Next to hydrogen, blogs about cats and rain clouds in July, the BMW 1 Series is the most abundant element in the universe. Okay, that's a slight exaggeration, but it is one of the most common sights on our roads today, having sold over 1.2 million cars since its launch in 2004.
BMW has decided it's time to update the 1 Series. The second-generation model boasts a tonne of improvements, including a larger, more comfortable interior, an array of styling tweaks that improve its looks and better technology, including a Web browser, sat-nav with Google Streetview, plus Twitter and Facebook apps.
We recently tested the diesel-engined 1 Series 120d to see how it stacks up against the compact luxury car competition. It starts from £23,205.
Sharp in the front, soft in the back
The new model is considerably more attractive than its predecessor. BMW's sharpened up the looks with a set of headlamps that give the front a more aggressive expression. The bonnet is sharper, too, thanks to a narrower, V-shaped central bulge. BMW's 'kidney' grilles have been made larger, bringing the car in line with the rest of the company's range.
Sadly, BMW hasn't fiddled too much with the shape of the 1 Series. It's still a fairly ordinary-looking hatchback, and quite uninspiring from almost any angle that isn't the front. Its looks are compromised even further if you customise the car with BMW's urban styling package, which includes some horrible white alloy wheels and matching wing mirrors.
Thankfully the car's interior provides far more to shout about -- it's larger, better looking and features a wealth of modern tech. The car is 8.5cm longer, 1.7cm wider and its wheelbase -- the distance between its front and rear wheels -- is 3cm longer.
Together, these tweaks provide a fair bit of additional space. The car has 2cm more legroom than before, so the rear is a relatively comfortable place to hang out, provided the driver or front passenger aren't Chris Tremlett-sized. The boot, meanwhile, provides 360 litres of storage -- 30 litres more than before -- and with split folding rear seats, this increases to 1,200 litres.
Tip-top cabin tech
The 120d's cabin itself is fairly understated, but it has a stylish, contemporary aesthetic with soft, upmarket materials, customisable coloured panels and a gorgeous 6.5-inch screen that protrudes from the top of the dashboard like a flat-screen TV.
This BMW ConnectedDrive display has more in common with a tablet or laptop than those typically found in cars -- both in terms of its functionality and appearance. In typical laptop fashion, the screen has a very glossy finish that's beautiful to behold, but is extremely reflective in direct sunlight, making it occasionally difficult to read.
When not blighted by the sun, the screen is absolutely stunning and lends itself very well to displaying ConnectedDrive's user interface, image and video playback and satellite navigation.
Maps, which are stored on an 80GB hard drive for faster route calculation, are rendered in a crisp, clear manner. The display's wider-than-normal aspect ratio lets you enjoy a greater amount of information than on displays of a more conventional width. It's possible, for example, to see an overview of your route on the left side of the display while the right side shows data from a totally separate menu or system function.
ConnectedDrive's strongest feature is its Internet connectivity. The browser isn't very advanced -- it doesn't support Flash, for example -- and it can be quite slow to render pages given the car's internal modem connects to the wider world via GPRS, but it's a hugely useful feature nonetheless.
Should the ordinary Internet prove too slow, or a user requires data access on the move, it's possible to fall back on the BMW Online portal, which delivers Internet data (news, weather, email and so on) via a less graphically intensive interface that delivers information more quickly than through the browser. Much of this data can also be read aloud via ConnectedDrive's text to speech technology.
Social media magic
ConnectedDrive also allows the driver and passengers to access Twitter and Facebook while on the road. To do so, you'll need to connect an iPhone to the dock in the centre console and ensure it has the free BMW Connected app installed. Once set up, you'll be able to view status updates or tweets in your timeline and to post your own tweets and status updates, but only from a list of templates you've previously entered into the app.
Pre-determined tweets would have been fairly useless, but BMW has cleverly made it possible to insert variables that make each tweet unique. It's possible to send pre-composed tweets or status update that say, for example, "I am currently driving the BMW 1 Series through [location] listening to [trackname] in [external temperature] weather," where those variables are filled in by various sensors in the car. Or something even more smug.
BMW has blessed the 120d with an excellent audio-visual entertainment package. It'll play all sorts of media via a dizzying array of sources, including AM, FM and DAB radio, Bluetooth A2DP audio streaming, USB, CD and your iPod, whose on-screen menu is fed through to the control display. As if that weren't enough, you can also rip audio and video to the car's 80GB hard drive from a disc or USB drive.
Whatever audio or video you're playing, you can be sure the car's Harman Kardon speaker system will do it justice. The system features a 300W amplifier and 10 speakers, including an 8-inch subwoofer under each of the front seats. It kicks like a mule having a seizure when it's playing bass-driven music, yet has the finesse to deliver the subtleties required when playing vocal or instrumental-led tracks.
Power to the people
Having got the technology in the 120d so right, BMW could have been forgiven for making little or no progress where the car's engine is concerned. No apologies are required, though, as the 120d sports a corker of a power unit. The engine develops 181bhp and 380Nm of torque -- 6.7bhp and 30Nm more than the previous engine. It's zippy enough to allow a 0-62mph sprint time of 7.2 seconds and a top speed of 142mph.
Despite this rather enjoyable performance, BMW claims fuel economy is as high as 61.4mpg on the combined cycle, while CO2 emissions are between 119g/km and 122g/km depending on the size of wheels fitted to the car (smaller wheels produce better figures).
The 1 Series handles fantastically, too. We tested a 120d fitted with BMW's adaptive suspension system, which electronically softens the car's suspension dampers on bumpy roads and firms it up to provide a stiffer ride when the driver begins cornering enthusiastically. The system works well, providing the best of both worlds in terms of driving dynamics, but even with the standard non-adaptive suspension fitted, the car corners and rides marvellously.
The new 1 Series is a stunning car throughout. Its styling may not be particularly exciting and its extreme popularity harms its exclusivity, but the car thoroughly deserves to sell in droves. It's fantastic to drive, has a great engine and a frankly ludicrous quantity of safety and entertainment technology that few cars in its sector can match.
Edited by Nick Hide