BMW 1 Series

A dog's dinner to look at... but the most fun in its class
  • @Jamie_Merrill

Price: from £19,375 (£23,090 116i Sport as tested)
Engine capacity: 1.6 litre (136 bhp)
Top speed (mph): 130
0-62 (seconds): 8.5
Fuel economy (mpg): 49.6
C02 emissions (g/km): 132

Its bonnet still stretches away into the distance, its sides are still unfeasibly high for a small car and its rear-end still looks like it has been smashed against a heavy goods lorry at speed. Yes, the BMW 1 Series is still an ugly car. And while BMW has given the smallest car in its garage a mid-life design makeover, an updated engine and fixed some of its biggest flaws, the odd combination of sloping curves and drastic leading lines have done little to make it more attractive to look at.

Not that Britain's army of Beemer fans and fully grown boy racers with company car allowances to spend are likely to mind. More than 1.2 million models of the "poor man's BMW" have been sold worldwide since its launch in 2004, and the new model is expected to be as popular as ever. This despite concern from Jeremy Clarkson and the high-speed idiot brigade that the entry-level 1 Series is sailing dangerously close to diluting BMW's performance brand.

Why then has the 1 Series been so popular? It might be a dog's dinner to look at (and seem a step-down from the sporty mile-eaters and executive behemoths which are central to the brand), but from behind the wheel it comes close to achieving BMW's claim of being the "Ultimate Driving Machine". Yes it's nonsensical advertising speak, but the 1 Series really does succeed in ticking lots of performance boxes, as I found out on a trip down to the Goodwood Revival in a 116i Sport model recently.

Its rear-wheel drive set-up (for sports car-like acceleration) sacrifices cabin space, but delivers agile handling that's firmly planted into corners and blisteringly quick out of them. BMW research shows that 80 per cent of 1 Series owners don't know if their car is front- or rear-wheel drive, or even know what the distinction means, but it's BMW's USP and one that's not abandoned on even this, its cheapest model. And as I head south, its smooth snatch-free transmission, excellent build quality and laser-guided steering make navigating London's congested streets and hooning through the open-country roads of Sussex equally enjoyable.

Parking by a shiny 6 Series convertible (the top of the BMW range) in the Goodwood car park it's still hard not to feel like the poor relation in the perfectionist German family, but that misses the point of the 1 Series. Yes, it's a fantastic driving car, but like the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and VW Golf it is a five-door family hatchback with all the practicality, comfort and economy that entails. Gone even is the poor ride and cramped rear space (it's 85mm longer and 17mm wider than the one it replaces) of the original model. It's by no means perfect (with prices starting alarmingly high for a hatchback), but it really is a practical and livable machine that's also a fantastic driver's car.

Most buyers will opt for one of the more frugal diesel engines, soon to include the ultra-green 116d ED, which claims (provided you don't thrash it too often) CO2 emissions under the magic number of 99g/km, meaning car tax and congestion charge-free motoring. But even in its less-engaging incarnations it still plays to a buyer keen to ditch the humdrum of Vauxhalls, Fords and Toyotas for a proper dose of German luxury. And in this it delivers not only practicality and economy but the best handling and most fun per mile in its class. Squat looks aside, BMW has finally got the small car just right.