BMW 1 Series three-cylinder review
The biggest and best addition to the revised BMW 1 Series is the terrific new 1.5-litre three-cylinder diesel engine.
Neil Briscoe
Neil Briscoe
Pics by Max Earey

Published on February 5, 2016

Good: fantastic engine, great handling, nice cabin, good quality

Not so good: economy could be better, space on the tight side, still not a pretty car

Perhaps it's a case of 'of course it has', but to me, the 1 Series has always felt like a lesser BMW, a BMW that's not quite the full Munich, if you get my drift. The original was fun, in its way - rear-wheel drive amongst a sea of front-drivers, barmy to look at but brilliant to drive. Ugly, but fun.

This second generation model rather widened the car's breadth of abilities, but to me it always still felt slightly shy of brilliance, and its conspicuous lack of cabin space left it feeling rather behind the likes of rivals such as the Audi A3 and Volvo V40, dullards to drive though those rivals are.

Sometimes though, a car is just waiting for the right combination of engine and chassis to come along. Just as Fred was bereft without his Ginger, or Morecambe without his Wise, so I think that the 1 Series has just been waiting for this new engine.

We'll get to that in a moment, but the good news here is that while prices for the 1 Series haven't risen dramatically (the base price is actually only €4k more expensive than the cheapest 1 Series was when the model was first launched a decade ago), BMW has seen fit to fit it with more equipment as standard. All cars now come with the 'Professional' stereo and infotainment system, which comes with a 6.5-inch screen and a touch-sensitive top for the iDrive clickwheel. All get keyless ignition, automatic air conditioning, rain sensor wipers and dusk sensing headlights, LED daytime running lights (with full LED and Adaptive LED lights as options) and a leather steering wheel. Not bad, and our well-specified SE test car added a mere (if that's quite the right word) €8k in options and didn't feel as if it was lacking in anything.

You won't notice many changes on the outside - this is basically a lights and bumpers facelift as far as aesthetics are concerned, so the 1 Series still contrives to look a little bit awkward - there's none of the elegance of design that Audi, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz manage with their premium hatchbacks. Distinctive? Yes. Pretty? Nope. The interior does rather make up for that, though. Optional creamy leather seats in our test car really lifted the cabin ambience, as did the full-fat 8.8-inch (also optional) infotainment screen. Unlike most rivals, you sit low and lazy in the driver's seat and while space isn't what you'd call voluminous, it is certainly hugely comfy, and rear seat passengers have a bit more stretching room (well, room anyway) than they used to get. Quality feels staggeringly good, to be honest - easily the equal of benchmark Audi and nicer than what you get in a Mercedes A-Class.

The real star here though, for me at any rate, is the 1.5-litre diesel engine. We've already tried it in the MINI Cooper D, but here it's mounted north-south and driving the rear wheels. Power is an unremarkable 116hp (nicely aligned with the badge at least), but torque is a decent 270Nm. Fuel economy is quoted at an exceptional 78mpg, but in real-world conditions that's just exceptionally ambitious - generally you should get about 45mpg around town, 55mpg, maybe 60mpg on the open road.

None of this is what makes this engine a star performer though. It's more about subjective stuff and the way it just feels so perfectly matched to the car around it. It feels as if this is the engine the 1 Series has been waiting for all along. It's light, which helps the steering too to be light, and it's happy to rev - which is when you hear that, unlike most four-cylinder diesels, it sounds not rattily and wheezy, but eager and smooth with a distinct and enjoyable three-cylinder growl. There's a rev-matching function when you shift down in the six-speed manual gearbox that blips the throttle for you (it's called heel-and-toeing when you do it yourself - ask your dad...) too that makes the driveline feel as good as seamless. Worried that the tiny engine won't be able to deliver a proper BMW driving experience? Worry not - the torque is enough to keep you flowing along nicely, and though you do need to keep the gear lever on the move to make sure the engine stays within its narrow power band, at no point does the 116d feel under-engined. In fact, it's brilliant.

Shorn of any M Sport hard suspension and dropped springs in this car's SE trim, the 116d actually feels pretty delightful to drive. The ride is still firm (as it is in most BMWs), but it's more supple than once it was and only really makes itself felt on truly dreadful surfaces. The handling is just wonderful. Rear-wheel drive drifts are only on offer when the surface is wet or frosty, but there is still a sense of adjustable balance when you turn into a corner. The fat steering wheel rim robs the 116d of some of its delicacy and steering feel, but that's OK because through the seat of your pants you can feel each corner of the car shimmy and settle as the grip under each wheel fluctuates and changes mid-corner. It's a reactive, responsive driving setup that reminds you why BMW can still lay some claim to being the Ultimate Driving Machine and shows up some front-drive rivals for being utterly unenthusiastic.

It's still not what you'd call an affordable car, and the space in the cabin is shown up by rivals both foreign and domestic (the new MINI Clubman actually rather shows up the 1 Series for cabin space now), but the 116d is just terrific fun, it's (sufficiently) frugal and is now, I think, less of a lesser BMW.


Tech Specs

Model testedBMW 116d SE five-door
Pricingas tested €38,463, starts at €29,200
Engine1.5-litre, three-cylinder turbodiesel
Transmissionsix-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Body stylefive-door hatchback
CO2 emissions94g/km (Band A2, €180 per annum)
Combined economy78.5mpg (3.6 litres/100km)
Top speed200km/h 
0-100km/h10.3 seconds
Power116hp at 4,000rpm
Torque270Nm at 1,750rpm
Boot space360- to 1,200 litres
EuroNCAP rating5-star; 91% adult, 83% child, 63% pedestrian, 86% safety assist
Rivals to the BMW 1 Series