Ever the since the 1 Series arrived I’ve been reserving my judgment until BMW wedged a straight six into the subcompact’s engine bay. Apart from being rear-wheel driven, the 1 Series was pretty ordinary by subcompact standards – it has little space in the back and the rear passengers’ footwells are very cramped. But golly, the BMW 130i is a different story.
The 120i didn’t pack much in terms of power, but its engaging handling was a breath of fresh air in a market dominated by understeery front-wheel driven four-cylinders. Pushing out no less than 195 kW from its 3,0-litre Valvetronic engine, the 130i six-speed manual is Kryptonite to the much-celebrated GTI, GSI, RS and RSI hot hatch brigade.
Bury your right foot and the sweet song of the glorious Bavarian sextet will make the angels weep, such is its sonorous splendour. Okay, the clutch action is a little sticky – but you get used to it. The gear action also had a longer throw than I expected, but it was precise and confident. Because the engine revs so keenly, you’ll want to wind the little mill into the red in every single gear.
Here comes the best part… Riding on pretty 17-inch alloys, the 130i is a superb little handler. Find yourself a twisty piece of blacktop and just let the car do its thing. The 130i is arguably the best-handling subcompact I’ve driven – it’s all so well balanced, with great brakes, only a hint of understeer, confidence-boosting traction and razor-sharp steering. If you really overcook it in the corners, you’d feel the rear end getting a bit light (thank goodness for DSC), but the 130i never felt as if it was on the ragged edge.
There are two major disadvantages to the 130i. With a base price of R278 500, the 130i does not look much different to a 120i and doesn’t rate very well in the metal-for-money stakes. You’d have to fork out R312 500 if you opt for the M Sport Package, which is still comparatively understated in terms of its overall styling. Having said that, the 130i Sport is still cheaper than its Audi A3 3,2 quattro rival and might just show the Ingolstadt hatch a clean pair of heels.