First drive: 2015 BMW 1 Series

BMW M135i

The BMW 1 Series has been the German company's entry-level model since the launch of the original version in 2004. The controversially styled current model first went on sale in 2011 and has now received a mid-life update to help it compete with newer upmarket hatchbacks, such as the VW Golf and Audi A3.
The 1 Series still has one unique trait that differentiates it from other models though; it sends its power to the rear wheels. This may sound like a minor point, but keener drivers will value the strong traction that this allows alongside direct steering that isn't affected by fast acceleration.

What is it?

The 1 Series is the entry point into the BMW brand, offering sharp handling, powerful but economical engines and a driver-focused interior – all for a lower price than other models from the company. This hatchback is available in three and five-door form, plus closely related coupe and cabriolet incarnations in the 2 Series range.

While most rivals put the onus on comfort and practicality over roadholding, true to BMW values, the 1 Series reverses this, offering a sporty low-slung driving position, a comfortable but firm ride and a snug interior, with body-hugging sports seats up front.

What's under the bonnet?

As before, the 1 Series is available with a range of turbocharged engines varying from an economy-focused 1.5-litre 116d ED diesel, which is claimed to be capable of more than 80mpg – and emits low enough CO2 levels to warrant free car tax – to a rapid turbocharged 3.0-litre petrol M135i version that can sprint to 62mph in a rapid 4.9 seconds in automatic form.

Other options include the 1.6-litre 118i and 120i petrols, the powerful 2.0-litre 125i petrol and 118d, 120d and 125d 2.0-litre diesels. An eight-speed automatic gearbox is available on several models in the place of the standard six-speed manual gearbox and buyers can also opt for a four-wheel drive 120d xDrive five-door model, which offers added traction for dealing with slippery surfaces.

What's the spec like?

Prices for the new 1 Series range start at £20,245 for the three-door 118i petrol and rise to more than £33,000 for the automatic five-door M135i performance model. In updating the 1 Series range BMW has pared down the option of trim levels to SE, Sport and M Sport, and added extra standard equipment.

All models now feature a digital radio, climate control, an emergency eCall system – which calls for help in the event of a crash – and BMW's latest sat nav system, which offers 3D city modelling and suggestions for the most economical route to take. Other standard kit includes Bluetooth, automatic windscreen wipers and headlights, front foglights and selectable driving modes.

Sport models carry a £1,000 premium and add 17-inch alloy wheels with run-flat tyres, front sports seats, unique interior trim, customisable ambient lighting and a sports steering wheel. M Sport trim adds £2,700 over SE spec and includes 18-inch alloy wheels with run-flat tyres, sports suspension, cloth and Alcantara sports seats, powerful LED headlights and a racy bodykit.

2015 BMW M135i
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First drive: 2015 BMW 1 Series

Any rivals?

The 1 Series competes with premium hatchbacks including the Audi A3, Volkswagen Golf and Mercedes A-Class. Buyers may also want to consider the sharply styled Seat Leon.

None of these models offers the BMW's rear-wheel drive setup, however, meaning that the 1 Series is more engaging to drive than most competitors. A flipside of having rear-wheel drive, though, is that the 1 Series offers less room in the rear seats and boot than some models, including the VW Golf.

What's it like to drive?

We drove the performance-oriented M135i, which offers the unique combination of rear-wheel drive, a powerful six-cylinder engine and a hatchback body. Despite looking similar to the standard 1 Series, this machine offers true sports car performance, sprinting to 62mph in five seconds.

With a low-slung driving position, a crisp snarl from the engine and huge reserves of power, the M135i is an extremely engaging vehicle to drive. The manual gearbox offers a slick gear change and the steering provides plenty of weight, making this a confidence-inspiring car to drive quickly.

Despite being turbocharged, the engine responds instantly when you press the throttle and though the ride is firm, it is still very comfortable. With supportive sports seats that hold you perfectly in place and very little road or wind noise, the M135i makes a great long distance tourer too. The brakes are also effective, though some drivers may want a quicker response from the pedal.

We also got behind the wheel of the 116d ED diesel. Though it features a small 1.5-litre diesel engine, this model retains the fun-to-drive feeling of other models, with the eager motor offering peppy acceleration – making overtaking on single carriageway roads a cinch – and high refinement levels. The long gears do mean that you have to be careful not to change gear too early, when the engine falls out of its power band, but this is the only sacrifice of opting for this eco-model.

AOL Cars verdict

In a class of relatively samey machines, the 1 Series stands out as being a distinctively styled, driver's choice. We found both petrol and diesel engines responsive yet economical, while all models handle corners with aplomb.

Those who enjoy driving and don't need the most spacious rear seats should be well served by this compact BMW. With extra standard equipment such as a user-friendly sat nav, a digital radio and an improved automatic gearbox, the heavily-revised 1 Series now makes an even stronger option for those looking for an upmarket, fun-to-drive small car.

The knowledge

Model: BMW M135i 3-dr
Price: £31,195
Engine: 3.0-litre, six-cylinder turbocharged, petrol
Power: 322bhp, 450Nm
Max Speed: 155mph
0-62mph: 5.1 seconds
MPG: 35.3mpg
Emissions: 188g/km CO2
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