Car reviews - BMW - 1 Series - 120i 5-dr hatch
Handling dynamics, balance, grip, styling, six-speed transmissions, brakes, safety features, variable-intensity brake lights
Room for improvement
Packaging, rear seat space, boot space, tall gearing, ho-hum performance, manual seats, no standard leather, no spare wheel
11 Feb 2005
BMW should probably be admired for sticking to its guns with the new 1 Series.
The corporate position is that the company will never, ever, build a front-drive car. Such a thing would run contrary to the company’s policy on chassis/drivetrains.
It would defy BMW’s basic DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid – the molecule that contains and transfers genetic characteristics) and, as such, would not qualify as a true BMW.
The company has shown it’s capable of doing front-drive cars though the Mini and the Rover 75 are two developments not to be ashamed of.
But, come hell or high water, the new 1 Series BMW could only ever have been a rear-wheel drive car. Even if the criteria for a contemporary small hatchback says that space utilisation is perhaps one of the most important design factors, a small hatchback from BMW had to steer somehow around that.
So the result is that no, the new 1 Series doesn’t have the packaging efficiency of its contemporaries – Audi A3, VW Golf, Alfa 147 – but it does have the handling integrity that underlies all BMWs.
It comes down to what BMW 1 Series buyers are looking for a handy shopping trolley, or a small hatch with a little more dynamic flair than anyone else. If they are looking for the latter, then the new mini BMW delivers.
Run a 1 Series through a series of fast bends, then repeat the exercise in any of the front-drive competition, and the car’s bias towards handling balance becomes acutely evident. The claim is that the front-rear weight distribution is close to a near-perfect 50-50, and it shows.
At a time when even the best of the rest will ultimately favour steady understeer, the 1 Series will continue steering, firmly and responsively, into and around the corner. Add the optional sport suspension (lower-riding, tighter springs and shockers) and the differences are even more noticeable.
The 120i’s 110kW 2.0-litre engine (the 118i is 2.0 litres as well, but produces only 95kW) combines with a relatively light body weight to indicate performance advantages too.
With those kiloWatts, 200Nm of torque and 1260kg the BMW edges in front of the 2.0-litre Audi A3 FSI, which offers the same power and torque but weighs fractionally more, even though it’s only a three-door.
But there’s not a lot in it, and neither BMW 120i nor Audi A3 FSI could really claim to be a performance car.
The reality is that the 120i – a six-speed manual for our test – lacks a certain spriteliness, especially at the upper end of the quite extensive power band where it seems reluctant to pull those last few rpms.
It might be to do with gearing, which is quite high, with sixth producing 100km/h for an outlay of just 2300rpm. Maybe it could also be partly attributed to the power losses incurred sending drive forces all the way to the rear wheels.
It also may be to do with the Bi-Vanos valve-control system introducing a linearity to the power delivery that eliminates any of the "spikes" that often give the impression of perky response.
The six-speed gearbox itself is nice to use, light in movement and with a smooth, also light, clutch.
The brakes, which are bigger front and rear on the 120i, use the fatter rubber slung around the 17-inch alloy wheels to good effect.
BMW’s multitudinous electronic control systems (including ABS, Cornering Brake Control, Dynamic Brake Control – or brake assist - Dynamic Stability Control, Dynamic Traction Control) are all fitted to the 1 Series and contribute to unmistakable feelings of security.
The BMW’s dynamic safety is matched by the usual profusion of airbags and other passive safety aids. Dual front "intelligent" airbags that deploy progressively according to the severity of the crash, as well as front side airbags, are supplemented by full-length curtain airbags, and the floor pedals are designed to break away in a head-on collision.
The 1 Series also picks up the variable-intensity stop lights that indicate to drivers following behind how hard the brakes are being applied.
And so we come to the interior.
Up front, there’s no problem whatsoever with space. The manually adjusted seats can be flung back so far many people would have trouble touching the front firewall with their feet, but effects on back-seat space are dramatic.
Use all the travel and the backrest will come close to colliding with the forward edge of the rear-seat cushion. Move it forward, and you’ll be compromising both front and rear passengers. Like we said earlier, a family car this is not.
Even the boot is quite small – although naturally it can be augmented via the 60-40 split-fold rear seat. And it’s accessed from outside by neatly flipping the BMW badge on the lid, much the same as VW’s new Golf.
Superficially, the quality is fine too, although some experts may grumble about the grade of plastics used around the dash panels.
The seats in the 120i are shaped a little more aggressively than the base 118i to hold passengers more firmly in place, but they’re still manually adjusted (albeit with power lumbar support) and velour-covered. Typically BMW, if you want more – like leather trim - you have to pay for it.
In this day where the spare tyre is becoming more and more atrophied, the 120i takes a simple stance. It doesn’t have one at all. The answer is a set of run-flat tyres that will get you to the nearest service station – provided it’s no more than 150km away, and at a maximum 80km/h - should you suffer a puncture.
It might create more room in the boot, and it might even save a little weight, and maybe expense, but we’d still rather have the option of replacing a disabled wheel with a full-size spare even if we had to make the necessary space sacrifices.
The BMW 1 Series is a small hatchback with a difference. It defies the usual criteria dictating that, in a small hatch, space efficiency should be a given.
It’s replaced here with fine handling, as well as a definite styling signature that ensures it’ll never be mistaken for anything else in this genre.
As for the future – what a wonderful thing a six-cylinder, M version would be...
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