July 16, 2014 00:00
By Kingsley Wijayasinha
The 1 Series 116i M Sport is not as roomy as the Honda Jazz, but BMW's affordable hatchback comes loaded with gadgets and its delightful performance makes it a driver's car
BMW has always been one of my favourite brands not because of its luxury, design or safety innovations, but simply because of the way it drives.
Over the years, it’s BMW’s “sheer driving pleasure” that has attracted people to become fans of this German marque. This character is not just offered in selected models but is actually something you’d find across its entire model range.
Being positioned in the premium segment means that BMWs are way too expensive for the majority of buyers, particularly here in Thailand. And one way to grow sales is to offer a model that more people can afford. So here you have it: the 1 Series – the smallest car in BMW’s line-up. And for Bt1.999 million (slightly more than you’d spend for the Honda Accord Hybrid), you can become a proud BMW owner.
You might think the 116i M Sport is a stripped-down version of the 1 Series due to the promotional pricing strategy, but no, it isn’t.
Apart from the M Sports Package, which includes an aerodynamic package, the car also comes fully loaded with gadgets you’d expect in a Beemer: the i-Drive controller, Alcantara upholstery, multi-function M sports steering wheel,
large display on the centre console and even the Driving Experience Control function that is found in larger models. The only evidence of cost-cutting seems to be the
manually adjusted seats, but in real life how many times would you actually adjust the seats?
Just once, if you don’t switch drivers.
What you won’t get, however, is the roominess that some would expect from a modern sub-compact hatchback. The 1 Series is a 5-door hatchback with foldable rear seat backrests, but you can’t compare it to something like the Honda Jazz, which has grown into a super mini MPV. Nevertheless, let me add that a six-footer like me has no problems with headroom or legroom whatsoever. It’s just that when seated, it feels a little compact, which I actually like.
On the other hand, the strength of the 1 Series lies in its driving performance. Oh yes, this is a driver’s car indeed.
Open the bonnet and you’d find the engine unit is pushed way back into the cockpit, leaving many to scratch their heads wondering why there’s so much space in front. Well, this is something that BMW just loves to do and for good reason: it helps shift the weight away from the front end, resulting in a 50-50 front-rear weight distribution. Now, that’s already a good sign even before you actually get in behind the wheel and drive this hatchback.
The 1.6-litre engine is turbocharged and delivers 136hp and 220Nm, giving it a slight edge over its Bt1.89-million arch rival, the Mercedes-Benz A 180 (122hp and 200Nm also from a turbocharged in-line-4). With the overboost function from the twin turbo, max torque is raised to 240Nm from 1,500-3,500rpm, giving you a little more overtaking power.
Acceleration from 0-100km/h takes 8.7 seconds and the car is capable of reaching a top end of 210km/h (again slightly bettering the A 180’s 9.1 seconds and 202km/h).
What I like about the 116i is that you can hit the road with different driving modes, ranging from Eco-Pro to Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus, the last one turning it into a pocket rocket with gratifyingly instantaneous throttle response and strikingly sporty performance. Indeed, many would be bowled over with this type of performance from a 1.6-litre car.
An 8-speed automatic transmission is mated to the motor and although you won’t find any shift paddles, manual gear change can be carried out conventionally through the shift lever, which poses no problem whatsoever as long as you know how to drive a car. The transmission also allows for high-rev shiftdowns, giving the driver added confidence just before negotiating a sharp corner or when roaring down a circuit. The aluminium front suspension and rear lightweight steel multi-link suspension, with stabilisers both front and rear, along with the beefy steering, add to the driving enjoyment of this hatch.
Whether it’s changing lanes or fast cornering, the 116i does it with agility. And while rivals like the A180 (or Audi A3, which isn’t available in Thailand through its official distributor) are front-wheel-driven, the 1 Series is still rear-wheel-drive, adding to the fun.
The mechanical handbrake is still present, allowing you to initiate some acrobatics if you want, apart from the regulated wheelspin offered by the Sport Plus mode. Ride quality isn’t the priority here, and although the car feels very stable at high speeds, cross a speed bump and you’ll feel all that shock up your spine. Personally, I really don’t mind, considering the sporty nature of the car.
The brakes provide good stopping power as well as pedal feel, not overly-sensitive like the larger 4 Series, which I’ve just driven.
While the 116i M Sport was the original 1 Series version launched in Thailand, a basic version was added later. It costs Bt1.749 million, but could look a tad bland and doesn’t enjoy the superior aerodynamics of the special version.