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Car reviews - BMW - 1 Series - 120i Convertible

Our Opinion

We like
Styling, packaging, driving dynamics, roof mechanism, available boot space, efficiency
Room for improvement
Dire rear vision, extra weight blunts 2.0-litre’s performance

BMW logo31 Oct 2008

ON PAPER the $52,900 120i Convertible might look like one of the great automotive bargains of the moment.

Not much smaller than a 3 Series Convertible of a decade ago, the drop-top version of the sublime E82 1 Series Coupe (available in Australia from $1500 more at $54,401 for the 125i) provides entry to the alfresco BMW experience for almost half that of today’s base 325i Convertible.

Of course there are fewer cylinders, inferior equipment levels and not as much space inside the 1 Series drop-top. And the roof isn’t a trick folding-hardtop item like you get on the circa-$100,000 325i Convertible and its 335i sibling.

But who cares! You’re getting a BMW (and a proper, rear-wheel drive one) for a price that's $3000 more than a top-line (2.0 TFSI) VW Eos, and midway between the 1.8 TFSI and 2.0 TFSI versions of Audi's even newer A3 Cabriolet - both of which are front-drive.

However, if you do want more of everything, the company will happily sell you the six-cylinder 125i Convertible ($63,755) and twin-turbo 135i Convertible ($79,644).

So what is the first four-seater four-cylinder BMW convertible in Australia in living memory – if you discount the popular E30 318i Baur TC2 Cabrio of the 1980s... which you should, since that car’s roof is not the full folding item but a ‘targa’ style cabriolet – really like, anyway?

Unfortunately, the 1 Series Convertible range currently lacks the superb 2.0-litre turbo-diesel of the 120d (sunseekers deserve fuel economy too you know... as VW readily obliges with its Eos TDI), and there is no sign of the critically acclaimed twin turbo-diesel 123d.

Therefore, buyers of the entry-level model have to make do with the sweet and smooth but not particularly lively 2.0-litre four-cylinder Valvetronic petrol unit.

Actually, once you’re on the move, the 120i’s performance is more than adequate – thanks to a strong spread of torque through the rev range that provides sufficient mid-range acceleration – as long as you’re willing to get pushy with the accelerator pedal and row the weighty six-speed manual gearbox along.

This is reflected in the official 0-100km/h-sprint times of 9.2 seconds or 10 seconds flat if you are in the optional six-speed auto clearly that requires an even heavier right foot.

Bowling along, you will find the 120i cruises effortlessly, enhanced by a tall sixth gear ratio to provide silent as well as swift progress.

It’s only under instant acceleration requirements, where the Valvetronic needs plenty of revs under its belt to really move things along, that the extra 130kg mass of the convertible becomes apparent. For example, caution needs to be taken when planning to overtake.

Still, this unit is fairly frugal: we were averaging around 8.5 litres per 100km, and even saw that figure touch the 8L mark on a long drive.

Better still, while there is the inevitable body shimmer on some uneven roads and a little scuttle shake over the odd rough one, the rag-top 120i feels quite exceptional in terms of body strength and rigidity – clearly the beefed up floor and body is compensating for that missing (supporting) roof structure.

And, dynamically speaking, this car certainly feels much like any other BMW from behind the wheel.

The weighty – almost too heavy for some, so try before you buy – steering is direct, ultra-linear and quite low-geared in its inputs.

So the 120i requires a bit of wheel twirling at slower speeds, and there isn’t much road surface feedback filtering through, but at higher velocities it feels just right, for a secure and extremely well-planted sensation. Or, in other words, the Convertible corners and handles with much the same taut body control as any 1 Series.

We expected the ride quality to be firm, but the combination of sensibly sized 17-inch wheels shod with (runflat) tyres and a supple suspension tune means the BMW’s ride is surprisingly absorbent.

Throw in strong, responsive braking and the usual long list of electronic driving aids, led by stability and traction controls, and it is clear that the cheapest chop-top ‘1’ is no cut-price special where it counts.

Nevertheless, would the demographic for this sort of car care about all this stuff?

Is the fact that the roof not only folds down in 22 seconds (and back up again in the same amount of time, even when travelling up to 40km/h) more important?

Travelling alfresco with all side windows down (via a handy one-touch button or via the remote control fob) does buffet beehives and tousle toupees at triple-digit speeds, but then so does every other open four-seater convertible.

To help overcome this, BMW includes a wind deflector that clips over the rear seats (when they're not in use) to keep the front occupants unruffled. Too bad it takes up valuable boot floor space.

That boot’s relatively diminutive 260-litre capacity (dropping to just 205 litres with the roof is stowed) is probably just enough to see out a weekend away for two, but it is boosted by a cabin load-through facility for things like skis.

And because the boot doesn’t have to house a hard-top roof, the 1 Series’ profile is pert and well proportioned no matter which position the top is in.

Even the tallest person is bound to find an ideal driving position, with the multi-adjustable seat working with the tilt and telescopic steering column.

The dashboard is pure 1 Series, meaning you have a symmetrically designed fascia featuring large and simple to fathom instrumentation, and an equally easy to decipher heater/air-con system, which does a fine job of keeping you cool/warm or whatever, even with the roof down.

BMW fits a dinky little steering wheel that is as good to hold as to behold, and there is a centre armrest to store some small things into.

Roof-up refinement is a 120i forte, thanks to some clever sound-deadening material. And on that subject, the cabin is swathed in Boston sun-reflective leather, which is claimed to lower their surface temperature by up to 20 degrees on a hot day.

The rear pair of seats is fine for shorter journeys if the adults sited there are up to about 175cm tall, but the lack of knee and head room (with the roof up of course) is a problem if the front occupants are over about 180cm tall.

A bigger issue was literally the size of the C-pillar and small rectangular rear (glass) window that resides within the fabric roof. It simply makes reverse parking extremely difficult, and makes you really rely on the standard rear-parking sensors it’s worth shelling out extra for the iDrive and satellite-navigation screen extras to get the visual object proximity display.

As we reported at the BMW’s launch in May, the 120i Convertible is no poverty pack either, featuring – among other things – tyre pressure monitors, integrated pop-up rear rollover hoops, leather trim, 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, rain-sensing wipers, sports front seats and memory-return sliding front seats.

There is also standard automatic air-conditioning with “Convertible mode”, which is claimed to be the most powerful ventilation system in its class and can fully replace cabin air three times in a minute, plus cruise control, a trip computer, rear parking sensors, wind deflector, radio/CD audio with Aux-In connection and USB/audio interface, luggage floor straps and Bluetooth phone preparation.

So the 120i Convertible looks, drives and feels like a proper BMW inside and out.

Yes, it does feel a little lethargic at take-off speeds, but not so you would rue the decision to buy the entry-level model and the poor rear vision problem is one shared with virtually every other convertible, so it’s a good thing BMW includes rear parking sensors.

With the exception of these two major but not unexpected issues then, the 120i Convertible is the genuine BMW article.

As well as being the best-driving convertible for the money by far, the open-top 120i is probably also the best-value BMW this side of the slingshot 135i Sport Coupe.

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