On launch in 2004 the BMW 1 Series five-door hatchback was unique. It was the only front engined rear-wheel-drive car in the compact segment. In March 2007 the revised five-door range was introduced and the 1 Series three-door models followed in May. Since then the coupe has been added to the line-up, whilst the rag-top convertibles joined the range in April.
No matter what body style, BMW's aim for its 'baby' 1 Series range is uncompromising driving dynamics and a product aimed at a new generation of customers that can join the brand for the first time because of its relatively affordable price.
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Increasingly more likely converts to the 1 Series will be business and retail down-sizers being driven out of 3 Series and 5 Series models because of the higher cost of living, fuel prices, road taxes and company car taxation.
Best selling BMW 1 Series
BMW will sell around 30,000 1 Series in the UK this year, an increase from just over 23,000 in 2007. The largest selling models will be the five-door variants, although the more sporty looking three-door versions are proving to be more popular than expected, especially with younger and older customers who do not have the need to carry children with them on a regular basis.
BMW 1 Series three-door hatchback on-the-road prices from April start at £16,185, five-door models begin at £16,715 but under the current economic climate it is the 118d lower CO2 variants which interest me most. The three-door versions with this turbodiesel engine start from a reasonable £18,350 and five-door versions from £18,880. Both body styles are available with Standard, ES, SE and M Sport levels of specification.
My test car was the 118d SE three-door priced at £20,300, more or less the same price as the smaller MINI Cooper D Clubman with Chilli option pack. That has a 1.6-litre turbodiesel engine whilst the larger BMW 1 Series 118d has a 2.0-litre unit.
Whilst some customers will be interested in style and fuel economy afforded by the MINI Clubman, the better proposition is the 1-Series - three or five-door - and both are premium brands.
In truth the BMW 1 Series has as its main competitor the Audi A3, also available in three and five door bodystyles and that range also has sub 120g/km green 'e' variants with 1.9-litre, 119g/km TDI engines priced at £16,660 and £17,160 plus options. So with like-for-like specification the Audi A3 TDIe and the BMW 118d are more or less the same price. The A3 is due for a facelift shortly so prices might increase.
The 118d has slightly more power and torque than the A3 TDIe so it is faster both for top speed and acceleration and the BMW's engine is certainly more refined. However the A3 is more economical with an average fuel consumption of 62.7mpg and my test car achieved exactly that.
The CO2 figures are the same at 119g/km so the same £35 road tax bill applies. The BMW 118d is supposed to officially return 62.8mpg but my test car covering the same sort of week long driving conditions as the A3 only recorded a disappointing 47.8mpg.
BMW 1 Series' practicality
In my view the BMW 1 Series 118d three-door is marginally the better car overall of the two because it is more user friendly and currently more modern. It is easier to see out of when parking, there is more rear seat legroom, just, and the engine is much quieter but not so fuel-friendly. Neither car will really cause their owners any regrets and perhaps the Audi brand's desirability is currently stronger for some people.
Back to the test car in question.
The three-door 1 Series looks much more of a sporty car than its five-door stable-mate, almost coupe in side profile. The heavily contoured side styling lines, the low side sills, the bold BMW front end and the neat tailgated rear combine to create a smart package.
The 118d in SE form is pretty well equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, 16-inch lightweight steel wheels, six airbags, stability and traction control, remote control alarm, 60/40 folding rear seats, twill cloth upholstery, electrically operated door windows and heated mirrors, on-board computer, stereo radio/CD player, automatic climate control, sports steering wheel with multifunction buttons and rear parking sensors.
The EfficientDynamics package includes low rolling resistance tyres, automatic engine stop/start, intelligent alternator with brake energy capture, electromechanical power steering, optimum gearchange indicator and aluminium suspension components.
The six-speed manual transmission has longer fifth and sixth gear ratios to optimise fuel economy so the driving experience on country roads is a little different to other high torque diesel cars. It is necessary to drive in fifth gear at mid range speeds rather than sixth in some circumstances. There is enough torque to keep gear changes to a minimum and let the engine do the work when acceleration from 50 to 70mph is required. On open roads and motorways the high gearing makes for relaxed and economical driving.
The stop/start system, which can be switched off, works well and there are quite a number of cars with it, but it will take newcomers to the technology a short time to get used to it. Come to a halt, disengage gear, on with the handbrake and the engine stops. Put your foot on the clutch - engine starts automatically.
I like the looks of the BMW 1 Series three-door, it's smart, but I like the performance and low taxation costs of the 118d engine even more.
BMW 118d SE Three-Door Hatchback.
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesel, 143hp, 300Nm from 2,000rpm.
Performance, 130mph, 0-62mph 8.9 seconds, 62.8mpg (47.8mpg actual)
CO2 emissions: 119g/km
VED Band: B £35, Benefit in Kind tax: 13%.
For: Excellent handling with front engine and rear wheel drive layout, great engine, low emissions, reasonable fuel economy, nice styling, smart interior.
Against: Petrol-heads need to look elsewhere, the test car returned nowhere near the official mpg figure, must-have options will increase the price and your company car tax costs, rear legroom limited so an ideal car for singles or couples.