BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Just as some will love Marmite and some will hate it, there won't be too many fence-sitters when it comes to BMW's 1 Series. While some will love its bold styling and distilled essence of 3 Series, others will see it as an overpriced clown shoe aimed solely at badge snobs and wannabes. It's easy to be cynical about the 1 Series until you drive it. Then you start devising ways to get your hands on one at the least possible expense. Here's how to bag a decent example.
It took the success of Audi's A3 to convince BMW that a business case could be made for a car to slot in below the 3 Series. The Munich company had never fully committed to this market sector before, their 3 Series Compact being a rather half-baked answer to the altogether more elegant Audi. The 1 Series marked a more concerted effort on BMW's part to snag a share of the action.
With the first cars arriving in dealers in June 2004, the 1 Series proved instantly popular. 116i and 120i petrol models and 118d and 120d diesel versions were the first to be imported and this range was fleshed out with the 118i petrol model and, in 2005, the seriously rapid 130i. Sales have outstripped BMW's initial expectations, the controversial styling proving acceptable to a surprising number of customers. Perhaps we've just got a little more accustomed to it.
A facelift of the range in the spring of 2007 tweaked the styling and heralded the arrival of the three-door 1-Series. Perhaps more importantly, it also brought massive improvements to the already excellent engine range. Economy and performance were boosted across the line-up while emissions came down making the 1 even more desirable to fleet buyers. The 116d model arrived at the start of 2009.
What You Get
Although rear-wheel drive is great for driving dynamics, it doesn't always pay dividends in terms of packaging. In fact, there's less room in the back of the 1 Series than you'll find in a supermini like a Honda Jazz. With a six-footer behind the wheel, legroom is shockingly bad and the transmission tunnel means that you won't ever want to travel piggy in the middle on the rear bench. That's not what the 1 Series is all about. If you want a practical car, go and buy a mini-MPV. If you want the latest urban bauble that will turn heads and get tongues wagging, the 1 Series will be more your thing. At a stroke it manages to make the Audi A3 in particular look ridiculously staid.
Of course, that styling isn't going to rest easy on every eye. For what it's worth, we think it's ugly but interesting, the scalloped surfaces and bold slashes pure Bangle-era BMW. The bowing sills and stumpy tail aren't beautiful in any conventional sense but the 1 Series is a car that keeps you looking, trying to see what the designers were trying to pull off. If it was to merely make a very controversial shape, they've certainly succeeded. You'll forgive it the moment you sit inside. The rear wheel drive layout has done more than affect the way the car handles.
With no requirement to set the front wheels back to accommodate a pair of rear facing driveshafts, the 1 Series has a pleasantly roomy footwell with no offset to one side. The engine is instead mounted largely behind the front axle which gives rise to the long bonnet. The car's bulkhead is therefore set well back and, consequently, so are the windscreen pillars. This gives the 1 Series great all-round visibility without the mini-MPV feel of many small hatches. The way the windscreen pillars impinge on driver visibility in most rivals borders on the unacceptable but the 1 Series is again a welcome breath of fresh air in this regard.
What to Look For
The 1 Series is still too new for any major problems to show up so check the usual - service lights illuminated, body nicks and scrapes, damaged trim, cellphone mounting holes in the dashboard and a cast-iron full BMW dealer service history. The 120d is a car that has attracted demand but some owners have 'chipped' their 118d up to and beyond the 120d's 163bhp output. This will have warranty repercussions so be careful if the 118d you're test driving is suspiciously rapid. If you are after a very rapid but economical 1 Series, this is one route to look at, and companies like Superchips can make a 120d absolutely fly while still retaining decent reliability and economy.
It's worth being fussy (avoid dull non-metallic colours, low ex-rep specifications and gloomy interior trim colours) so that, when resale time comes, you'll get a lot more for your part exchange than you might expect. Be suspicious of cars that have had many owners in a short time (this could be a sign of ongoing problems). If you really want piece of mind, buy from a BMW dealer - but be prepared to pay the premium.
(approx based on a 118i) A clutch assembly is around £130. Front brake pads are around £40, a full exhaust about £360, an alternator around £100 and a tyre around £40. A starter motor is about £120. A headlamp is about £165.
On the Road
Designed to compete in the compact executive sector, the 1 Series might be truncated in length but spend any time behind the wheel and you'll soon realise you're not being shortchanged any of BMW's look and feel. Rear wheel drive has traditionally been something of an anomaly in this market sector and key rivals such as the Volkswagen Golf, the Alfa Romeo 147 and the Audi A3 are built around front wheel drive platforms. Asking the front wheels to perform the tasks of steering and deploying the power is distinctly sub optimum in terms of outright handling. How many Formula One cars are front wheel drive? Exactly.
Where front wheel drive has traditionally scored is that it's easy and cheap to manufacture a transverse engined hatch with a front gearbox and drive going to the front wheels. You needn't worry about a bulky transmission tunnel running through the cabin so it works in terms of packaging too. There are some great front-wheel drive GTis around too, but after just a hundred metres behind the wheel of the 1 Series it's apparent they're starting at a distinct disadvantage. The slick body control, the perfect balance in corners and the supremely judged damping shows that BMW's faith in the rear wheel drive layout has not been misplaced and their mastery of chassis dynamics shouldn't be taken for granted.
You've got to be able to live with the unconventional styling, be prepared to hand over a thick wedge of notes and not expect too much space in the back, but those caveats aside, there's really not too much wrong with the 1 Series as a used buy. To drive one is to love one and all other hatches instantly feel sorely compromised. I'd be tempted to look out for a low-mileage 118d and be prepared to haggle like crazy.