Dan DeGasperi finds the cheapest BMW available in Australia is also one of the best, but watch the options...
The BMW 1 Series is one of three premium-branded hatchbacks to be priced from $35,600 plus on-road costs.
From mid last year, the entry-level 116i had its price levelled to match the base Mercedes-Benz A-Class, the A180, and the all-new Audi A3 in starter 1.4 TFSI Attraction guise. All three are priced to lure those who may have never thought about owning a car with a propeller, tri-star or four-ringed badge before.
So, flagship Mazda 3 or entry BMW 1 Series?
The five-door 116i doesn’t get a plethora of equipment at this price. Standard equipment includes 16-inch alloy wheels, rear parking sensors, cruise control, leather-look trim, leather-trimmed steering wheel, regular air-conditioning, and Bluetooth phone connectivity.
Some crucial items are on the options list, however, such as a bundle of Bluetooth audio connectivity, automatic headlights and wipers (for $620), and a reverse-view camera ($900). Satellite navigation adds $3000 teamed with Harman Kardon 12-speaker audio system, but climate control (single-zone standard on A180 and dual-zone on A3) isn’t available at all.
An eight-speed automatic is included for the base price, however, which gives you more gears than its competitors (the seven-speed dual-clutch A3 and A180), though a six-speed manual is a no-cost option for those with an old-school take on BMW sheer driving pleasure.
The base BMW petrol engine is a 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol unit, producing a maximum 100kW of power and 220Nm of torque. It’s that last figure that defines the relaxed driving experience in the 116i, although during full acceleration it also claims a peppy 8.7 second 0-100km/h.
Of course, the USP of this second-generation, two-year-old 1 Series is that it’s the only rear-wheel-drive hatchback in its class. That doesn’t mean much in the commuting slog day-to-day, except for the outstanding turning circle delivered by a car that doesn’t need a driveshaft to spin its front wheels, and is therefore more flexible to turn.
On the downside, rear passengers will note there’s among the least legroom in the class due to intrusive rear driveshafts that aren’t needed in its front-drive competitors. Rear-drive is said to adversely affect fuel consumption, too, though BMW engineers have managed to claim an excellent 5.6 litres per 100 kilometres even with power going only to the rears.
Rear-wheel-drive does make the BMW 1 Series very unique to drive in its class, however.
Its steering is more smooth and fluent than any competitor. Power out of a bend and in its rivals you may get a tug of the steering wheel as the front wheels try to put power to the ground and turn themselves, where in the 1 Series it is uncorrupted.
The 1 Series remains the finest handling hatchback in its class, too, thanks mainly to that rear-drive advantage. Apply throttle when exiting a corner and you can feel the back end subtly helping the front around, a front-end which in itself is light and pointy. By contrast, front-drive rivals often scrabble for grip on corner exit.
Whether scooting off to a weekend away on a country road, or plugging traffic gaps around town, the 1 Series suspension, engine and gearbox gel beautifully. Unlike higher grades on lower profile tyres, the 55-aspect rubber on the 116i teams with a standard suspension set-up to deliver a calming ride over all surfaces, with plenty of control where required. The engine and gearbox are refined and responsive partners.
A premium drive experience takes your attention away from some interior items that are sub-premium. Plastics quality, for example, is below that of a $22,000 Volkswagen Golf, while there are ergonomic issues, such as a steering wheel that obscures trip computer information for the driving position of all our testers. Both the centre console storage bin and glovebox are tiny, though there are wide door pockets with bottle holders.
On the upside, the iDrive infotainment system is easy to use, and when optioned with Bluetooth audio and nav, is among the most intuitive to scroll through multiple functions on the run. The best of iDrive, however, including internet capability and digital radio, is reserved as a $2100 option only for the 118i (that costs $6900 more than the 116i) and above.
There is other premium technology available, but again as options. You can choose from a semi-automatic parking function with front sensors ($1200), auto keyless entry bundled with front seat heating and electric seat adjustment ($2100), and automatic high-beam ($1100).
In addition to the standard six airbags (includng dual-front, front-side and full-length side curtain) and electronic stability control (ESC), there is also a driving assistant package available on the BMW 116i. For a reasonable $1077, it includes lane departure warning, light auto braking function for the city, and audible alerts for pedestrians and cars if the system detects you’re not braking in time.
As with all 1 Series grades, rear-seat accommodation is tight, with limited legroom for the outboard positions and a large centre tunnel restricting room for a middle rider. According to our tape measure the 116i has 190mm of legroom behind the seating position of a 178cm-tall driver, 40mm less than A3 and a huge 70mm behind the A180.
The base 116i lacks rear-seat air vents and a storage package featured on all higher grades, too, which means it misses seat map pockets and rear door pockets, as well as a luggage net and fastening strap in the sizeable boot.
Totalling 360 litres, the BMW’s boot beats the Merc’s by 19L, though the Audi is another 20L ahead again. Although rear-drive hardware should restrict boot space as well as rear legrooom, in this case the bulbous styling of the 1 Series and the lack of an underfloor spare tyre no doubt helps.
The BMW 1 Series may not match its A-Class and A3 rivals for cabin space and ambience, nor standard equipment for its identical price tag. It does, however, offer the most pure driving experience of the three, a comfortable suspension tune and the most slick engine and automatic gearbox combination that also happens to be frugal.
Although there are some faster, better-equipped hot-hatches available for around the same price, such as the Ford Focus ST, the 116i is more subtle and soothing around town, yet still enjoyable, if those are your preferences.
If you are set on this last rear-drive hatchback in the class, though, it’s worth bargaining hard to get the dealer to throw in enough options to make this BMW feel as premium inside as the engineering beneath it.