REAR-wheel drive, a longitudinally mounted engine and its subsequent 50:50 weight distribution; while these are the essential tenets of BMW’s cars, they were considered novelties when first applied to the premium compact-hatch segment with the introduction of the first-generation 1 Series. They were successes then, and BMW has consequently stuck to its guns and retained them in the latest version. The company has also added big-car features and focused on efficiency in a bid to mature its smallest offering, but does this move upwards make the new car even more of a 1 Series or will it dilute the model’s appeal?
It’s fair to say that the original E81 1 Series managed to polarise opinion like few cars before it and the latest iteration of BMW’s baby looks set to do the same. Perhaps the most eye-catching aspect of the design is the manner in which the car appears to have been ventrally compressed, giving it a flatter, more purposeful air. Factor in a pointed nose with headlamp units that flare at their outer edges and narrow abruptly towards the grille, and from a front three-quarter angle the new car looks grown-up and less po-faced than before.
The new car is outwardly bigger than its predecessor (85 mm longer, 17 mm wider and with front/rear tracks that have grown by 51 and 72 mm respectively) but current design lends the car a more taut appearance that banishes the previous car’s awkward swage line, which gave the impression of a saggy midriff, and ushers in cleaner character lines.
The rear has also been sharpened with more distinct taillamps, flared wheelarches and a rear apron that echoes the front bumper’s styling. It’s distinctive and the featured car’s optional Sport Line trim package (including gloss-black air dam and rear apron inserts, wider grille slats and decals, at a cost of R17 500) adds a touch of visual purposefulness. It’s one of those designs that can’t be judged immediately – spend some time with the car and the chances are you’ll slowly succumb to its charms.
The expanded proportions have freed up some welcome extra interior space. There’s an additional 21 mm of rear kneeroom and 30 dm3 of luggage space, but it still comes across as somewhat pinched – an impression enforced by the optional dark leather and piano black finishes in our test unit.
The previous car’s interior often received poor press for its so-so perceived quality, but the new model appears to have atoned for this. The facia, with its layered styling, soft-touch surfaces and freestanding iDrive screen is clean and the level of perceived quality is high. Once on the move, refinement is impressive, with wind, tyre and engine noise well suppressed at motorway speeds.
Although, as a showcase vehicle, our test unit was specced to the hilt, many of the optional extras were not immediately visible to the untrained eye and the overall impression was of a well-equipped car as opposed to a sumptuous one. Even so, such big-car features which included, among numerous other items, front and rear PDC, lane-departure warning, park assist, high-beam assist and Connected Drive with smart phone app integration, weighed in at more than R150 000. They do, however, give the impression of the 1 Series quietly encroaching on 3 Series ground in terms of functionality.
The 1 Series has always been highly regarded for its dynamic talents, but in the outgoing car it was often marred by an overly firm ride. Here, again, the new car exorcises niggles of the old. The suspension setup still reins in lateral body movement neatly and, while still on the firm side of the ride spectrum, is better damped and less crashy than that of the previous car, further tempering the poise and agility for which the model is renowned with a welcome degree of comfort.
The electric steering setup exhibits the satisfying weight and precision we’ve come to expect from BMW helms. This, combined with a slick gearshift from the six-speed ‘box and an easily modulated clutch, makes the new car a pleasure to drive, both in town and on more aggressively driven back roads, where good levels of grip come to the fore. But, while the dynamics are crisp and balanced, the engine is more of a mixed bag.
At the heart of the 116i lies the latest generation of BMW’s four-cylinder 1,6-litre turbopetrol units featuring direct fuel injection, twin-scroll turbocharging, variable camshaft control, variable valve timing and standard stop/start. As with every other model in its range, the 116i’s powerplant is modulated by the Driving Experience Control Switch that allows the driver to select from three drivetrain presets (comfort, sport and Eco Pro). Although BMW claims that this unit finds a fine balance between performance and efficiency, we have to admit that, with its tall gearing, the engine’s characteristics lean towards the latter. With total outputs of 100 kW and 220 N.m, it feels rather leisurely when left in comfort. Selecting sport gives the engine and drivetrain a prod in the ribs, noticeably sharpening throttle response. Eco Pro brings drivetrain parameters into their most frugal setting and, while outright performance is pared down, it does help realise a respectable fuelindex figure of 6,6 litres/100 km.
The new 1 Series represents an appreciable improvement over its predecessor. It delivers on the dynamic front, but adds more comfort into the mix and so effectively distills BMW’s big-car virtues into a compact, distinctive package. The styling will polarise opinion (again) but it most certainly won’t be considered boring, while the improvement in perceived quality will please those who bemoaned the previous car’s shortcomings in this department. Those seeking strong performance may not be bowled over by the 116i, but its impressive fuel consumption will still prove a drawcard.
Like many German compacts, you have to be circumspect when ticking the options boxes – entrylevel cars appear to be good value but are somewhat spartan. The fact remains, however, that BMW has produced an impressive addition to the premium hatchback segment. We’re interested to see how it will fare when tough competition in the shape of the next iterations of the Audi A3 five-door and Mercedes- Benz A-Class arrive towards the beginning of 2013.