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BMW 1-series review: testing the 118i in the UK

Published:03 February 2020

BMW 1-series review: now tested in the UK
  • At a glance
  • 4 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
  • 3 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5

By James Dennison

Head of automotive video for CAR magazine and our sister website

By James Dennison

Head of automotive video for CAR magazine and our sister website

► New FWD BMW 1-series driven
► Does it still feel like a BMW?
► UK prices from £24,430

It’s all change for the new BMW 1-series. Not only has the styling taken its biggest direction change since the first-generation model was launched back in 2004, but the car’s unique selling point has also gone: you can no longer buy a new 1-series with rear-wheel drive. It’s front-wheel drive, all-wheel drive… and that’s your lot. Will anyone care? Will it make the One a worse drive? We've now driven numerous examples at the international launch and in the UK, so read on for our full BMW 1-series review.

Chances are if you're into cars, then which axle is driven probably does matter, a bit. But the truth is that a large portion of current 1-series drivers don’t actually realise that their car is rear-wheel drive anyway. Despite the switch to FWD, BMW still markets the 1-series as a ‘sporty’ family hatchback. Indeed, M Sport spec returns (along with SE and Sport), as does an M-oriented performance version that we’ll get onto in a second.

What else is new on the 2020 BMW 1-series?

You’re as qualified as we are to judge the new One's styling, so we’ll save you a subjective critique on that rather fussy grille and skip straight to things like the increased level of technology on offer. The brand’s imaginatively-named BMW Operating System 6.0 is standard fit, although you can get the more advanced iDrive 7.0 version (seen on the latest 3-series) as an option.

BMW 1-series review and UK road test

The latter is one of the best infotainment systems around, and while it might not have the wow factor of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class’s equivalent MBUX, the level of all-round polish in the infotainment is impressive. We really like having a choice between the rotary dial, touchscreen and voice - it caters for all preferences. The voice recognition system works really well, too (you can do everything from change radio stations, input sat-nav instructions and even change the colour of the interior lights).

It's a well made interior and the quality feels substantial and finger-friendly. We do wonder why BMW persists with sausagey-fat steering wheel rims, though. It's by far the chunkiest helm in a mainstream car we're aware of...

Eyes forward and the 1-series is now available with the BMW Live Cockpit Plus digital dashboard display and a head-up display showing sat-nav, media, phone and driving data. Where the digital dials disappoint (they're not as customisable as Mercedes-Benz's or Audi’s), the latter is about as good as head-up displays get, both for clarity and functionality.

BMW 1-series interior: right-hand drive cabin

Like the new 3-series, there’s a fairly button-heavy design around the 1’s centre console (the whole cabin is very similar to its saloon car bigger brother), but the upside is there are plenty of physical switches for the crucial controls. You can also use BMW’s in-built personal assistant to adjust the temperature, navigate to the nearest pizza restaurant or request a spontaneous joke if you’re in the kind of mood to share a laugh with a faceless robot. Think a slightly less capable Siri, but for cars. Gesture control also debuts on the new 2020 1-series.

Aren’t you missing something?

Ah, you mean the rear-wheel drive bit? Well, it’s gone. And by the looks of things it’s gone for good. Depending on which flavour you get your 1-series in, it’s going to be either front- or all-wheel drive. For a small section of buyers ­– most likely those who think their 118d M Sport is a performance car – this will no doubt be the end of the world. However, for the rest of us (eg those who just want a quality premium hatchback) this will be about as inconsequential as changing the breed of cow the dashboard leather is taken from.

They've compensated by making the One's steering really pointy and sharp; it's almost as quick-racked as a Ferrari V8, with an almost nervous quality to your first delicate inputs. But you quickly get used to it and realise this agility just makes it feel quite sporty, despite being front-wheel drive.

BMW 1-series side pan

Admittedly, the whole debate is changed somewhat when we bring the M135i xDrive into the mix, as with 302bhp and 332lb ft of torque, this has a more focused kind of buyer in mind. The good news is that traction from the now standard xDrive all-wheel drive (with 50:50 torque distribution) is superb and the body control taut enough to mean the M135i rarely feels out of its depth at road speeds.

You also get fancy new driver assistance tech such as ARB traction control (designed to reduce understeer by carefully metering out torque) and BMW Performance Control which applies the inside wheel brakes before traction is broken. Both of which are standard across the 1-series range.

However, despite how capable the M135i is, you can’t help but wonder how much better it would have been as a driver’s car if it was rear-wheel drive. There’s no shortage of rivals in this sector – Mercedes-AMG A35, Audi S3, Volkswagen Golf R – and while the 135i is every bit as quick cross-country, it no longer has that special, defining feature that set it apart from the rest.

Power out of a corner, and it feels every bit as predominantly front-driven as it is, the torque so well distributed that there’s little adjustability to be had from what is a hefty chunk of power. And because the real wheels are there to help out in moderation, you never quite feel like you’re making the best use of that standard-fit Torsen limited-slip differential. The steering’s reasonable, mind, not overly heavy like many performance cars and the chassis (with optional adaptive dampers) feels just about supple enough for UK roads, so all is not lost.

What’s the M135i's engine like?

No longer a 3.0-litre straight-six, the 1-series now uses a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol producing 302bhp and 332lb ft of torque. As you’d imagine, it doesn’t have the silky smooth yet sonorous character of the six, yet there’s plenty to like once you realign your expectations.

BMW M135i vs Mercedes-AMG A35 twin test

BMW 1-series badge

For starters, the noise produced is an appealing off-beat rumble punctuated by polite pops and bangs from the twin-pipe exhausts, while the outright pace on offer is deeply impressive – even if it doesn’t necessarily feel that fast. On a derestricted stretch of German autobahn we saw an easy 140mph+ with the M135i still pulling.

How does the rest of the range drive?

Very nicely, actually. We drove a Sport-spec 118d (with a 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel) and were impressed by the level of refinement; the engine is whisper-quiet at a cruise, wind noise is minimal and the overall drive is very polished. It also felt noticeably different to a Golf/A3 et al, partly because of an extra feeling of solidity, but also due to the adaptive suspension that we reckon – even in Comfort mode – errs on the firm side. We’ll have to wait for a proper UK drive to confirm this, though.

Aside from the 118d and M135i, customers can choose from a 114bhp 1.5-litre 116d diesel, a 138bhp 1.5-litre 118i petrol and a 187bhp 2.0-litre diesel 120d with xDrive all-wheel drive.

The BMW 118i reviewed in the UK

We have now spent decent time in the popular 118i and found the 1.5 a good workhorse; it's refined and willing, though the six-speed manual transmission is quite stiff-suited, needing a precise and chunky heft to swap cogs. The gearing is very tall, too.

BMW 118i review: we've driven the new 1.5 petrol hatchback in the UK

Gearboxes on offer range from that six-speed manual, a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic and an eight-speed Steptronic auto. Quite the selection, but BMW says it’s all down to ‘right-sizing’, whereby each engine is only fitted to a transmission that’s both necessary and cost-effective. For example, the lower-powered 116d can be had with the manual and seven-speed DCT, yet if you want an auto 120d it will only be available with the eight-speeder owing to its ability to manage the extra torque.

How much room is there in the new BMW 1-series?

Up front, there’s ample room for tall drivers and passengers, while those in the back have an extra 33mm of kneeroom over the old car.

BMW 1-series rear seats: more space than before, but still quite a tight fit

This comes in spite of the overall wheelbase being 20mm shorter ­­– thank the front-wheel drive architecture with transverse-mounted engines for that.

It's not exactly roomy in the back, but it's noticeably better than the cramped rear seats that came before. There's still a transmission tunnel, but it's not as tall as in its predecessor.

BMW 1-series boot

Despite the F40 1-series being 12mm taller than before, rear headroom is still tight. Boot space, meanwhile, is 380 litres with the rear seats in place (20 litres more than before) and 1200 litres with them folded down – that’s about the same as a Mercedes-Benz A-Class and slightly behind the Volkswagen Golf.

BMW 1-series: verdict

It may be a big departure over what’s come before, but the new 2020 BMW 1-series has come through its rebirth relatively unscathed. It may not be rear-wheel drive (the M135i has taken the biggest hit because of this), but most customers will barely know. Practicality has also improved – even if the rear seats are a little tight still – as has the level of tech on offer.

The baby BMW is a winner for now, but with the latest Golf and A3 just around the corner, it remains to be seen whether the 1-series will be in the same position this time next year.

Check out all our BMW reviews


Price when new: £36,430
On sale in the UK: Now
Engine: 1998cc 4cyl petrol, 302bhp, 332lb ft
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Performance: 4.8sec 0-62mph, 155mph, 39.8-41.5mpg, 155-162g/km of CO2
Weight / material: 1525kg
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): 4319/1799/1434mm


Other Models

Photo Gallery

  • Updated with our BMW 118i UK review
  • A distinctive, chiselled face for new 2020 BMW 1-series hatchback
  • BMW 118i review: we've driven the new 1.5 petrol hatchback in the UK
  • BMW 1-series interior: right-hand drive cabin
  • BMW 1-series review: testing the 118i in the UK
  • BMW 1-series review: testing the 118i in the UK
  • BMW 1-series review: testing the 118i in the UK
  • BMW 1-series review: testing the 118i in the UK
  • BMW 1-series review: testing the 118i in the UK
  • BMW 1-series review: testing the 118i in the UK
  • BMW 1-series review: testing the 118i in the UK
  • BMW 1-series review: testing the 118i in the UK
  • BMW 1-series review: testing the 118i in the UK
  • BMW 1-series review: testing the 118i in the UK
  • BMW 1-series review: testing the 118i in the UK
  • BMW 1-series review: testing the 118i in the UK

By James Dennison

Head of automotive video for CAR magazine and our sister website