BMW 1 Series: old vs new

The latest BMW 1 Series is noticeably different to its predecessor - we compare old and new

The BMW 1 Series didn’t exist prior to 2004 but now the BMW range would feel incomplete without a hatchback model to rival the Mercedes A-Class and Audi A3. The 1 Series is the BMW experience distilled into a smaller, more affordable package, and monthly PCP finance payments means it’s often within reach of buyers who are considering more mainstream options like the Ford Focus and SEAT Leon.

There’s a significant difference between the new BMW 1 Series and the old one. Previously rear-wheel drive, the new car has moved to a front-wheel-drive platform shared with the MINI. Enthusiasts aren’t completely pleased but BMW says the vast majority of customers won’t be able to tell the difference. It’s still sweet to drive but moving to front-wheel drive improves practicality and makes the car lighter.

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We’ve compared the two models to help you choose between them.

Styling

When the previous 1 Series was launched it divided opinion because the original 1 Series’ rounded headlights were replaced with large angular ones. Elsewhere, the styling remained quite close to that of its predecessor. A midlife facelift tidied up the front-end design, with slimmer headlights that featured new LED daytime running lights. The tail-lights were reprofiled too, allowing a wider boot opening.

The new 1 Series brought more widespread changes, including the demise of the three-door model. It’s grown in size, with a much steeper window line designed to give it a sporty feel. It looks smart from most angles, although the new enlarged grilles haven’t come in for universal praise. As before, trim levels are marked out by exclusive bumpers and different alloy wheels, and the fast BMW M135i adds even more presence with grey trim elements, black grilles and two-tone wheels. The sporty 1 Series models are less subtly styled than before, which you may or may not prefer.

Interior

The previous 1 Series’ interior mostly lived up to the premium badge on the steering wheel, with a good selection of materials and strong equipment levels. All post-facelift cars get sat nav, DAB radio, air con and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Many cars came with a 6.5-inch screen but if you’re not keen on the chunky plastic surrounds, an upgraded 8.8-inch ‘Professional’ screen was offered. The sportier trim levels also offered aluminium or coloured inserts to brighten up the otherwise drab dashboard.

Step into the new 1 Series and the resemblance to the old one is clear but it feels far more modern and inviting. The screen (which now is a touchscreen) starts at 8.8 inches but high-spec cars get a slick 10.25-inch version - and a digital instrument cluster of the same size. Buttons are borrowed from the more expensive BMW 3 Series and light inserts lift the interior. The equipment count is even more impressive, with all cars now getting LED headlights, front and rear parking sensors and Apple CarPlay. It’s no less impressive than the Mercedes A-Class, and Audi A3 drivers won’t be disappointed either.

Economy and performance

As the only hatchback with rear-wheel drive, the BMW 1 Series was unique among rivals and it was the best-driving hatch you could buy - whether you picked the entry-level engines or the 335bhp M140i. BMW’s xDrive four-wheel-drive system was available on some of the more powerful engines, and is worth looking out for if you want extra peace of mind in tricky driving conditions. Even the 118i petrol reaches 0-62mph in just 8.5 seconds, while the 120d and 125d are as fast as some hot hatchbacks. You should get 40mpg from the petrols (30mpg for the M140i when driven carefully) and 50mpg from most diesels, although we’d also recommend budgeting for a set of winter tyres if you’re buying a rear-wheel-drive model.

Enthusiasts were less than enthusiastic when it was revealed that the new 1 Series was moving to front-wheel drive. It now shares a platform with the MINI hatchback, and keen drivers will be glad to know that the BMW is still a class-leader when it comes to fun behind the wheel. Hot hatch fans will head straight to the 302bhp M135i, which is now four-wheel drive, but we do prefer the old rear-wheel-drive M140i. The engines offer similar performance to the previous model but economy has improved; the frugal 116d diesel can achieve almost 63mpg, and the nippy 118i petrol achieves 47mpg.

Practicality

One of the compromises involved with owning the previous 1 Series was its practicality. Those in the front have plenty of space but the sloping roofline and rear-drive layout mean it is quite cramped in the back. The 360-litre boot was a little less generous than the Volkswagen Golf, and much less than the most practical hatchbacks.

Switching to front-wheel drive freed up some extra space in the new 1 Series, so its 380-litre boot now exactly matches the Golf - and it’s a more useful shape too. For added convenience, a powered tailgate is also available for the first time. It’s worth noting that, while legroom is much improved, the new 1 Series still doesn’t offer rear-seat passengers as much headroom as some rivals.

Safety

All three generations of BMW 1 Series hatchback have gained a full five-star rating from Euro NCAP but the test gets stricter every year, so the latest 1 Series is actually even safer than the car it replaces. To get five stars, new cars must come with autonomous emergency braking and lane-departure warning - these were only optional on the last car. You can add plenty of extra safety features onto the new 1 Series, with lane-keeping assist and blind-spot monitoring likely to come in handy.

Verdict

Besides a slight lack of rear headroom and the M135i lacking in excitement, the latest 1 Series has almost no drawbacks. It’s our favourite luxury small car because it’s fantastic to drive yet economical, while the interior feels much more high-end than it ever has done. You’re unlikely to notice the change to front-wheel drive but you will notice the various improvements BMW has made compared to the previous 1 Series. If you can afford it, the latest 1 Series is definitely the one to pick.

Check out our list of the best family cars to buy, or see how the 1 Series compares to the Golf and A-Class.

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