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Car reviews - BMW - 1 Series - 116i 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Sweet and rorty 1.6 turbo, Sport mode performance, seamless Stop/Start system, exceptional economy, solid feel, grown-up dynamics
Room for improvement
Ride still firm, expensive options like $1700 metallic paint, styling has lost E87’s edge

15 Jun 2012

MOST people would define ‘runt’ as “the smallest or the weakest of the litter”.

In our imaginary Dictionary of World Cars, we wouldn’t even bother with words. Instead there’d be a single image of the previous-generation BMW 116i, looking sober, sombre and sorry on its skinny steel wheels and scratchy cheapo plastics.

A far cry from its soaring six-pot 135i turbo siblings then, this entry-level 1 Series barely survived three years on the Australian market, slipping quietly away in early 2008.

But for all the barebones poverty of it all, however, the old 116i – like all E87s – still looks sharp today… more so than the larger but less resolved F20 that took over from October last year.

At least BMW has tried harder with the new 116i under the skin, where it really matters.

Picking the changes inside an F20 isn’t the work of a moment, even for E87 owners. But by gosh, they’re certainly there.

Immediately apparent is the easier entry and egress – the upshot of larger door apertures, a roomier cabin, and increased legroom. It is as if the body has been upsized by 10 per cent, making the baby BMW go from too tight to just right.

That ‘peering through a fishbowl lens’ feeling when looking out the windscreen is gone, though rear vision isn’t exactly panoramic.

Cribbed from larger BMWs is the newly improved and simplified iDrive selector – now with a fixed screen and working like a charm – while an excellent and supportive pair of front seats, the 116i’s round analogue dials, three-spoke steering wheel and driver-oriented dash all subscribe to Munich tradition. It’s just too bad about the sea of drab black plastic trim that undermines the premium feel.

Occupants are no longer as crammed in as they once were. And the back seat will actually accommodate taller people, unlike before. If the folk up front are feeling generous by raising their seats up, there is even room for feet to tuck in underneath back there.

But larger drivers – particularly those with big feet – will find the clutch pedal and footrest foul shoes (to the point where one oversized tester needed to take his left shoe off) while the lower centre console still curtails a splayed-knee driving position. Both spoil an otherwise fine driving position.

Other negatives include a high waistline and shallow glasshouse that (still) conspire to make the cabin feel slightly claustrophobic, and protruding rear headrests that won’t sit flush with the backrest when not in use does not help.

Furthermore the base 116i back seat area is devoid of map pockets, door pockets, a centre armrest, cupholders, overhead reading lights, and air vents. In fact there is nowhere to rest or store anything bar a shallow recess behind the centre console. And the nasty carpet would cheapen a $12,000 Suzuki Alto.

Finally the boot is deep (runflat tyres means there is no spare wheel) and wide, with a low loading lip, but many rivals better the BMW in terms of length.

Still, nobody buys a 1 Series for class-leading rear-seat or cargo space – do they?

From the moment you press the push-button start, the 116i reveals its BMW pedigree, albeit one with a modern, downsized twist.

Found in the Mini and several PSA Peugeot/Citroen variants is the BMW-designed and built 1.6-litre Prince engine, featuring a twin-scroll turbo and variable control for both the valves and the camshaft for this 100kW/220Nm application.

On paper the 8.5s 0-100km/h-sprint time is unremarkable, yet a favourable power-to-weight ratio and a considered stack of gear rations means that – as long as you’re willing to whack that accelerator pedal – the 1290kg 116i’s performance repertoire is quite a compelling thing to behold.

Aided by a weighty spring-loaded six-speed manual with an oily mechanical feel that does much to connect the F20 with its earlier 3 Series ancestors, the baby BMW steps off the line smartly, as then keeps on coming on strongly, as the turbo then subtly but emphatically kicks in.

If you’re up for a GTI-style thrash, there’s a wave of torque available right up to and beyond the 6500rpm limit, for a spirited and stimulating experience that’s coupled with a deep veneer of mechanical refinement.

Call it heresy but BMW’s TwinPower engines rival the old straight sixes for silky smoothness and everyday useable performance, yet deliver impressive economy figures that everybody can appreciate. How does 7.6L/100km sound even after sustained city and inner-urban driving combined with plenty of back-road blasting?

The seamless Stop/Start system certainly plays a role here, as does the Brake Energy Regeneration system that redirects otherwise wasted kinetic energy into acceleration forces.

If only the Bavarians could synthesise a similar exhaust note…

More good news is garnered from the steering – a pure and unadulterated affair thanks to the 1 Series’ unique rear-drive status.

While keener drivers will revel in a fabulous concoction of feel and feedback (the helm is electrically powered, after all) coupled with an underlying sense of stability and security, it is the F20’s newfound front-end lightness and crispness compared to the preceding set-up that will endear the 116i to most everybody else.

It’s the classic ‘having your cake and eating it’ scenario. Hot hatchists can have a hoot of a time barrelling along a curvy mountain bypass with the precisely calibrated ESC in Sport mode for a bit of tail-wagging fun, while granddad can potter about blissfully unaware of the sheer balance and buffoonery that’s possible.

From the brakes that tirelessly keep everything in check to the squat roadholding, what we’re saying here is that the 116i is pure old-school BMW.

What’s evolved is the ride quality – hard bordering on brittle in the old car fitted with runflats, our eco-tyred 205/55R16-shod example soaked up the bigger bumps without the tiresome pitter-patter over the smaller stuff.

Our only real criticism is the amount of road noise drone entering the cabin – a typical German car trait on our unique highway road surfaces. Mind you, a Mazda3 owner will think they’ve stepped into a Citroen DS…

Unlike the last 116i then, today’s base 1 Series is no runt, offering instead a bona fide BMW driving experience for less than Golf GTI money.

We’re tempted to call it a warm hatch but that would undermine the appealing overall frugality and refinement that are also parts of this desirable dynamic package.

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