BMW may be all about the joy these days, but we prefer its previous mantra: 'the ultimate driving machine'. And if there's one car that truly lives up to the old tagline, it's the 1 Series. What, not the M3, you ask? Nope, because more than anything, the 1 Series demonstrates BMW's determination to deliver its buyers that ultimate drive.
When it decided to have another crack at a compact car in 2004, the company didn't follow the front-drive, transverse engine convention of the class, instead sticking with its traditional rear-drive layout. This made the 1 Series unique in its class but also dictated its styling and packaging. While the first One was universally praised for its handling, it was also panned for its average ride, poor interior space and those unusual looks. None of that worried buyers, however, and over a million were sold around the world. With the new 1 Series, BMW has addressed some of the criticism by adding a few millimetres of extra space here and there, and improving the suspension to deliver a better ride while retaining the car's unmatched handling characteristics.
Because this new F20 model is an evolution rather than an all-new 1 Series, BMW has kept the overall shape of the original, which may or may not be a good thing in your eyes.
The sheet metal is new; there's the bold front-end treatment with its angled headlights and upright grille, which brings the 1 Series in line with the rest of the family. Viewed side on, this iteration is certainly snouty, but gone is the sagging lower door line, which made the first model look like a pregnant cow. The F20 is marginally bigger - 85mm longer,17mm wider, and 30mm is added to the wheelbase - but the height remains the same.
These days, key trends are economy and reduced emissions, so no surprises that the engine line-up embraces turbocharging. Equally, a six-speed auto is no longer good enough in this market, so all models make the move to an eight-speed 'box. BMW's new 1.6-litre turbopetrol will arrive later in the year, and it sounds like an interesting power unit. Used by both the 116i and 118i, it features a twin-scroll turbo and direct injection as well as variable-valve lift and valve timing. Powering the $55,500 118i, it delivers 125kW and 250Nm from 1500 to 4500 rpm, producing a claimed 0-100km/h time of 7.4 seconds and economy pegged at 5.9L/100km. The $49,700 116i runs a detuned 100kW version that makes 220Nm from 1350rpm, has a quoted 8.5-second 0-100km/h time and consumes 5.7L/100km.
On our pages is the 118d, which at $56,600 is the most expensive model (as an aside, BMWs now feature drive away pricing which includes GST, a tank of fuel, registration for 12 months, 10,000 kilometres of RUC's, and three years of no-cost scheduled servicing). As tested here it's slightly more, but we'll get to that. The 2.0-litre in question is optimised for efficiency yet still manages to produce reasonable outputs of 105kW, and 320Nm between 1750 and 2500rpm. Consumption is down to just 4.5L/100km. While BMW claims a 0-100km/h figure of 8.9 seconds for the 118d, we couldn't get below 9.5 in this particular car, which admittedly was all but brand-new. Compared to the last 118d we had, a six-speed manual, it weighs just 50 kilograms more - not bad considering the eight-speed auto and added specification.
Complementing the new transmission is the now-familiar multi-mode driving button, comprising an Eco mode to maximise economy, a default Comfort setting and two Sport settings. The operation of the eight-speed has all the expected refinement and smarts, although Comfort mode can be slow to shuffle down the gears if you're in a hurry. Best to push the gear lever over to Sport if you're late for a meeting. There's also a stop-start function, which is unobtrusive for the most part, restarting the engine as soon as the brake is released. The legal speed limit uses up just 1500rpm in top, and while the engine is OK with pulling from this point, it really is happier at the 2000rpm mark, and from here it's nice and zippy. An optimistic 5500rpm redline is suggested, but 5000rpm is its limit, and really, the powertrain is stretched by 4000rpm anyway.
In urban surrounds this is pretty easy car to drive, as the 1 Series remains a manageable, compact size. The steering is light-weighted at low speeds, and thanks to the $500 variable steering option fitted to this car, only 2.1 turns are required lock-to-lock. At 10.9 metres, the turning circle is pretty handy. The ride is certainly improved - on standard suspension tune, at least. Though not a vehicle that isolates the road completely, it's no boneshaker, either.
But where the 1 Series is best enjoyed is the open road. For a compact car, it cruises well - but it turns in a way that larger cars can only dream of. While the Mac strut front and multilink rear carry over, the track is a little wider, and BMW has improved the bearings, bushes and mounting points of the suspension, resulting in greater compliance. What does this all boil down to? The One remains a seriously good drive. The steering setup is wickedly direct, with quick turn-in, and while the car dives into corners with little provocation, it doesn't chase the contours of the road in a straight line. The EPS (Electric Power Steering) is pretty sharp, too. A well-balanced mass contained in a relatively short wheelbase means changes in direction are drama-free. Others in the class lack the same balance, and the One has a grip advantage as well because of this, though understeer will eventuate on damp roads. The welcome improvement in suspension compliancy produces a well-tied down ride that deals well with most bumps, although is quite noisy in its actions. As the regular suspension tune is up to the task, don't waste money on the sport suspension or the even-pricier adaptive version.
On the topic of options, there are many for this car. BMW has two new packs, called BMW Lines, to offer its customers. This car features the Sport Line kit, which adds $2000 to the price. Components comprise a different alloy style, different cloth for the upholstery (upgrading to leather, like our test car, will add a further $3950), and various accents and highlights on the exterior and interior, and even on the key fob.
The only real pluses in this option are the upgrade to sports seats, and a little knee-pad on the centre console for the driver. The Urban Line is a similar package of visual 'enhancements'.
While our car has some $17,000 worth of extras, including biggies like the leather, Sport Line, a sunroof and navigation, the most useful options would be the variable steering and the parking sensors front and rear ($750), or a camera ($950), as rearward vision isn't flash.
The keyless entry option ($950) would be a good addition to the standard keyless starting function. If you do a lot of night driving, perhaps consider the benefits of the illuminating xenons ($1000) with auto dipping ($250) and an adaptive turning function ($500). There are definite advantages to integrated sat-nav, but a $4000 price tag isn't one of them.
Inside, the dash design has BMW's usual mix of interesting curves, imbuing it with a premium feel. A few hard plastics are involved but are hidden away; the construction is solid. The optional black headlining does nothing for the feeling of space inside, in fact it does the opposite. There's $450 you could save. With the slight increase in wheelbase, BMW claims 21 millimetres of extra legroom in the rear, and while it is an improvement, it's still far from spacious back there, and the door apertures are on the mean side. Meanwhile, the boot has gained an extra 30 litres of air space, now measuring 360, and is extended easily by folding the rear seat flat.
With all its options, this car is expensive; it's also little better in terms of interior space than its predecessor. But the essence of the 1 Series remains, and that's a cracking drive, delivered here with minuscule impact on the world's fuel reserves.
MODEL: BMW 118d.
ON SALE IN NZ: Oct 2011.
ENGINE: 1995cc, IL4, 105kW@4000rpm, 320Nm@1750-2500rpm.
TRANSMISSION: 8-speed auto, rear-wheel drive.
VITALS: 9.52sec 0-100 km/h, 4.5L/100km, 118g/km, 1447kg.
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