Available as either a coupe or convertible, the BMW 1 Series is essentially a less-opulent version of the venerable 3 Series for enthusiasts on a budget. Fortunately, it preserves all of the 3 Series’ inherent goodness in a “back to basics” approach; unlike its showroom sibling, the 1 Series isn’t offered as either a sedan or a station wagon, nor is it available with a diesel engine (at least not in the U.S.) or all-wheel drive.
The line receives minimally freshened styling for model-year 2012 with headlamps that now incorporate a string of LED running lights. But the big news is the addition of a higher-performance 1 Series M Coupe (shown above) that takes this small and snappy car to new levels of performance.
The 1 Series rides on a wheelbase that’s about four inches shorter than the 3 Series, and is nearly 10 inches shorter, overall. It weighs around 100 pounds less than its larger sibling and is slightly narrower and taller; interior room is equivalent between the 1 and 3 Series cars, though the former has a slightly larger trunk. Importantly, the cost of entry is substantially less compared to the 3 Series, particularly the convertible, which comes with a less-expensive cloth top instead of a retractable hardtop.
The car’s two base powertrains carry over from the 3 Series, which means the 128i versions come powered by a peppy 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder engine that puts out 230-horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque, while the 328i models pack a turbocharged and direct-injected 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine that generates a full 300 horses and 300 pound-feet. The standard transmission is a slick shifting six-speed manual, which should be the gearbox of choice here. Optional for the clutch averse in the 128i is a six-speed automatic transmission that can be taken through the gears manually; the 330i offers a seven-speed automatic that adds an extra cruising-speed gear. Zero-to-60 mph times (6.1 and 5.3 seconds, respectably) are equivalent to comparable 3 Series models.
The 1 Series’ front suspension includes the automaker’s double-pivot strut design, while the rear suspension boasts a five-link setup. An optional sport suspension comes with larger wheels and tires to afford incremental better handling abilities, but most buyers will be content with the standard setup. Either way, the 1 Series delivers crisp, neutral handling for spirited driving with a ride that’s a little on the harsh side, but not necessarily jarring. BMW’s Active Steering system, which automatically increases the angle of the front wheels through the turns for quicker response, is an unnecessary option as it feels a bit artificial.
Dynamic Stability and Traction Control are included to help keep all four wheels planted firmly on the pavement at all times, and are calibrated to intervene later and less obtrusively than in most vehicles to allow enthusiastic drivers a bit more wheel-spin through the curves for livelier handling.
While the new 1 Series M Coupe isn’t quite as commanding on the spec sheet as its showroom sibling, the M3, it’s every bit as quick in the real world, coming powered by a twin-turbocharged version of the 135’s 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine that produces 335 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque. When pushed to the max, an overboost mode can produce as much as 369 pound-feet of torque for massive passing power. A six-speed manual transmission is the only available gearbox here. Tipping the scales at around 600 pounds lighter than a standard-issue M3 coupe, BMW claims the M1 can register an equivalent 0-60 mph time of 4.7 seconds.
The 1 Series M Coupe rides on a slightly wider track than the rest of the 1 Series line and shares its aluminum suspension components with the M3; it also comes with beefier brakes, lightweight 19-inch wheels and high-performance tires and minor distinguishing styling cues.
Across the board, the 1 Series’ interior is simple and tastefully styled, with all buttons and switches clearly marked and within easy reach. The front seats are well bolstered, with sufficient legroom for two full-sized adults. The same cannot be said for the back, seat, however, which is suited only for small children or grocery bags. Front, front-side and side-curtain airbags that cover both rows of seats are standard in the coupes. The convertibles come only with front- and side-airbags, but feature small roll bars that popup automatically to protect occupants’ heads should the vehicle rollover in an accident.
While the 1 Series leaves a handful of features off the standard and optional equipment lists, it still comes well equipped with most essential amenities, including an input jack on the standard audio system for connecting iPods and other portable audio devices.
Available features include a heated steering wheel, various audio upgrades and a GPS navigation system that includes the latest version of BMW’s media control system. It also comes with a subscription-based Google Maps function that allows motorists to search for restaurants, hotels, service stations, banks, supermarkets, cinemas and public facilities by keyword, then at the push of a button initiate route guidance and/or place hands-free calls to the selected site via a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone.
BMW 1 Series Quick Facts
Engine 3.0-liter 6-Cyl, 3.0-liter 6-Cyl Turbo, 3.0-liter 6-Cyl Twin-Turbo
Horsepower 230 @ 6,500 rpm, 300 @ 5,800 rpm, 340 @ 5,900 rpm
Torque 200 @ 2,750 rpm, 300 @ 1,400 rpm, 332 @ 1,500 rpm
City/Highway MPG 18/25-20/28
Transmission 6-Spd Manual, 6-Spd Automatic, 7-Spd Automatic
Wheelbase 104.7 in
Overall Length 171.7 in
Width 68.8 in
Height 56.0 in
Curb Weight 3,252 lbs
MSRP $30,950 - $43,800 (M1: NA)
Did You Know?
The BMW 1 Series is not the automaker’s first attempt in the U.S. to sell a lower-cost car to attract budget-minded buyers. The BMW 318ti was a small and lightweight two-door hatchback that was offered between 1995 and 1999. Though its handling characteristics were admirably up to the task, the 318ti came powered by a weak 1.6-liter engine that needed to be worked hard to generate any semblance of thrust. Buyers were unimpressed, and even a subsequent boost in power could generate little interest in the entry-level car. That it was a hatchback at a time when the market favored closed-trunk models and younger buyers began migrating toward sport-utility vehicles helped seal its fate. Much more popular in Europe than in North America, the vehicle continued overseas until 2004, and was subsequently replaced by the BMW 1 Series. In Europe the current 1 Series range additionally comes in two- and four-door hatchback models and with a choice of gasoline or diesel engines not offered in the U.S.