Published on Sunday 4 October 2015 16:18
Ten Second Review
There are two things - sharp handling and a range of outstanding engines - that make BMW's little 1 Series Coupe a unique choice in the sports coupe segment. The car delivers all BMW's best bits distilled down into a compact driver-focused package.
Here's a car that, on the quiet, could very well be the best thing that BMW makes - at least from the point of view of the enthusiast. A little rear wheel drive coupe in which the folds of the company's corporate approach have been shaken out a little. The racy 123d diesel and 135i petrol coupe models are range highlights and a spirited drive in either is enough to make a rival Volkswagen Scirocco - or indeed BMW's larger 3 Series Coupe - seem rather dull. Launched in 2007, this car offers a stepping stone between hot hatches and performance coupes from which you may not want to progress, unless practical responsibility beckons. For those who hadn't noticed this little gem, in early 2011, a mild facelift, a range of small efficiency tweaks and, best of all, a potent M Coupe flagship emphasised everything that was good about it.
Settle in behind the wheel and all feels right. The driving position perfect. Punch the starter button, roll away and immediately you find yourself looking for a road that will put the 1 Series Coupe to the test. Find one and you also find yourself pushing a little harder than you might normally - just to see. Sure enough, power into a corner, dab the brakes, turn the wheel and it's true. There's a feeling of perfect control.
Nor do you need the really fire-breathing engines to fully enjoy what the engineers have created in this car. Across the range, the slick-shifting 6-speed manual gearshift is lovely and the steering feelsome - and even better in the pokiest petrol models that stick with a hydraulic rather than an electrically-powered set-up. The ride's good too, suppler than you'll find on a 1 Series hatch, despite this car's cornering sharpness. The range begins with 142bhp 118d or 177bhp 120d diesel models or, if you prefer not to fuel from the black pump, 170bhp 120i or 218bhp 125i petrol derivatives. Given that the slowest of these (this car, the 118d) makes sixty from rest in 9.0s on the way to 130mph, you'll get some idea of the performance potential lurking further up the range.
Which of course is where the really exciting powerplants lie. The first of these, you may be surprised to learn, is a diesel, the 123d being my personal pick as the world's finest. This 2.0-litre unit was the first all aluminium oil-burner in the world to achieve a specific output of over 100bhp per litre. Twin turbos help it to 204bhp, 0-60mph in 7s dead and a 148mph top speed, while the ability to cover 40-60mph in just 4.1s means you can slingshot past slower-moving traffic as if it wasn't there.
The petrol pocket rocket in the standard range is the 135i with a 306bhp 3.0-litre twin turbo straight six that catapults this car to sixty in just 5.3s on the way to an artificially-limited maximum of 155mph. Already in this form, this 1 Series Coupe is faster than any six cylinder BMW M3 - which you'd think would be quite quick enough. But not for BMW's Motorsport division. Hence their M Coupe, a car in which that same 3.0-litre engine has been tweaked to 337bhp, rest to sixty falling to just 4.7s.Which is enough to severely frighten more recent V8-powered BMW M3s: maybe even to see them off if the going is especially twisty.
Design and Build
At first glance, this car looks less of a coupe and more of a two-door sports saloon, with a tall shape that actually sits higher on the road than the slightly larger 3 Series Coupe that weighs only 40kgs more. It's 133mm longer than a 1 Series hatchback but has its own rather unique style you'll either love or hate. In profile, it's a powerful shape, with short overhangs, a compact rear, frameless doors and a distinctive middle 'Hofmeister kink' intended to set a sporty tone. But it's still one that'll divide opinion.
To try and increase its following, the mild 2011 facelift saw the addition of a re-styled front bumper, smarter front foglamps and redesigned Halogen headlamps with what BMW calls an 'eyebrow' element, particularly noticeable when xenon headlamps are specified thanks to an LED illuminated light bar. What you probably won't notice is something BMW is especially proud of, its 'Aero Curtain', a feature that channels airflow around the front of the car to reduce aerodynamic drag.
The interior will hold few surprises for existing BMW owners. Though there are a few plastic panels that feel quite hard to the touch, overall, the high quality materials and solid construction impress and it's this general classiness that makes it all feel special rather than any stand-out detailing. The major controls for the entertainment and ventilation system are confined to a panel ahead of the gear lever and the rest of the stuff you need is clustered on or around the steering wheel where it's simple to access on the road. The best bit though is the sheer perfection of the driving position. Very few cars in the world set you up better behind the wheel.
Rear seat passengers meanwhile, will be grateful for that boxy shape. Where a 1 Series hatchback feels cramped in the rear by the standards of its class, this Coupe model offers significantly more back seat space than you'd expect a little two-door of this kind to be able to give and there's a cockpit-like feel to these chairs that rather suits the character of the car. And the 370-litre boot capacity is actually 20-litres more than you get in a supposedly more versatile hatchback 1 Series model.
Market and Model
This 1 Series model is positioned about £4,000 below the slightly larger 3 Series Coupe in BMW's line-up. So you can expect to pay somewhere between £22,000 and £34,000, depending upon the model and spec you choose - though the flagship M Coupe is up around the £40,000 mark and not necessarily worth £6,000 more than the almost as capable 135i variant. As for rivals, this two-door 1 Series goes up against a small group of affordable coupes - the Volkswagen Scirocco perhaps. Maybe even Peugeot's RCZ and the Renaultsport Megane 250. Pricier hot hatch models like VW's Golf GTI and pokier Audi A3s will also be targeted
This Coupe range cherry-picks only the very finest engines from the 1 Series hatchback line-up. So petrol people choose between the 170bhp 120i, the 218bhp 125i, the 306bhp 135i and the 337bhp M Coupe. Diesel drivers meanwhile, choose between three versions of basically the same 2.0-litre engine, the 143bhp 118s, the 177bhp 120d and the twin-turbo 204bhp 123d.
Whichever model you go for, you should find it to be decently equipped. Stung by criticism that the original pricing structure for this car was a bit rich, BMW has moved to justify it by increasing standard equipment which now runs to alloy wheels, power windows and mirrors, air conditioning, auto headlamps and wipers and a decent quality MP3-compatible stereo. It is a little irritating to find though that the pokiest petrol and diesel variants are only available in the priciest M Sport trim. Safety kit runs to six airbags, plus the usual electronic assistance for braking, traction and stability control to hopefully ensure that you'll never have to use them.
Cost of Ownership
All 1 Series Coupe models benefit from BMW's EfficientDynamics programme that makes them easily greener and more fuel efficient than their rivals. This effectively works through a combination of clever ideas. Brake Energy Regeneration, for example, which uses intelligent Alternator Control and an Absorbent Glass Matt battery to harness engine power that would normally have been lost during engine over-run or braking. Plus there's efficient electric power steering on all but the most powerful petrol models, a Particulate Filter for the diesels, Intelligent Alternator Control and an Auto Start-Stop system that cuts the engine in urban traffic when the gear is deselected and the clutch pedal raised - though for some reason, BMW hasn't developed this to work with automatic variants.
The result of all this is that carbon dioxide emissions have been lowered still further, a 118d Coupe now emitting 118g/km and managing 62.8mpg. Even the seriously quick 135i emits just 198g/km and manages 33.2mpg. Probably the version that impresses me most though, is the 123d diesel. Where else can you get 150mph performance together with combined cycle fuel returns of over 55mpg? It's even reasonably clean, emitting 134g/km of CO2. An optimum shift indicator on the dash aims to help owners get somewhere near to these kinds of figures on a regular day-to-day basis. As with all of the premium brands, you have to offset high-ish initial asking prices with low depreciation but since most cars of this type are bought on leases, this process will be probably be done for you. Insurance groupings range between 22 and 36.
If pushed to name BMW's most convincing sports car, many would walk past the mighty M5, ignore the powerhouse M3, pause briefly to admire the lines of the Z4 and end up at the baby of the range, this 1 Series Coupe. With a selection of fantastic engines and the draw of a fully-fledged and awesomely capable M model at the top end, this two-door 1 Series demonstrates once again that light is right. Not for nothing does this model enjoy the lowest average owner age profile of any that the Bavarian brand makes.
All right, so it's not the most beautiful shape we've ever seen from the Munich maker - but the aesthetics grow on you and are responsible for this car's surprising reserves of practicality. But what'll sell you this car is its roadgoing experience, its lust for life and the way it'll remind you of what driving used to be about when all that's ahead is a ribbon of twisting tarmac. It's the kind of car that BMW does better than almost anyone.