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Car reviews - BMW - 1 Series - 120d 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Diesel performance and economy, dynamics, styling, comfort, hatch versatility, quality, choice
Room for improvement
Not-so-quiet diesel engine, high price, tight rear seat, no spare tyre

31 May 2006

BMW’S 1 Series is aptly named, since it is singularly one thing, and that’s a serious driver’s small car.

Backing this up is rear-wheel drive and a honed chassis, complete with meticulously designed suspension, pin-sharp steering and a favourable front/rear weight balance.

Even a brief stint behind the nifty little steering wheel highlights the perfect placement and clarity of the various switches, buttons and controls, exposing the 1’s driver focus.

That the baby BMW looks like a hatchback is secondary. It’s meant to give its keeper the same sports-sedan feeling as past petite Munich masters like the 2002 and early six-cylinder 3 Series.

In other words, the 1 Series is singularly a BMW. Not a small car built like a BMW, but a BMW built like a small car.

If you want more space, practicality and affordability, virtually every other small-car manufacturer will oblige with similarly silhouetted hatchbacks of virtually identical specification.

Most offer significantly more rear-seat legroom, headroom and cargo area, thanks to their far more space-efficient front-wheel drive layout and cab-forward design.

On the subject of appearances, to many eyes, the 1 Series’ looks are way too controversial, and too challenging, to cut it against the more traditional style of the Volkswagen Golf or Audi A3.

Yet, for others, it is the BMW’s aggressively bold and athletic visage that forms the very essence of its appeal.

In Australia there are three petrol-powered 1 Series models that most live up to the BMW badge – in order of merit they are the 130i, 120i and 118i.

This leaves just the base 116i as the runt of a deliciously driven litter.

So where does the newly released 120d fit into all this?

For starters, it is the second most expensive so far, exceeding the $44,800 120i automatic by $3000.

Its engine is a more obvious point of difference, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel unit – BMW’s first for Australia, and now also available to compelling effect in the E90 320d – delivering 115kW of power at 4000rpm and 330Nm at 2000rpm.

The latter, by the way, is 15Nm better than the 195kW 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder engine found in the $62,000 130i.

To save you checking, the 120d’s outputs are slightly better in all departments than every other similarly sized diesel you will find, including the excellent Astra CDTi, popular Golf 2.0 TDI and suave A3 2.0 TDI fraternal twins, and rorty Alfa 147 1.9 JTD models.

The BMW’s engine features common-rail direct-injection technology with a pressure of 1600 bar, to help catapult the 120d to a staggering level of performance when you factor in the fuel economy on offer.

Those figures are a 100km/h sprint from standstill in 8.5 seconds, on its way to a 215km/h top speed, with the potential to return as little as 5.5 litres per 100km, respectively. Theoretically 900km is possible from the 51-litre fuel tank.

Helping out here is a pearler of a gearbox, a ZF six-speed automatic with a brilliant ‘DS’ sport mode for quicker responses, as well as a sequential shift function for manual changes.

For a diesel, the BMW unit is commendably smooth, revvy and tractable, shoving the car forward with effortless ease over a ridiculously wide range of speeds.

A determined driver can probably keep up with almost everything this side of a supercar in everyday traffic, so eager is the 120d’s performance.

Yet, with the particular example we drove, there seems to be more engine noise entering the cabin than the two other 120ds we also recently sampled. BMW says it is investigating the car we assessed.

On the flipside, the much-criticised firm ride issue afflicting virtually every other 1 Series did not rear its head in our hands. The lack of the sports suspension pack (that’s standard in the 120i) helps here.

Sure, you could never call the suspension cushy, plush or even supple, but the expected harshness does not materialise.

However, BMW’s exalted dynamic abilities do.

Perhaps it is because of the 120d’s acceptably firm ride. Or maybe Runflat tyres are becoming more pliable. Whatever the case, this car is still very much a sporty drive, with a happy handling/ride compromise.

Sweet steering feel coupled with superb responses elevate even the 120d to handling and roadholding heaven.

Urged on by the torrent of torque coming in at unexpectedly low revs for a BMW, drivers who wish to explore this car’s limits will discover just how fast and fluent a cornering machine the 120d is.

As always, this is reason alone to buy a BMW, and the diesel does not disappoint.

Plus there is the cornucopia of safety and security related acronyms conspiring to keep you solidly on the road – such as the non-intrusive and gradual stability and traction controls.

Both can be switched off if gratuitous (though ultimately almost always catch-able) oversteer is your cup of tea.

Yet, after all this sportiness, dynamicism and subtlety, the allure of BMW’s fine Valvetronic four-cylinder petrol engined 120i is still too hard to resist if you are an dyed-in-the-wool enthusiast.

It certainly isn’t as punchy or parsimonious, but it is 75kg lighter, and – by golly – it loves a rev and feels alive where no diesel engine can ever be… at 6000rpm and rising. And, obviously, it is quieter to boot too.

Our feeling is that fuel prices are not yet high enough for the 1 Series diesel engine to justify its premium over the spirited 120i, even if the petrol car has the harsh sports suspension as standard. We recommend you delete this bone-jarring package, by the way.

Still, we are glad for the 120d’s existence.

Being a BMW, it is among the most thoroughly engineered small cars on Earth, backed up by world-leading safety, exquisite dynamics, striking design, excellent quality, exceptional front seat space, tolerable rear quarters and a usefully sized (330 to 1150 litres) hatch.

More importantly, being a diesel, it brings a new level of everyday performance and much lower fuel consumption to the 1 Series table, for those who might be more one-eyed about such matters.

Think of the 120d as a small diesel hatch and its depth and capabilities may astound you.

As a small BMW, however, the larger petrol powered 1s are still singularly closer to the marque.

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