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

Our Opinion

We like
Brilliant handling, delightfully responsive engine, decent boot
Room for improvement
Not especially great value for money, small cabin, firm ride

BMW logo18 Nov 2015

By NEIL DOWLING

Price and equipment

The name BMW precedes both the expectations and the abilities of the 1 Series range.

It’s the cheapest nametag in the BMW portfolio and while it presumes quality in engineering and build, the fact is that something has to give. That something is the equipment list.

The 120i hatch, updated in June of this year with a less pregnant appearance thanks to a broader grille and tail-lights, isn’t especially well equipped against some of the genre from Japan and Korea. But it does have the essentials.

Even compared with the Volkswagen Golf GTI auto, at $1500 more than the 120i hatch, the BMW trails in some features such as bigger alloy wheels, bi-Xenon headlights, sports suspension and a more powerful engine.

That’s not to say the 120i hatch is low rent. The four-door hatchback costs $41,990 plus on-road costs and the price is the same whether it’s a six-speed manual or the version tested here, the eight-speed automatic.

The engine is a modest 1.6-litres but has a healthy power output and a very good safety package.

Cabin decor is faux leather that not only looks like real leather but is vastly more durable, resistant to sun damage and easy to keep clean. And it’s less expensive. We’d have this over leather anytime.

The 120i also has satellite navigation (also on the Golf) and a six-speaker audio with Bluetooth connectivity.

Then there’s the option list, that dark and almost infinite wallet-bait inventory that becomes practically irresistible to new-car buyers.

Tick the rear-seat through opening for your golf bag, the 18-inch alloy wheels and the 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio on the option list and you’ve quickly added $3077. Metallic paint? $1142.

The options list is full of neat things that will customise your car and make it more personally suited. But you have been warned.

Interior

Some term it “understated elegance” but one passenger thought the cabin treatment of the 120i was “a bit plain”. Welcome to Germany.

Like Audi and Volkswagen, BMW has a corporate restraint leash that tugs on any brash attempts at styling. There have been some escapes from the straight road – Chris Bangle’s truncated boot on the fourth-generation 7 Series of 2002 being memorable – but BMW acknowledges that the lower end of the market is very conservative.

The 1 Series follows that comfortable step in design that doesn’t upset any potential buyers. The dash is clean and simple, the dials bright and large, the switchgear simply marked and with a rotary controller added for the information screen.

But it is simple and its predominant black decor is a bit drab. Heavily weighing in its favour is its ergonomics.

The driver’s compartment is small to create a sportscar feeling. It could be an awkward space for large drivers but there is a surprisingly large degree of adjustment in the seat and the steering wheel.

The sports seat, for example, has a huge height adjustment that drops it almost to the floor level.

The iDrive controller continues to improve, now simpler thanks to extra shortcut buttons around the knob. The connection to the hands-free Bluetooth is quick and buyers can opt (at a cost) for extra features such as internet.

Rear seat room is reasonable, upset by the large central hump for the prop shaft. That back will accept two adults and though the seat is firm and the headroom a bit limited, scalloped front seat backs give enough room for the knees of average-height occupants.

The rear-drive layout puts the axle, differential and multi-link suspension under the boot floor but thanks to no spare wheel – it has run-flat tyres – the cargo space is very good.

At 360 litres (rear seats in place) it compares favourably with hatchbacks such as the front-drive Audi A3 (380 litres) and the Mercedes-Benz A-Class (341 litres) and will expand to 1200 litres with the rear seats folded.

Personal storage space isn’t great. The glovebox is tiny, as is the centre console bin, though there are two cupholders and the door inserts have bottle holders. The console tray helps by storing your mobile phone.

Engine and transmission

The 120i is actually the old 118i, with a realignment of model names shuffling the deck before what will likely be the front-drive 1 Series arrives late next year.

The 1.6-litre engine is a Prince engine family designation from BMW and PSA’s joint venture and is also used in cars such as the Peugeot RCZ, 208GTI and 308GTI.

BMW tweaks the engine for its own use and, uniquely, turn it from a transverse to a longitudinal placement.

The 120i gets the same accouterments as the upmarket PSA products, with a twin-scroll turbocharger, direct injection and variable valve lift. So the 120i puts out 130kW at 6450rpm and 250Nm of torque at a very low 1500rpm.

BMW claims a 5.7 litres per 100 kilometres fuel consumption but on test over a varied route, we never saw less than 7.1L/100km. The engine runs on 95RON and draws from a small 52-litre tank.

But that’s academic. On the road the engine is a pure delight and belies its relatively small capacity. It revs hard and fuss-free and in conjunction with the ‘sport’ button, is a car that never tires and never wipes the smile off its driver’s face.

Part of the fun factor is the punch of the torque that is always on hand. The other factor is the eight-speed torque converter automatic that has perfect ratios and has quick shifts. People bang on about dual-clutch transmissions but the BMW’s lag-free nature and smooth shifts are a far better drive, especially in the city.

Ride and handling

This is a car without compromises. Okay, so it’s a bit small inside and the dash looks plain but these are quickly forgotten when the road starts to twist.

It’s almost psychic, sensing the corners and ready with the wheel angle. And even if the driver makes a small error with the corner’s arc, the quick-ratio steering box reacts to minor inputs and gets back on track.

Cornering is flat, the rear drive can actually be felt pushing the car around the corner and the speed at which bends can be eliminated is quite surprising – all this in a $42,000 plus costs car.

Which all sounds perfect. But it’s not. The ride is firm and if the road surface is a bit bumpy or rutted (welcome to Australia) then the bumps get transmitted audibly and physically into the cabin.

Part of that can be attributed to the run-flat tyres – though to be fair they’re getting better – and the main culprit is the firm, sports-like suspension.

The same suspension that made you giggle like a child earlier is also harbouring a dark side.

But that’s what this car is all about. Drive it as a city car and on perfectly paved roads you won’t feel the bumps. But you also won’t experience its handling prowess.

Safety and servicing

BMW gets a five-star ANCAP crash safety rating for the 1 Series. It’s backed by safety kit including six airbags and a city-friendly low-speed autonomous collision avoidance and warning system.

To the mandatory electronic brake aids, it adds brake emergency display, rear park sensors (front sensors are a $300 option), a reversing camera, automatic headlights and wipers, heated mirrors, LED daytime running lights and a tyre pressure alert for the run flats. There is no spare wheel.

BMW has a three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty with three years of roadside assistance. There is no capped price servicing but the company has a prepaid service program called BMW Service Inclusive (BSI).

BSI has two packages: Basic for scheduled servicing cover, and Plus that combines scheduled servicing and selected maintenance items.

BMW said BSI is based on individual lifestyle needs, a year range and kilometre option is selected, starting from three years or 60,000kms.

The BSI plan can be extended and transferred to future vehicle owners before expiry.

Glass’s Guide estimates that the 120i hatchback will have a resale value after three years of a strong 60 per cent, equivalent to the Golf GTI but well up on most other rivals.

Verdict

This is so much fun to drive that it’s a shame it looks a tad drab. The rear-drive layout – BMW’s hallmark yet ironically, likely to soon to disappear with future 1 Series models – brings the driver and the car together in a way that makes every journey fun.

There are some practical points. The 120i is reasonably economical and though it feels a bit tight inside, has a big and versatile boot. It’s not particularly cheap and some rivals are better equipped, but your neighbours will appreciate the BMW badge.

Rivals

Volkswagen Golf GTI DSG from $43,490 plus on-road costs
The most expensive in this comparison but has lots of equipment and a tonne of oomph. It covers the 100km/h sprint in 6.5 seconds thanks to a 162kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo-petrol engine and a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Fuel economy is claimed at 6.6L/100km. It has sat-nav, cloth and faux-suede upholstered sports seats, 18-inch alloys and bi-xenon headlights. Its capped-price service programs costs $1429 for three years and resale after three years is 60 per cent of the purchase price.

Mercedes-Benz A200 from $41,800 plus on-road costs
New A-Class platform is spread across four bodies (at the moment) and like the Golf’s MQB, makes for a fine-handling machine. The A200 has a 115kW/250Nm 1.6-litre turbo-petrol engine and a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic and has similar acceleration times to the Audi at 8.3 seconds for the 100km/h dash. Fuel use is 6.1L/100km. Features are good with a leather-look cabin, 18-inch alloys and automatic steering for self parking. Mercedes-Benz has a pre-paid service schedule. Resale is 50 per cent.

Audi A3 Sportback Attraction from $39,100 plus on-road costs
A great little car with style and a high level of quality. Powered by a 110kW/250Nm 1.4-litre turbo-petrol engine mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic and driving the front wheels, it claims a miserly 4.7L/100km. Performance is good but the feature list is weak, lacking niceties such as the BMW’s sat-nav and leather-look cabin. Boot space is slightly better than the BMW at 380-120 litres. No capped-price servicing but Audi has a menu and pre-purchase service program. Resale is 50 per cent.

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