The 1-series may be bottom of the range, but it has plenty in common with pricier BMWs, says David Wilkins
THE 1-SERIES has one big argument in its favour; it is a proper BMW. The Bavarian company is the only premium manufacturer to offer an entry-level model that uncompromisingly follows the design philosophy of its priciest cars. In BMW's case that means a proper rear-wheel drive platform, with all the advantages of separating the job of powering the car from that of steering it.

Except for a trace of harshness - perhaps caused by its run-flat tyres - our test 1-series steered and handled very nicely, vindicating BMW's choice. By contrast, the A-class is a front-wheel drive car that has little in common with bigger Mercs, while Jaguar's X-Type shares more parts with the Ford Mondeo than with its larger brothers. Audi's A3 is a half sister of the ubiquitous Golf.

But doesn't the very fact that the 1-series is a small car undermine the BMW brand? Not necessarily. Since the 3-series replaced the famous two-door 02 model in the mid-Seventies, it has drifted upmarket, creating a gap for the 1-series at the bottom of the range. And the absence of six-cylinder engines does not dent the 1-series' claim to be a true BMW; the company's sixes are wonderful but the iconic 02 did without. Our test car had a 2.0-litre diesel engine (despite the 118d badging) - not very 02, but extremely effective, with peak torque produced at just 1750rpm, corresponding to the motorway limit in the car's ultra-long sixth gear.

And the quirky shape? Personally, I'm a fan. I was going to say that BMW's design chief, Chris Bangle, had moved the company's styling on to a whole new plane, but he would probably have nothing to do with such a boring flat surface. Complex compound curves are more his thing. Remember that the 02 stood out too, with its shark-like nose.

The big drawback of the 1-series is that BMW's decision to give it four doors and a hatch holds out a promise of Golf-like practicality that just isn't fulfilled. In a car this size, you can have space and practicality or you can have rear- wheel drive. You can't really have both.

So why didn't BMW just make the 1-series a simple two-door car like the old 02? Well, ever since the cheaper two-door saloon version of the 3-series was reinvented in the Nineties as the premium-priced 3-series coupe, BMW seems to be scared of producing an attractive entry-level two- door car that could steal sales from it. How else can the ugliness of the 3-series Compact be explained? The 1-series is a proper BMW - but we're still waiting for a true 02 successor.

Graham Ayres, 42, finance director from Norwich Usual car: 320d Touring

"While the badge proclaimed its heritage, the first impression hinted at something less illustrious, with a touch of Astra and a suggestion of A3. However, the high waistline and familiar radiator grille added a sense of purpose and the promise of an enjoyable drive... The quiet diesel felt smooth, pleasantly lusty and the long-legged sixth gear will produce excellent fuel economy on a run. It was on a fast twisty road that the real joy of the car came to the fore. The rear-wheel drive and superb balance were a pleasure and will persuade plenty of enthusiastic drivers to step up from the front-drive opposition. I enjoyed the low, somewhat snug driving position, but an average adult would feel cramped in the back."

Peter Arnup, 39, printer, and Nicola Arnup, 33, health visitor Usual cars: Nissan Almera and VW Polo Diesel

Peter: "The styling is eye-catching. But the 2.0-litre diesel model I drove was let down by a lack of space. I'm 6ft 1in and had to fold myself in half to fit on the back seat. The ride is typical for BMWs, feeling safe and confidant, although having driven a Skoda Octavia with the new 2.0-litre diesel VW engine, it did feel not quite as powerful. For pounds 20,000, I don't think it is worth it."

Nicola: "The car's styling was quite groovy in places with echoes of the Mini, reflected in the rounded wing mirrors and rear-view mirror, and there were some excellent features such as automatic rain sensors and lights. For me, the big problem was the seating position, which was particularly uncomfortable and low-slung. I had to get the seat extremely close to the wheel to depress the very tight clutch.

Andy Gill, 39, software consultant, from Sufolk Usual car: Volvo S60 D5

"A typical BMW interior combined with a challenging exterior. To drive, it felt upmarket, the diesel engine torquey and unobtrusive with a comfortable and ergonomically designed interior. Not one for the taller driver with a family. I'm 6ft 3in and, with the driver's seat fully back, there was only about 3in of rear legroom! The boot is a fair size, although that's helped by the run-flat tyres and lack of a spare wheel. Would I spend upwards of pounds 19k on this? I don't think so. A Focus or a Golf would provide a more practical and less expensive choice and, if I wanted an upmarket hatchback, I would go for the attractive Audi A3. However, the BMW badge will no doubt convince a lot of brand-conscious potential owners to part with their cash."


Price: pounds 19,290

Engine: 2.0-litre diesel

Performance: 0-62mph in 10.0 secs, 50.4mpg

CO2: 150g/km

Worth considering: Audi A3, VW Golf, BMW 3-series