably eifficient. It does 0-62mph in 8.5 seconds and returns 52.3mpg. Road tax is £110 a year, but if your annual mileage is less than 15,000, it may be the more intelligent choice given that it's the cheapest engine in the range.
If you prefer the extra security of four-wheel drive, BMW's xDrive all-wheel-drive system can be ordered with some versions, including the 118d. Top-spec models also come with an eight-speed automatic transmission which uses sat nav to read the road and change gears accordingly.
There are now four trim levels to choose from: ED, SE, Sport and M Sport. All come with 6.5-inch touchscreen sat-nav, LED daytime running lights, alloy wheels, electrically heated mirrors, a multi-function leather steering wheel, DAB digital radio, Bluetooth music streaming and front foglights. Sport brings larger wheels and extra styling inside and out, while M Sport adds sports seats and suspension, and 18-inch alloy wheels.
The 1 Series earned the full five stars in the Euro NCAP crash tests and boasts a particularly impressive adult occupant protection rating of 91%. Early-life reliability is good, but as the miles mount up, it has a reputation for giving trouble.