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New models - BMW - 1 Series

First drive: BMW is one to consider

One for all: Well, all of us who appreciate a great drive rather than rear seat space.

BMW's 1 Series introduces rear drive to luxury hatchback buyers

1 Oct 2004

THIS, according to BMW, is the 1 for drivers.

Flying in the face of established criteria forsmall hatches, BMW’s fledgling entrant is theonly rear-drive car in its class, which means– once again according to BMW – better drivecharacteristics through a close to 50:50 weightbalance, and an absence of normal front-drivecharacteristics like torque steer and occasionaltraction difficulties.

Australian media had a chance to sample the car this week on local roads, completing a launch roll-out that has already covered off most aspects of the car, including last week's pricing announcement.

Priced from $37,900, the new 1Series fits under the 3 Series, but offers a longer(4227mm) wheelbase than front-drive competitorssuch as the Audi A3, Alfa Romeo 147, VWGolf and Peugeot 307.

It also offers – in thehigher-spec 120i version that goes on sale next month – a performanceadvantage, with a handy manual transmissionzero to 100km/h time of just 8.7 seconds.

The Achilles heel is a compromise in areaslike packaging, and the lack of a spare wheel.

To maintain a reasonable load area (330 litres withall seats in place, extending to 1150 litres whenfolded), BMW has been obliged to deprive the 1Series of a spare, relying instead on the growingtrend towards space-saving technology that hasresulted in things like temporary spare wheelsand run-flat tyres.

The 1 Series uses the latterto deal with roadsideproblems.

M e c h a n i c a l l y, the 1 Series islargely all-new, butit does use existingBMW technologyin areas like thefront suspension (anadaptation of the 5 Series), engines and gearboxes.

From January 2005 the 1 Series will come in twoforms when the 120i is joined by the 118i. Both usea 2.0-litre engine but there are two different statesof tune, resulting in power outputs of either 110kW(120i) or 95Kw (118i).

Both engines use 16-valve heads and displacejust under 2.0 litres. They also have variablecamshaft timing, as well as BMW’s Valvetronicvariable-lift system that is similar to Honda’sVTEC.

Long-stroke design also helps in torqueproduction – quite impressive in the 120i version,which produces 200Nm at a not unreasonable3600rpm. The 118i produces 180kW of torque at 3250rpm.

The accelerative ability of the little BMWis matched by a certain frugality, with the 118iclaming an average fuel consumption of 7.3litres per 100km and the 120i barely any lesseconomical with an average 7.4 litres per 100km.

Transmissions include five (in the 118i) orsix-speed manuals, ora six-speed sequentialautomatic.

BMW expectsthe bulk of buyers to optfor the latter.

For all itsunconventional elements,the 1 Series neverthelesscomes across as a regularfive-door hatchback.

The shape comes fromcontroversial chiefdesigner Chris Bangle, but is less confronting thansome other BMWs, while the interior presentssimple, tasteful forms and a basic ergonomiccorrectness.

14 center imageEquipment levels are pretty high, with climate controlair-conditioning standard, along with alloywheels on both versions, power windows, 60/40split-fold rear seat, CD player, trip computerand a first-aid kit.

The 120i adds things likebigger 17-inch alloy wheels, six-speed manualtransmission, rain-sensor wipers, cruise controland sports seats.

The little BMW is big on safety with ABSbrakes, cornering brake control, dynamic brakecontrol, traction control and electronic stabilitycontrol standard on both models.

Both also getdual front and side airbags, as well as full-lengthcurtain airbags extending from front to rear.

The 1 Series aims at covering a broad spectrumof buyers, from the 25 to 39-year-old latte set to55-plus retired white-collar workers.

BMW Group Australia managing directorFranz Sauter says the new car will be restrictedby supply in the initial period, but the companyexpects to sell around 380 1 Series in 2004,ramping up to more than 1000 in 2005 when the118i becomes available.

The split between 118iand 120i is expected to be about 50:50.

118i $37,900
118i (a) $40,100
120i $41,900
120i (a) $44,100


BMW lists three unique selling propositions with its new 1 Series.

One, it’s the only rear-wheel drive in its segment two, it’s the only one with Valvetronic engine technology and three it has a virtual 50-50 weight distribution.

The first of these is undisputed, although whether the disadvantages outweigh the advantages is questionable.

The second is also true - no one else has Valvetronic. But let’s not forget Honda does have VTEC, which also uses variable valve-lift control (as distinct from camshaft timing control) to spread torque development widely across the engine rev range.

Number three is also true, but is this saying that anything other than a rear-drive small hatch is going to be an unbalanced, ill-handling, understeering beast? Is this saying BMW’s own Mini would be even better if it were a rear-wheel drive? Surely not.

Small hatches are front-wheel drive because that represents the best way of maximising interior space within a relatively tight package.

So guess what? The new rear-drive BMW might have the longest wheelbase in its class, but it has a really tight back seat. And it has no spare wheel - which others seem to manage, even in all-wheel drive configurations where a rear differential needs to be accommodated when factoring in boot (and therefore spare wheel) space.

The problem is not so much the BMW’s rear differential, but the space-greedy, north-south installation of the inline four-cylinder engine.

The big shortcoming, if interior space means anything to you, is that the 1 Series lacks internal length and therefore is short of legroom. A thoughtless front-seat passenger can induce extreme discomfort on someone in the rear.

But perhaps this is not really important to those who will be buying the 1 Series. Certainly there was no mention of couples with children in discussions about the new BMW’s latte-set target audience.

So, let’s look at how the 1 Series rates in that area so vital to BMW – its on-road abilities.

In reality, the six-speed manual 120i does not feel all that quick

As the higher-spec 120i is the only model initially available in Australia, there does not appear to be any problem with power supply - 110kW is very respectable indeed for a 2.0-litre, as is the 200Nm torque production.

The BMW’s weight is entirely competitive with its front-drive competition too. In fact, it’s a tad lighter than the new Audi A3 that is maybe its most serious (but generally cheaper) opposition.

This no doubt accounts for the claims of faster acceleration. The 2.0-litre Audi FSI’s engine is the same size, of similar long-stroke configuration and produces exactly the same power and torque outputs as the 120i. But BMW figures say the Audi is a tad slower off the mark – if a little better in fuel consumption than the 120i.

In reality, the six-speed manual 120i does not feel all that quick. There’s a certain surge around the mid-range, from about 4000rpm onwards, but it feels less enthusiastic as engine speed rises, despite the fact maximum power comes in at 6200rpm.

It sounds very efficient, very BMW, but the power has a linearity to it that makes for a general "flat" feeling.

The six-speed gearbox has a light, accurate shift and the clutch is progressive. The gearing in the 120i is quite high – about 2300rpm in sixth equals 100km/h – which may also account for the torpid-feeling accelerator response.

The handling is sharp, precise and, once again, very BMW. The steering feels pretty spot-on in terms of response, weight and feel, making for a confidence inspiring experience.

The release cars were fitted with the optional sports suspension that made the ride a little more abrupt, but certainly played a part in the way the 1 Series threaded flat and fast through the tighter roads.

And with the full complement of BMW’s electronic control systems – ABS, Cornering Brake Control, Dynamic Brake Control, Dynamic Stability Control and Dynamic Traction Control – it’s certainly out there working for you if you put a foot wrong.

Six airbags are the norm here too, including dual front and side airbags as well as full-length curtain airbags.

Noise levels in the 120i are pretty low, remembering that this is a small, Corolla-size car. The 1 Series feels very much like a bigger BMW in this sense, certainly not a problem for long-distance cruising even if the company expects it to be largely an urban-use car.

The quality looks pretty good too. It’s a level above what we’ve seen on the other recent new BMW, the X3. Interior trim looks classy and durable enough, and the fit and finish were fine.

The 120i gets sportier seat shapes than the 118i, complete with power-operated side bolsters, and these proved very comfortable and supportive.

The back seat might compromise its passengers in terms of legroom, but up front you’d not really know you were in a small car. The split-fold rear seat operates easily and the boot is accessed via a neat, flip-up BMW badge in the middle of the deck lid.

The push-button starter on the dash to the left of the steering wheel is a gimmick, although it could be argued that it’s slightly easier to find and easier to use than many key-operated systems.

In summary, the 1 Series looks a promising new entrant for BMW. Its main deficits are the tightish interior and the absent spare tyre, but it does have unmistakable BMW cache and doesn’t look weird or silly on the road.

In fact, with the 17-inch wheels that are standard on the 120i it looks almost fat and aggressive.

This means, if you are a first-time BMW owner – as BMW expects you will be – you won’t be giving yourself, or the badge, a bad name.

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