COMPROMISED packaging aside, in the 1 Series, BMW has brought to the market a car with such poise and composure that everything else feels comparatively clumsy. And now the range has been extended in South Africa, topped by the even more impressive 120d.
For the “d”, don’t just think economy, or a long tank range. Certainly, the topliner (for the moment – there’s a 130i on its way later this year) excels when it comes to these familiar diesel virtues. But it’s also got the verve of a sports saloon. With 115 kW under the accelerator foot, and the chassis’ near flawless handling dynamics, it’s the most satisfying driver’s car in the line-up. Not perhaps what you’d expect of a diesel…
The force behind this new compact hatch benchmark is BMW’s twin-cam 16-valve four, borrowed from the 3 Series, which could now well be the world’s best 2,0- litre diesel bar none. Gone, we understand, are the turbo niggles (due, apparently to some destructive impeller harmonics) experienced at Reef altitudes with 3 Series versions a few years ago. Now, along with a new variablegeometry turbocharger and revised intercooler design, there’s a second-generation common rail injection system that allows pressures of up to 1 600 bar. That, says BMW, is the main reason for the unit’s increased performance, as well as its quietness, economy and low EU 4-compliant emissions. Fuel is injected up to four times in each cycle – double pilot injection, main injection and after injection – to provide an optimum balance between performance and acoustics.
The unit is impressively silent (for a diesel), even at idle. And – apart from a flat spot very low down, which can lead to stalling on take-off if you’re not paying due attention – it has quite breathtaking shove if kept within a mechanically sympathetic rev-range. The high sixth gear is a genuine overdrive ratio, and can only really be employed on downhills or in cruising. And, though the red line begins at 4 800 r/min, there’s really nothing left after 4 500…
Out on our test strip, the 120d shot to 100 km/h from rest in 9,58 seconds (a good half-second quicker than its petrol-engined 120i sibling), passed the kilometre mark in 30,75 seconds, and fairly rocketed on to a top speed of 220 km/h. Single-gear overtaking is also impressive, provided the car is not lugged: it would not pull cleanly from 40 km/h in fifth and top gears, prompting the test team to begin the time measurements at 60 km/h (see test table).
Fuel consumption is good, the CAR fuel index working out at 7,01 litres/100 km. That means enthusiastic drivers shouldn’t have much trouble in covering over 850 km on a 60-litre tank of diesel, while those with lighter right feet could get closer to 900.
Although it misses out fractionally on the perfect 50:50 weight distribution of the 120i – our scales measured it as 51 per cent front, 49 rear – to all intents and purposes the 120d has identical handling characteristics to its sister. The hydraulically assisted steering, heavy in the parking lot, becomes lighter and super-precise on the move. And what a pleasure to drive a car of this size without the wheel-fight one gets in a front-driver.
In corners, the car seems to pivot around its centre, grip levels are high, and body control is exemplary. Presumably because most buyers are expected to be sourced from the ranks of drivers of front-drive hatches, the 1 Series is set up to understeer safely in extremis. But, in a class where most contenders will exhibit extreme levels of front-end push at the limit, the BMW’s nose will drift wide more gently, a quick throttle lift sufficient to get it back on the straight and narrow.
Ride, on the optional 17-inch wheels and 50-series Bridgestones fitted to the test car, is hard at low speeds, and bumpy tar can jar the normally solid body structure. But, at speed on smoother roads, the suspension exhibits perfect balance between bump-absorption and control. This is a sporty car, not a boulevard cruiser.
Suspension is by aluminium MacPherson-type struts in front, with a new independent fivelink set-up (also used on the new 3 Series) at the rear. Brakes are discs all round (ventilated in front), and there’s a full range of dynamic driver aids: ABS with EBD, and DSC, which incorporates DTC (dynamic traction control), SAC+T and DBC.
Standard equipment levels are similar to those of the 120i: the diesel model has a radio/CD front-loader, electric windows, electric mirrors, tyre pressure sensors, foglights, an on-board computer, dual front airbags and side and curtain ’bags. The test car was fitted with climate control, but straight air-con is the normal fitment.
A neat facia in high-quality mouldings and plastic (except for the cubby lid), and leather-covered seats, give the interior a classy ambience. The front chairs feature height-adjustment, and the steering is adjustable for rake and reach. The rear seats are split 60:40, and the backrests fold to increase the luggage area. In similar fashion to the new Golf, a neat, swivelling BMW badge opens the rear hatch.
A couple of years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a diesel model to be the top performer in a car range. But it’s a measure of recent advances in turbocharger and injection technology that the 120d comfortably outperforms its petrol-engined sibling. The change in power-unit, combined with the handling precision of rear-wheel drive, has turned the smallest BMW into a sports hatch without peer among diesel rivals.