After leading the luxury car market for well over 3 years, Munich-based BMW has suddenly hit a trough in India. Audi snatched its crown earlier this year, and the economic slowdown seems to have hit it more than its competitors. Worse, old rival Mercedes is closing the gap, with its two oversized hatchbacks.
BMW has taken a leaf out of the Merc manual, and launched its own hatchback, the 1 Series. Is the this an act of desperation, or astute strategy?
The big small car
The 1 Series are the smallest BMW cars till date, but for India, the world’s largest small car market, it is anything but compact. At 4.3 metres, it is almost as long as a Volkswagen Vento sedan, and is much wider. In fact is bigger than the Mercedes A Class, its main competitor. So, for the significant cash you dole out, you do get rupee’s worth of machinery.
The main problem with the 1 Series is design and styling, which pales before the A Class. The kidney shaped grille is smaller, as are the signature LEDs upfront. But the car does not look sleek or sexy. Things don’t get better inside either. While the A Class had a mint-fresh appeal, this one is just another member of the extended BMW family. It does not even have a touch screen panel.
Build quality is top notch, as expected, and the layout —instrument panel, dashboard and overall ergonomics — are efficient and driver-oriented. The rear feels cramped, and for five adults, the cabin is a tight squeeze. In effect, the 1 Series is more a miniature 3 or 5, and lacks an independent identity.
The 1 for the road
What it lacks in style, though, it makes up in performance. With a petrol engine that belts out 135 bhp, and a 143-bhp diesel variant, this is significantly more powerful than the A Class. The torque is also substantially higher. It is a fast car in which you can let your hair down.
The drive isn’t as smooth as the Mercedes, but offers a lot more excitement. The 8-speed automatic transmission is seamless, though in city limits you do feel the turbo lag. At high revs, the traction is good. Like other BMWs, the rear seats are not the best place to be in, with palpable body roll, but the stiff suspension also means it a great handler.
To highlight its sporting pedigree, the car offers an extra driving mode—Sports+—apart from the three regular modes, Eco Pro, Comfort and Sports, which automatically tune the suspension to give you an aggressive or pliant ride.
There is a lot riding on 1 series. BMW, like Mercedes in the past, is hoping that the Indian consumer cosies up to it. For a car that offers so much power, it is priced aggressively too. But there are a few glaring misses. No bluetooth or USB port except in the top-end variant. No spare wheel. It is not the best looker either. But give it an open road on a clear day, and it will leave quite a few big cars behind.