As you read this, the year is 2024, marking twenty glorious years since the launch of the BMW 1 Series. A triumph, or an answer to a question nobody asked? We’ll log that phrase as we’ll be returning to it. Before delving into the third car in the Bangle-led reinvention of BMW, let’s discuss its progenitors – the two BMW Compacts. The original was launched in 1994 in a kind of shock move to bring BMW down to the arena of the Ford, GM, and VW buyer.
Make no mistake, the competitors from those manufacturers were little more than automotive landfill. The dreadful Escort, the dreary Astra, and the comedy Golf III that was actually worse than the car it replaced. All three were ‘let’s see what we can get away with at minimal cost’ efforts, and all sold well to an uncaring public as well as company car fleets. You or I wouldn’t entertain any of them – trust me on that, although the Escort RS2000 and later versions of the Golf GTI were reasonable.
The E36 Compact: A Compact that Lived Up to the Name
Into this arena came the E36 Compact – a 316i with 102 bhp and a 318ti with 140 bhp. Using the front half of the E36 sedan, a whole new rear end was designed, and with it came what appeared to be the old E30 semi-trailing arm rear suspension – only it wasn’t, as BMW had carefully revised everything. The Compact was great. Perhaps not for the more childish road testers who lamented that it didn’t handle like an M3, but for an actual buyer, it was just fine. It looked good, rode well, handled just fine, was practical and well-made. Not just that, but it retained so much of its value that upon resale, your BMW cost less than a nasty Ford. How about that? BMW made that for six years, sold each one with ease, and retained most buyers.
The E46 Compact: An Odd Duck, but a Real Deal BMW
In 2001, the E46 version appeared, and just like the Z4 never sold as many units as the inferior Z3, so it was with this vastly improved Compact. Was the styling too odd? Was it too expensive? Who knows, but it was a superb car. Using full-fat E46 suspension with the rear Z axle and the correct E46 interior and facia, the Compact wasn’t so much a cheaper 3 Series but the real deal, just different.
Debuting in the new car was the all-new 16-valve N42 Valvetronic engine in 1.8 and 2.0 forms, plus the new 150 bhp M47N turbo diesel – the latter was a 135 mph car that could also return 50 mpg driven carefully. The 316Ti was okay, but the 318Ti with the 2.0 N42 a real gem. Full of torque and zing, it was both brisk and economical. I drove them all as new cars – I had 316Ti’s as hire cars in Germany, and you always felt that you were really getting your money’s worth. It felt substantial, well-trimmed, rode nicely, and it was, like all E46’s, just a lovely thing to use. So it looked a bit odd – but you can’t see it from the driver’s seat. We haven’t mentioned the superb 325Ti yet with the 193 bhp M54 Bad Boy – a classic in 2024.
Enter the 1 Series: A Car of Mixed Emotions
And so along came the 1 Series. Hmmmm. I’ve blown hot and cold on these ever since. I went to two launch events in ’04, got carried along on a wave of good will, but there was always nagging doubt…The styling, to my eyes, looks as odd now as it did then. First impressions? Hmmm, I can’t see out of it very well. Oh God, they’ve used the E65 type cassette key and a starter button, an answer to a question nobody asked. No temperature gauge.
The standard seats are okay, but the sports seats are very good. Sitting in the back is for children – adults will hate you. It’s certainly a solid, strongly built, and well-finished car – cheap and nasty it is not. On the road? The 116i is hopeless, but the 118i and 120i with the N46 Valvetronic engines – introduced in the 2004 E46 range – go well enough. The 122 bhp 118d is stupidly overgeared with ridiculously wide ratios from a ’55 Peterbilt truck (Dennis Weaver still wouldn’t get away from you), so you are always batting between 2nd and 3rd in town yet the more powerful 163 bhp 120d has much lower gearing and it’s a real flyer. That’s the one to buy. Of course, the 118d was the big seller.
Handling: Good, but Burdened by Heavy Shoes
Handling? It’s very good but, for some reason, it felt to me after the Compact like trying to run in heavy boots. The reason may have been the astonishingly heavy run-flat tires (see: ‘answers to questions nobody asked’), and these also gave rise to the one thing that I hated about the 1 Series – the ride. So, if you are flying around the Nurburgring or you live in a country with smooth roads – and we’re talking billiard table/cashmere socks/Clark Gable smooth here – then you might find the ride acceptable. Anywhere else, try before you buy.
I have a vested interest here as I am currently running one of those early E87 cars as my winter beater, and I had forgotten just how bad the ride is. It’s not even running those dreadful run-flat tires, but even with new shocks, the car is just never settled. It’s always busy – hopping, thumping, jiggling its way along a typically rubbish British road in the way an E36 Compact or an E46 just wouldn’t. It just wears you out.
Other Annoyances: Rain-Sensing Wipers and More
Other annoyances? Rain-sensing wipers plus that silly intermittent wipe function. It didn’t work properly then and it doesn’t now. I don’t need a rain sensor – I can see it for myself. What I want is to engage intermittent wipe for one wipe every five seconds, but rain-sensing won’t let me. It might wipe once every five seconds, or ten, or three. JUST STOP IT!
I happened to drive a 1999 E36 316i Compact just last week. With the original dampers after 90,000 miles, the car was so serene and lovely. The suspension with soft long-travel springs soaks up bumps. It doesn’t notice minor imperfections. The seats are pliant, the 1.9-liter M43 engine pulls like a train. The all-around vision is outstanding. It doesn’t pretend to be a sports car because it isn’t one, and neither is the regular 1 Series. The difference is, the two generations of Compact aimed to be the Ultimate Driving Machine with the idea that driving is not about lap times but the act of getting from A to B as pleasantly as possible – and this is where, in my view, the 2004 1 Series was a step backward over the car it replaced.
The Verdict: Why You Might Want an E36 or E46 Instead
The answer? Buy a really, really nice E36 or E46 now. Just do it. Low mileage examples in nice condition are going up in value, and I’m afraid cars like the 1 Series and the E90 range and what followed it are the reason.