By Jonathan Crouch
If the compact family hatch you really want needs an extra touch of class, it probably needs a smart badge on the bonnet. If that's the kind of car you're looking at and you want a premium model from the 2015-2018 period, the facelifted version of BMW's second generation 1 Series model is a car that deserves your attention, this F20/F21-series design rejuvenated in 2015 with sleeker styling, a smarter cabin, extra technology and a range of more powerful, yet more efficient engines. A wide range of models offer everything from three cylinder frugality to storming six cylinder power and the option of all-wheel drive. It's a strong contender.
This 1 Series model may represent the lowest rung of the BMW ownership ladder but it continues to encapsulate everything that buyers love about the brand. The Munich maker reckons that proof of this was delivered in 2015 by this improved version of the second generation F20/F21-series design.
BMW is a company that has always done things differently, a refreshing trait in a sea of automotive sameness. The Bavarian brand's reputation as the purveyor of 'The Ultimate Driving Machine' was built around rear wheel drive and that famed perfect 50/50 weight distribution, cornerstones that were put to the test earlier this century when the time came at last to develop a compact hatch to slot in below their all-conquering 3 Series. Compact hatches are packaged so tightly that they can only really be front-driven - or at least that's what everybody thought until BMW brought out the very first 1 Series model in 2004, that E81/E82/E87/E88-series design pioneering rear wheel drive in this segment. Compact hatches are usually also fairly predictably styled, a concept that original 1 Series design also turned on its head with its unique, unconventional looks that offered a real alternative to cars like Audi's A3 and the Mercedes' A-Class.
Both these unique selling points were retained when, with 2.2 million global sales on the board, the time came to launch the original version of this car, the F20/F21 model second generation 1 Series, which gained 'Sports Hatch' branding and was originally introduced here in the Autumn of 2011. This design was a big improvement - and needed to be to face down the challenge of all-new versions of key rivals like Audi's A3 and the Mercedes A-Class. The looks, though still individual, got a sleeker finish and extra room was freed up in what had previously been a rather cramped rear cabin. Time moves on though and by 2015, both these two key competitors had seriously upped their game, especially in the areas of efficiency and connectivity. Other models had also emerged to challenge German brand dominance in the premium compact hatch segment, a sector that by now was offering increasingly credible contenders like Volvo's V40 and the Lexus CT200h.
It was for all these reasons that a rejuvenated version of this second generation 1 Series Sports Hatch model was needed - and delivered - in the Spring of 2015. By then, BMW was able to give this car access to the frugal three cylinder petrol and diesel engines it had developed for the third generation MINI Hatch. Plus there was the chance for BMW's clever 'ConnectedDrive' suite of hi-tech infotainment and media services to filter down into 1 Series ownership, offering the kind of cutting-edge connectivity previously restricted to the brand's very priciest models. The idea was that offering buyers all of this, along with smarter looks and a higher quality cabin, would re-establish this car as a definitive choice in its segment. Here, we check out these facelifted F20/F21-series model for used buyers. They sold until the third generation front-driven 1 Series model was launched in the Autumn of 2019.
What You Get
Taking any compact car and making it rear wheel driven will always mean an inevitable set of constraints when it comes to styling and packaging. For such a layout, you'll need a longitudinally mounted engine - so a long bonnet. And a driveshaft running to the rear axle - which will compromise rear cabin space. Even given the need for all of this, the original first generation 1 Series model [E81/E82/E87/E88] was still an unusual-looking thing and had rear seat space poorer than some two-door coupes. In 2011, both issues were certainly improved by this second generation F20/F21 design, a car longer and wider than its predecessor, with a more mature, grown-up feel that was further developed by this revised version. The changes made are most obvious at the front, where a smarter lower apron with larger air intakes and a horizontal bar combines with sleeker headlamps featuring LED daytime driving lights.
Inside up-front, BMW sought to move this car a little more up-market. There are nicer materials on show than in the pre-facelift F20/F21 cars, along with smarter seat fabrics, a gloss black finish to the centre dash and extra chrome accents around the air vents, the stereo and the climate controls. What else? Well as usual, the low-slung driving position perfectly places you in front of a grippy three-spoke leather-trimmed multi-function steering wheel through which can be viewed a familiar pair of clear analogue dials. Not so good is rearward visibility thanks to the rather narrow rear screen. Rear seat room is at a premium thanks to the rear wheel drive format, though obviously you'll be better off with the F21 5-door version than the F20 3-door. The boot is 360-litres in size, regardless of your choice between three or five-door body styles.
What to Look For
Our owner survey did reveal many satisfied users of this 'F20/F21'-series model, but inevitably, there were a few issues reported. A number of 1 Series that are fitted with an exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) module could have an issue with it leaking. In extreme circumstances, it might even cause a fire, so affected cars should be inspected by a BMW dealer to find out if it needs replacing. What else? Well screws in the variable camshaft timing (VANOS system) may loosen over time on some models and potentially break off. If that happens, the VANOS system may malfunction and cause problems with the valve timing of the engine.
Because the 1 Series is rear-wheel drive, there is a propshaft to take the power from the engine at the front and send it to the back wheels. A union at the front may fail and require a replacement to be fitted. The fuel pump in the tank may stop working because it has components that haven't been nickel-plated correctly. A warning lamp and message will be displayed in the instrument cluster, but the brakes and steering should still work. If your car is affected, it'll need a new pump.
A bolt in the clutch pressure plate may work loose over time and result in the inability to select any gears and, therefore, lose drive. A small number of cars were affected by this recall, and your BMW dealer will be able to advise you further. There's a possibility that due to faulty software in the crankshaft sensor, you may experience rough running, reduced engine power or an engine stall while in motion. If your car is affected, the dealer may need to replace the whole sensor. Obviously, a fully-stamped service history is vital. This car uses complex engines and only regular and appropriate maintenance will see them go the distance. Otherwise, it's just the usual things. Insist on a fully stamped-up service record and check the alloys for scratches and scuffs.
[based on a 2015 model 120d diesel ex-vat] Parts prices for a 1 Series model from this period can be reasonable if you shop around. We trawled around the internet and found these: An oil filter is in the £27 bracket. An air filter is around £54. A fuel filter is around £43. Front brake discs cost in the £133 bracket. Rear brake discs cost in the £282 bracket. A set of front brake pads is around £80-£83; rear pads are around £54. Rear shock absorbers are around £194, while a clutch kit is around £438.
On the Road
There's no doubt about this 1 Series model's unique selling point from a driver's point of view: it's the only car in this class with rear wheel drive. If you're an enthusiast, you'll notice the difference immediately you throw this BMW into a corner and enjoy the way that the back end pushes you through the apex. Even if drive dynamics aren't a priority for you, you'll notice a greater responsiveness about this car, particularly if you make good use of the standard 'Drive Performance Control' system that allows you to tweak throttle, steering, stability control thresholds and, with auto transmission, gear change timings to suit the way you want to drive.
Under the bonnet, BMW introduced a couple of 1.5-litre three cylinder engines borrowed from the MINI into this facelifted F20/F21 model, a 136bhp petrol unit in the 118i and a 116bhp diesel in the 116d. Otherwise, most buyers go for one of the 2.0-litre four cylinder diesels, offered with 150bhp in the 118d, 190bhp in two and four-wheel drive versions of the 120d and 224bhp in this 125d. For petrol people, there's also a 1.6-litre 170bhp unit in the 120i, a 2.0-litre 218bhp engine in the 125i and a storming uprated 326bhp straight six turbo powerplant in the flagship M135i hot hatch, quickly uprated to 340bhp by the replacement M140i.
Other car makers create a premium compact hatchback by merely prettying up the ingredients of an existing cheap one. BMW's 1 Series was different in its first two generations of life, with rear wheel drive giving this car a distinctive selling point. It certainly still looks unique too in this F20/F21 MK2 model form. Perhaps that's why 70% of its buyers tended to be new to the BMW brand. Those liking a style in this form easier to get on with and not needing to regularly transport rear seat passengers were understandably regularly seduced by its uncorrupted steering, great chassis balance and brilliant efficiency.
Of course, many of this model's more subtle attributes will probably be lost on a clientele drawn chiefly to its badge. Still, whatever your motivation for purchase, go for one of these and that warm and fuzzy feeling that accompanies making a smart decision is never too far away.