Baby Beemer abroad

Any "Car of the Year" competition is essentially a collection of subjective impressions, regardless of how much objectivity might be involved in selection of the contenders and final judging. Once the finalists are chosen, arguably the hardest part of the judging process is over. Rarely, I get the feeling we might have sidelined a car for the wrong reasons.

Last year I had that feeling about BMW's second-generation 1 Series sedan, which was essentially rejected because it was considered too expensive by the panel; the cheapest entry point is $46,600 but few buy the manual version, so effectively the least expensive model costs $49,700. That said, you need to consider this type of car a shrunken executive offering. At $10k more than the other compact contenders, was it really overpriced?  

From a personal standpoint, I hadn't driven the 1 Series, and really was in no place to argue one way or the other, but I had driven the car that was voted compact offering of the year, the Focus, and knew the 2.0L petrol engine was no power station (though anything beats the entry 1.6L version). Still, Focus did lots of other things right, and at $38,490 was easier for the panel to justify as the pick of the compacts over the 1 Series. Unfortunately, the diesel model Focus didn't launch at the same time as the petrols. Pity, as I'm pretty sure it would have placed higher than fifth out of six, which is where the petrol Focus ended up.

One other thing concerned me at the time; several years earlier, in 2005, the 120d had won both best compact car and the overall NZ Autocar COTY award. Moreover, a colleague had driven the latest version and lamented the fact that it never made it on to the list of finalists. He liked it that much he was contemplating buying an ex-demo version if the price was right.

That the 1 Series never made it into the final half dozen is now history, but I finally did get a chance to drive the car recently in Europe and I reckon my colleague might have been on to something.

The model we drove was the 116i, with a six-speed manual transmission. What a novelty; so few test cars nowadays are manuals because far in excess of 90 per cent of new cars sold here have automatic transmissions. That's not the case in Europe.

The 116i is actually BMW's least expensive offering on four wheels. Ours wasn't quite because it was an SE version with extra specification. That consisted of electrically powered and heated seats, a proximity key, offering touchpad locking and unlocking, an iDrive controller, and satellite navigation. As mentioned previously, sat nav really takes the stress out of navigating, and also of driving in foreign climes and on the other side of the road. There's simply less stuff to fret about with sat nav.

Now I know what you're probably thinking, as were we initially; with its 1.6L engine the smallest BMW wouldn't have enough power to get out of its own way. But digging a bit deeper we discovered in the Autocar Price Pages that it produces 100kW of power and 220Nm of torque, meaning it had to have a turbo attached. So it proved.

We'd planned a trip that was essentially a clockwise ellipse of Eastern Europe, starting and finishing in BMW's home town of Munich, and taking in the major must-see cities like Prague, Vienna and Budapest, en route to King's Landing (Dubrovnic) via Zagreb and Split, and then back through to Munich, taking in Ljubljana in Slovenia and Salzburg in Austria. Around 3000km by my reckoning, which is a long test.

We were all set to travel by boat, bus and train, but figured asking for a test car couldn't hurt. It turned out the 1 Series was at the end of its test schedule in Europe and that a car was available via BMW. What luck, and the car turned out to be a godsend, in retrospect, allowing us to take in places like Krka National Park in Croatia that we'd otherwise probably have missed.

On pickup day in Munich I had to drive the 116i solo through the centre of town during peak-hour traffic. No pressure. As it happened, it was a no-sweat mission. Sat nav got me to our ratty hotel in the old city inch perfect, a positive start. In this and the other big cities we opted to park the car up and use public transport instead; it's much easier than trying to find parking, an expensive and thankless task in any major European metropolis.

Heading out of Munich, we got our first taste of autobahn freedom, and a feeling that the 1 Series would not disappoint. More on that next time.

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