Being the ‘entry’ model for any manufacturer is always a challenge. Can you live up to the status and credibility of your more upscale siblings?
The BMW 1 Series was launched in 2004 to replace the E46 3 Series compact hatchback as the starting point in the BMW line up. The range was refreshed to the current model in 2011 and this week saw the announcement of a facelift to extend the F20 1er’s life just that little bit more.
Some may say that a Mini is the starting point of BMW ownership, the English marque operated by the German powerhouse since 2001. And sure, while there are many crossover components, there’s no blue and white roundel on the bonnet – and sometimes that makes all the difference.
The 1 Series is now only offered in Australia as a five-door hatchback. The notch-back coupe of the previous generation now split out as the 2-Series. There are five engine options, ranging from a 100kW/220Nm 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol to a 235kW/450Nm turbocharged petrol six-cylinder in the M135i hot hatch.
Our Saphire Black (a $1142 option) 118i features a 125kW/250Nm 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine and is priced from $43,000 (plus on roads) – the same price as the 105kW/320Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel in the 118d.
While there is a no-cost manual option available, the car is equipped with BMW’s excellent eight-speed automatic transmission.
Also fitted to our test car is the $4200 M-Sport package which provides lots of extra goodies, including bigger 18-inch wheels and much more aggressive looking bumpers and side skirts, turning the somewhat dumpy 1er into more of a stylish machine.
So yes – the 1 Series isn’t BMW’s finest design hour - those upside-down headlights really are a bit wacky - but the M-Sport kit helps. Worth noting too, the entire 1 Series range had its mid-life refresh announced recently, addressing many of the criticisms of the original car.
With the new car on the way too, you can be sure to negotiate a sharper deal on any run-out 2015 spec cars.
Step inside though, and despite being the ‘baby’ Bimmer, the 118i feels immediately reassuringly like any other bigger BMW.
The driver-oriented dashboard and console design, simple but comprehensive instruments and quality switchgear are all BMW traits that are part-and-parcel of the overall enjoyment of ownership.
The M-Sport package includes a lovely leather steering wheel and ‘Dakota’ leather sport seats that can be adjusted (manually) to the perfect driving position.
Sitting low and upright, I found the 118i to be comfortable and roomy – my head not touching the roof despite the inclusion of a glass sunroof (a $2000 option).
The smaller 6.5-inch iDrive screen reminds you of your ‘low end’ purchase – not filling the dash-mounted panel as well as the 8.8-inch professional system does (another $2000 option), but you soon get used to it and as frequently noted on CarAdvice – iDrive is the most intuitive infotainment system on the market, so it is always pleasant to use.
Navigation, Bluetooth and USB integration (with iPod support) are all standard, and the Bluetooth phone quality for both incoming and outgoing calls is clear – with controls on the steering wheel providing caller and music selection feedback on the small TFT screen in the instrument housing.
There are reverse parking sensors included as standard equipment, but a camera and self parking is available as a $1200 convenience parking package. BMW offers basic ConnectedDrive telematics again as standard equipment, meaning you have the peace of mind of knowing emergency services will be notified if there is an accident, or you can contact the operator if you have issues with your car. You can upgrade to more advanced ConnectedDrive services - the top tier package an optional $923.
Being a small hatchback, the rear seat room is ‘cozy’ – particularly for taller passengers, but I quite happily survived a short trip from Armadale to the CarAdvice office in Richmond with a myriad of camera gear and three other passengers on board.
In the back there are air vents and map pockets, but no middle-seat armrest. A single 12-volt socket is available on the rear of the centre console – very handy for keeping iPads charged on longer trips.
The boot offers 360-litres of cargo capacity with the seats up and parcel shelf in place, and a generous 1200-litres with the 60/40 seats folded down. The tray has to fit on the floor of the boot or behind the front passenger seats when not in use – something not limited to the 118i, but good to know if you regularly need to clear taller loads.
On the move, the 118i isn’t ultra fast, but it is swift enough to feel fun. Pushing through busy traffic, using the ‘Sport’ driving mode for a little bit more response, the 1er keeps up with the flow and feels every bit the BMW you have always wanted.
Economy from the little four-cylinder is pretty good too, returning 8.7L/100km on our mainly urban test. BMW claims consumption as low as 5.8L/100km for a highway cycle. I kept the start-stop function on for the majority of my time with the car, and note that it isn’t the smoothest system I have used.
Again though, dealing with peak hour commuting, and generally more engrossed in my phone conversations than what the car was doing at lights – it’s not a deal breaker.
Around town, using the 118i’s default ‘Comfort’ setting, the little BMW still errs to the firmer side of things, not helped by the M-Sport’s 10mm lower ride height and stiffer suspension.
It is not uncomfortable, and only really noticeable over railway crossings and bigger potholes. At higher speeds the 1er will let you know about bumps and imperfections in the road surface, but never skips or jumps around unnervingly.
Get out of town and the 118i feels solid and planted on country roads. And while not really fast enough to warrant all the M badging, is still an enjoyable little car.
It is the only rear-wheel-drive option in this segment, something that doesn’t mean much to urban-only commuters, but if there is some driving enjoyment DNA in your duds, then the 118i will keep you pleasantly surprised.
If the 118i is your first foray into BMW ownership, it is a perfect entry point to the brand and a great stepping-stone to bigger and better models up the range.
I would even go as far as to say the overall experience is ‘very’ BMW – something my CarAdvice colleague Dave Zalstein often jokes about. "If it has a roundel on the bonnet, James thinks it’s a great car". And while that is true to some point, the littlest Bavarian does have some shortcomings.
It’s not everyone’s first choice of date to the dance. The 1 Series has never been particularly attractive and while the M-Sport pack on the 118i does help… it’s still not a supermodel. The revised look will do a lot to improve the appeal of the 1er though.
It can be a bit firm with the M-Sport kit – which aside from improving the looks does add a good amount of kit, so a definite trade off between style and features to overall comfort.
But perhaps the 118i’s biggest issue is the price. Our car had $11,500 worth of options on it – which makes the black 118i M-Sport a $54,547 proposition, before on-road costs.
Now granted, you can always negotiate and BMW regularly roll up individual options into a single package price – but lets say you were in the car for $49,000, it’s still a solid amount of money for a little hatch.
The BMW 118i is a nice car, about to be made nicer by the facelift – so if a 118i is your idea of a good entry point to the BMW stable, then now’s the time to grab a deal.
Click the Photos tab for more images by James Ward and Tom Fraser.