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Road Test: BMW 120i

By Feann Torr - 24/July/2006

BMW 120iGerman cars are synonymous with high levels of safety, build quality, ergonomics and sometimes even outright power, but when BMW decided in 2004 that it would build a hatchback model, even the most adoring of Beemer fans would have had to concede that the Bavarian marque could tempting fate with a 'budget' model.

BMW built the 1 Series to fill the void beneath the 3 Series models, and to take advantage of the renewed global interest in small cars, yet the 1 Series, or E87 model as it's known internally, is a loud and proud BMW, adopting all the virtues that have made past and present BMWs formidable driving machines.

Least of which is the company's long-held tradition of rear wheel driven vehicles.

We've driven our fair share of hatchback models, some of them serious performance vehicles like the Ford Focus XR5 Turbo, the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Subaru Impreza WRX, some of them of the more regular variety, like the Holden Astra Coupe and Nissan Tiida. But never have we tested a rear wheel drive hatchback.

So what's rub: has BMW's gamble with rear wheel drive in absolutely every car it manufactures paid off, or has the bold venture to differentiate itself from the growing number of 5-door hatchbacks backfired?

There's only one way to find out, so let's have a look:

Make: BMW
Model: 120i
Price: $45,000
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Engine: 2.0-litre, inline 4-cylinder, petrol
Seats: 5
Safety: 6 airbags (driver and front passenger front and side airbags, front/rear covering curtain airbags) ABS, EBD, DSC, CBC (Cornering Brake Control), DBC (Dynamic Brake Control)

BMW 120i

The BMW 1 Series profile is typical BMW, with a hint
of Z4 in the pushed back greenhouse and long bonnet

Engine: BMW 2.0-litre Inline 4-cylinder

The longitudinally mounted inline 4-cylinder engine has a 2.0-litre (1995cc) capacity, and is a lightweight engine, as both the cylinder heads and engine block are made from aluminium alloys. Chain-driven dual overhead camshafts (DOHC) actuate a total of 16-valves and variable valve timing and lift is also part of the powertrain. The gasoline motor has an 10.5:1 compression ratio and will accept 91 - 98 RON unleaded petrol when filling the 50 litre fuel tank.

Max Power: 110kW @ 6200rpm
Max Torque: 200Nm @ 3600rpm
0-100km/h: 9.2 seconds
Max Speed: 213km/h

Fuel Consumption: 7.9L/100km (combined)

BMW 120i

BMW 120i

The BMW 1 Series is a real goer through corners, the
combination of light front suspension and pushed back
engine position give the front end incredible dexterity

BMW 120i

The dashboard is simple, elegant, and it works a treat

At a sluggish speed, comparable to that of the Earth's continental drift, I inch my way closer to the BMW HQ in Victoria as the traffic builds up on an overcast Friday afternoon. Upon arrival, I note that the large building is devoid of any style.

Thankfully the same can't be said of the new 120i, which looks a treat.

The photos convey some semblance of the vehicles style, but they fail to do this car justice - it's a handsome car with a touch of machismo that can only really be experienced in the flesh.

Proportionally, you'd be doing well to improve upon the design; the wheels are pushed out to each corner, short overhangs add a touch of sportiness and the long bonnet ending with the snub-nosed front end gives the car its Beemer DNA. It's not an in-your-face design, but it's not a wilting violet either, making use of a subtle bodykit and working a few of the trendy Z4's stylings into the car, while the high door line imparts a sense of prestige. The thoughtfully sculpted flanks also took my fancy, with just a hint of the Chris Bangle-influenced flame surfacing, which in plain English means there's a subtle-but-stylish curve that stretches between the front and rear wheels that catches light and shadow.

The model we tested, the 120i, sells for $45,000 and features plenty of bells and whistles, and looked splendid sitting on 17-inch alloy wheels. The range begins at $34,900 for the 84kW 116i, which is a fairly cost-effective way to get yourself into a German designed vehicle.

Though it may be more than double the price of some hatchbacks on the market, features like sports seats, power windows, dual climate control, alloy wheels, CD stereo, cruise control, i-Pod compatibility and rain sensing wipers are all quite tempting, and let's not forget the obligatory German engineering that finds it's way into every nook and cranny of the car.

The 120i features a more powerful 2.0-litre petrol engine than the 116i's 1.6-litre engine, and is the only series production hatchback in the world to feature a rear wheel drive configuration. Not only does this adhere to BMW's 'thou shalt drive the rear wheels' mantra but it gives the baby BMW a most unusual handling character.

There are a few AWD hatchbacks out there, but for the most part FWD is favoured by the vast majority, and because this is the first rear wheel driven hatch we've tested, it surprised us with its ability to spear through corners, even when its 110kW of power is hampered by a power-sapping 6-speed automatic gearbox.

The engine is one of the meatier 2.0-litre units out there, and it doesn't feel too tired when paired with the automatic transmission, which was a pleasant surprise. The 16-valve engine performs best when you rev the tripe out of it, and it seems more than happy to oblige as the tachometer needle passes 6000rpm as there's plenty of push all the way to the 6500rpm redline.

On the road, the BMW came across as a very cool cucumber in a range of different scenarios. Rarely flustered, the BMW 1 Series' short footprint, delightful weight distribution and rear wheel drive layout mean that it's a rather nifty vehicle to tackle your favourite twisty roads. At the same token, it's behaviour in more pedestrian conditions, such as commuting to work everyday or just heading the in-laws place, is exemplary - the suspension system is well sorted to deal with the average roads many of us face here in Australia.

It's smooth, relaxed attitude at lower speeds exhibits a hint of firmness at times, but it doesn’t compromise ride greatly. You do feel some of the bumps and lumps, and it can jostle around on corrugated sections often found on the inside of highly trafficked corners, but considering it's ability to carve deftly through apexes, these become minor injustices.

I get the feeling the damping rates are set quite soft and subtle on the first few degrees of compression to keep the ride nice and peachy around town, but as the speed increases and the suspension compresses when cornering forces build up - for instance as you tip into a sweeping corner and dial in more throttle - they stiffen up rather nicely and give you a very good level of control when the action heats up.

Popping the bonnet and taking a gander at the engine bay, it's obvious where the vehicle gets its freakish flickability from. The 110kW 2.0-litre straight 4-cylinder engine is pushed right back towards the firewall, which contributes to the car's 50:50 front:rear weight bias, and because the front axle is placed so far forward (just look at those front overhangs) it contributes to the feeling of the front end being incredibly light, as do the light weight alloy front suspension components . It therefore makes sense that the front end of the 120i changes direction with supreme alacrity - and particularly with the rear wheels pushing instead of the front wheels pulling - and I, for one, am now championing the idea that more hatchbacks should be rear wheel drive.

This thing is a barrel of fun to drive, and when fitted with the 17-inch alloy wheels shod with decent 205/50 R17 finding the grip limit of the 120i can be quite a test. The outside wheels do begin to whine somewhat as the tyre sidewalls get pushed onto bitumen, but even at this stage the baby Beemer can deal with more speed and is surprisingly controllable to boot.

Sure, it may not be the fastest hatch on the block, taking 9.2 seconds to dash from 0-100km/h, but in terms of rewarding driving dynamics, I've yet to drive a hatchback that can rival the BMW 1 Series. The car feels great in almost all extremes, both under acceleration and deceleration, and every time I popped out of a corner, I could feel a smile spreading across my mug as the car is incredibly subservient and willing, and feels so planted and confident slaloming through corner after corner. Understeer is almost non-existent, and the nimble front end delights in quick changes of direction and treats those lairy corners - the ones that have a nasty habit of tightening up - with a complete lack of respect, unflinchingly holding its line through the sharpest of corners.

Deceleration is taken care of by solid disc brakes at each corner, 292mm up front and 296mm at the rear. Coupled with a number of driving aids, such as ABS and dynamic braking control, they do a bang-up job of slowing the car's1260kg bulk and I rarely found myself running out of road when pushing hard. In everyday conditions, these brakes are almost too good - this thing can pull up from 60km/h in what feels like only half a dozen yards.

Unlike most hatchbacks that deliver steering and power through the same set of wheels, the BMW's front end is solely used for turning as the rear wheels deliver the power to the ground. It's a real drivers car - just point-and-shoot and revel in its lovely chassis dynamics. If it had a bit more shunt, it'd be one of the best performance hatchbacks around, but I suppose that's where the 195kW 130i sports hatch comes in.

The power-assisted steering mechanism delivers a middling level of feedback, but the weighting is spot on, with a bit more mass to it than most hatchbacks. It feels perfectly set up for the daring driver, and it also makes everyday commuting a bit less mundane: simply put, it's a really nice car to drive. It's not as quick as a lot of hot hatches through (and exiting) a corner, but is incredibly rewarding. It proves that you don't need a fast car to get your sports driving fix, and I'm beginning to think it's true what they say about German engineering...

It's a sure footed drive the 120i, but getting back to its jack-of-all-trades nature, it a pretty good cruiser as well and a very easy car to live with. The steering wheel is nice and chunky and feels great, and the controls mounted on the wheel are a nice touch. I also appreciated the interior which favours a minimalistic approach. The HVAC controls are straightforward, but I must say that I'm not a huge fan of the iDrive system. Don't get me wrong, I love gadgets and computers and electronic toys, and I remember quite looking forward to dispelling the claims that iDrive is too complex. But I must report that it still needs work.

Simple things like changing the radio station shouldn't involve circumnavigating a bevy of menu screens. I just wanted to hit one button and get some good old golden oldies on the wireless, but having to fiddle with the twist/slide dial controller, and then looking at the (admittedly cool) foldout LCD screen, is far from intuitive or timely. Some of the menus get quite confusing and figuring out how to go back a few levels is frustratingly difficult until shown how by an contemptuous 11-year-old. Audi's MMI system does a far better job of digitising a car's myriad functions, however I will concede that the more time I spent using the iDrive system, the quicker I could get to the menus I needed, and it is an optional extra for 1 Series models so most potential buyers won't need to worry.

The interior isn't too busy, with few knobs and buttons to confuse, and the styling is similarly low key, but elegant nevertheless. It's a very neat and tidy cabin, everything has its place and the way the dash is angled towards the driver is a neat feature. The centre armrest is a nice touch, but there's not much of a storage cubby under there, and no room for your CD collection - it's glovebox or bust I'm afraid.

Likewise the interior ergonomics are very good; there's nothing too glitzy or glamorous and though the orange back-lit dials look a bit 1984, everything is easy to read and works well. The 120i on test was fully optioned with Sat Nav and iDrive, but the standard sports seats are very comfy and are well suited to hard driving, and their position in relation to the steering wheel felt good from the start. Our model features leather pews and even has electronically adjustable side bolsters that can be setup to really squeeze you in the seat. The slide and tilt seat adjustments were all manual however, which I thought was a bit strange.

There's not a great deal of room in the rear of the car, and you will feel knees in your back if you fill it to capacity, but at least rear seat passengers will be comforted by the form fitting rear bench. The 330 litres of boot space is enough room for groceries and a new set of bed sheets and some pillows, but the similarly priced 2.0-litre Audi A3 boasts more boot space at 350 litres. With the 60:40 split rear seats folded down, the 120i develops 1150 litres of cargo space, which is a bit more like it.

Safety features are rather impressive for a hatchback - but quite normal for BMW - and include multiple airbags spanning the front and rear occupants, ABS, EBD, DSC, CBC (Cornering Brake Control) and DBC (Dynamic Brake Control). The dynamic stability (DSC), dynamic brake and cornering brake controls come in handy when you're pushing hard through winding roads, and especially on rain-drenched roads, and contribute to a palpable feeling of security. With all the gadgets that our test car fitted with, I was somewhat crestfallen when a bird crapped on the gleaming BMW -- alack, there's no automated systems to admonish the vandalistic bird.

Yet...

Overall: 4/5


We're all big fans of the humble hatchback here at the Motoring Channel, but never did we think that these popular small cars could be so utterly rewarding when driven with a bit of vigor. The 120i may only offer 110kW but as the old saying goes, it's not what you've got, but how you use it.

The new 130i Sport - essentially the same vehicle as the 120i but with a sporty chassis composition and a screaming 3.0-litre engine - will be an absolute corker if this car is anything to go by, as the chassis balance is sublime and results is a true drivers car. The 120i tested here had the standard suspension tune, and if you're after something a little sportier the optional $500 sports suspension would further sharpen the car's already responsive handling.

As well as being a luxury car, it's also a hatchback at heart, meaning its a lot easier to live with than larger cars: it's easy to park and it's not too thirsty, is child's play to pilot, plus it looks quite proud in the flesh. It’ll keep the missus happy but it’ll also give the boys something to do on the weekend (or the other way around if that’s the way you like it).

Far from "tempting fate" with a budget model, the new 1 Series is a very polished performer. It's well mannered, well-equipped, fairly well priced considering the quality control and is an incredible amount of fun to drive on a winding alpine road. It's much more than a slapdash small car, and not the cynical grab for cash I was expecting it be. Quite the opposite in fact - the baby Beemer is a quality car through and through. It feels remarkably well built and solid, is one of the safest hatches on the road and will retain its value better than its more affordable rivals.

I know there'll be some hot hatch fans who may disagree, especially those having driven front wheel drive pocket rockets for decades, but the simple fact is that rear wheel driven hatchbacks do it better. BMW took a risk in creating an unconventional hatch, but its dynamic venture has paid off handsomely.

Pros:

Cons:

  • Handling & Balanced Chassis
  • Rear Wheel Drive
  • Build Quality
  • Driver Ergonomics
  • Rear Leg Room
  • Run Flat Tyres
  • Rearward Vision

Comments on the review? The Car? Your Car? Email us.

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