The BMW 116i is currently the cheapest way into the German luxury brand, costing just $36,900.
That brings an obvious question: does it feel like a stripped-out version lacking classic BMW values or is it a genuine luxury entry point to the blue-and-white roundel?
The BMW 116i kicks off a 1 Series range that will come under increasing pressure from new rivals in 2013, when all-new versions of the Audi A3 and newly hatchbacked Mercedes-Benz A-Class step into the premium small-car ring.
Semi-premium brands will also have fresh offerings: Volvo with the V40 and Volkswagen with the seventh-generation Golf.
Powered by a 1.6-litre four-cylinder twin-scroll turbo, the BMW 116i makes do with 100kW and 220Nm – less power but more torque than your average hatchback.
For the second generation of BMW’s entry-level range (which remains polarising from a visual point of view) that power is sent – still uniquely for the segment - to the rear wheels, either via the standard six-speed manual or $3500 extra eight-speed auto that 90 per cent of 116i buyers will opt for.
Get underway and the direct and precise steering is familiar BMW.
Drivers can change the steering’s response depending on the scenario. Engage Eco mode and the weighting becomes much lighter and ideal for suburban driving or parking. For enthusiastic driving, pressing the Sport button brings a heavier and more direct response, while the accelerator pedal will also give you more of the engine’s power with much less pressure.
The smooth, precise-shifting manual gearbox is a driver’s delight, complemented by good pedal positions and weighting that help make changing gears a joy rather than a chore.
The engine’s torque curve also means you can hold lower gears and rev it out to the redline and still enjoy linear power delivery all the way to the end.
Although not a sports car by any stretch of the imagination, the combination of rear-wheel drive and a lively engine produce one of the more engaging cars for the money.
The BMW 116i is a car that feels quicker than its officially quoted 0-100km/h time of 8.5 seconds, particularly during in-gear acceleration.
And despite pushing the BMW 116i to its 7000rpm deadline on a number of occasions during our 500km test that also encompassed long-distance driving, the BMW returned an average of 6.9L/100km compared with its official combined city/highway rating of 5.7L/100km.
Helping this is a standard engine stop-start system that is easy to get used to but can be switched off for those owners who prefer not to use it.
BMW has also improved ride quality despite the 1 Series continuing with run-flat tyres that have had their fair share of criticism for adversely affecting both steering and ride comfort.The BMW 116i rides well over poorly surfaced roads, even if it’s by no means as cushy as a Golf. The BMW’s cornering ability at least compensates.
We have at times criticised BMW’s interior quality for being a little too similar across the range, though this is more of an issue when you’re buying a 5 Series and a bonus if you’re getting into a 1 Series.
Don’t expect leather seats in this luxury car, however. Cloth upholstery reflects the 116’s price tag.
The German company equips all 1 Series variants with a 6.5-inch full colour screen but you’ll need an additional $1500 to get satellite navigation (which still uses the same screen). The iDrive infotainment system is the best in the business to control your music or display vehicle settings. You can quickly connect your smartphone via Bluetooth or plug it in via USB.
The six-speaker audio system is not too shabby but we did notice that Bluetooth audio streaming was not available in our 116i, which is disappointing given the hardware is already there to make it happen.
Given the BMW 116i retails for $5900 less than the 118i (and $6600 less than the 118d) it does miss out on some basic gear such as rear parking sensors, automatic climate control, rain-sensing wipers and foglights.
It does, however, get the full compliment of safety features that include driver and front passenger airbags, head airbags in the front and rear, side airbags for driver and front passenger as well as electronic stability control.
We found the BMW 116i provided more than enough power and torque for a daily hatchback, and it uses just 1.3L/100km more fuel than the ultra frugal but costlier 118d variant.
You’ll get more bang for your buck, of course, by choosing a Volkswagen Golf, but the BMW 116i does provide the badge cachet and a good drive for a relatively affordable amount.