When the original 1 Series arrived in 2004, it was exactly the new model that BMW needed. Born as the natural successor to the decade-old 3 Series Compact – essentially Munich’s staple mid-sizer ‘chopped’ and ‘hatched’ – here was a proper small-segment Bimmer as a fresh, enticing entry into European premium ownership. Even the new nameplate was a perfect fit.
With five doors rather that its forebear’s three, the ‘E87’ hatchback, compact and smartly packaged, kicked off the local 1 Series roll-out in ’04 and you shoehorn yourself into BMW ownership from just $37,900 for the entry 118i manual.
The upmarket badge made for a compelling alternative to the likes of Volkswagen’s Golf, the newcomer’s rear-wheel-drive format, multilink suspension and 50:50 weight distribution bringing credence its maker’s ‘ultimate driving machine’ mantra, even at the buck-banging end of its family garage.
Over the next seven years, the 1 Series range would expand to include ‘E82’ two-door coupe and ‘E88’ two-door soft-top convertible body styles. From 2004 through to the last of this generation, in 2013, this first-generation stable would offer a dizzying array of petrol and diesel fours and both naturally-aspirated and turbocharged petrol sixes, the latter reserved for the coupe and convertibles.
From cheapy grocery getters to 2011’s wide-bodied 1M Coupe enthusiast cult car – with its 250kW/450Nm 3.0L turbo-six and frosty $99,900 price tag – there was a 1 Series for most buyer tastes.
For the uninitiated, the 1 Series is best digested by body styles. Starting with most common and prolific hatchback…
At its 2004 launch, the E82 five-door was offered in 118i (95kW/180Nm) and 120i (110kW/200Nm) 2.0L four-cylinder petrol trims in a choice of manual or automatic transmissions. A year later, a smaller and more frugal manual-only 1.6-litre 116i (85kW/180Nm) and larger-capacity naturally aspirated 3.0-litre 130i Sport (195kW/315Nm), as something of the ‘driver’s’ variant, joined the fray.
A new turbodiesel 120d, fitting a 2.0-litre oiler four (115kW/330Nm), hit showrooms just in time for the LCI – “life cycle impulse” in BMW-speak – face-lift for what was, at the time, still a hatch only proposition.
The E87 hatch’s September 2007 facelift brought styling revision inside and out, engine updates – the 120i was now 115kW – as well as key mechanical tweaks, such as new electric power steering. The big under-bonnet change was with the diesel, the older M47 supplanted by a new N47 spec offering 125kW/340Nm.
The arrival of the two-door (E82) coupe and (E88) convertible, in 2008, altered the complexion of 1 Series dramatically. Kicking off at $55k for the six-powered 125i and topping out at around $75k for the twin-turbo six-powered 135i Sport in coupe form, these were small BMWs for the enthusiast and indulgence set, with premium appointments to match. Initially, at least. In the interim prior to this first generation bowing out in 2013 you could buy cheaper 118i rag-tops and 120i coupes, or either body style in high-power 123d diesel form.
The coupe’s own ‘LCI’ face-lift arrived in mid-2010, and with it a tamed down 120i for those wanting the sporty vibe in a relative budget ($48k) package. But the headline change was with the 135i, its twin-turbo N54 3.0-litre turbocharged six and six-speed auto powertrain combination (aka ‘Sport’ versions) swapped for a twin-scroll single-turbo N55 unit paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox (aka ‘M Sport LCI’ versions).
Unsurprisingly, the E88 convertible menu loosely mirrored that of the coupe, rag-top 135i auto pushing regular 1 Series outlay up to the $85k mark. The drop-tops had their own LCI update in August 2011.
Reviews on the first-gen 1 Series were mixed largely depending on variant assessed and it was perennially panned for lacking rear passenger space and, on lower-grades, not suitable premium enough for the BMW badge. And on balance, the subsequent F20 generation – from 2011 in hatchback form – is nicer, techier, fitter and cut from similar rear-driven cloth if, of course, at much more damage to the piggy bank.
But there’s much to like. At the budget end 1 Series does bring a bit of upmarket spin on a budget. The nicer stuff further up the tree was, and remains, fun to drive. And the 135i gear remains one of the great combinations of big heartbeat in a small package – well-looked after examples will be rocketships, with fine chassis to match the pace.
There’s much to like as a used prospect if a lot to unpack as a tyre-kicker. Our tip is the pick your preferred body style, then powertrain type and match that to your budget as a fast track of navigation through the seemingly daunting 1 Series ocean.