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Car reviews - BMW - 1 Series - 118i 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Balance, steering, willing engine, smooth eight-speed auto, cabin ergonomics
Room for improvement
Road noise, expensive options, back-seat space, dour Eco mode

Gallery

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BMW logo30 Jan 2013

Price and equipment

THE BMW 118i tested here starts at $43,200 plus on-road costs, with the eight-speed automatic on our car adding a further $3500.

This compares to key rivals in the form of the existing Audi A3 1.8 TFSI Ambition ($43,400), forthcoming Mercedes-Benz A200 ($40,900) and the Lexus CT200h (from $39,990).

However, be careful, because in typical BMW style there is a bewildering array of optional extras. Our test car had at least $8000 worth, and you could go appreciably higher still. Then you’re in Volkswagen Golf R territory.

Standard equipment includes cruise control with brake function, automatic headlights and wipers, multi-function leather steering wheel, Bluetooth, auxiliary and USB connection, and an iDrive controller with 6.5-inch screen.

All variants also come with four driving modes (Eco, Comfort, Sport and Sport +) and a starter button – though, bizarrely, it is bereft of a proximity key, so you have to use the fob to open the doors.

Our test car’s swag of extras included black leather seats ($2600), sunroof ($2920), a cargo net ($330), all-round parking sensors ($600) and a Sport Line kit ($2080), which adds among other things rather sexy five-spoke 17-inch wheels, sports seats with electric backrest adjustment, sports steering wheel, red detailing on the key and LED ‘ambience” lights in the cabin.

Interior

THE 1 Series cabin is every bit as solid and ergonomic as its larger BMW siblings, but its rear-drive layout and long-nosed styling mean it remains less spacious in the back than many hatchbacks.

There is a real homogeneity to modern BMW interiors, but on the baby of the range this is no bad thing. Like the 3 Series, the 1’s instruments are tilted towards the driver, and after some familiarisation are extremely easy to navigate.

Much of this is to do with the improved user-friendliness of its iDrive interface, which controls functions including audio, driving mode and trip information via a dial on the transmission tunnel and a 6.5-inch dash-top display.

There are soft-touch surfaces aplenty – with the notable exception of the flimsy door panels – and the solid dials and impressive noise insulation lend tactility to the interior. The ergonomics are excellent, with all dials easy to reach and plenty of reach/rake wheel adjustment.

The seats were a little firm in the base for our liking, but had plenty of manual adjustment and provided excellent side support in the twisty roads.

Splashes of silver courtesy of the Sport Line pack livened up the otherwise overwhelmingly black interior, but we suspect base models could get a touch dreary (and hotter than Hades in summer).

The main bugbear of the old 1 Series was its second-rate back-seat room. BMW consequently made the new model larger all-round, with a longer wheelbase and doors.

Nevertheless, the rear-drive architecture and long-nosed styling (less room for the passenger cell as a proportion of overall length) means rear legroom remains tight, though rear headroom is decent and the 118i has rear air-conditioning vents.

The back seats fold flat, creating some 1200 litres of storage space. With the seats in place, this is 360 litres – on par with the class, but rendered less handy by the narrow loading area.

There is no spare wheel, with BMW opting for run-flat tyres instead.

Engine and transmission

ITS engine may be only 1.6 litres in size, but a twin-scroll turbo and brilliant eight-speed automatic transmission render the 118i a quasi-hot hatch.

The new engine produces 125kW of power and 250Nm of torque, allowing the hatch to jump from zero to 100km/h in a claimed 7.4 seconds, and consumes an official average 5.9 litres of premium petrol per 100km.

More pertinently, these outputs are 30kW and 70Nm higher than the 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engine used in the previous 118i. BMW made a significant U-turn when it embraced turbo technology, and let’s all give thanks to the car gods it did.

While there is a hint of lag at take-off, the engine feels meaty across the rev range, with peak torque available from just 1500 rpm. It’s also very refined for an engine of this type, despite the loud and fast idle, and at 110km/h revs at just over 2000rpm.

BMW has matched this sweet little engine to a wonderfully intuitive eight-speed automatic. Yes, eight ratios is too many for a country with 110km/h maximum speeds, but remember that this is a car built for the autobahns of its homeland.

What impressed us most about the transmission was its adaptability. It can be subtle and imperceptible when doddering around (the sign of a well-calibrated auto), or crisp and snappy when used in manual mode on more challenging roads.

Our only real problem was the standard idle-stop function, which hesitates slightly at take-up. We switched it off more often than not.

The 118 comes standard with a selection of driving ‘modes’ – Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport + – that tweak the throttle response and shift mapping to suit a certain driving style.

For the average city commute, Comfort is the pick, selecting a higher gear than the sportier settings to help refinement and economy.

Sport and Sport Plus let the engine rev out more by holding onto gears for longer and, while this helps response when accelerating out of a corner, it gets a bit rough and raucous in the average urban commute.

Best to leave it for special occasions.

Eco Pro dulls the throttle and programs the transmission to sit in an even higher ratio than Comfort, taking the edge off the engine’s sparkling performance in the process. It also dials back the air-conditioning.

Still, we did see highway consumption dip to 4.6L/100km, which is roughly on par with the Lexus CT200h petrol-electric hybrid.

Ride and handling

UNLIKE its rivals, BMW has doggedly stuck to a rear-wheel-drive layout on its smallest car. While this impinges on cabin space and undoubtedly adds cost, the dynamic benefits of such a set-up put the 1 Series straight to the top of the class.

The feel and feedback from the electric-assisted steering through the chunky wheel is almost perfect, turn-in is sharp as a tack and – in Sport mode, at least – a curvy road can yield some tail-wagging fun, thanks to the loose ESC.

Car-makers including Volkswagen and Ford have had some success at taming the wilder instincts of their respective front-drive hatchbacks – namely torque-steer and plough-on understeer – via complex differentials, but the simplicity and balance of the Beemer stands alone.

BMW has struck a better compromise with the ride of its latest 1, with the run-flats vastly improved and the dampers well-weighted.

Ride is by no means cushy, but neither will you feel every pebble beneath the rubber.

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, as one our other contributors said, a Mazda3 owner will still think they’ve stepped into a Citroen DS.

Safety and servicing

THE baby Beemer scored almost full marks and the maximum five stars in ANCAP safety testing.

Standard equipment includes six airbags, brake lights that flash the hazards under duress, stability control with brake-assist, and provision of a warning triangle and first-aid kit.

The 1 Series is covered by a three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, while service costs and intervals vary with vehicle usage.

Verdict

IF YOU want a light hatch with scalpel-sharp handling and don’t mind sacrificing some rear legroom, the 1 Series is a no-brainer.

Combine this with a ripping little turbo engine and brilliant eight-speed automatic and you have a near-base model that is almost as much fun to punt around as the average brand’s designated hot hatch.

That said, go easy on the options boxes because that mid-40k starting price can grow in no time at all.

Prospective customers would also do well to remember that a new Audi A3 and Mercedes A-Class are just around the metaphorical corner, so there’s rarely been a better to time to be a well-to-do small-car buyer.

Rivals

1. Volkswagen Golf GTI (from $40,490 plus on-road costs). The 155kW/280Nm GTI is faster than the more expensive 1 Series, and has similar levels of German build quality. Long the class benchmark, it may lack the Beemer’s badge cache, but remains a formidable adversary.

2. Audi A3 (from $41,200). Nearly due for replacement, the current Audi A3 remains a well-made and stylish contender in the premium small-car race, and continues to attract buyers drawn to the four-ringed badge.

3. Alfa Romeo Giulietta (from $38,990). An outside choice, but certainly a distinctive one. Full of style and character in the best Italian tradition, the little Alfa has plenty going for it. An ordinary diesel engine and automatic transmission make the petrol/manual combo the obvious pick for enthusiasts.

Specs

Make and model: BMW 118i
, Engine type: 1.6-litre turbo-petrol
, Layout: RWD
, Power: 125kW @ 4800rpm
, Torque: 250kW @ 1500 to 4500rpm
, Transmission: Eight-speed auto
, 0-100km/h: 7.4 seconds
, Fuel consumption: 5.9L/100km
, Dimensions: 4324mm long/1765mm wide/1421mm high
, Weight: 1295kg
, Suspension: Independent all-round
, Steering: Electric rack-and-pinion

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