A tour of the new 1 Series

We were fortunate indeed to secure the use of a BMW116i to drive while we were away tiki-touring around eastern Europe. Had it been any other brand we would also have been happy, but driving one of the better-balanced compacts available was a bonus.

The 1 Series is now into its second generation and looking somewhat better for it. The original didn't gel well aesthetically; the face seemed frumpy, but this an improvement - it now looks cured of its depression - and the door curves look more wedgy instead of droopy. The design retains that cabin-rearward bias, emphasising its front engine/rear drive layout, which is unusual in the sector. Everywhere we went, people clearly recognised this for what it was and everyone presumed we were German tourists. As you might, for in the Czech Republic, which we visited, about 99 in every 100 cars are Skodas.

In the original 1 Series, the 2.0L diesel offered a great mix of performance and economy and in tandem with inspired dynamics the vehicle top-scored in the NZ Autocar COTY 2005 drive-off. Now direct fuel injection and turbocharging (here twin-scroll) have been implemented in BMW petrol engines. Once upon a time you might have driven a BMW 116i primarily because it was the least expensive BMW four-wheeler. Nowadays, it's a choice you might well make based on the merits of the car rather than the allure of its badge, for the base model features forced induction, produces 220Nm of torque from just 1350rpm right through to 4300rpm, and can genuinely get out of its own way; BMW claims 0-100 in 8.5sec. The original 120i took 9.5sec.

Driven differently, in its ECO-PRO setting, which optimises everything for economy, it is capable of fuel use in the low fours. We saw that just once, when we were cruising along in traffic at around 90kmh, but in general out-of-town running a figure of 4.8L/100km is claimed. We saw 6.5L/100km much of the time, but then we were on tolled motorways mainly, and were seldom cruising below 130kmh. That's still a tank range of 800km.

I enjoy driving, always have. My better half doesn't so much, but on one particular day, when we drove around 700km from Dubrovnic in Croatia to Ljubljana in Slovenia, she offered to take the wheel on the M1. I suspect she just wanted to get an idea of what motorway cruising at 160kmh felt like, which is what most of the rest of the traffic was doing. Occasionally, a luxury liner would belt past at a considerably greater rate of knots and put the wind up us.

She considered the car ideal for our trip and in many ways it was except for its five-door status; we had no use whatsoever for the rear seats. There's a bit more space back there than in the original, 21mm of added knee room, but it's still hardly sofa surfer territory. The boot, though, is a decent size, up by 30L to 360L, and expanding by split folding to over 1200L. We both had a large bag each, hers especially, and a backpack apiece, along with a bit of sports gear, and it swallowed all this without fuss, other than by just tossing the big cases in first.

Our Urban-trimmed car featured an optional proximity device, so we could unlock/lock the boot manually, so long as the smart key was in some pocket or purse nearby. Same with the front doors. This is one of the reasons you pay around $10k more for a luxury compact offering. Another is the option of an eight-speed automatic transmission.

What helped make our holiday such fun was that we simply had a ball driving the 116i; it was always a hoot to get back behind the wheel of this car. Course it helped being small in built-up areas where a 10.9m turning circle is a real advantage. But what really made it such a thoroughly agreeable driving companion was its mix of performance and economy, rather like the original 120d, only quieter.

Turbos are taking over and it's not something that makes me especially sad. So long as you're not stomping on the gas the entire time, their efficiency is exemplary; anything that makes it into the 4s at 100kmh is pretty darn fuel efficient. Reasonably light weight of 1290kg helps. But the key to its efficiency is peak torque developed across a broad spread of everyday revs you use around 95 per cent of the time. It always feels stroppy, especially in Sport mode. On the other hand, this is an EfficientDynamics vehicle, with idle-stop and regenerative braking. Much of the time we were cruising at a constant speed so switched to EcoPro mode. This optimises systems in the car (ECU, gearbox parameters, ancillaries like air con, alternator) to save upwards of 20 per cent on fuel use, and details the extra km gained as you go.

When not cruising we generally drove the 116i in Sport mode because that's when full power is available and this is one entry-level model that doesn't hang around, especially as a manual. The old atmo engines of earlier entry level models never really did. It rides nicely too, better than the original thanks to minor suspension bush tweaks, and brakes are beyond reproach.

There are lots of decent compacts available, and one newcomer in particular is somewhat similar to the 116i. That's the new three-door GT86 coupe from Toyota, also rear wheel drive. It uses a 2.0L normally aspirated engine and makes more power but less torque, and being lighter is a touch quicker. But both as six-speed manuals cost just under $47k, and the BMW has drive-away pricing. Plus it has two extra doors, and much more space in the back and boot. Who'd have thought that a BMW could be on par for price and size with a Toyota?

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