You're looking at the all-new BMW 1 Series, the third-generation to take this car into a new decade and beyond. At first sight you probably knew there was something a little different about this chap compared to the droves of BMWs you've seen on the roads; ah yes, it's the new-and-enhanced kidney grille, which pops from the front with more vigour than any 1 Series before it.
But that's not all. The 1 Series is now larger than before, bringing different dynamics and an altogether more family feel. Plus with heaps of tech – which, admittedly is optional, so get ready to open your wallet – this BMW feels anything but entry-level.
The latest generation BMW is all about bringing that kidney grille to the fore. In the 1 Series that's handled with a defter touch then some of BMW's larger vehicles – the X7 takes it to 'beaver teeth' proportions – to give it a distinctive edge. Some will love its modernity, others will wonder why it's become such a focal point. We rather like it in this format on the 1 Series.
We won't get too into the nitty gritty of what's changed in the 2020 1 Series over its predecessor. But as the car takes the same platform as the Mini Clubman, it's now front-wheel drive (not rear-wheel like its predecessors), plus it's got slightly different proportions, making it a smidgen wider and longer than before. That small amount of space means a little extra knee room for all potential passengers, without the car seeping into overblown proportions.
The M Sport trim that you see is the top-tier model in the pack, bringing a little extra style, along with a bunch of integrated options (that would otherwise be added extras in non-M models), such as electric folding mirrors, extended interior lighting, park assist, cruise control with active braking, LED headlights, and the 8.8-inch Live Cockpit Plus drivers' digital display. That's why the start price, at £27,230, is £3,000 more than the entry-level SE model.
The M Sport does add some extras you can't find elsewhere, principally Sports seats, which not only look better, but are hugging and comfortable. There's electric adjustment (via the Comfort Pack 2, £1,500) to get that perfect position with ease, too. And the M steering wheel gets added heating (also part of that Comfort Pack) to keep your fingertips warm against that leather, whatever the weather.
As a 5-door, there's ample room on board for four adults. It's not abundantly roomy in the back, but the extra space compared to older models will make a difference for those with longer legs. Drop the seats and there's a heap of room – we transported a full-size road bike, wheels on, without trouble. Colour us impressed.
Stacks of tech
There are many, many more options boxes to tick besides. Many of them we'd suggest are a good idea, too, such as the two Technology Packs (£1,500 a piece, totalling £3,000) which add a 10.25-inch dash-positioned display, among many other features.
Open the door to the 1 Series 118i – once you've got over the projected-onto-the-floor 'BMW' logo from the driver's side (no, really) – and it's this sweeping array of tech that really lures you in. Not only is it a comfortable place to be, it's like a mini command centre for all your telephony, navigation and entertainment needs.
We've long been impressed with BMW's dial control, positioned to the centre tunnel, making light work of input with rotation, four-way nudge control, and even trace-based input (so you can effectively write letters on top of the pad without looking, for example). It's a far more intuitive setup than, say, the mouse-like controller found in Lexus, or the very touch-control focused Audi setup. BMW strikes a sensible balance of buttons, controller and screens; it feels just right and looks good too.
That main 10.25-inch display isn't too tall, so it's not distracting, and features largely successful satnav with live traffic updates. It proved its worth many times on our drives, saving us some 20-30 minutes at times, yet at others the apparently clear instructions on the 8.8-inch Live Cockpit Plus display were, well, just plain wrong (stay in the right three lanes, despite clearly needing the left-most, being one standout moment – but the system then quickly loaded with the updated route).
That Live Cockpit Plus display looks great, but it's got less customisation options than you'll find in, say, an Audi setup. Not that you want to cycle through a million different options, but being able to segregate more options – say, satnav and music – would be a nice addition.
How does it drive?
We'll say it up front: that the 1 Series is now front-wheel drive isn't going to make a jot of difference to most drivers. There are enough traction control systems on board to keep you in the straight and narrow, plus you're not buying a 1 Series to go carreering around corners sideways – you're buying one to get from A to B in comfort and style.
The drive has enough pull even from the entry-level 118i model, but this is no pepped-up sporty number – don't think of it like an Audi RS3 (which you could buy for about the same, more or less) – with a 0-62mph time of 8.5 seconds. That might not read especially well, but when you need that extra little kick to overtake it's no problem.
Motorway cruising is comfortable and sedate, although the road noise does increase when you start to push beyond that critical 70mph speed limit. It's not deafening by any means, though, plus with the Harman/Kardon soundsystem in this model you've got great audio treats in the cabin – which can be set to sit dynamically for a more surrounding sensation.
Of all the positives, it's actually the manual gearbox that we find to be a smidgen clunky in its delivery. It's firm and assertive, that's for sure, as is the suspension, which in Sport mode really feels those carpark speed bumps. Individual setup is also possible, selecting from Comfort and Eco options by the press of a button to the central tunnel.
There are other little quirks to the drive, too, such as thekey fobb, which offers keyless entry when within 2.5m of the vehicle – no need to press any buttons unnecessarily – which we found unnerving at first (did we lock it? no? yes? maybe?) but got used to after running the car through several hundred miles over a long weekend.
The 2020 1 Series establishes itself as a small-yet-roomy, comfortable and engaging entry-level BMW. Although, in M Sport trim, it's anything but 'entry' by any measure: the finish, comfort and style elevate this car beyond.
The new design is bigger than before, which brings with it practicality, while the front-wheel drive shift will make little-to-no difference for most drivers, who will appreciate the extra space anyway.
However, those optional extras will add up fast, so while the tech is tantalising, it puts this model in the same ballpark as the Mini Clubman (which it shares a platform with), and if you want something a little smaller and sportier then lots of VW and Audi options are available, from Golf GTi to Audi RS3 if you would rather.