New BMW 1-series review, test drive

Autocar India
First Published: 18:37 IST(11/10/2013)
Last Updated: 12:18 IST(15/10/2013)
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The country recently saw the advent of a new class of cars -- the luxury hatchback. While it was virtually non-existent just a few months back, Mercedes-Benz was the first to introduce a model into this segment in the form of the A-class and was soon followed by Volvo with its V40 Cross Country. And now, BMW has launched its 1-series luxury hatch. 
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BMW is touting the 1-series as a driver-focussed hatchback. To that extent, it has launched two versions – the 116i and the 118d – both making adequate power and boasting, for this segment at least, a unique longitudinal front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layouts. But despite these traditional BMW strengths, it’s not going to be a walk in the park for the 1-series. Except for a thin band of enthusiasts, will owners really care which pair of wheels is being driven?

In order for any car whose price exceeds its size to succeed in India, it has to have a healthy blend of a premium badge, good looks, lots of equipment, comfort and luxury. BMW has launched four variants, and prices start at Rs. 20.9 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi) for the base 116i and go on to Rs. 29.9 lakh for the top-end 118d Sportline Plus. This makes the 1-series the most affordable route into the blue and white propeller club. But is the bare-bones 116i the best entry point? Or is the fully-loaded 118d Sportline Plus the one to go for? 

The 1-series is unmistakably a BMW with its kidney-shaped grille, long bonnet and twin-barrel headlamps, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best looking around. In fact, its ungainly proportions – short, tall and backward leaning – make it look a touch awkward. It simply doesn’t make the brilliant first impression that the A-class manages so easily. There is some nice detailing, like the strong shoulder line and the accents in the headlight units (base models don’t get projector headlamps) and the classic Hofmeister kink, but overall, it’s quite a bland design.

The 1-series is compact, even for its class; both the A-class and the V40 are bigger. But importantly, the 1-series’ wheelbase is relatively generous, in the interests of cabin space and to compensate for the longitudinal engine, RWD layout, which isn’t the most space efficient.

To achieve BMW’s trademark 50:50 weight distribution, the engine had to be pushed back to almost behind the front axle line and the battery moved to the boot floor where the spare wheel is normally placed. And there isn’t a spare wheel; BMW, being BMW, has stubbornly stuck to run-flat tyres despite the growing dissonance from Indian customers who want the security of a spare.

The 1-series’ suspension has been completely revamped from the previous generation (E21), which drew criticism for its not-so-involving handling. The new car gets a five-link rear axle and MacPherson struts up front, complemented by a double-joint, cross-strut front axle. The track is also pretty wide and this gives the 1-series a planted stance, but it’s not as hunkered down as it could be thanks to the raised suspension for the Indian-spec models. The Indian 1-series gets BMW’s ‘rough-road’ suspension that offers better damping on bad roads and ground clearance that’s been jacked up from 140mm to 157mm – very useful when tackling speed breakers.

There’s also a new electro-mechanical steering system, which alters its weight and feel depending on the mode chosen on the Driving Experience Control system.

In fact, all variants of the 1-series come with the system, which also alters gearbox and engine responses. 

You don’t expect an entry-level variant to have all the bells and whistles, but in the base 116i, even basic equipment is missing. It’s not just the absence of BMW’s iDrive system that leaves you feeling short changed. There is no climate control, the seats are manually adjusted, and the absence of an armrest or lid for the box between the front seats looks particularly cheap. Forget about leather seats or a sunroof, must-have items like USB and Bluetooth connectivity are also missing. The fact that a Hyundai hatchback is better equipped is just inexcusable.

To make amends, BMW has packed the top-end 118d Sportline Plus with all the goodies, like all-leather electric sports seats, auto xenon lamps, rain-sensing wipers and a sunroof. But there’s an expensive catch. The difference between the on-road prices of the base 116i and 118d Sportline Plus is over Rs. 10 lakh!

The dashboard design is familiar BMW territory. It’s uncluttered, has the centre console canted towards the driver and an instrument cluster that houses large and clear dials. There are nice touches like the metal finish on the pedals and chunky door handles, but the switches all feel a bit too small and aren’t great to operate. The cabin’s quality and ambience are well judged for an entry-level BMW, but it’s short on pizzazz and doesn’t have the drama of the A-class. The front seats on the Sportline Plus are incredibly supportive, with adjustable thigh support and strong side bolsters to keep you in place whilst cornering hard.

At the rear, the 1-series isn’t as cramped as its cabin suggests. BMW engineers have managed to carve out space where it matters and headroom (the roof liner is scooped out) and legroom are decent. The squab too is quite generous, but what marks comfort down is the lack of lower back support and a backrest that’s a touch too upright. Also, the high transmission tunnel makes it difficult for a middle passenger to sit, and hence, the 1-series is strictly a four-seater. The boot is quite big for a hatchback 

A pair of four-cylinder engines power this smallest of BMWs, one petrol and one diesel. The 1,995cc ‘N47’ diesel is a familiar one; we’ve already seen it in ‘20d’ guise in the 3-series, 5-series, X1 and X3, as well as in the 525d. However, here, in the 118d, it makes 141bhp and 32.6kgm. These figures still compare favourably with the diesel engines of its closest rivals, the A-class and the V40 Cross Country.

A pleasant surprise is that it is quite refined; almost more so than a 3-series. The NVH levels are impressively low, both at idle and on the go, and it gets harsh only near the top of the rev range. This milder state of tune suggests less aggressive turbo-charging, which means less noise.

The power delivery is smooth. This engine is incredibly linear for a diesel, and while you enjoy the almost petrol-like journey up the power band, you do miss that characteristic surge of torque that you get in the mid-range with most diesel engines.

So, is the mid-range weak? No – it’s just a bit flatter than you’d expect, and if you’re worried about being able to pull off an overtake on a whim, the gearbox is there to help. The eight-speed ZF automatic, also shared with the bigger Bimmers, works brilliantly in the 1-series. With the ‘Driving Experience Control’ switch set in the default Comfort mode, the shifts are soft and seamless, and the gearbox is still decently quick to react to pedal inputs. In Eco Pro mode, the ’box can’t wait to upshift, and even if you’re cruising at 60-70kph, that’s good enough for eighth gear

Put it in Sport or Sport+, however, and you’d better have a clear stretch of road, because the engine responses quicken and the transmission just darts through the gears. Keep your foot in, and it won’t shift up until its 4,800rpm redline. Overall, the power delivery gets in its stride at about 1,500rpm, and builds strongly till about 4,000rpm. The 118d hits 100kph in 9.02sec, just 0.4sec after the V40 and much ahead of the diesel A-class.

The petrol is a 1,598cc, direct-injection, turbocharged motor that makes a healthy 134bhp and 24.47kgm of torque on overboost. Like the diesel, it is only available with the ZF automatic and that’s a good thing. Unlike the earlier, naturally aspirated BMW petrols that loved to be revved but had weak mid-ranges, this turbo-petrol has a meaty and wide torque curve. The ZF ’box masks whatever minimal turbo lag there is and the engine will spin happily to 6,500rpm, accompanied by a nice exhaust snarl and a muted turbo whistle.

It’s quite an enthusiastic motor overall, and though it won’t set pulses racing like Skoda’s 1.8 TSI, its broad powerband makes it effortless to drive. It’s no slouch, with a reasonably quick 8.8sec 0-100kph time and a top speed of 210kph. 

While purists may wax eloquent about BMW’s 50:50 weight balance and rear-wheel-drive configuration, it doesn’t require an expert to notice the benefits either. Driver involvement begins with the steering, which is light, bristling with feel and superbly weighted. If there’s one thing that’s missing, it’s the zero slack around the straight-ahead position that previous BMWs were known for. However, with this latest-generation electromechanical steering, BMW has cracked it.

The 1-series turns into corners quite enthusiastically, and though there is some body roll, there’s superb grip all round, which tempts you to press on harder. At the limit, the 1-series strongly understeers, which maybe a disappointment for enthusiasts, but with the DSC completely switched off (recommended only on a deserted road), it’s possible to balance the car with the throttle and even indulge in power oversteer antics.

The biggest revelation though is the ride quality, which, even on Mumbai’s worst roads, is surprisingly pliant. The fact that BMW achieved a comfortable ride on the usually ride-corrupting run-flat tyres makes it all the more impressive. Sharp edges and shallow potholes are nicely rounded off and its only deep craters that crash with the suspension using up all of its limited travel.

At high speeds, the 1-series feels rock steady, but on bumpy roads, the ride isn’t very flat. And because of the softly sprung suspension, there’s a fair bit of vertical movement too. However, it’s never uncomfortable or disconcerting and you always feel fully in command. 

Both the petrol and diesel versions do fairly well in the fuel-efficiency department. The 116i returned 9.7kpl in the city and 14.2kpl on the highway, while the 118d managed 11.5kpl and a respectable 18kpl. The gearbox, automatic stop-start system and intelligent Eco Pro mode work together to eke out every last drop of fuel. With 52-litre tanks, the 116i will give you a combined city-highway driving range of 551km, while the 118d will manage 767km on a single tank.

The base models get a basic music system, with a CD player and aux-in port, which sounds pretty decent. Moving up to the mid-spec Sportline, you get BMW’s iDrive system with a 6.5-inch display screen, USB connectivity (you can pair a compatible phone this way too) and higher grade audio, which BMW calls the ‘HiFi loudspeaker system’. The sound quality of this system is very good, but not quite audiophile grade. However, it’s only once you get to the fully loaded Sportline Plus variant that you get Bluetooth connectivity for telephonic and music streaming purposes.

With a pair of strong engines and entertaining handling, the 1-series seriously rewards the enthusiastic driver. It’s also sufficiently well-mannered to be a perfect companion for the everyday home-to-office commute, and the India-spec suspension does a great job of isolating you from our perennially bad roads. It’s spacious enough for a small family and has a fair bit of luggage space too, which gives it a bit of practicality. That it’s a thoroughly engineered car there is no doubt, but the awkward styling of the 1-series may not be to everyone’s tastes and the cabin doesn’t feel particularly special either. But the biggest put-off is the way the 1-series has been priced. The base 116i has a very tempting Rs. 20.9 lakh sticker price, but most will find it too pared down to be good value. The diesel makes more sense, but on average, it is more expensive than some of its competition, and Sportline Plus is priced dangerously close to the 3-series. The 1-series’ appeal is limited to enthusiasts who love to drive, want to own a BMW and to whom bang-for-buck isn’t that important.

Fact File
Engine
Fuel                         Petrol / Diesel
Installation               Front, longitudinal
Type                       4 cyls, 1598cc turbo-petrol / 4 cyls 1995cc turbo-diesel
Bore/stroke             85.8/77.0mm, 90.0/84.0mm
Compression ratio   10.5, 16.5:1
Valve gear               4 valves per cyl DOHC
Power                     134bhp at 4400rpm / 141bhp at 4000rpm
Torque                    22.43kgm at 1350-4300rpm, 32.63kgm at 1750-2500rpm
Power to weight      10.29 / 104.83bhp per tonne
Torque to weight     17.12 / 24.26kgm per tonne
Transmission
Type                       Rear wheel drive
Gearbox                 8-speed auto
Dimensions
Length                    4324mm
Width                     1765mm
Height                    1421mm
Wheel base            2690mm
Boot volume          360-1200 litres
Chassis & Body
Construction            Five-door, hatchback, monocoque
Weight                    1310 / 1345kg
Wheels                    16-inch alloy / 17-inch alloy
Tyres                       205/55 R16, 225/45R17
Spare                      No
Suspension
Front                        Independent, aluminium double-joint, cross strut / aluminum double-link hinged-tiebar, sprung axle
Rear                         Independent, five-link with double elastic bearing
Steering
Type                         Rack and pinion
Type of power assist     Electro-mechanical
Turning                         circle 10.9m
Brakes
Front                           Ventilated discs
Rear                             solid discs
Anti-lock                       Yes
Performance
0-20        0.96 / 0.90
0-40        2.41 / 2.03
0-60        3.96 / 3.88
0-80        6.07 / 6.09
0-100      8.81 / 9.02
0-120      12.43 / 12.82
0-140     17.28 / 17.58
0-160     23.37 / 24.39
0-180     33.38 / 30.12

 


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