BMW 1 Series F40 (2020-2021) Expert Review
The BMW 1 Series used to stand out from the hatchback crowd on account of it being rear-wheel-drive. That all changed with the third-generation model, codenamed F40. A new front-wheel-drive platform promises cost savings for BMW, and improved interior space for 1 Series buyers. But does that also mean driving dynamics have been compromised? We'll answer precisely that as part of this 1 Series review.
- Five-door hatchback
What is the BMW 1 Series F40?
It was all change when the third-generation BMW 1 Series, codenamed F40, arrived in 2019. Where this family hatchback had always been resolutely rear-wheel drive, the new model switched to front-wheel drive. Why should you care? Well, rear-wheel drive is traditionally the preserve of more exciting cars to drive, whereas front-wheel drive allows for better space and practicality.
In other words, this was a tacit admission from BMW that the 1 Series really needed to be more practical in order to take the fight to more conventional family hatchbacks like the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus, not to mention its premium rivals, the Mercedes A-Class and Audi A3. But given an involving driving experience was always what set the 1 Series apart from those rivals, BMW had to make sure it didn't throw the baby out with the bath water.
How Practical is it?
Inside, the 1 Series is built from high-quality materials. If you go for the entry-level SE, however, it looks a little plain, with lots of drab, dark finishes, which is why we'd upgrade to the Sport. The design of the dashboard itself lacks the classy minimalism of the Golf's, but while it's busy, it does at least look interesting – and you don't have to upgrade it with expensive options to get it to look good, as you do in the Mercedes A-Class.
Has the switch to front-wheel drive paid off in terms of space? Yes, by and large – there's now a lot more room in the back, although not quite as much as in some of the 1 Series' more mainstream rivals. The rear seats aren't the most comfortable in the world, either, with big side bolsters at each end that push you into the centre of the car.
Storage space is at a premium too, with naught but a few miserly cubbies up front for your odds and ends – and while the boot is certainly bigger than it was, it's still outgunned by those of the Golf and A3, not to mention even more spacious rivals like the Honda Civic.
What’s it Like to Drive?
The F40 generation of BMW 1 Series is still engaging to drive, with a composed, planted feel even when you're pressing on a bit. There's a slickness to the steering you simply won't find elsewhere, and it's weighted ideally; what's more, the rock-solid grip you get from the nose means the front end responds faithfully every time you turn into a corner.
There's a trade-off for this fine handling, though, and as is so often the case, it's to do with the way the 1 Series rides bumps. It's firmer than most family hatchbacks, and allows each lump or pothole to be felt just a little more, especially if you choose the stiffly-sprung M Sport models. That said, it doesn't cross the line into outright discomfort, so if you value that sporty driving style, you probably won't mind.
We reckon the best engine in the range is the 1.5-litre three-cylinder badged 118i. It's responsive round town and gutsy on the motorway, while also offering very respectable fuel economy figures.
If you need an even more frugal 1 Series, however, there are three diesel engine options to choose from, while for real petrolheads, the exhilarating petrol-powered M135i xDrive hot hatch sits at the top of the range.
Technology and Equipment
The F40 1 Series comes with an 8.8-inch central touchscreen infotainment system and analogue dials; you also get Apple CarPlay, though Android Auto isn't yet available. You can upgrade this setup to a much sleeker one, with a big 10.25-inch screen; this package also gets you an upgraded hi-fi system from Harman Kardon, and a TFT display in place of the dials. The latter isn't as slick as rivals' versions, though, and because it's quite small, it ends up looking rather crowded.
Whatever infotainment system you go for it’ll be based on BMW’s iDrive setup. This is good news, because as well as being packed with features, iDrive is one of the easier infotainment systems to navigate.
Three Things To Know
- Most 1 Series come as standard with a six-speed manual transmission, though you can specify an eight-speed automatic as an optional extra on every engine. Two versions get the automatic gearbox as standard, though: the M135i and the most powerful diesel, the 120d. Both of these models are also available with four-wheel drive; the M135i gets it as standard, while it's an option on the 120d.
- The fastest 1 Series is the M135i, and it's a cracker of a hot hatch. It comes with xDrive four-wheel drive and a slick eight-speed automatic gearbox as standard, and while it isn't quite as exhilarating as a Honda Civic Type R or Hyundai i30 N, it's incredibly user friendly and very easy to drive quickly. Don't be fooled by the badge, though; it's fun to imagine a relatively small hatchback with a beefy 3.5-litre engine, but in reality the M135i is powered by a 2.0-litre turbo. Still, that isn't too much of a hardship when you find out it develops a whopping 302bhp.
- If you fancy a fast and fun 1 Series but don't want to stretch all the way to an M135i, BMW also offers a slightly cooler version called the 128Ti that's designed to compete with the likes of the VW Golf GTI. Featuring revised suspension and a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine that powers the front wheels only, the 128ti produces 261bhp and can get from 0-62mph in 6.1 seconds.
Which One to Buy
- For most buyers, we'd recommend the 118i Sport. It's a great all-rounder with the touches of class you might expect from a car like the 1 Series, and a willing engine that'll be plenty quick enough for most buyers.
- If you're after something more exhilarating though, there's only one place to look: the M135i's stomping pace and rock-solid handling make it an excellent choice. Just keep in mind that it doesn't come cheap.
- Are you looking for a company car? If so, the 118d Sport would be our recommendation. This diesel model emits barely any more CO2 than the considerably less powerful 116d, so it shouldn't cost you too much more to tax – but it's much sweeter to drive, and won't run out of puff on the motorway.
- If you'd like something with four-wheel drive, but don't need the expensive running costs of the M135i, the 120d xDrive is worth a look. Four-wheel-drive family hatchbacks like this are rather rare, so if that's what you're after, it's a good option. Just keep in mind that it doesn't come cheap and the four-wheel drive system dents fuel economy a little.
- And if you're buying on a budget, you'll want to look at the 116d SE. It's the cheapest diesel model, returns impressive fuel economy figures, and has the lowest insurance group of any 1 Series.
As we've just mentioned, the 116d is the most frugal 1 Series of all; it should see around 55-60mpg on average, though as it'll set you back around £1,000 more than the petrol-powered 118i to buy, you'll want to work out whether the fuel savings will make up for its extra cost before taking the plunge.
The 118i should see about 40-45mpg on average, by comparison, which is in fact bettered by all the diesel models, but given how much pricier they are, it's unlikely they'll end up costing you less in the long run. If it's an M135i you're after, bank on around 30-35mpg, which is still a pretty respectable figure for such a potent machine.
Whichever 1 Series you choose, you'll have to be prepared for the fact its upmarket badge means it'll cost you more to buy than most of its rivals. That said, if you're financing your next car instead of buying it outright, the 1 Series' healthy resale values – especially on petrol models – could result in lower monthly repayments than you'll find yourself paying for some of its more mainstream rivals.
BMW's servicing costs are generally cheaper than those of Mercedes, and on a par with, if not slightly pricier than Audi's. BMW also offers you the chance to pay for your servicing using a monthly service plan at £20 a month for 36 months, which means each annual service should average out at £240.
All 1 Series engines feature a timing chain, which shouldn't need changing for the duration of the life of the car, so you don't need to worry about costly timing belt changes every few years.
The 1 Series is rather too new to feature in most reliability surveys, so we can't build up a wholly accurate picture of just how reliable it's going to be. That said, we can glean some idea by looking at the performance of its predecessor and other BMW cars.
According to the What Car? Reliability Survey, the old 1 Series' reliability was a tale of two halves. Petrol versions received an impressive score 97 per cent in the 2019 running of the survey, and that helped them to a creditable 7th-equal place in the table of the 31 family cars featured in the survey, ahead of all of their premium-badged rivals.
However, diesel models fared much worse, scoring 87 per cent and finishing 29th – well behind those same rivals. Given many of the engines in the 1 Series are carried over from the old car, you might decide to avoid the diesel models in favour of the petrol engines.
That's not the whole story, though, because a reliability survey of BMW's range as a whole, carried out by JD Power, placed it last out of 24 manufactures included in its 2019 Vehicle Dependability Study. JD Power found BMW drivers reported 181 problems per 100 vehicles. By comparison, Volkswagen had 113, Mercedes-Benz 136, and Audi 167.
The CarGurus Verdict
The 1 Series never was the most practical family car, and that's still the case today. Nevertheless, the switch to front-wheel drive has brought it into much closer contention with its rivals.
Yet at the same time, BMW has managed to retain the driving enjoyment that's always marked the 1 Series out. So if you're looking for something fun to drive, and willing to sacrifice a modicum of practicality to get it, the 1 Series should now be right up your street.
You'll also need to be aware that servicing costs on the 1 Series are probably going to be higher than those on a more mainstream model. However, if you can live with that, the 1 Series is a strong family car with plenty going for it – not to mention the upmarket touches you'd expect from a car wearing the BMW badge.