IF you want a BMW 1 Series, then hopefully your name is on a waiting list because it already stretches to six months. Why? Simply because, given the option of anything with the highly aspirational BMW badge and something more mass-market at the same price, most people will rush for the BMW. Such is the advantage of having a desirable brand name. And that is also the reason why Volkswagen, Opel and the like, could be facing dark times in this segment. BMW says that in an international market segment selling more than 12 million cars yearly, they think about 150 000 buyers would be willing to forsake rear seat space to buy a premium badged hatch with brilliant dynamics. We think they’re being pessimistic…
Rear-wheel drive is not new in a small hatch, but you’ll have to travel back to the ’70s Mazda 323 to find the last one. The single most important reason is interior packaging. With rearwheel drive, you sacrifice rear passenger space. But, for BMW, the upshot is that it can use its vast rear-wheel drive knowledge to design a car with peerless dynamics.
The 1 Series is 4,2 metres long and has a 2,66-metre wheelbase, one of the longest in its class. Even so, BMW has not been able to work miracles, and cabin space is probably the greatest concern for anyone thinking of buying a 1 Series. But it’s certainly not a problem in front, where there is generous space for people of any size. Both front seats are manually height-adjustable, and the steering wheel can be adjusted for rake and reach. The driving position is spot-on, but for some the oversized footrest can get in the way when depressing the clutch.
So, what about those in the back? We found rear space to be reasonable for two adults of average size (once they’re seated), but if the front occupants are tall, then it could become uncomfortable. The front seatbacks have indentations to allow more space for occupants’ knees. If the front passengers’ compromise on their own seating positions, then four could travel in reasonable comfort. Although there is a centre safety belt, the fat transmission tunnel means the 1 Series is more a four-seater with extra space for a small child than a true family hatch. Surprisingly, however, rear headroom is very good. The real problem is that access through the rear doors is tricky because of both the severe slope of the doorframe and the closeness of the seat to the B-pillar. Getting out is the most difficult, because your feet tend to get stuck. If you’re a family buyer, then we’d suggest you take your brood along to the showroom. The boot isn’t that big, either, measuring 240 dm3, but can be expanded to 968 by folding the rear seats.
Quality is, as expected from BMW, very good, although there is the occasional sign of cost-cutting – the glovebox lid, for example. The upper section of the facia is covered by a soft-touch material that looks durable and smart.
The design of the facia is reminiscent of the driver-orientated format of previous BMWs, being straightforward and simple. The hangdown section is tilted slightly in the direction of the driver and has sensible, traditional audio/ ventilation controls. If the buyer opts for any of the two navigation systems (Business or Professional), the iDrive control system forms part of the package.
The standard features list includes all the must-haves: radio/ CD front loader, electric windows, air-conditioning (climate control optional), hydraulic power steering, electric mirrors, tyre pressure sensors, front foglights, on-board computer, dual front airbags, and side and curtain airbags.
Standard cars have 16-inch wheels (with run-flat tyres), the 17-inchers on the test car being optional. Brakes are 292 mm ventilated discs in front and 296 mm solid discs at the rear. ABS with EBD is standard, and so is DSC (incorporating Dynamic Traction Control, ASC+T and DBC).
The 1 Series rides on aluminium front struts with an alloy subframe, and has a brand-new five-link rear suspension. This design will also be used in the next 3 Series (see page 130).
Besides rear-wheel drive, another BMW characteristic is the ideal 50:50 weight distribution. To achieve this with the 1 Series, the engine was moved far back, almost behind the front axle line. The battery is placed in the boot and can be accessed by lifting the floor carpeting. There is no spare wheel.
As the 120i badge indicates, power comes from a 2,0-litre, four-cylinder engine. It features variable valve timing that incorporates BMW’s Vanos variable camshaft control system on both the intake and exhaust sides, as well as Valvetronic valve lift. Maximum power output is 110 kW, reached at a heady 6 200 r/min, and peak torque is 200 N.m, on tap at 3 600 r/min. The engine has a surprisingly rough idle (several onlookers asked if it was a diesel), but becomes silky smooth at speed without losing its sporty exhaust note. It’s a sweet revving unit, one that has no trouble revving up to the limiter repeatedly. We were not that impressed with the engine’s low-down flexibility, however, and during “enthusiastic” driving you may regularly feel the need to change down a gear for extra acceleration. Just as well, then, that the six-speed manual gearbox is one of the stars of the package, providing shifts that are slick and quick.
To deactivate the car’s DSC system completely you need to press and hold the button for about five seconds. With plenty of grip from the optional 17-inch tyres and not too much power low down, lots of revs are needed to get the 120i to really spin its wheels. BMW claims a 0-100 km/h time of 8,7 seconds. As hard as we tried, we could not crack the 10-second barrier, recording a disappointing 10,01 seconds. Does this matter, though? We suspect not – the Alfa 147 2,0-litre is slower, and although Audi and VW claim quick times, we have yet to validate these claims by testing. Hopefully, we’ll find out soon… The Mazda3, on the other hand, is the one that seems to offer the real go.
The BMW’s 211 km/h top speed is achieved in fifth gear, with sixth being a cruising ratio. The tall gearing has benefits for fuel consumption. Our fuel index figure came to 9,1 litres/100 km, making the 120i one of the most economical in this segment.
But to understand the full appeal of the 120i you have to look beyond the performance figures. It is not necessary to drive very far to realise the 1 Series is going to be a dynamic tour de force. The steering is meaty at slow speeds, but accelerate hard out of corners and there is a wonderful lack of torque steer or any power-related wiggles from the steering. It is amazingly fluent, linear and accurate in both input and feedback. It just demonstrates again why real driving enthusiasts will always prefer a proper hydraulic system rather than the new electronically assisted designs.
Dive into a corner fast and the car feels as if it pivots around its centre, the result of the ideal weight distribution, no doubt. Grip levels are high, aided by the fat tyres, and, combined with superb body control, result in a car that just begs to be driven with vigour.
Although ride is on the firm side, the suspension suppresses bumps well, though there is some crashing over manhole covers and the like.
And the looks? Well, like any recent BMW, there were howls of protest and plenty of negative rumblings when the first pictures emerged. In the metal, however, the car’s complex curves, slashes and bulges come alive. The 1 Series is perhaps not pretty in the traditional sense, but it is certainly very interesting to look at. Reserve judgement until you see one on the road. All we’ll say is that very few recent cars have attracted more attention.
By sticking to its guns and engineering a rear-wheel drive premium hatch, BMW has brought to the market a car with such poise and composure, that everything else suddenly feels comparatively clumsy. In an age where electronics are taking over, there is a magnificent mechanical purity to the 120i’s responses. In addition, the BMW badge and resultant desirability mean its residuals will be cast in gold.
It is not perfect, though, and its tight rear cabin will automatically eliminate it from some shopping lists. But for those who appreciate the 1 Series’ dynamic focus, and are willing to sacrifice space, nothing in this segment currently comes close.